To flourish or wither (John 15)

I have a confession to make.  It won’t be easy; some of you will never forgive me for keeping so dark a secret.  But here goes: I kill plants.  Like, all plants.  I used to own a houseplant.  It died under my care.  I did all I could, but for the life of me (and the death of the plant…) I had no idea if I was overwatering or underwatering or if the poor thing really just wanted a cup of coffee or something.  A year or so ago my neighbors asked me to water their plants while they were on vacation.  I ended up praying that they would return soon because I was already starting to see some brown leaves emerging.  All of this would be perfectly understandable if you didn’t know that my first job out of college was working with plants (including in a greenhouse) for the USDA.  C’est la vie, or something like that.

Plants really have only one of two fates.  They thrive and flourish, or they wither and die.  There’s no real setting for “neutral,” at least not for very long.

Jesus seems to be saying something similar in his message to “abide.”  Yesterday we talked about how to “abide” in Christ means to be connected and committed to Jesus in a personal way.  Today I thought we’d take a personal look at the results of this.  Let’s revisit the passage, this time paying attention to the results of abiding (highlighted in bold) and the results of failing to abide (underlined):

 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 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. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 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. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)

(On a side note, this is actually a good exercise for things such as family devotions, etc.—an easy way to practice the habit of simply observing the text)

If you focus on just the highlighted portions, you get a snapshot of the mature Christian life.  Abiding produces growth.  “Fruit” is a symbol for life, a life that begins with our walk with Christ and stretches onward into eternity.  And it is a life, Jesus tells us, that is marked by the fullness of joy.  Jesus even promises that an abiding person can expect answers to his prayers—though we should note that the condition is a heart that is truly abiding in Christ.

Negatively, look at the underlined portions.  I don’t think Jesus necessarily means a loss of salvation, though he certainly emphasizes a loss of fellowship, a loss of effectiveness, a loss of joy.

It’s cliché to say that our world suffers from a lack of devotion to God.  Devotion to self is a cancer that causes our nation to wither like a bundle of drying branches.  Our notion of “progress” is often a myth, and every news cycle, every election cycle proves that indeed, history truly does repeat itself, often transfigured into an uglier form than it was before.

The gospel makes no promises of our happiness, but it makes a powerful promise of lasting joy.  Imagine that—on the night before he was publicly tortured and killed, Jesus promises joy for those who abide in him.  The problems that flicker across our television and computer screens are not interruptions in our call to joy; they are reminders of the sheer necessity of joy.  “Abide in me,” Jesus asks us.  “Stay close…that’s where joy is found: fresh and wild and alive.”

 

 

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Snipers, sirens, and “abiding” in a “peek-a-boo world” (John 15)

Pain is one of few things that grow when shared.

For the first time in human history, technology has given us front-row seats to some of the greatest human tragedies—death, injustice, and outrage broadcast live through social media services, only to be replayed endlessly in our 24-hour news cycle.  Police shootings.  Outrage.  Backlash.  It’s as if the pain overflows from our screens and etches into our hearts like an acid bath.

How do we process such images, such emotions, such stories?  What—if anything—do we tell our children?  Where lies the responsibility of God’s people in all of this confusion?

None of these questions have easy answers.  What I thought we might do this week is look at our scheduled passage in light of everything that’s happening in our nation.

 

THE TRUE VINE

John’s biography of Jesus splits into two basic parts.  The first half provides an overview of Jesus’ ministry, a period lasting at least three years.  But the second half focuses on the final week of Jesus’ life—from his arrival in Jerusalem to his death and resurrection.  Time slows down.  John offers us a glimpse of Jesus’ teachings in detail.  At the famous “last supper,” Jesus offers his disciples an extended speech of what life will be like as they carry on his mission here on earth.  It won’t be pretty, he seems to emphasize, but we can take comfort in claiming Christ as our source of strength.  In John 15, the disciples rise from the table and proceed to go to the garden to pray, and it’s in this movement that Jesus offers one of his most enduring lessons:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2 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. 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5 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. 6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)

The Hebrew scriptures contained numerous comparisons between Israel and the “vine” and related imagery—not always positively.  Jesus says here that he is the true Vine, the true source of life.  And this life is experienced by “abiding” (some translations might say “remaining”) in him.

 

OUR “PEEK-A-BOO WORLD”

Our world is not one prone to “abide” in much of anything.  No; our world is far more accustomed to what’s “trending” and what’s popular. More than twenty years ago, Neil Postman wrote a groundbreaking book called Amusing Ourselves to Death.  In it he described the modern era as a “peek-a-boo world:”

“where now this event, now that, pops into view for a moment, then vanishes again. It is a world without much coherence or sense; a world that does not ask us, indeed, does not permit us to do anything; a world that is, like the child’s game of peek-a-boo, entirely self-contained. But like peek-a-boo, it is also endlessly entertaining.”

We should find it all the more compelling that Postman wrote this years before the tyranny of the smart phone and the world of social media.

