“A Fruitful Tree” (Galatians 5:16-25; John 15:1-5; Psalm 1)
We just heard a bunch of readings from a variety of places in the Bible–Psalm 1, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Paul’s letter to the Galatians, and words of Jesus from the gospels of St. Luke and St. John–and all of these readings, about trees bearing fruit. This is an image of course of people and the fruits or works that they produce in their lives.
Now the first thing to recognize is that we all bear fruit. We all produce works in our lives. The question is, though: What kind of fruit are we producing? Good fruit or bad fruit? There is this distinction, you see, among fruit. Some fruit may be bad or rotten in God’s sight. Some fruit may be good and acceptable to God. So what kind of fruit are you producing in your life? Is God pleased with it? Our topic tonight, then, is this: How do I become “A Fruitful Tree”?
This distinction among fruits, some good, some bad–St. Paul gets at that in his letter to the Galatians. He first lists some works as those that are not pleasing to God: “Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.”
“And things like these.” So maybe you didn’t hear your exact sin in that laundry list of sins, but don’t worry. You’d be on there somewhere, doing something else that God does not find acceptable. Or maybe you are on that list, just maybe not one of the more spectacular works of the flesh. So perhaps you haven’t participated in orgies, but you have contributed to dissensions and divisions. Maybe you haven’t done sorcery, but you have done strife and envy. Not good. No, these works of the flesh are the bad fruit that our sinful flesh produces.
And so Paul adds this warning. He says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Whoa, now that’s a scary prospect! To be shut out of the kingdom of God is a terrifying thought. Cut off from God, shut out of the kingdom, only to face an eternity apart from God and his people forever, under God’s judgment. Elsewhere, John the Baptist talks about the axe being laid at the root of the tree, and that tree which has produced bad fruit will be cut down and cast in the fire.
Now what do you have to do to be that kind of a tree? Answer: Nothing. It will come naturally to you. This is the inevitable result of our sinful nature, which can only produce fruit that is not acceptable to God. It’s been that way ever since our first parents disobeyed God and ate of the forbidden fruit from the tree in the garden. This sinful tendency and desire of ours to disobey God has come naturally to us from one generation to the next. Flesh gives birth to flesh, and so we are all born as bad trees, so to speak. We will produce bad fruit, in one variety or another, and God’s judgment on this is death, to be shut out of the kingdom of God. “Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous,” so the psalmist says, adding, “but the way of the wicked will perish.”
Producing bad fruit will lead to a bad end. So what is the good fruit that we should be bearing? Paul provides a list here, too: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” Now that kind of fruit sounds much better, much sweeter. These are things that please God. So how do we get there? How do we bear that good fruit, the kind that is acceptable to God? Answer: Become a good tree.
That may sound too obvious, but it is true. In order to produce good fruit, first you have to be a good tree. And this is something you cannot fake. God is not fooled by artificial fruit, that is, fruit that looks good on the outside, but is not the real deal.
But now here’s the good news: You who are baptized and believe in Christ–you are already a good tree. You have a new nature. Christ has made you a good tree. He did so by taking your sins upon himself on the tree of the cross. That cross, the cross of Christ, is your tree of life. It is through what Jesus did on that tree that you have the forgiveness that washes away your sins and gives you a clean state. It is through the tree of the cross that new life is yours. You have been joined to Jesus and his life in your baptism.
Now here we are getting someplace! Jesus Christ is the source of your life, your new life and your eternal life. Being connected to him is the only way you can produce fruit that is acceptable to God. This is what Jesus says in John 15: “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” Connected to Christ, joined to Jesus, now you are a fruit-bearing tree. The life of Christ flowing through you will produce the good fruit.
And this is a life that needs to be sustained. God does this through the means of grace, Word and Sacrament. Nurtured and nourished by these means, on a regular basis, now you are like a tree planted by a stream of living, life-giving water. As the psalmist says: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; 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 that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” And as Jeremiah echoes: “Blessed is the man who trusts in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.”
So, dear friends, the answer to our question: How do I become “A Fruitful Tree”? The answer is simple: Be connected to Christ. Draw your life from him. He is your tree of life. Remain connected and vibrant in him. Be in the Word. Live in your baptism. Receive often the Body and Blood of Christ in the Sacrament. These are the means that the Spirit uses to keep you strong and to bring forth in you the beautiful fruit that you are meant to bear as branches connected to Christ.
Christ, holy Vine, Christ, living Tree,
Be praised for this blest mystery:
That Word and water thus revive
And join us to Your Tree of Life.