I’m calling this post Organic Spiritual Fruit to explore the possibility of “pesticides,” in the form of manipulation, contaminating our spiritual mandate to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last.
What is fruit? Scientifically, it’s the final product from a season of growth, tilling, watering, weeding, etc… As a spiritual term, it’s a word often used to describe if someone is doing their job and bringing others into “salvation.” There have been debates through the centuries on how one produces fruit and quite honestly, we’ve found it to be quite a tiring conversation. Specially because, in the gardening process, we are often in the position of being tillers, which happens well before any fruit will come. And so, we’ve come to recognize that how God uses one, isn’t necessarily how he’ll use another. In the ancient text it says that God is the one who puts the body together and we find this an encouraging and trustworthy saying.
In the ancient text, a disciple named John, records Jesus painting a picture of the relational aspect of having faith in the God of all gods. He says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
He is showing us that we, as the branches, are involved in the process only so far as allowing the Father to graft us in. As a branch, connected to the vine, it’s expected that fruit will be produced, it’s part of the reality of being connected. However, as we read on it’s clear that the point is not about our ability to produce fruit but about being connected, relying on Jesus (the vine) to produce fruit in and through us.
He continues, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” Then he goes on to give the ultimate purpose of being grafted in. He says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.” Emphasis on loving each other.
As itinerants, meaning kinfolk who come alongside others to offer wisdom, counsel and encouragement, we often have problem solving type conversations with our hosts and one of the ideas that comes up is the idea of producing “fruit.” What I mean by that is, we often meet Christian leaders who really struggle in their “ministries” if others don’t respond the way they think they should regarding their mission/message. They are frustrated because they thought their church or community would be bigger or have a different demographic. They talk about revival and express a deep desire to reap from the harvest (meaning make new converts) and are often left in a quandary when the folks who actually end up walking through their doors are already believers, just disenfranchised or disillusioned. We hear them say things like, “I want to produce fruit. I want to see fruit.” They might add that they are living obediently to God’s call and feel they are doing what God asked but are consistently questioning God’s timing, as well as, their own abilities and wondering why they aren’t we seeing fruit? It seems that maybe their understanding of fruit is somewhat twisted. As we’ve thought about it, scoured the ancient texts and prayed for understanding, this is what we’ve found thus far.
In Acts, during the ascension of Christ, Jesus affirms his disciples by telling them to go into all the world and share the story. And, they do. The message of God’s covenant to all of humanity through Christ crucified spreads like wildfire and the world is invited to be grafted into the vine as well. It’s a beautiful start to an awesome story. However, somewhere along the way this fantastically personal story of God reaching down and touching humanity was replaced by formulas, debates, wars and institutions. Add to that a taste of a Holy Spirit initiative to bring revival, and you have humans twisting up the idea that somehow the branch can produce it’s own fruit, which is an especially attractive idea for those who would benefit from such a wave of conversion financially.
So in the name of producing fruit (i.e..make conversions), we see ancient followers of Christ fighting over who gets the credit and a rebuke from one of their apostles stating that he planted, another watered, but God gave the increase. Yes, we just can’t help ourselves and the church is lining up behind favorite teachers and boasting in them in such a way that quarrels and divisions are happening. We pick our leader and then we follow their formula, whether that’s debating and rebuking, making stands politically and socially, shouting on street corners hell and damnation, knocking on doors or in modern times, setting up healing tents at festivals, or taking on an agenda based missional relationships approach; whereby “conversion” is still the measure of fruit. We know, we’ve sat with fellow believers who think they have the corner on the market, we’ve been to the meetings where the question was asked and a tally was taken regarding how many people we shared the Gospel with (i.e., the four spiritual laws) with over the past week or month. Those who had high numbers were well congratulated. Those who didn’t were told that they wern’t fruitful and given more tools, tracks, other tactics or teachings on how to share “the Gospel,” etc…
On a personal note, both of my grandfathers had radical conversion testimonies. Through out their lives, they both shared the redemption story of the Gospel of Jesus and how that changed their lives with whomever would listen, whether on street corners, under a big tent, in a meeting, prison, really anywhere they could. They were both “evangelists” and they introduced many into a relationship with Jesus. I’m sure it would have been said that my grandfathers produced much fruit. And, maybe they did.
