The building where the Matsudo church meets is rather old. It’s basically a repurposed house, with the downstairs set up as an assembly hall. It’s not much to look at, but it serves the church well and is a blessing to have. While there’s plenty that could use renovation, one feature I love about the grounds is a small grape vine that wraps around the front fence. It has been there ever since I first came to Matsudo, and I’m sure it was here many years before that.
The branches usually produce a good amount of fresh grapes each year which you can eat, assuming the crows (or a few hungry kids from the playground across the street) don’t get to them first. Grape season is usually between August and October in the Northern Hemisphere, and if memory serves me, this vine usually produces in late summer. So you can imagine my surprise when, upon arriving at the building for the first time on the very last day of November, there were still several grapes on one of the branches! You can see them in the picture at the top of this post.
There were only 4 grapes in all, and one of them was shriveled up. Nevertheless, there was fruit on the branch. Meager, yes, but present.
Since Sara and I began to consider a return to Matsudo, one prayer has continually been on our hearts – that God would make us fruitful. I have prayed many times that if God would send us, that he would also make us fruitful, and if we would not be fruitful, that he would not send us. Our goal in coming here was not just to live in Japan. To be honest, though we love much about Japan, there are other places we would prefer to live at this stage of our family life. We came to bear fruit for the Lord. That is our mission.
Nevertheless, I wasn’t sure what to expect when we got here. Would we actually be fruitful? What if no one listens? Would our mission be a failure? Matsudo is so small – perhaps we would only be providing life support.
When I saw this tiny cluster of grapes on a single vine that morning, I knew the Lord was encouraging me to remember his words:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:1-2, emphasis mine)
Jesus wants for us to produce abundant fruit (v.8), but he knows that in order to get to that point, we need the Father to prune us. As long as there is just a little fruit, no matter how meager, he will do his work and help us grow and be more fruitful. In fact, according to another parable in Luke 13:6-9, even if there is no fruit, the Master is patient and will give the plant extra care so that it might produce something if at all possible. The key here is that the work is the Lord’s more than it is ours. Our job is simply to remain in Christ:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” (v.5)
Nothing! There is no spiritual fruit we can produce if we are not abiding in Jesus, because he is the one who provides all the nutrients and water and life that we need to be alive in the first place. Yet, if we remain in him, fruit will be produced because that’s the only option possible for a branch connected to the Perfect Vine.
I needed that reminder. It can be overwhelming when you first get here. You’re far from home. You miss life at home, you miss your family, you miss your friends, you miss speaking like an adult instead of a 4th grader (on a good day!). It’s easy for those emotions to sweep over you and feel like you can’t do anything. Why are we even here? What do I think I’m doing? These thoughts are natural, but they must give way to the truth of Christ’s teaching. It’s not my wisdom or clever planning that will lead to fruitfulness. Only Christ’s faithful provision can do that, so I must focus on abiding in him. If I do that, and if the Matsudo church does that, there will be more fruit, even if we are small and weak.
Indeed, God often does his most glorious work when we are at our weakest. As the Lord told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12:9) When there is only a little fruit on the branch, the wisdom of the Vinedresser and the empowering presence of the Vine are better glorified. I know this, I believe this, and I teach this. But I appreciate when the Lord offers a tangible reminder.
It’s hard to let go of control and comfort (perhaps these are two sides of the same coin). In ministry, as in most areas of life, we tend to think it is our own cleverness that will get us to where we want to go. But if we wish to produce spiritual fruit, the power has only one source – Jesus. If we will focus on abiding in him, the fruit will come, no matter how meager things may look now.