Fall is without question my favorite season. The food, family time, and football that surrounds it has always represented such a special time to me. There is, however, one caveat to my love for the season, and that caveat has been visible. strewn about our yard the past couple of weeks.
For all the rustic splendor they display in their young life, beginning in mid-September through mid-October, the mature harvest leaves that eventually fall are annually the bane of my existence. Just when one pile is picked up, another needs to be formed. So, just why do they even have to fall in the first place, and in such great numbers?
According to Peter Raven, president of the Missouri Botanical Garden and a renowned botanist on NPR interview a while back, trees are deeply programmed by eons of evolution to insist that the leaves drop away. But why? Why not let the leaves stick around? Why drop?
Raven explained that leaves are basically “the kitchen staff of a tree.” During the spring, summer and early fall they make the food that helps the tree grow and thrive and reproduce. When the days get short and cold, food production slows down, giving the tree an option: it can keep the kitchen staff, or it can let it go. It’s a good thing the trees don’t have to pay unemployment.
Departing leaves represent the swan song of a temporal season of life, a final bow for a beautiful performance. That is what our creator intended for them ahead of the cold of winter. In this way, there is nothing left to nourish them or keep them alive. Fortunately, our Lord has a much different design for his people.
In John 15, our Heavenly Father reminds us of his great and abiding love that runs through our life like a vine. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (John 15:5-8 NIV)
In this analogy, Jesus is the vine, and we, as his disciples, are the branches. And through this parallel, Jesus teaches us that our opportunity to thrive and bear fruit on the vine is dependent on our relationship with him.
To not remain faithful and committed to him is to risk withering on the vine. He goes on to share that to remain vibrant and viable on the vine is to also live and love in his commandments.
“Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: love each other as I have loved you.” (John 15:9b-12)
This section of teaching to the disciples foreshadows Jesus' death on the cross, and just as Jesus glorified the father through his obedience, he calls on believers to show they are disciples by remaining attached to the vine.
Finally, and particularly apropos as we honor our veterans, Jesus puts into context what it means to sacrifice one’s life.
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my father I have made known to you.” (John 15:13-15)
In a literal sense, the brave men and women across the various branches of our military take an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Inherently, they are committing to risk their life for their friends, family, and country, just as Jesus actually did for on the cross that those who believe in him would have an everlasting life.
And as we hopefully find ways today to thank our veterans, let us not misconstrue the true context of this final passage. Too often, the application of this is centered strictly on the act of ultimate sacrifice; however, what gets lost is that the reason we are capable of doing this for others is because Jesus first did it for us. And that desire to live on the vine in sacrifice is not limited to life and death.
The spiritual connotation for this means the willingness to die to sin, and our selfish desires, to bless those around us. So, rather than clinging to our own ambitions, Jesus is teaching that to forgo our own will and surrender it to him and others in Jesus’ name is to call him friend.
And what a friend we have in Jesus.
Brian Underwood is retired executive director at Sierra Lutheran High School, adjunct faculty member SLHS and WNC.