Beyond Membership: Fruitful
I’m terrible with proverbs. I never remember them correctly. I once asked my mother, with complete sincerity, why people said, “close, but no potato.” It made no sense to me. Of course, she explained that the saying is actually, “close, but no cigar,” and its origins. So I try to double-check on proverbs before I use them. As I've been preparing this sermon, I've been thinking about the proverb, “The proof is in the pudding.” I know what it means, but I haven’t always known why it meant that, what the origin of the proverb was. It means: You’ll know the truth of it by the end results. The proverb we use today is actually a shortened version of the original, which makes more sense. It’s actually "the proof of the pudding is in the eating." In other words, you can tell how good pudding is by eating it, by testing the end product. Making it correctly, preparing it just so – that’s important, sure. But in the end, it basically matters if the pudding tastes good or not. The proof is in the pudding.
Today is the last Sunday in our series called “Beyond Membership,” and we’ve talked about finding and being found by God – something we can call God’s prevenient grace, God who is calling to us before we are even aware of it, loving us already. We’ve talked about God’s call to us to take up the cross and follow, and making that decision to let go of the other things we’ve been chasing after in order to follow God – that’s called justifying grace, when our lives get set right, in line with God’s hopes for us. But we have the whole rest of our lives to practice being disciples. Disciples are students, and students are always learning, always seeking to understand the teacher. Even when we’ve committed to carrying the cross, we still face struggles and challenges, and we still grow, as our relationship with God deepens, as we learn better to love one another. This is what is called sanctifying grace, whole-life grace. Another way to think of it is: we’re seeking to be fruitful disciples.
It’s been a long time since I’ve taken a math class. I was always pretty good at math, but I definitely don’t remember the formulas and theorems I once knew by rote. But I remember that I would sometimes get frustrated because on tests, you were usually required to show your work. It didn’t matter if you could get the right answer or not. You had to show how you came up with the answer. I found this frustrating, because sometimes I knew the answer. I could figure it out in my head, but it took a lot longer to show my work, and the way I did it in my head didn’t always make as much sense, or follow the right rules. Teachers want to know that you understand concepts, and showing your work is as important to them, many times, as the correct final answer.
As I read the scriptures, I find that Jesus seems a lot less worried about what we say we believe, saying it in just the right way, being able to articulate particular theological beliefs, and instead he’s a lot more focused on what we do, how we live and love, how we treat one another, what we do with our lives. In more than one place in the scriptures, we find Jesus calling us to bear good fruit with our lives. If you witness people enjoying the delicious pudding, you’ll have no doubt that the pudding was very good. If you look at a good piece of fruit, you can tell something about the quality of the source of the fruit, the tree or plant it came from. And if you see discipleship in faithful action, you can get a look right into the good heart of the disciple. We’re called to be fruitful.
What does that mean, exactly, being fruitful? What do fruitful lives of disciples look like? Today we read the parable of the sheep and the goats. This parable is the last parable recorded in the gospel of Matthew, and it is the last thing Jesus teaches about before the passion – before the Passover, last supper, trial, and crucifixion. When the Son of Man comes, Jesus says, using a phrase to describe himself, the nations will be gathered before him, and the people will be separated like a shepherd would separate sheep and goats in a flock. The sheep, put at the Son of Man’s right hand, will hear words of blessing, and be invited into the kingdom. “For I was hungry, and you gave me food, I was thirsty and your gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The righteous or ‘just’ ones are confused – “Lord, when was it that we saw you,” they wonder? They don’t remember ever encountering Jesus. But Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” This scene repeats in opposites with those who are like the goats. Jesus calls them accursed, unable to enter the kingdom, because they saw Jesus in need and did not respond. Likewise, the goats ask, “Lord, when was it that we saw you . . . and did not take care of you?” Jesus responds in kind, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”
In this passage, the crux, the key, seems to be in that everyone expects that they would have had a chance to show their good or bad behavior to Jesus directly. They don’t ever remember meeting Jesus. But you get a sense that all of them, sheep and goats alike, would have tried to do kind things for Jesus if they’d met him face to face. We mess up a lot of the time, but we could at least treat Jesus himself kindly, right? But the sheep and the goats don’t realize that they’ve been seeing Jesus all along – in the people they meet, in the people they serve, or the people they’ve looked over. That Christ is within us, lives in each person, is key for us understanding this parable.
Whether a person is counted as a sheep or a goat in this passage hinges on how they treat others. But Jesus gets at something more than that. Being a sheep or goat hinges not simply on how you treat others who happen across your path, but on how important it is to you to make sure your path crosses with others who need you to treat them well! This parable tells us that discipleship is something we need to be intentional about. It is much more than being nice and polite and well-behaved. Jesus focuses on us purposely, intentionally coming into the lives of those who need us, the “least of these,” who Jesus calls members of his family.
Pastor Aaron will tell you that one of the keys in church revitalization is knowing that a system always produces what it is designed to produce. An apple tree is designed to produce apples. What kind of fruit is your life designed to produce? Are you waiting for things to happen to you, waiting for Jesus to show up in your life, all the while missing the opportunity to serve Christ who is already in our midst? I told my pastor-uncle I was preaching on good fruit today, and he responded, “I have noticed that the fruit is always way out on a limb. Not much fruit at the trunk of the tree.” Is our plan of discipleship to hope that some fruit will fall into our laps? Or might we go out on a limb? If our lives aren’t bearing the good fruit we want to offer to God, we need to examine our lives, look at the source, and make some changes.
This week, the journey of Lent will begin with Ash Wednesday. If you’ve been found by God, if you’ve made the commitment to carry the cross, to follow Jesus, let this Lent be a season for you of asking: What kind of fruit is my life producing? What does the fruit of your life say about the source? What does the product say about the input? Jesus wants us to show our work, as a beautiful witness of our discovering God dwelling right in our midst, right in the others we encounter, right in the least of these. Are you bearing good fruit? Let the proof be in the pudding. Amen.