Yesterday a local elder of ours gave a sermon that seems to have been well-designed to prick at the listeners. Indeed, it was not until the sermon was nearly over that I understood what the point of the message was, and that was a well-meant and certainly worthwhile caution about being caught up in various speculative schemes that can stroke our intellectual vanity while leading us to be overly critical of others who have and fulfill a responsibility to teach biblical truth. After all, I am certainly aware of my own vulnerability to intellectual vanity. Like many people, I know my relative strengths and abilities and appreciate working within my strengths and have a certain indulgence to the life of the mind that fits someone who has spent a lot of time working on learning and who appreciates self-education and has a fondness for speculation. I do not consider any of these to be a bad thing, so long as we do not mistake speculation for truth or pit speculation, as pleasant as it is to engage in, against more solid matters. Indeed, our enjoyment of speculation depends in large part on having a solid basis of true understanding to speculate off of, as it fills in the gaps with possibilities and suppositions of what is known to be true. Speculation is far less enjoyable when one has a far less secure basis of knowledge, because then one has to spend one’s time defending the vulnerable but all-important truth claims that allow speculation to be fun. The churchmen of the Middle Ages have often been derided for counting the number of angels who could dance on the head of a pin, but they were only able to do so because they were not spending their time fighting more fundamental matters, as was the case after the crisis of the Reformation, and later the crisis of the Enlightenment, to say nothing of the crisis of our current evil age.
One of the comments in the message that struck me as a bit gratuitous was the comment, quoted from another, that one finds nuts at the end of branches. And indeed one does, if one is growing nut trees. But if one is growing nut trees then the nuts at the end of the branches are precisely the sort of fruit that one wants to grow for one’s own food supply or for sale. One could just as easily have mulberries or kumquats or oranges or pears or apples or cherries or olives or something else just as enjoyable the end of those branches. That is where one is going to find the fruit, and it is fruit we must bear to be pleasing to our Lord and Master and to our heavenly Father. Why would one wish to insult the fruit that is nourished by a well-functioning tree? Even more to the point, it is precisely on the outside of the tree’s branches that one has the trees and the buds from which the tree grows. It is surely safer to hold on to the trunk of the tree or to the stronger and older branches because the smaller, newer branches and twigs are not strong enough to hold our weight. But they are not meant to bear weight, they are meant to bud and to blossom and to grow, and with time if those twigs and smaller branches are allowed to grow and the tree is still nourished and fed, then in time those twigs will be mighty and strong branches of their own, with plenty of smaller branches and twigs depending on them for structural support as the tree has gotten taller and broader and is even more impressive. It is not right and proper that we should insult the twigs and small branches simply because they cannot bear weight, because they have other purposes, purposes which depend on having, as I said earlier, something solid to draw their support from and to stand upon. The twigs and buds and nuts and other fruits that one finds on a tree draw their life from what is brought to them from the nutrients in the ground that the trunk draws from the soil from the roots and then distributes to the branches for the growth of the tree as a whole.
It is this process by which the functioning of the tree is often misunderstood or misapplied. Jesus came upon a fig tree and cursed it to destruction because it had leaves and was drawing a great deal of nutrition from the soil but was providing no fruit. Would our Lord and Savior have insulted the nuts on the end of a pecan tree or the acorns at the outside of an oak tree? Hardly, for they were doing what trees of that sort were meant to do, and that is bear fruit. If one’s role in the Church is akin to being a strong branch upon which the structure of the tree depends, close to the trunk of the tree and drawing support to it, it is not becoming and fit to insult the sort of fruit that the tree is growing. Perhaps we might not want to be part of a nut tree. Perhaps we might prefer to be part of another plant. It is worthwhile to note what growth the tree has, both in terms of the size of the tree and the growing canopy it presents over the ground, as well as the fruit that the tree is producing. For we know from the example of Jesus Christ that shady and glorious trees that bear no fruit, be it nuts or berries or anything else, will be chopped down for firewood and another tree will be planted in its place. Let us make sure, to the best of our abilities, that this does not happen to us, regardless of whether we are nuts on the end of a small twiggy branch or a more glorious fruit that has no need to defend itself from the raillery and abuse of one who should know better.