being fruitful

The imagery of "bearing fruit" is often used to encourage efforts for productivity. So I thought I'd look at that a little closer. I found John's Gospel especially helpful.

Here, as in many other places, it's clear that we are to bear fruit:

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away... and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned...

"By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples." (Jn 15.1-2,6,8)

But it's not immediately clear what that "fruit" is. It is often assumed to be some kind of ministerial productivity (like books or programs or organizations) or successful results (like growing membership or baptisms or social improvement). But Paul wrote that "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" (Gal 5.22-23). And these are not so easily produced or measured.

It's also not immediately clear how we are to become more fruitful. Many have sought to apply successful business models to ministry in order to increase their efficiency and productivity. Many seek to gain greater material resources or political support so they can be more effective. But, in John, Jesus describes a very different way to fruitfulness:
"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. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing." (Jn 15.4-5)
Fruitfulness for God does not come by human effort or human power, Jesus says, but only when we "abide in" him.

Which means stay in contact with him, follow him closely, letting Jesus be in us the same way he was when he walked the earth. But the way he was on earth was not easily understandable. If we look at his early ministry--healing, feeding, teaching--that seems clear to most people. They say, "We can do that!" And run off and start healing (in hospitals) and feeding (with food stamps) and teaching (via TV stations). But that's not how the poor, powerless Jesus did it. So their "fruit" doesn't look much like his. And then if we look at how Jesus walked away from his popularity and turned towards Jerusalem and the cross, those people scratch their heads. Why would he abandon such a productive, thriving ministry?

I think that says a lot about the difference between productivity and Jesus' understanding of fruitfulness. Another passage in John may also be helpful here:
"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit." (Jn 12.24)
The way to fruitfulness is the cross. Not power but vulnerability. Not wealth but utter poverty. This is exactly the opposite direction from the business model for effectiveness; if we are pursuing productivity, we will be heading directly away from God's fruitfulness. (With this in mind, the quotes I posted yesterday speak much louder.)

"Abide in me. Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit."