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The Rev. Johann Vanderbijl: “We are a community…” (John 15:1-11)

April 26, 2010

Here is another thoughtful sermon by the Rev. Johann Vanderbijl of the Anglican Church of St. George the Martyr in South Carolina, which is titled “We are a community…” and is based primarily on John 15:1-11.  This sermon ties in remarkably well with Fr. Bill Klock’s A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership in its emphasis on the Christian life as one of community.

Psalm 80    Isaiah 5:1-7    Ephesians 4:7-16    St. John 15:1-11

We are a community…

Mission Statement:  The Anglican Church of St. George the Martyr is a community of believers in Jesus Christ seeking to live out the Gospel among ourselves, seeking to take the Gospel to the world, and committed to being Biblical in our faith, liturgical in our worship, and evangelical in our witness.

1.  We are a community: As a community of believers in Jesus Christ we strive to foster every member involvement, promote in-house biblical counseling and endeavor to develop interpersonal relationships, providing various occasions for small group activity and for social interaction.

We have a vine at home that we planted to provide shade for the deck and to attempt to prevent the sun from heating up the house by reducing the amount of sunrays shining through the large sliding glass doors during the summer months.  At the time we had considered the fruit, but I had no idea that the fruit of the variety we had purchased was usually not used for Table Grapes, but rather for jellies and jams…yup, we bought a Concord Grapevine.  We only did the cooking and canning thing once and after the ordeal pretty much made up our minds to cut out as many of the flowers as possible before they formed fruit, and then to let the birds have whatever clusters remained after the pruning.  This is the great thing about grapes…their production can be regulated by a few simple snips…if pruned correctly, they will produce quality rather than quantity.  Of course, if not correctly pruned or tended they can become unruly or grow poorly or even die and that is why they need a husbandman to keep and care for them.

As such, a vine makes for a good illustration when trying to explain the nature of the Church.  It is an image the Lord Himself uses early in reference to His people…during the Exodus, He speaks of planting His people in the Promised Land…and then later in the Psalms and in the Prophets, as we saw in our readings from Psalm 80 and Isaiah 5, He speaks of how poorly this vine had performed and the need to prune it, or cut it down to the ground so that it may produce good fruit in the future.  The most drastic cut was, of course, the Assyrian and Babylonian Exiles in which only a remnant returned to the land.

Now, in the New Testament, our Lord Jesus uses the same image for the same reason…to illustrate the intimacy of our union with Him, our dependence on Him, the function for all the branches growing together to collectively produce fruit, and the constant need for correction and disciplined growth.  In the parable of the Vine and the branches in John 15, our Lord Jesus is saying that He is the real vine…the true Israel…the culmination and fulfillment of all that Israel was meant to be and yet had, according to what we read in the Old Testament, failed to be.  And therefore, because He is the True Vine, those who follow Him or, to use the imagery here and elsewhere in the New Testament, those who are “in” Him and remain “in” Him, are very members of God’s true people.

But this image also tells us is that we are all part of a bigger whole…while we may be individual branches, we are all connected to the one, singular Vine and are consequently part of each other.  In other words, if we are in Jesus we are a community.  In our Epistle reading for today, St. Paul uses a different and yet similar illustration, namely that of the Body.  He says we are the Body of Christ, Jesus Himself being the Head of that Body just as He is the Vine to which the branches are connected, and we are therefore all knit together and dependent on one another.  This is an important element of the image as it shows us what we are in relation to our Lord and to each other and how we are to view each other and how we are to behave toward each other.  It shows most clearly that the Church is first and foremost a Living organism, not an institution…it is not a business, it is a body…and there are three main elements to this living organism that we see in our Lord’s use of these images.

First of all, these images, the Vine and the Body, illustrate the fact that we must be united to the risen, living Jesus – we must be “in” Christ and remain “in” Christ as He is the very source of our life…if we are not in Him and if we do not remain in Him, we cease to participate in this life just as vine branches that are removed wither and die as they no longer have life giving sap to sustain them.  Likewise, chop off the head and the body ceases to live.

Secondly, these images illustrate the fact that we are part of a community in which we have communion with each other.  This implies a certain amount of cooperation with each other and a commitment to help each other be the best we can possibly be for the benefit of the whole entity.  St. Paul says that it is the task of every member of the body to edify the other members of the body so that together they may all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…or, as he says in verse 16, “the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love.”

To return to the image of the Vine, the purpose of the branches is for them all to bear fruit…in fact, Jesus says in Matthew 7:20, that a tree (or a branch) is known by its fruit…good fruit reveal a good tree…bad fruit reveal a bad tree.  In other words, whether we are “in” Christ or “outside” of Christ can be determined by what kind of “fruit” we bear.  If a branch is “in” Jesus, it cannot but bear good fruit, even if the fruit is minimal.  The branch cannot but show that it is connected to the Vine.  Translated into practice, this means that we who are “in” Jesus ought to demonstrate that fact by manifesting in our lives the nature and character of our Lord in the whole of our lives.  We ought to show our “abiding in Him” by keeping His commandments whereby we will actively demonstrate our love for Him…and, indeed, our love for each other and for the world for which He died.

In our motives, our desires, our attitudes as well as in our words, our actions and our deeds…everything we do or say ought to flow from our living faith in Jesus.  Just as the branches of a vine cannot bear figs or thistles, so the branches in Jesus cannot but reflect Him and bear fruit to His glory and for His honor.  And, as our Lord says, “by this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.”  This is why the Vine must be pruned…dead branches must be removed, under-performing branches clipped and pruned, and bearing branches further cared for and nourished so as to produce even better fruit.  This is the collective task of us all as the community of Christ…by each one of us bearing fruit or doing our share we edify the whole body in love ands thereby cause it to grow and to flourish.

Thirdly, the images of a Body and of branches in a vine serve to illustrate the fact that we are meant to participate in the purposes of the Head or of the Vine.  The members of the body ought to do as the head directs…the branches ought to grow and bear the fruit of the vine.  In applying these images to us as a community we can say that if we are part of the Vine or the Body, we are meant to be Christ-oriented and Christ-centered as well as other-person-oriented and other-person-centered.  We are never meant to be self-oriented or self-centered.  We are knit together in Jesus so that we might help each other reflect the reality of the One into Whom we have all been grafted.  The purpose of being “in” Jesus is that we might become a community of faith wherein God’s will is observed to be done through the manner in which the branches or members interact with each other and, indeed, with those outside who yet need to be included.

This is why our Vestry decided in 2006 to define ourselves as a community of believers “in” Jesus Christ and, as such, we ought to strive to foster every member involvement, because it is only as we all work together that we will actually be enabled to do the work of the ministry.  According to St. Paul, it is only as each member does their share of the work that the Body will grow.  No branch can bear the fruit of the vine all on its own.  Every branch and every member must do its share if the vine is to be productive and if the body is to function correctly.  This is why we wish to promote in-house biblical counseling so that each member may be healed and restored and adequately equipped to play their part in this community.  This is why we endeavor to develop interpersonal relationships, providing various occasions for small group activity and for social interaction, because we need each other.  Ecclesiastes tells us that “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their labor.  For if they fall, one will lift up his companion, but woe to him who is alone when he falls, for he has no one to help him up.  Again, if two lie down together, they will keep warm; but how can one be warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered by another, two can withstand him.  And a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

We need each other, dearest brethren, because God the Holy Spirit has gifted us all differently.  And we, as an interrelated, interdependent, living community, can only accomplish the high level goal God has given us to accomplish if we are in proper relationship to each other and if we all work together for the common good.  If one of us is slack or absent or if one of us is self-centered or selfish, the whole body suffers.  We need to always remember that this is our church…this is our body…we are member of each other and are therefore responsible for each other.  To claim to be part a body and act independently is like a branch that does not bear fruit…in time, it will be removed entirely.  Or it is like an appendage that cannot be controlled.  Do not be deceived, dearest brethren, just as surely as God removed the wild grapes from the vine in the Old Testament era, so too will He remove that unproductive branch from the True Vine in the New Testament era…at first He will prune lightly, then more severely and then, if the branch still stubbornly refuses to bear fruit to His glory, He will cut it out and cast it out for the sake of the rest of the vineyard.

Of course, now we need to ask ourselves if we are the community we ought to be or, indeed, the community we claim to be in our Mission Statement.  Are we all involved in the life of the parish?  Do we all bear fruit to the glory of God?  Are we all doing our share of the work of the ministry to maintain and grow our church?  After all, if we don’t do it, who will?  If we don’t care for each other…if we don’t care for our buildings and our grounds…who will?  And why would we want to be part of a community if we are not willing to build it up and cause it to grow and prosper?  My task and the task of our other parish leaders, is to equip you all for the work of the ministry so that we might all work together with our Lord in His goal to reconcile the world to Himself.  I have to ask myself whether I am doing my job in this regard…after all, if do not fulfill my responsibility toward you, you may not be enabled to bear fruit to God’s glory.  And you need to ask yourself whether you are doing what God has called you to do here…as an integral part of this community of faith…your community of faith…our community of faith.

So, dearest brethren, we all have much to ponder, don’t we?  Let us therefore examine our hearts collectively before our Lord and ask Him to reveal to us whether or not we are bearing the kind of fruit that we ought to be bearing to His glory and honor.  And then, let us ask Him to work in us…to let His ‘sap’ flow through us…to prune us…severely, if need be…so that together, as individual members of His Body, we may use the various gifts He has given us for the edification of the whole Body, so that as each one of us does our share, we may all bear abundant fruit for the Kingdom.

©  Johann W. Vanderbijl III    2010

Note that mission statement at the beginning of this sermon: to be “Biblical in our faith, liturgical in our worship, and evangelical in our witness.”  I cannot think of a better such statement for an Anglican church; if this turns out to be the first of a series I will eagerly anticipate the others!

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