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08.21.11 Fruitfulness and Congregational Life, John 15:1-17 Sermon Summary

by on August 22, 2011

Like most people, I much prefer when Jesus is a gentle Shepherd—seeking, finding, and carrying home lost sheep. But sometimes he’s a drill-sergeant. Always, there is hope.

Summary Points

  • A dire warning to our churches from Jesus himself
  • The five practices of fruitful congregations
  • How to ensure that we will remain fruitful Christians and congregations
  • A word of grace embedded in the warning

In Matthew 3:7-10 John the Baptist, the preacher of repent-or-else, threatens the religious leaders of his time with being cut down and thrown into the fire for not producing “fruit in keeping with repentance.” Four chapters later (Matthew 7:15-21) we hear Jesus’ rendition of the same sermon. Neither of these preachers would survive in any ofAmerica’s mega-churches today.

And yet their message applies no less, actually probably more, to the American church than to their original audiences. Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase has answered the call, and offers the observation that fruitful congregations practice five things in common:

  1. Radical Hospitality
  2. Passionate Worship
  3. Intentional Faith Development
  4. Risk-TakingMissionand Service
  5. Extravagant Generosity

The crisis in American churches is real, and Jesus is serious about his message of “bear fruit or be cut down.” In Matthew 21:33-43 Jesus tells a parable about a landowner who entrusts his operations to a group of tenants. When the harvest time comes and he sends servants to collect his due, the tenants reject, abuse, and eventually murder them. Jesus asks his audience, What will happen to those tenants when the landowner returns? Then Matthew warns his audience (which includes us), that unless they produce fruit, the Kingdom will be taken from them and given to others who will. Three thousand (3,000) churches close every year inAmerica. The warning is real, and so are the consequences.

John 15:1-17 outlines how we can be fruitful Christians and congregations. There are four main points to observe. First, God is the Gardener who prunes back fruitful vines in order that they may be more fruitful (vs. 1-2). We can trust God in this process—indeed we must trust God. God knows how best to prune our lives and our congregations, however painful it may be. It is God’s garden; may we not be wicked tenants!

Second, we are already pruned, or “clean”(it’s the same word in Greek) because Christ’s word has been spoken to us (vs. 3). We don’t have to work to warrant pruning. We don’t arrive at a fruitful place and then submit to pruning. We are already clean, and God desires now to make us more fruitful.

So the key to becoming more fruitful, and avoiding the refuse fires of judgment (third), is “abiding in Christ” (vs. 4-6). Abiding in Christ requires three things: knowing Christ’s words (vs. 7a); praying Christ’s words (vs. 7b), and doing Christ’s words (vs. 10). Abiding in Christ is summarized in verse 14: “You are my friends if you do what I command.”

Fourth, we have to realize that this “doing” is what it really means to be “chosen.” Too often (especially among Presbyterians) we have complacently rejoiced in our being chosen. “God has chosen me, God can’t reverse that choice, I’m secure, and nothing more is needed.” Except that God can make children of Abraham out of stones (John the Baptist’s message above). In other words, if we go to worship, praise God, give thanks, confess our sins, receive the sacraments, and do not DO what he commands, we are no better than rocks. But God desires to take our hearts of stone, and make them hearts of flesh. He gives us new birth to live as children of God—to do as Christ commands in word and example.

In Luke 13:6-9 Jesus tells another parable about a frustrated fig tree owner. Year after year he checks the tree and finds no fruit. As he is preparing to cut it down, his caretaker pleads for one more year to make the tree produce. This is a message of grace delivered with a warning: it’s not too late. Now is the time to act. We can submit to God’s pruning, abide in Christ, become even more fruitful, and be rescued from the fires of judgment.

Over the next five weeks we will examine each of the five practices of fruitful congregations, and explore how they apply to our church and to our lives.

Thoughts for Further Reflection

  • To whom do you owe your faith? Someone prayed for you, invited you to church, gave you a Bible, or explained the gospel to you. You wouldn’t be here if this wasn’t true. You are the fruit of someone’s faithfulness. Give thanks for them.
  • To whom might God be calling you to serve in that faithful, fruit-bearing role? There’s someone in your life you could pray for, invite to church, give a Bible to, or explain the gospel to. Pray to know who it is, and then start doing it.
  • Purchase a copy of Cultivating Fruitfulness, the devotional built around the five practices of fruitful congregations. Through the scripture readings, reflections, prayers, and note-taking opportunities, find ways you and your church can become more fruitful in the Christian life.
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