Seventh Sunday of Easter
TEXTS: Psalm 1 and John 17:9-19
Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers; but their delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law they meditate day and night. They are like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither. In all that they do, they prosper. (Psalm 1:1-3)
Some of you know that I am an alumnus of United Theological College in Montréal. This was where Lay Pastoral Ministers (as we were called then) received their training. Now, United Theological College—UTC, as it’s commonly known—is part of the McGill University campus, but it doesn’t really have its own building. It has some offices in an old house, but it doesn’t have its own classroom space. So we lay ministers—who came to UTC each summer—received instruction at Presbyterian College, and were housed in its dormitory.
If you know Montréal, you know about its maple trees. They are everywhere—big, and impressive, and lovely. They also spread their seeds everywhere—so much so that some Montrealers look at them almost as a kind of weed. Maple saplings sprout in all kinds of places—in parks and on boulevards, in private yards and gardens, even between cracks in the sidewalk. I, however, loved them.
One of the places saplings sprung up—but were not welcome—was underneath the steps to Presbyterian College. The Presbyterians were always digging them out, and trying to get rid of them—so I knew no one would mind if I dug one up for myself. So the first year I was at UTC, that’s what I did. Just before I left to go home, I found a healthy-looking maple sprout, which I removed from beneath the college steps and put into a pop bottle filled with water. That’s how I brought it home to Calgary—in a bottle, clutched firmly in my grip as I sat on the Air Canada flight (this was a very long time ago).
Once I got home, I put the little tree into a flower pot, and it lived indoors as a potted plant—first in Calgary, and then later in our home in Kamloops after we moved there. Then, when spring came, I transplanted it into our yard. It was still tiny—less than a foot tall, after having been an indoor plant for about one year. I did not know how it would fare in the climate of the B.C. interior—but I also knew it had not exactly thrived in its little pot.
However, it did thrive in the yard! By the end of that first summer, it was over two feet tall—twice as big as it had been. Winter came, and the tree of course lost its leaves and became dormant. Would it survive the winter outdoors? It did—and almost doubled its height by the time autumn arrived again. To make a long story short, by the time we left Kamloops some five years later, the tree was much taller than I was, and continued in robust health.
I was surprised at first, to see the little tree doing that well in a place so far from where it had originally sprouted—doing better, actually, than any of the other trees in the yard. But soon I learned the secret. Our yard was on a hillside, and running beneath the surface of the hillside were many underground streams. Often people found out about these when they began digging for one reason or another.
Anyway, one of these streams ran beneath our yard, right where I had happened to plant the little tree. Once its roots found their way deep enough into the soil, the tree was able to tap into this abundant—and everlasting—supply of water. That’s why the maple tree did so well. It was a much better deal than being under the college steps in Montréal!
My friends, Scripture tells us that we who believe are like that little tree. We are like trees planted by streams of water. What a folly it is—and what a tragedy—if we do not put down our roots and freely drink!
In this driest of the prairie provinces, we Albertans should know how special water is. When I was much younger, and fancied myself a journalist, I worked for a weekly newspaper in the town of Oyen, in east-central Alberta. If you know that area, you know it is an exceptionally dry region. Yet—because of an engineering marvel called irrigation—that arid part of the province has become farmland. I wouldn’t call it the Garden of Eden, but it surely is not a desert, either. Irrigation projects have made that area—called the Palliser Triangle—green and productive. And so the Palliser Triangle has become a testament to the transformation that happens when available water is utilized.
Many of us have been fortunate to have been planted by loving parents near the living water of God’s grace. Others of you have ended up in a faith-family by what appeared to be chance. Perhaps you married a church-goer, and more or less willingly picked up the habit. Perhaps some crisis steered you toward religion, and a particular congregation was the place where you stuck. You are like seeds blown on the wind, or carried by birds, or maybe caught up in an animal’s hoof and brought to the water when the creature came down to drink. It doesn’t matter, really. Regardless of how we arrived here, all of us are in a place of growth. All of us are exceptionally privileged! All of us have a blessing that exceeds all other earthly joys. We are free to delight in it!
