“I am the vine; you are the branches.” John 15:5a
As this pandemic wears on, all of us – in one way or another – are feeling the effects. For many of us, the anxiety or fear of March 2020 has faded, having gone through cycles of frustration and tiredness, having set mental goals for when this would be over, only to have them come and go, and now finding ourselves knowing that, yes, this will one day be over, but not wanting to get our hopes up.
On a conference call this past week, I was introduced to the term that some mental health professionals are now using to describe where we are. We’re not in crisis mode anymore, but we’re certainly not flourishing or moving forward. The term, I’m told, is “languishing”. Languishing. Now, I said to myself when I heard it, “that sounds kind of dire… and maybe a bit dramatic.” But when you look it up in the dictionary, it fits. “Languishing” means, simply, “to lose or lack vitality, to grow weak, to suffer from remaining in an unpleasant situation”. I, for one, find it helpful to have a word to describe that sense of “blah” that so many of us are feeling.
The Branch is Invigorated by the Vine
Today’s gospel is a familiar one: we’ve all heard since Sunday School that Christ is the vine and we are the branches; we’re to abide in him so that we can bear fruit. But as I read this lesson with the fresh – or maybe tired – eyes of our current situation, something jumped out at me for the first time. The branch only has one job. The branch is to be invigorated by the vine. That’s it. Think about it: the branch has no roots of it’s own, it can’t pick itself up to find a better source of water. If you’ve ever tried to train a vine – whether it’s grapes or peas and beans or an ivy on a trellis – you know that the branches can sometimes have a mind of their own, and need to be gently bent back in the direction that they should go. But, really, the branch’s job – all it has to do to thrive – is to receive what it needs from the vine – to be invigorated by the vine – and to trust the gentle hand of the gardener.
And that jumped out at me this week. Jesus doesn’t say, ‘get your act together, figure out some plan to multiply 10 or 50 or 100 times’. He doesn’t say, ‘get creative and come up with a scheme to bear fruit’. What does he say? Four times in today’s short lesson, Jesus repeats again and again exactly how it is that we are to bear fruit: abide in me.
The work of the branch is simply to be invigorated by the vine.
It’s the vine that is connected to those life-giving roots, that supply of fresh and life-giving water. As the branch sends out feelers, looking for something to grasp on to, the branch needs only to trust the gentle correction of the gardener. You see, that’s the remarkable thing in what Jesus is saying today: all the branch has to do is be invigorated, accept the life flowing from the roots of the vine, to be content to simply abide in the abundant life that the vine provides.
So what does that look like? In this season of languishing, what does it look like to be invigorated as a branch on the Lord’s vine?
The Invigorated Life
I think our lesson from Acts today provides a fabulous example of the invigorated life, a life, a way of being that receives it’s vigor, receives it’s vitality, receives it’s drive from abiding in what God provides.
We heard this morning the wonderful account of Philip, who noticed a politician reading the Bible and engaged him in conversation that led to the glorious question: “why can’t I be baptized, too?”, as another branch was added to the vine that day.
I think the first obvious lesson about a life that receives it’s vigor and drive from the abundant life that Jesus provides is simply about the energy that the branches receive.
It says in our lesson that an angel said “rise and go toward the south, to that road through the desert”. And then that key, short sentence: “and he rose and went”. If we’re abiding in the vine, if we’re well-connected and receiving what the vine provides, we’ll have the energy to do what is expected.
And, I have to say, that’s something I believe is universally true. There are so many things in life that suck out our energy and leave us drained; but the actions, the conversations, even the sacrifices that bear fruit aren’t like that, they’re life-giving. There’s plenty of days I feel ‘done in’ by the demands of every-day life: laundry, picking kids up, dropping kids off, a never-ending pile of dishes. There’s plenty of days I’d like to haul on my pyjama pants, grab my book or put on whatever I’m watching on Netflix, pour up a glass of wine or a beer, and ‘refresh myself’ by lounging on the couch. And, to be honest, I get that feeling on Wednesdays after supper, with Celebrate Recovery scheduled for 8pm. But, when this church started Celebrate Recovery, it was made clear through prayer that it was a direction that God wanted us to go, it was where God was telling us to “rise and go”. And, you know what? No matter how tired or ‘ready to relax’ I might be on Wednesday nights, when I let myself be energized by the vine, when I trust the direction the gardener is gently directing me, that work becomes life-giving. I leave 9:30 or quarter-to-ten on Wednesday night more energized, more ‘vigorous’ than I went in. Even when we’re tired and ‘languishing’, we’ll know if what we’re doing is fruitful, because we’ll find ourselves invigorated, energized by the vine with deep roots and abundant water.
Now, as Philip follows that road south, he overhears a powerful politician reading aloud, as people did in those days. And, amazingly, the Spirit of God says “go over and jump up with him!”. Do you ever get those? Ridiculous promptings to do something out of the ordinary, but which is going to make a difference in someone else’s life? Let me tell you, that’s part of the invigorated life that God provides if we simply abide in Christ. I’ve never actually heard the voice of the Holy Spirit, though there are some people who say they do; I know for me, when God’s giving me an opportunity, when I know that an idea or a conversation isn’t my own, I get a little tingle on the back of my neck. It could be the smallest thing: I pass someone in the store who I know is having a hard time, I say “hi, how ya doin’?”, they say, “living the dream” or “oh, one day at a time”, and I’ll be ready to take the next step towards the milk when I’ll feel a little tingle on the back of my neck, an invitation to let the person know that, if they ever need to talk, my door is open; or to offer to add them to our prayer list. To abide in Christ, to receive the life and energy and fruitful vitality that the vine provides – and, practically, to do the work of bearing fruit and adding more children of God to the Body of Christ – it’s really just a matter of accepting what Jesus offers: when we have a life-giving opportunity, go for it; when we have that feeling, to talk, or act, or offer, to make that one extra step outside our comfort zone, just do it; it may well be that the feeling you have is the hand of the gardener gently guiding you in the direction where you’ll bear the most fruit.
Vines are a long-term investment.
I want to leave you with one other observation this morning. At least for me, even with all the great things we’re doing, this sense of ‘languishing’ as we’re 14-months into a pandemic doesn’t leave me feeling very fruitful. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve done a lot of great work together, but it’s harder to see in a time when we’re not allowed to gather all the harvest in to one room to fellowship together.
But, I noticed this week for the first time, that Jesus intentionally uses the image of a vine and a vinedresser here. He’s not talking about a harvest of wheat or carrots or zucchini; he’s not talking here about something that you plant in Spring and dig up in Fall. Branches on vines aren’t an annual crop – they’re a long-term investment, they’re something to be tended year after year, decade after decade. Some of the best vineyards have vines with roots going back over a century, carefully tended, fertilized some years, pruned other years, often with new shoots lovingly grafted in along the way.
A vinedresser would tell you that each season is unique: the flavour of the vintage varies year to year, but as much as the vinedresser wants a good harvest each season, He’s equally concerned with the long-term health of the vineyard. Because the final product in that bottle of wine isn’t the fruit of a single branch of grapes, the final product is the sum total of the whole vineyard together.
Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, each of us: yet, we’re to be invigorated by the vine to be fruitful together. When it’s time for a gentle pruning or push in the right direction, we’re being changed from glory into glory not so that you or I bear fruit, but so that we bear fruit. It will take all of us, abiding in Christ, receiving the energy and direction He provides, if we’re to bear fruit as the hands, feet, and voice of God here in Fort Smith.
So this week, when you find yourself “languishing”, as I know I will, take the Lord at his invitation. Simply abide in him; take those life-giving opportunities that He offers; when you feel the gardener’s gentle hand – and you will, if you look for it – follow in the direction He’s guiding. And together – even in a difficult season – we can trust that God’s long-term investment in us will indeed be fruitful.
To God be the glory, now and forevermore. Amen.