Perhaps we might feel Postman goes too far in describing this world as “entertaining,” but today’s digital age offers endless outlets for outrage but little room for lasting—and that’s the key word, here—lasting empathy.  It’s like the U2 lyric: “it’s true we are immune, when fact is fiction and TV reality.”

 

BEING “INTO” JESUS

The poet Wendell Berry once wrote that “sometimes you sink into a place, and sometimes a place sinks into you.”  A “peek-a-boo world” doesn’t offer much depth to sink into.   Sink into shallowness, and you hit bottom rather quickly.

Jesus’ command is to “abide.”  The Greek word meno most literally meant “to reside” or “to stay,” the way you might “abide” in your house.  But the word also seems to have a deeper meaning—a spatial metaphor, for you academics out there.  We do something similar in English, actually.  When learning a foreign language, we might say that a person learns more when they are “immersed” in that culture.  Or what about the way we talk about our hobbies, interests, or ideas?  We might say: “I’m really into the Orioles” or ask “Are you into politics at all?”  What do we mean by into?  Obviously it’s not literal.  It’s a powerful way of describing our close connection and identification.

To “abide” means being “into” Jesus, it means being immersed in his life and teachings.  It sounds so trivial to say it that way, but perhaps it’s because we’re so used to a culture of “contacts” that we’ve lost the art of true connection.

We can “abide” in the stories and sentiments expressed on the nightly news or the conversations that swirl around the water cooler.  If we sink into these conversations these ideas could very well sink into us.  We could quickly find ourselves struggling with anger, despair, and further division.

Or we could abide in Jesus.  We could stay close to Jesus.  I don’t mean to suggest that there are not immediate solutions to the problems we face, but I am confident that our ultimate source of peace and justice is found only in Christ.  The cross demonstrated Christ’s willingness to suffer and die next to broken sinners like you and me, and the empty tomb demonstrated God’s power over the most obstinate force in the universe—death itself.

Abide, Jesus says.  Stay close.

When we hear about “breaking footage…” Stay close.

When we learn of another victim… Stay close.

When others’ opinions stir our anger… Stay close.

When our children are looking for answers, we tell them to stay close to The Answer, the Alpha, Omega, the One who promises that when his name is exalted, he draws all men to himself.

Stay close.

What Part of “Nothing” Don’t You Understand?” (John 15)

As I sit down to write this weekend preview devotional, I am immediately aware of a particular problem I wrestle with: I don’t like learning curves. There is little “joy of discovery” for me with new things like technological devises, for example. I just want to use them, but I hate the time it takes to figure out how to get to that point.IMG_0259

After 19 winters in Maryland of heating with a coal stove, last week I bought and had a brand new wood stove installed. Reading the directions (the three most annoying words in the English language), I saw where I had to “break in” the stove by first building three small fires, each one progressively hotter, and then letting it cool completely back to room temperature. But tonight, we are on the maiden burn – going for it with a full load of wood. So if any of this writing does not make sense or seem to hang together, it is probably because I had to get up and make some sort of adjustment.

Lots of people don’t like reading directions and owners’ manuals. We’d rather just try it on our own and experiment our way into gaining a successful knowledge as to how something works. Call us the Nike generation: “Just do it.”

A great many Christian people try to live the Christian life in a very similar fashion – just do it … don’t bore me with the details. We have a wonderful owner’s manual called The Bible. It has everything we need. Beyond that, we can talk 24/7 with the inventor/creator of the program of life through a communication channel called prayer.

But who wants to spend time doing that?

This week in our “Momentum” series we will be talking about busting Myth #2: Praying and reading the Bible are habits for nuns and spiritual mystics. 

We live in a wonderful time of unlimited resources. One of my Antietam Battlefield buddies John Michael Priest writes in the forward of his book “Antietam: The Soldiers’ Battle” that …

“… the Civil War was the first conflict fought by armies that contained large numbers who could read and write … nor is it a coincidence that the Civil War was the first to produce monuments in public squares and on the battlefields to the common soldier and his regiment.”

Prior to this time the masses of the people where more often illiterate, and in their churches and faith communities they were dependent upon the educated clergy to read, study, and share the truths of the Scriptures. A role of art such as is seen in cathedrals, and even in the caves of East Asia – as in Cappadocia, where people worshipped in literal holes in the ground – was that paintings and sculpture were educational tools to depict biblical messages.

Hopefully Chris and Tim and I bring to you, through our messages, a level of more advanced expertise, observation and interpretation than is readily obvious, but none of you need to be entirely dependent upon us. On printed pages and at the touch of a few fingers, all the resources of the world are available to all of you. And God is as present and available in prayer to you as he was to Peter, Paul, David, Abraham or any of the great figures of Scripture.

Though you are not dependent upon us, you still are very dependent – that is, upon God and His Word. It is as necessary for a successful spiritual life as is oxygen and breathing, along with the nourishment of food and water.

Consider this well-known passage from John 15 (to be followed by a deep, deep analysis) …

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

5 “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. 6 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. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

I would love to take you through this with a deep word-by-word exegesis from the Greek text. But proving that is not really necessary to get the big idea, let me just ask this:  “How successful can you be in life without reading the manual and being personally connected to the creator?”

