“I am the Vine, you are the branches”
So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”
John 15: 1-8
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
So when I study a text I like to have my bible, because its good to keep the whole context in mind, and be able to track down other scriptures that are referenced or come to mind and my accumulated notes written in the margins. But I also like to have the text of focus on a clean piece of paper. And those of you who have been in bible studies with me know this paper doesn’t stay nice and clean and neat. I like this for several reasons.
First, just because I like to doodle. It isn’t a day dreaming thing, its actual a focusing thing, I tend to write versions of my thoughts and what I’m saying. In fact if you ever look at paper on my desk you will probably find I have written my name and phone number many many times on it. Once for every time I told someone my name… and how to reach me.
The second reason I like this is because I am a visual person, but also because brain science tells us that far more than typing, the act of hand writing out thoughts is very good for helping to remember it. That tactile nature of pen and paper helps us code the knowledge into our brains.
Lastly, I like coming fresh to a text, not influenced by whatever previous notes I wrote in the margins… there is so much wisdom in a single set of verses you cannot hear it all. So what am I hearing this day? This time? What does this text wish me to know – now?
So today here are the six lines that spoke particularly to me, three from each of our texts.
“I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
I came that you might have life – and life abundantly. We tend to make Jesus about so many other things than this. We reduce Jesus to sets of belief that we have to have, this is what you need to believe in order to be Christian. This is what you must believe to be saved. This is what you need to believe to be “on the right path.”
Rob Bell – most well-known for authoring the book Love Wins also authored what was my favorite book of his: Velvet Elvis. And in the book he makes a comment that doctrine makes a wonderful servant and a horrible master. Doctrines – our sets of beliefs – are meant to help clarify our understanding of God… But it’s a tool toward that end and only that. Sadly, doctrine often becomes the master, sometimes even replacing God. Jesus is not reducible to a set of beliefs… in fact Jesus resists and actively seeks to break down such things. Jesus is a way of life, Jesus IS life -> I come to give you life, and life abundantly.
Jesus wants there to be life in us, abundantly. That is what we talked last week – the waters of life flowing through us and not in a way that we hoard what we have fearing there is not enough… but that life is so abundant in us that others found themselves feeling renewed by our presence… I come to give you life, that you might give life as well! When life is perceived as abundant we do not need to fear what is happening in another’s life – we are not in competition for good news. We are not competing for who gets more life, and seeking the good of all people is not counter to our own good.
Church missiologist (a big word for one who studies and thinks on the mission of the church) Reggie McNeal writes and speaks on the missional church. That is a big concept to define but that basically is the idea that there is no part of the church separate from mission, and that the church is the people out in the world – not gathered in a building. In one of his speaking engagements Reggie turned to the crowd and jokingly said, “We all know that Jesus said he came to the world to give us church, and church abundantly.”
We can all chuckle at that, but often its our hidden message. And yet we know that isn’t right. That’s closer to doctrine as master than servant. The church is not essential to Jesus Christ or God or anyone. I will repeat that: the church is not essential to Jesus. The church is our way of working out what it means to be the body of Christ, to be people in community affirming and holding each other accountable to abundant life, and that is the part that is essential to Jesus. The church is a servant and not a master… Jesus came not to give us church – but life. How do you receive and give life? And do you do so abundantly?
The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep
We have an aversion to staying sometimes – commitment phobes we call ourselves and we usually mean that for intimate relationships like dating and marriage but its true as well for our sense of community. When the going gets tough? We leave. When something is happening that we don’t like? We leave. When it’s not all about me? We leave. We become consumers of people and relationships and community. And consumers of goods can always shop around.
Jesus says, hired hands (consumers) shop around for a better people. But I’m not a hired hand, I am the good shepherd – YOUR shepherd. And you are my people. And so no matter how bad this gets, I am here. I’m not leaving, I will not abandon you, I do not shop around. And I lay down my life – my needs, my desire for it to be all about me – I lay that all down because I’m here – one way or the other, forever with you.
I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold.
