2011 Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh Convention
Christ Episcopal Church, North. Hills
The Rt. Rev. Kenneth L. Price, Jr.
Last year our Convention fell on a day in which three giants of our church, namely Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were being commemorated in the Lesser Feasts and Fasts. I used their lives to shape my sermon. This year, no one is designated for this day of the church year and so I chose the lessons suggested for a Church Convention. As it turns out, they seem even more appropriate to our life here in the Diocese of Pittsburgh.
In the Gospel for today, three words stand out… vine… branches… fruit.
As the vine is the source of fruit, so Jesus is the source of our life. We are baptized in Jesus' name and in him we live and move and have our being. Our life has meaning because of Him. Just as a light bulb lights up only when it is connected to the source of electricity, so we are given power to live by plugging into Jesus.
So, if Jesus, the source of life, is the vine, what are we? We are the branches! As such, there must be great interdependence between the vine and the branches, between Jesus and us. There are many passages of Scripture to support this. No matter how strong the vine, without the branches, there would be no fruit. However, without the source, the vine, the branches would die and fruit would be impossible. Thus, our Lord recognized the importance of our relationship to Him. Although He is the source of life, he needs us, his disciples, to carry that life into the world.
But remember, the branch is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. Its value is in the connection. Its purpose is to produce fruit. In the case of a Christian, the fruit is the furthering of the kingdom of God. A commentator on this passage put it well when he said, “When we understand that Jesus Christ is both source and sustenance for our life, it gives living a whole new purpose. Then the fruit, which is our good works, comes naturally. Discipleship then is not drudgery, and life is not an endurance contest, but an opportunity to produce wonderful, sweet fruit in the world.”
Now when Jesus says, "He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit" many people find it frightening. But it can also be seen as a comforting statement, because Jesus also clearly says, "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit."
The idea of bearing fruit, or doing good works for the kingdom, was not new to the disciples. Jesus had said, "Let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven." Or again, "You did not choose me, I have chosen you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain."
Jesus also said, "A good tree must bring forth good fruit." Good, means properly rooted, properly related, or connected. A properly rooted tree, firmly connected to its branches will naturally bring forth healthy fruit. That's comforting. If ever there was a reason for us to remain firmly rooted in the church; raising our children securely within the faith so that it can shape their later life is a good one.
Another example of bearing fruit is directly related to our life today here in the Diocese of Pittsburgh. Although pruning the vine is usually done for healthy reasons, sometimes it can be cut in a way that injures the plant. In 2008 many branches of the vine were severed in what has produced for many a painful and tragic separation. Some chose to become part of a piece of the vine now called the Anglican Church in North America and others chose to remain part of the ongoing vine that the Episcopal Church has represented for centuries, but both claimed allegiance to the true vine which is Jesus Christ our Lord. There were some who predicted such a purging would deprive those who were separated from each other of viable life. Indeed, right after the purge it looked a bit bleak. But as is often the case with an agricultural vine, not even a purging could kill the spiritual vine.
This past year it has become even more evident that the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh – attached to the historic Episcopal Church which is a recognized part of the Anglican Communion, is still firmly connected to the true vine which is Jesus Christ. And it is a fact that this part of the true vine is coming back into fullness with new beauty and vigor and is bearing fruit. Our diocese, and its many congregations are finding new and exciting ways to commit ourselves to bringing people to Jesus and thus continue to be a vibrant and fruit producing branches for the vine which is Christ Jesus our Lord.
We also are adding some new branches. Last year at this Convention we welcomed All Saints, Bridgeville, Now, a year later, they have had to expand their worship space. This year we will welcome the reopened St. Thomas, Northern Cambria, and celebrate the return and renewal of branches — St. James, Penn Hills and St. Christopher, Cranberry – upon our vine. This is sweet fruit indeed as our congregations grow and prosper rather than shrink and retreat. I am convinced that this new and renewed growth will continue in the years ahead.
In the three short years since the pruning, you have had countless priests and deacons step up into new positions of leadership and no less than three bishops who have come among you to provide episcopal leadership. But since the laity make up 99% of the people in the church, the work of regrowing the branches and vine here in Pittsburgh could not be going on were there not a sharing of the Baptismal ministry of the laity and ordained together. In this baptismal ministry all of the orders – laity, deacons, priests, and bishop – countless folks from each order have stepped forward and are sharing in the leadership of renewal.
As I am about to complete my second round of visitations to the congregations of this diocese, I have consistently found parishes which are strong branches . . . true offshoots of the root vine which is Jesus Christ. It is vital that we all continue to maintain sufficient strength to be strong branches. The strength of our vine is directly proportional to the strength of the many branches which are connected to that vine. A strong congregation not only attracts others to Jesus, but also only serves the other branches as well. That connection brings some important benefits to the branches.
Returning to the commentator I quoted earlier, I found an outline of those benefits. As I read over them I thought how well this applies to us here in Pittsburgh.
First, the continual lifting up of our relationship to the primary vine who is Jesus Christ gives us security in life. "They who abide in me . . . it is they who bear much fruit." It gives us support; it allows us to share our burdens, and it nurtures our relationship to Christ. This is security. This is freedom.
Second, it gives us identity. It helps us know, and then remember, who and whose we are. We are Christians because we are "branches." It gives meaning to life and purpose to our Baptism.
Finally, it gives fulfillment to our life. For the Christian, service and bringing others to Christ, is its own reward. To fulfill the relationship is the purpose of it all. The relationship determines behavior. Whether in our marriage, in our relationship as parent to child, employer to employee, neighbor to neighbor, friend to friend, congregation to diocese, our relationship with Christ largely determines the quality of all those other relationships.
And so, as we enter a year in which we will be electing our next permanent bishop, welcoming even more churches back into our fold, and ever looking for new ways for our part of the true vine to grow and flourish, let us take hope in our future.
The fruit is bound to be sweet when the root in rightly fed. By our baptism and confirmation, we feed the vine and water the roots. Then, in our life as Christians, we produce fruit that is food for the world. When the food is sweetened by loving and spirit filled congregations in a diocese that is future oriented and Christ centered, it will be multiplied just as surely as the five loaves and fishes were multiplied. When this happens, life then, becomes a feast indeed.
Praise God for the healthy branches we call the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh and for the feast we all share in feeding the vine and sharing in the fruits of our labors.