A wealthy businessman, who was well known for being ruthless and unethical, told Mark Twain that before he died, he wanted to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He said that when he got there he wanted to climb to the top of Mount Sinai, where Moses received the Ten Commandments, and there read the Ten Commandments aloud at the top. “I have a better idea,” replied Twain, in his typical wit, “You could stay in Boston and keep them.”
I believe that Jesus would have preferred that he stay in Boston and keep the commandments as well. But we always prefer some great religious experience to the routine of obedience. We would like some mountaintop emotion rather than actually showing the evidence of a changed life. I have known many people over the years who talked a lot about some spiritual encounter they have had, but never showed much evidence of it when it came to the way they lived, their ethics and the manner in which they treated other people. For Jesus, the proof of whether or not a person had encountered God was in whether or not the fruit of their lives gave evidence of such an encounter. If there was no fruit, the religious experience, no matter how meaningful at the time, did not amount to much. In other words, you may have gone to the altar and been “saved” at some point in your life, been baptized, joined the church, worked in the church, believe the Bible cover to cover — even the cover, avoided most of what people consider to be the major sins, but if there is no fruit of a transformed heart and changed character, it doesn’t mean a thing.
Paul talked about the fruit of the Spirit, which he said was: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). I have known a lot of people who wanted to be leaders in the church, and so they worked hard, volunteered, were willing to serve on every committee that came along, but who were mean, surly, argumentative, divisive and critical. They showed no fruit of the Spirit at all, but people dismissed their behavior because they either worked hard in the church or gave money.
I have been amazed at the story coming out about the BTK killer. BTK stands for Bind, Torture and Kill, an acronym that 60-year-old Dennis Rader gave to himself after killing 10 people, starting in the 1970’s. (PPT:Here is how he looked in his arrest photo, and here is how he looked in his church suit as he walked into court in his church suit.) He was a city employee, scout leader and the chairman of his local church council, where he and his wife had been members for 30 years. He was a leader in the church, even though his neighbors described him as, “a bully who measured grass with a ruler and who would lure dogs from a fenced yard so he could catch them.” He taunted police with word puzzles, sadistic poems and letters about the murders. He wrote to the local media saying, “How many people do I have to kill before I get my name in the newspaper?”
What were the people of this church thinking? They tolerated a wolf in sheep’s clothing! How did that church become so duped by someone so evil? Because they refused to look at the fruit of his life — his relationships with others, , his bullying and his domineering, controlling spirit — all because he was active in the church and a hard worker. There are many people who mouth the name of Jesus but who do not do what Jesus said.
Jesus said that there would be people who would stand at the judgment calling him Lord, but he said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23). In other words, it does not matter how many religious experiences you have had or how many deeds you have performed, but whether or not your life has shown the fruit of a life yielded to God. You can make all kinds of professions, but the proof is whether or not you have done the will of your Father in heaven and are acquiring a character like his. Jesus said, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46). And again he said, “If you love me, you will obey what I command” (John 14:15).
What does it mean to be fruitful in the sense that Jesus speaks of it? How do we become fruitful? There are a few lessons from nature from which we can learn in our quest to understand the words of Jesus. The first lesson is an obvious one: You have to have your roots in good soil. The roots bring up the nutrients from the soil. If the soil is bad, the tree will be stunted at best and may even die. If the soil is rocky, the roots may not be able to go deep and will be blown over by the first serious storm.
This is where we get the logo for our church. It is a tree whose roots are going into the Bible. The branches are actually people with their arms lifted and reaching out and producing fruit. Our motto is: “Rooted in the Word; Reaching out in Worship and Service.” You can’t reach out until you are rooted. It is the Word of God that nourishes us and gives us life. We draw from it as we attempt to live for God and serve him by reaching out and serving others. We don’t get our morality from the shared opinions of the day. We don’t look to Oprah or Dr. Phil. We look to God and his Word. We search there for the character and heart of God so that we may model it. We look for the principles of the Kingdom so we can be Kingdom people. To be rooted in the Word does not just mean that you believe in the Bible in some generic sense, but that you are actually a student of the Word, looking to it for a sense of perspective and getting in touch with reality. You study it to learn what Jesus was like, what he taught and what he expects from his followers. It means that you are actually a disciple of Jesus Christ, not just a believer in him. It is not enough to believe, you must also do — it is the proof and evidence of your belief.
In the parable of the soils, Jesus said, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop — a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (Matthew 13:8). The purpose of a tree is to produce fruit, whether it is an apple tree, an acorn-producing oak or a pine tree. Your purpose is to produce fruit, but you cannot do that when you are rooted in soap operas, sick television like Jerry Springer, trashy novels, or violent computer games. You need the fresh breeze of the Word to blow through your mind and cleanse it. The Psalmist said, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105).
The Psalms give also give us this wonderful imagery of a fruitful tree: “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither. Whatever he does prospers. Not so the wicked! They are like chaff that the wind blows away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous. For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish” (Psalm 1:1-6).
The second lesson we can learn from nature is: You have to have a healthy trunk and branches. It is important to have good soil, but if the base of the tree and its branches are not healthy, the tree will not be able to produce fruit, and eventually the tree will die. You can’t live the way you lived before you met Christ and expect to produce fruit. You can be planted in the richest soil on earth, but if you do not take in the richness and allow it to make you grow and become healthy, you will die. The sap flowing through the tree actually changes the tree. If you cut a cross-section of a tree you will see that the years the tree took in more, it grew more. If a tree does not take in nutrients and pass them on to the branches the tree cannot live. The blossoms and leaves do not grow and the cycle of life comes to a stop. The point is that you cannot take the Gospel and try to adapt it to your dysfunctional lifestyle. Your lifestyle must adapt to the Gospel. It requires change — a move toward health and wholeness. You have to take responsibility for allowing the Holy Spirit to move through your life. He will not do it all for you; you have to cooperate and change what needs changing.
The apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesians saying: “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:15-16).
Leroy Eims, in his book The Lost Art of Disciple Making, tells the story of an experience in a restaurant one morning. He says, “One spring our family was driving from Fort Lauderdale to Tampa, Florida. As far as the eye could see, orange trees were loaded with fruit. When we stopped for breakfast, I ordered orange juice with my eggs. ‘I’m sorry,’ the waitress said. ‘I can’t bring you orange juice. Our machine is broken.’ At first I was dumbfounded. We were surrounded by millions of oranges, and I knew they had oranges in the kitchen — orange slices garnished our plates. What was the problem? No juice? Hardly. We were surrounded by thousands of gallons of juice. The problem was they had become dependent on a machine to get it.” Then he writes: “Christians are sometimes like that. They may be surrounded by Bibles in their homes, but if something should happen to the Sunday morning preaching service, they would have no nourishment for their souls. The problem is not a lack of spiritual food — but that many Christians haven’t grown enough to know how to get it for themselves.” As the Bible says, “Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity” (Hebrews 6:1).
When you don’t do anything for yourself, your life is going to be useless. You are going to have to put forth some effort. You have to want to change and be willing to work for change. The church should not be the place to change people’s spiritual diapers and putting the bottle to their lips. The church is a training area where you learn to do things for yourself. You have to give up your attitude of being a victim and your dysfunctional way of doing things, and begin to live according to the kingdom principles which Jesus outlined in the Sermon on the Mount. You have to stop the things that are destructive in your life and begin to do the things that are instructive, profitable and beneficial. Move away from sickness and move toward health. But that takes real effort and energy. That is why so few people do it.
The third lesson we can learn from nature is: You have to have fertilization. As I sat in my study at home writing this sermon, I looked out the window to see the gorgeous white blossoms on the plum tree outside my window. For some reason, the big bumble bees love this tree, and I have watched them go from blossom to blossom, both collecting and depositing pollen, giving and taking, as the bee also finds food for the community hive.
The point is you need other people. As the bees take pollen from one tree to another, so the Spirit of God takes the richness from others and brings it to us as we live in community. We study together, discuss, share, become open and honest, take the risk of being vulnerable, know and become known, pray for each other, help each other, and in the process of being in contact with each other we cross pollinate — our minds and hearts are fertilized with the richness that comes from the lives of others. And without this fertilization our lives become static and sterile. You cannot grow if you are going to withdraw from people.
Growth is a natural part of life. Without growth there is no life. Jesus expects growth and demands it. When a child is two years old you don’t expect her to be able to write, do math, drive a car or hold job. But if she is 22 and still cannot write or drive a car, then you realize there is a problem. She has failed to grow and develop. There is a failure to thrive.
Jesus told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ ‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down’” (Luke 13:6-9). In saying this, Jesus was telling us that growth and bearing fruit are expected as the norm. He will be patient with us if we need some more encouragement and practice, but eventually the expectation is that we will bear fruit.
I wish it was as easy as throwing some manure around people’s feet, but the kind of fertilization I’m talking about requires effort on the part of the person needing it. You have to rub against other Christians and not live in isolation. You have to be in fellowship and place yourself where you will be nurtured by others. No tree can grow by itself, it is dependent on fertilization from other trees.
The Bible says, “For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 1:5-8).
In our basement we have a piece of paper stapled to a door frame. About twice a year I bring all the grandkids to the basement and they stand against the door frame to measure how tall they are and how much they have grown. The paper is covered with lines, beside which are their names and dates. They are always excited to see their progress. It is hard for them to realize how much they are growing until they stand against the growth chart where their last measurement is drawn.
Wouldn’t it be great if we had such a chart at the back of the church? We could all stand against the door frame and see how much we have all grown spiritually in the last 6 months or year. It is hard to know how much we have grown spiritually on our own. Our friends would say to us: “Look at you! You have really grown.” We might say things like, “Wow! I didn’t realize I had grown that much.” Or we might say, “Oh, I thought I would be a little higher on the chart.” But whether little or great, the point is whether or not we are growing. Perfection is not the goal, progress is. We don’t want to be at the same place as we were last year, we want to be moving upward. That is our prayer for ourselves and each other.
Paul wrote: “And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way: bearing fruit in every good work, growing in the knowledge of God” (Colossians 1:10).
Rodney J. Buchanan
May 8, 2005
Mulberry St. UMC
Mount Vernon, OH
(Questions for May 8, 2005
1. Which is more important, believing in Jesus or doing what he says?
2. Read Galatians 5:22-23. Do you see this kind of fruit in the Christians you know?
3. Read Matthew 7:21-23. How can it be that people call Jesus “Lord,” perform religious acts of service but not know Christ?
4. Read Psalm 1. How is a Christian like this tree?
5. How is it that some people want to become a Christian, but they do not want to change anything about their life and conduct?
6. What is it that Jesus is wanting from his followers? What is the fruit he is asking us to bear?
7. Read Luke 13:6-9. What is the danger of a fruitless life?
8. Why do we need to live in community with other Christians?
9. Read John 15:1-2. Even the fruitful vine gets cut. Why is this, and how does this apply to the fruitful Christian’s life?
10. What do you need to do to become more fruitful?