This phrase then becomes interestingly connected and inseparable from the former. I am here. But know that I am also elsewhere. I am here forever and ever and ever. But I am not ONLY here. And my sheep do not all look the same, and my shepherding doesn’t always look the same and maybe I don’t even look the same. There are different folds… and I am working to bring them together… so know that I am here, and I’m also elsewhere. And again – you are not in competition for presence, for life… because I come to give life abundantly.
And now from our next text: John 15: Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.
This one jumps out at me because normally when we think about pruning we think about cutting off the dead branches. We like to hear this as the people we see as having dead faith being cut out. But Jesus says as much as there is pruning off the dead in order to promote more abundant life… I also prune that which IS bearing fruit in order that it might bear more fruit. Pruning is a part of life, this is the life cycle: death is natural and a part of life. In fact avoiding death often strangles life. So forests burn, and leaves fall, and seeds must be broken apart and eaten up. And that which is dead in us must be pruned in order that life might spring forth. Thinking in this way, I come to give you life and life abundantly also means that Jesus comes to give us death… and death abundantly. Because what Jesus is not… is stagnant.
Abide in me as I abide in you.
Abide. Dwell. Make your home, in me. As I make my home in you.
Author and speaker on discipleship practices, James Bryan Smith likes to repeat early and often in his speaking engagements: “You are one in whom Christ dwells and delights.” You – no exceptions here. You. You are one in whom Christ dwells and delights. Abide in me, as I abide in you.
What blessing… and what responsibility… to think that we are the abiding place of God. Our life is the home of God. I am the Vine, and you are the branches. And while this text tends to focus on the ways abundant life in Jesus is necessary for our life, it is also true to the metaphor that the fruit is necessary to the vine. In order for Jesus to bear fruit in the world, Jesus needs us. As early as Abraham, and arguably all the way back to the creation story, God makes it clear that God works out God’s will through us. We are the instruments of God’s peace – God creates but we cultivate. We are the fruit God is growing in the word in order to give life… and life abundantly. It’s the ultimate blessing and trust and endorsement: that you are worthy of being the dwelling place of God. But it is also a radical challenge: you are the dwelling place of God! The way the world knows God and God’s works is through your works, and your life. Is your life bearing the fruit of Jesus’ vine? Jesus will be with you regardless, we already heard that, but what kind of dwelling place has your life carved out in order to make Jesus’ life abundantly live through you?
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
Lastly I had to circle this sentence that I did not like. I couldn’t stand this sentence, and those of you who were here for the contemporary worship study of this text on Wednesday know that and in fact you transformed my thoughts around it when you invited me to repent (that is to turn around) my thoughts on it. I don’t like it because I see lines like these get used to endorse a kind prosperity gospel as if the text is saying: if you believe in me than I will give you whatever you wish for: an easy life, a big house, a fancy car.
But its not the scripture I don’t like, it’s that interpretation of it.
The full texts says: if you abide in me. If you make me your dwelling place, and if you allow my words to dwell and make a home in your heart… then what you wish for after all that – will be done for you. But I have to imagine that what is at work here is that once you have truly let God dwell in you, and written God’s word on your heart – the Spirit will form the very things you wish for… and your wishes, your hopes, your dreams, will be in line with God’s dreams, God’s hopes, God’s wishes. Not for your prosperity, but for the prosperity of God’s world: for life, and life abundantly.
Steve Hayner, a former professor of mine, my doctoral reader, and the former President of Columbia Theological Seminary who even now is demonstrating humility, faithfulness, and grace as he is in hospice care struggling with cancer once shared with a small group of folk I was a part of that he opened every day praying a threefold prayer:
“God, let me love the things that you love. Break my heart with the things that break yours. Help me not to duck.”
God, let me love the things that you love: let us abide in each other.
Break my heart with the things that break yours: let my hopes be in line with your hopes.
And help me not to duck: Let me not just hope it, let me work towards it. I will do something about it. My empathy, and my wishes are not enough but I will act.. May I bear your fruit, may I work to achieve life, and life abundantly – for all people.
I am the vine, BUT you are the branches. Bear fruit.
This is the word of our Lord, thanks be to God.