1 John 4:7-16 and John 15:1-8
(Quoted scripture is New Revised Standard Version)
Ruby Bridges looked like a typical first-grader. With a big bow in her hair and lunch box in hand, she climbed the steps of William Frantz Elementary School for the first day of school. But little else was typical about that day in November 1960. Though she wasn’t aware of it, Ruby had been chosen to be the first African-American child to integrate this particular New Orleans grade school. Every day on her way to school, escorted by armed federal marshals, she braved angry whites shouting at her as she entered an empty classroom. White parents had moved their children to other schools. Ruby did not realize until later, when a little boy told her why he couldn’t play with her, that she was the reason for all the commotion.
In Ruby’s interview with reporter Sheila Graham, she said that even in this stressful situation of having mobs scream at her, she prayed every day, before and after school, for those who were verbally abusing her. Ruby explained it this way: “One thing my mother always said to me was that when she couldn’t be with me, if I were ever afraid, I should say my prayers . . . Even at night, if I would wake up from a nightmare and want to get up and go to her room, she would immediately ask, ‘Did you say your prayers?’ That’s where that came from and it sort of stuck with me.”
Ruby’s mother wanted her to know that no matter the situation she was never alone. She was connected. To be connected is to have power. It is to have an eternal presence in your life. To be connected to God is to know Someone cares about you. Someone who will walk with you through the valleys we all must walk through.
Ruby Bridges married Malcolm Hall and today they live in New Orleans with their four sons. In 2014, a statue of Ruby was unveiled outside the William Frantz School.
In 1 John 4:7-12, John the disciple writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. Not one has ever seen God: if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
There were many pretend Christians in the days of Ruby Bridges, people who believed they were Christians, yet were not connected to God. If they had been connected to God through Jesus Christ, His love would have shone through them, instead of the hate that was revealed in their words and in their actions.
Pastor Larry Daniels tells the story of a particular lady who was in his little country church in Tennessee: He says, “It was interesting to me that before I even met her everyone was telling me about her. They were saying: ‘She is such a religious person.’ It is true that every time she came to church she brought her Bible with her. Indeed, everywhere she would go all over town she took her Bible with her. At the evening worship we would frequently call upon lay people to pray, she would always be the first to stand, and her prayers were nothing short of exquisite. It seemed like the subject of religion was always on her mind, in fact, almost to a fault. She almost didn’t know how to carry on a simple conversation without bringing it up.”
“I didn’t have any problem with any of these things. The problem that I had was that when it came to people who were down in society–the poor, the unemployed, divorced persons, alcoholics–she was relentless in her criticism. She was without mercy and compassion. There was judgment and nothing else. After a while, despite all of these outward appearances of religion, and despite everyone calling her a “religious” person, I had to begin asking myself the question: Does this individual really bear the fruits of the Christian life?”
The issue is not how much knowledge you have or even necessarily how sincere you are. The issue is–how do you treat people? If you are connected to God through Jesus Christ people will be able to see the fruits of your life in terms of your compassion and love and attitude. Those fruits of the Spirit the Apostle Paul list in Galatians 5:22-23, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control-”
Unfortunately, there are still today many ‘religious people’ who are not connected to God through Jesus Christ, and as John wrote in 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” I call them, ‘the Great Pretenders.’
Jesus tells us how to be connected to God through him, and what happens when we are not, in our reading from the gospel of John.
John 15:1-4, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” – (v.6) Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
The disciples would understand this metaphor, because they were familiar with the importance of the grapevine. When Jesus spoke about vineyards, the disciples knew what he was talking about. It was an agricultural industry that had been carefully cultivated throughout the country for centuries. It was crucial because it was a cash crop as opposed to grain, which was raised purely for consumption. It was vital to the country’s economy.
A vineyard was also the symbol of the nation of Israel. In America we might think of amber waves of grain, but in Judea they thought of their nation as a vineyard. It was their national identity. Over and over again in the Old Testament, Israel is pictured as the vine or the vineyard of God.