How do we know whether we truly treasure our privilege and feed our roots on the living water? How might we deduce whether we have become blasé and ceased drawing on the water of life? Jesus answered that for us: “You will know them by their fruits,” he said (Matthew 7:20). A fruitless Christian is a dying Christian.
Now, don’t misunderstand: I don’t want to instigate a round of spiritual self-derogation amongst you. I’m not saying we are all capable of producing the same fruits, or even the same high-quality fruits. Our gifts vary. Our opportunities vary. Some may produce sweet navel oranges in plenty, while others produce tiny currants. Some may produce juicy mangoes on a lush tree, while others produce small but tasty raspberries from a rather prickly stalk. Some may bring forth large bunches of golden bananas while others ripen their tangy lemons. We are many trees, and we produce many fruits.
As a longtime pastor, I know that among those who produce exceptionally fine fruits are those over-anxious souls who feel guilty because they are not producing even better ones. Some of you (not all, but some) think too little of yourselves. I would have you delivered from that. We need to be grateful for what we do achieve, not always berating ourselves for the fruits we do not have. Thanksgiving for the good things makes for a healthy Christian tree. Look at the fruits you do bear, and delight in them. God does. So should you.
Does this lead to complacency? I doubt it; certainly not in the over-sensitive folk that I have in mind as I say this. Let’s face it: smug, complacent people won’t even have these anxieties. Therefore, I say to you over-conscientious souls: cherish each fruit, small or large. Give God the glory—and give yourself a break!
Now, I have to admit, at one point the metaphor of trees and their different fruits completely breaks down—because, in the Christian orchard, there is one common fruit which all the different trees can bear. It is a fruit that unites us, that makes us one. Jesus spelled it out for us with absolute clarity: it’s love. Remember? He said, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12).
John the Evangelist put it this way: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments” (1 John 5:1-2).
One of the ways this love presents itself is in open-hearted fellowship, where we seek to affirm the best in one another and forgive the deficiencies. Love is the one common fruit—the fruit we should all be expecting to bear. In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus is recorded as praying that his followers may get on well together and resist the temptations of worldly corruption. His joy is that they will stay together in love. This will also be their joy.
Jesus was insightful. He knew that the pressures of the world around the disciples—and the flaws within their personal characters—could easily breed conflicts and division. He prayed that they might be one, just as he and God are one. In retrospect—and to our embarrassment—his prayer anticipates the division of the church into separate denominations. Friends, division is not a fruit of the Spirit—love is. And this remarkable love-fruit will only grow and ripen when our roots drink deeply from the living waters of the Spirit of God.
If we would sincerely pray for the greater unity of the church of Christ, I think we first need to check where our own roots are spreading at the moment. There are plenty of pollutants in the soil around us, and there are alternative, contaminated water supplies that will distort both foliage and fruit. If the tree is not bearing the fruit of love, something is drastically wrong.
Where there is division in the church, we should not look to blame others; rather, we should examine what is happening to our own roots. If our roots drink from the pure stream of God, we will indeed love other Christians—both within our own church and in other denominations. The stream of God is pure love, and the trees planted beside it and nourished by it will be known by their fruits. It is God’s will—and Christ’s joy—that we bear the fruit of love.
“I speak these things in the world,” he said, “so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves” (John 17:13b). What Jesus said—what Jesus taught—had this goal: to bring complete joy to his disciples; to you and me, to our sisters and brothers everywhere, and—most importantly—to all of us together.
This joy and this unity is available to us—if only we point our roots in the right direction. Therefore, sisters and brothers, I urge you to remember the Source of your spiritual nourishment. Our Source is Christ, and the living water he provides. May we all drink deeply from that sacred stream. Amen.