Spiritual Reflection – Bearing Fruit
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.—John 15: 5
The Old Testament prophet Isaiah pens a ballad of social criticism laced with barbs aimed at the status quo in Israel of the eighth century BC. The ballad tells of a vineyardist who thinks he has planted choice vines, expecting them to yield premium grapes. Yet something goes terribly wrong, and his vines end up producing wild grapes (or, according to some translations, bitter fruit or stinking fruit). The integrity of the vines has been corrupted and their fruit stinks.
Isaiah makes plain the meaning of his viticultural ballad. It is the Lord God who is the vineyardist and the people of Israel who are the vines. The Lord offers Israel the gift of redeeming love, expecting the people to respond by receiving that gift and bearing fruits of justice and righteousness. Yet this does not happen. The Lord “expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” The people bear fruits of injustice and unrighteousness, unmistakable evidence that the gift of God’s love has not been nourished in the souls of the people.
On a more positive note, the writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews catalogues the heroic deeds of faithful women and men in the history of Israel. But the writer also reminds us that many suffered because of their faithfulness: “They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they … [were] destitute, persecuted, tormented.” Following this homage to maltreated national heroes is a mighty therefore—a powerful paragraph in which this great cloud of witnesses points us toward Jesus Christ, the one who is “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” Christ, like the martyrs persecuted in earlier generations, suffered because of his faithfulness, “enduring the cross” so he might take his seat “at the right hand of the throne of God.”
In one of the most challenging passages in the New Testament, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith speaks words that appear harsh and troubling. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” asks an exasperated Jesus. “No, I tell you, but rather division!” This is not Jesus meek and mild; this is Jesus under stress.
The key to understanding these challenging words is to keep in mind the bearing of fruit. The sayings of Jesus are full of agricultural metaphors: planting and harvesting, crops and weeds, vines and vineyards. Most famously he uses an image from viticulture to reveal his own identity and to define his relationship to those who place their faith in him: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them, bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” As we have noted in earlier reflections, the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatians speaks of bearing fruit as the clear, unmistakable sign that God’s grace has been received by faith and dwells within. The fruit of the Spirit, writes Paul, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
It is this very fruit that brings division and conflict into the lives of those who are faithful. Ours is a world (is it not?) marred by the opposites: hatred, war, impatience, greed, faithlessness, and self-indulgence. If we bear the fruit of the Spirit, we inevitably find ourselves in radical disharmony with much that is in conventional culture. Jesus is impatient for us to understand this, to realise that such conflict is natural, unavoidable.
The gift of God’s love, the grace of God, is on offer to us all. If we accept that gift through faith, if we allow that holy seed to be planted within us, we shall bear godly fruit. A life of faithfulness may bring division and conflict into our lives, just as it did for Christ and for the saints down through the ages. Yet receiving God’s grace and bearing fruit makes all the difference in this world and the next.
Rawls, James J.. On the Way: 100 Reflections on the Journey of Faith. WestBow Press. Kindle Edition.