The disciples would have read the 5th chapter of Isaiah, in which the prophet tells a story about someone (that someone being God) who built a beautiful vineyard on a fertile hill, doing everything needed to create an ideal setting for the vines. But the vineyard failed. The owner said, “When I expected it to yield domestic grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?” (v.4) He then tore down the protective wall and hedge, let the vineyard become overgrown with briars, and commanded the clouds to stop raining on it. That last detail makes it clear that the owner being described was God, and the vineyard of wild grapes was the people of Israel. Isaiah used familiar language to make his point, attempting to call the nation back from the destruction that threatened them.
The disciples would know the prophet Jeremiah wrote in chapter 2:21, “Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you degenerate and become a wild vine?” In Jeremiah’s time, the word “wild” actually meant “foreign.” Jeremiah was using the familiar story to warn the people to stop worshiping foreign gods, and warning them what will happen if they do not stop.
They would know the prophet Ezekiel’s words in Ezekiel chapter 19:10, “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.” And then in verse 12, “But it was plucked up in fury, cast down to the ground; the east wind dried it up; its fruit was stripped off, its strong stem was withered; the fire consumed it.” The mother was the land of Israel, then under threat by Babylon. Ezekiel painted the picture that everyone understood. Unfortunately, they didn’t listen to him and continued to disconnect themselves from God.
As Jesus talked about the vine, the disciples would have put it in context with the long history of stories about vines and vineyards. Jesus told this little story while he and the disciples were all gathered together after celebrating the Passover Seder, in the Upper Room; before they leave for the garden of Gethsemane and Jesus’ arrest. During this time Judas leaves the room to betray Jesus. If there was ever an opportunity to talk about wild grapes, this would have been it.
In Jesus’ analogy, he likened himself to a vine, while the fruit bearing branches here are the disciples. God the farmer is depicted as the one who cultivates the vineyard. He waters and tends the soil, so that the vine is properly nourished. He takes pride in his crop. But this means that he also prunes the vines and removes the dead wood. The grapes hang on to the branches. What Jesus is saying is clear. The disciples should receive their strength from Jesus. He is the true vine. If they break away from him, they will be like unproductive branches and die and bear no fruit. They then will have to be pruned out.
C.S. Lewis wrote, “God has designed the human machine to run on God Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy without bothering about religion (being connected to God). God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.”
We will never be happy living apart from the One who made us and saved us. Like a fish was made to live in water we were made to live connected to God through Jesus Christ His Son, and nothing can take the place of that.
The story of the vineyard and the vine is a story of everyone being connected together, rather than of cutting off and separating. It is when the parts of the vineyard are all connected that the good fruit is produced.
All of the different parts of the vineyard: the soil, the roots, the vines, the leaves… as different as they are to look at, they each have their value in producing good fruit. If there are unfruitful branches, it is not our problem or our focus. Rather than trying to find those vines that need to be cut off, our only purpose is to work together to produce the fruit the vineyard owner planted us here to produce. It is God’s job to prune the unfruitful branches.
We have this ‘cross connection’ with God. The vertical beam of the cross Jesus was crucified on, connects us to God. The curtain in the temple was torn in two when Jesus gave His life for us. We are welcomed into the presence of God.
The horizontal beam of the cross was Jesus’ arms stretched out wide to gather us in. All of us. Yet Jesus will not force us to live in and through Him. We have to come willingly, surrendering our heart and life to Jesus. The disciple John who calls himself the ‘beloved one’ of Jesus; writes in his first letter, chapter 4:15, “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.”
We know that when we confess that Jesus is the Son of God and believe God raised Him from the dead; when we ask and receive forgiveness; and surrender our heart to Jesus: The Holy Spirit comes to live within us and our lives produce fruits for God.
This is being connected. First becoming connected to God, which enables us to be connected to one another. Without our connection to God, we too would be, ‘great pretenders.’ Don’t be a great pretender. Get connected to God and everyone of your relationships will bear fruit; in the thoughts you think, the words you speak, the actions you take.
In the Gospel of John 15:11-12, Jesus says to us, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
It is impossible to experience true joy in this life without Jesus. It is impossible to experience joy in our relationships with others without Jesus. Get connected and experience JOY!
Pastor Rosemary DeHut