Or again, “How far can you go by just doing it without knowledge and connection?”

“Apart from me you can do nothing.”  As we would say in New Jersey when in a snarky communicative mood (which was most of the time), “So just what part of the word ‘nothing’ don’t you understand?”

There is no way around it; to live a successful Christian life, you need the Scriptures and you need prayer.

 

 

The True Vine (John 15:1-27)

What do you think of when you hear the word “church?”  If you’re like most people, your mind immediately goes to an image of a building.  Childhood memories of mornings languishing in high-backed pews.  There’s also a good chance the word “church” brings back painful memories—pushed away from Jesus by the very people who claim to represent Him.  Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2, refers to this as a form of “spiritual abuse:”

“Spiritual abuse is rather like any kind of physical or sexual abuse.  It brings you to a place where you can’t face the subject ever again.  It’s rare for the sexually abused to ever enjoy sex.  So, too, people who are spiritually abused can rarely approach the subject of religion with fresh faith.  They wince and they twitch.  My religious life has been trying to get through the minefield without coming out of it at the other end in a wheelchair.”  (quoted in Kathleen Falsani, The God Factor, p. 11)

So why church?  In John’s gospel, Jesus rarely refers to the church through institutional language.  It’s not a building.  It’s something organic—something vibrant and alive.  In John 10, the relationship between Christ and His Church was that of a shepherd and a flock.  Now, in the second part of Jesus’ “commencement address,” Jesus refers to the church through the familiar language of a vine and branches.

A POINT OF TRANSITION

Let’s pause a moment and return to John 14:31.  Jesus tells His followers: “Rise, let us go from here.”  John 15-16 consists of the second part of Jesus’ “commencement address.”  It may have taken place in the upper room—they may have stood to leave.  But it may also have taken place as they journeyed from the upper room to the Mount of Olives to pray.  Because Jesus is making reference to a vine and branches, it’s easy to imagine that He was drawing analogies from the lush outdoor surroundings—though we have to admit that this is speculation.

THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH

Perhaps the most famous metaphor for Christ and the Church is found in these verses:

John 15:1-27  “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  2 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.  3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.  4 Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  5 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.  6 If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.  10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

Jesus is the True Vine.  Our connection to Him is one of intimacy and necessity.   A branch cannot find life except through connection to the vine.  Now, some branches try.  They put down a secondary root system, but this kills the plant.  Vinedressers have to lift these branches to keep them from doing this, and increase their dependence on the vine.  Jesus says that the same thing happens between Himself and His followers.  Branches that don’t bear fruit are “taken away”—or better translated “lifted up”—so that they can be more fruitful.  Those that are unfruitful are in danger of being discarded and burned.  We don’t need to assume Jesus is saying we can lose our salvation, but the verse should still make us sweat a bit to think that we can  lose intimacy and reward.

So why church?  In the context of this image, the question might better be: what’s the alternative?  The life-giving connection between Christ and His followers can hardly be said to limited to a Sunday morning experience.  Instead, it is a constant connection.  We don’t attend church.  We are the church.  There’s no alternative.

These days it’s increasingly common to put down other “roots.”  We can be connected to other things: sports, hobbies, career, etc.  In a post-everything world, Sunday mornings are no longer off-limits for sports practices or other activities.  In this setting, it’s tempting to see church as another option in a sea of endless activity.  But a connection to church is not optional.  It is essential.  Regardless of my frustrations and past hurts, regardless of the endless sea of alternatives that beckon my attention, I am part of a network of branches that find their strength and life from Jesus Himself.

THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH

Jesus now turns to the mission of the church, one characterized by love:

12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.  14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.  15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.  16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.  17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another.

Some of these words are familiar, the kind of thing you might see on a coffee mug.  We’re used to hearing the command to “love one another.”  But pay close attention to verse 16.  What is the mission of the church?  To “go and bear fruit,” Jesus says.  Go?  The church has a mission to perform.  Love must extend beyond the walls, grafting outsiders into relationship with the True Vine.

Do you see what’s happening here?  Jesus is saying that Christian love has a vertical component—between man and God—as well as a horizontal component—between man and man.  Place the vertical and horizontal pieces together and what do you see?  The shape of the cross.  Christian love is found in the cross of Jesus, and if we seek to follow Jesus we find ourselves drawn ever closer to the criminal wood of crucifixion.

THE POSITION OF THE CHURCH

This tells us that our position in life will be marked not by a crown of glory, but a crown of thorns.

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.  19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.  20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.  21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.  22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin.  23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also.  24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father.  25 But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’  26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.  27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.

We bear an unpopular message.  We will face rejection.  We will face suffering.  Pain.  To represent Christ in our world is to experience the same rejection that He did.  But the cross also reminds us that suffering is only temporary, and that this crown of thorns will one day be exchanged for a crown of glory.  This is why Jesus now turns His followers attention to life lived through the Spirit as they away God’s glorious future.