5th Sunday of Easter (B)
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; John 15:1-8
My son Phil worked right after college selling a particular product door-to-door in the Minneapolis area. In order for him to make any money, he needed to sell this product. Success for him, then, was obviously increasing the number of sales he made. The bottom-line was the number of this product he sold, so the larger the bottom-line, the more money he made, and the more successful he was considered to be.
The way you define success has a lot to do with how you go about achieving it. Since number of sales was the measure of success, any and all tactics were justified to achieve success. Exaggerating, allowing people to believe something that may not be true, pressure to sign on the dotted line right now, fear tactics, even out-an-out lying were actually taught in order for him to be “successful.” Integrity, honesty, and the customers’ actual needs were secondary, if they were considered at all. Sell more, bigger bottom line, leads to success. In this case I’m proud to say he wasn’t completely successful.
Self-centered bottom lines are really the measures of success for most things in our lives. More. Bigger. Higher numbers. The way we define success has a lot to do with how we go about achieving it. Far too often a bottom line takes precedence over the methods used to achieve that success. If my bottom line comes at the expense of someone else’s needs, oh well. If my bottom line causes pain or suffering for someone else, oh well.
What’s unfortunate is that the church has assumed this base corporate measure of success too. We are considered successful if our numbers are higher, if our membership is increasing, if we have more money in the bank, if more people are sitting in our chairs on a Sunday morning. That’s what we measure. That’s what we count. That’s what we brag about. That’s what we value. The bottom line. We get a little proud when it’s up and a little anxious when it’s down.
I’m not sure the kingdom of God is served when our primary measure of success as the church is the same as a door-to-door salesperson using questionable techniques. I believe we need to redefine the word “success” for the church. And I think this is a biblical text that can help.
Jesus talks about two vital relationships in this text. The first is between his Father as the vine grower and him as the vine. The second is between Jesus as the vine and us as the branches.
Our relationship to Jesus—vine and branches—gives us life. He is our source. Through him we bear the fruit of the kingdom as his disciples. He is the vine, we are the branches. Everything we do that reveals God in the world is done through him. This isn’t surprising nor is it a new concept to most people who’ve been in the church for any length of time.
It’s his relationship to the Father that’s interesting. This relationship, between the vine and the vine grower, is all about removing and pruning. That’s what is described as the role of the Father here. Removing branches that don’t bear fruit and pruning branches that do. And all this—the cutting away and the pruning—are for the sole purpose of allowing the branches to bear fruit. It seems that the fruit is what matters here. We are to abide in Jesus like branches connected to a vine so that we can bear fruit.
According to the previous two chapters in the gospel of John, as well the rest of this chapter, the fruit Jesus is talking about here is love. Love of God and love of others. A little different bottom line, it would seem. The more fruit we as branches bear—the more love we show—the more successful we are.
Here’s where our cultural assumptions about “bottom line” equaling success get challenged. If the fruit we are to bear in Christ is love, which is all about the needs of others, then the measure of success for us as Christian people is how well loved those around us are. How the needs of those in our neighborhoods are being met. The measure of success for us as a church can never be primarily about how many people join us in here, but rather how many of us join them out there. How many of them out there have experienced love from the church and from church members? How many out there have been served, helped, hugged, fed, housed, welcomed, befriended by us as LCM members?
The measure of success for us as a church can never be how much money we have in surplus. It must be about how much money we give away.
The measure of success for us as a church can never be whether our membership is going up or down, but whether the poverty rate around us is going up or down.
If we are bearing this fruit, the Father will prune us—clean out the parts in us that inhibit that fruit. Is that failure? Having parts of us cleaned out or removed so we can love more? Hardly! Apparently it’s what the Father does. We live in Christ. We are part of the living vine. We do bear fruit. So pruning will happen to us. The parts of us that get in the way of loving our neighbor and loving our God do get cleaned and cut6. Some call it repentance. Jesus calls it pruning.
No one likes being pruned. I’m in the throes of it right now as a result of my brief participation in the Rocky Mountain Synod bishop election process. I’m not sure which parts of me are being pruned because of it; but God is certainly using that experience to cut away aspects of my life and ministry that aren’t producing the fruit they could. I certainly see some things differently.
I don’t like being pruned. None of us do. But it’s not about that. Our success as disciples of Jesus Christ is not about our bottom line. It’s about how much we love, how much we serve, how much we give away, how much we forgive, how much we care. “My father is glorified by this,” Jesus says, “that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”