However, when I look beyond my grandfathers ministries, what I see is their daily need to tell their story, to bear witness to the way the living God reached down and redeemed their lives with unconditional love. In retelling their story over and over, they stayed connected to the vine. I reckon it was the same for the disciples and all of those who met Jesus along the way. How could they not tell of His unfailing love and faithfulness. How could they not tell about his amazing healings, teachings, and practical ways that he sat with those who most would not consider. How could they not tell of his upside down idea of the Kingdom of God. Even some who were specifically told by Jesus not to tell of their interaction with him, couldn’t help themselves. They were compelled because they were grafted into the vine. They were compelled without an agenda for conversion but because it was the natural response to being healed or restored and brought into the fold.
As we listen to Jesus telling the story of the vine and branches, there is a profound message woven in between this idea of producing fruit. Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you.” Jesus says, loving him and keeping his command to love each other is a sign of friendship and friendship is very fruitful because he says it leads to joy! We see that participation in Christ’s life is the source of all good, all fruit, and that abiding in Him is the means of participation in His life. Obviously, what is meant is not our continuance in the attitude of love to Him, but rather our continuance in the sweet and sacred atmosphere of His love to us. He further assures us that, by keeping His commandments, we shall continue in that sweet home and safe stronghold of His love. (MacLaren’s Expositions) Of course the keeping of the commandments is something more than mere outward conformity by action. It is the inward harmony of will, and the humbling of our whole being.
We have radical testimonies just like our forefathers, and like our forefathers, we find life in sharing our story with whomever will listen. We believe that God is an amazing creator, composer, promise-keeper, restorer. He is faithful, truthful, loving and just. He is everywhere all of the time, he knows everything and he is Holy. And, we believe that when God says that he is the one who puts the body together, that he is the one who puts the body together. We believe Jesus is the living God and when he tells the story of the vine and the branches, we respond in humility in our understanding of what it means to produce fruit. We have surrendered our self-sustainable version of producing fruit, our need to manipulate the seed, thus allowing God to make us apart of the greater whole. And so, it is by the grace given us that we say or do anything. It’s important that we who long to see fruit, do not misinterpret ourselves as people who are bringing this goodness to God. No, God brings it all to us. The only accurate way to understand ourselves is by what God is and by what he does for us, not by what we are and what we do for him.
I know this idea of questioning and redefining what it means to produce fruit, flies in the face of traditional missions or church organizational ideology. For many, this idea of releasing the need to quantify our fruit production is a difficult one because there is actually something deeper hinging on that quantifiable fruit. It is money and we know, it always looks good if you can show financial supporter results. It validates to them that we’re a good investment. But listen to me, the Apostle Paul knew this too and he warns us through out his letters to not switch this up to make it about ourselves or our funding. And if we’re really being honest about it, that is a hard one to let go. But after five years of nomadic life, hearing the stories of those we’ve met around the world, we can testify that the Father really is an amazing gardener, Jesus really is the vine and releasing this manipulative, twisted version of what it means to produce fruit, to somehow prove to everyone that we are worthy, has not only allowed us to see God do amazing things for us, but also in and through us.
We have come to understand that there is a bigger picture here. We continue to tell the story of God and the story of us, but not with an agenda for quantifiable fruit so that we can feel validated or so we can keep our funding going. We share this amazing story of God and story of us because we are compelled by Gods trustworthiness and because telling this story breaths life into our very beings. It is a direct response to the friendship Jesus calls us into and we are compelled to love. Any fruit that comes is directly because of the one who created us.
Of course, we’re always learning and growing. We’re open to hearing other thoughts and perspectives on this issue. But for those we’ve met along the way, be encouraged by us tillers; God is faithful even when it feels like the land is parched and infertile. God is an amazing gardener and the harvest is His to reap.
So, for our kinfolk in ministry as a vocation, who have been struggling with this idea we leave you with a few questions and encourage you engage honestly in this conversation. Do you find your desire to produce fruit has been laced with manipulation? Do you resonate with the need to showcase results so as to prove your worth to the rest of the body? Are you selling your witness short based on your self-interest for profit or status? Are you caught up in church quarrels and feuds, offering your allegiance to your favorite teacher rather than to the living God? Are you twisting up the Gospel message so it fits in your nice little box? Are you willing to take the risk of trusting Jesus is who he says he is?
We encourage you to take a good look in the mirror and evaluate the hold that this twisted ideal of producing fruit might have over you. Are you willing to explore what it means to function in “friendship with Christ” when the Christian culture around you says if you want to do this job, this is how you do it, this is how you prove your worth? Are you ready to swim upstream?