John 15: 1-8
How do we live as fruitful disciples of Jesus? Look no further than Jesus himself for the answer: as wise as we think we are, our wisdom crumbles compared to the glorious rhythm of life and living as we see in Him. This is the discovery the first disciples began to make when they chose to repent (turn around, change direction) and believe the good news (the gospel of grace) embodied in Jesus. The core of the whole Jewish religious experience had slipped from Grace to Law and now these first disciples saw not just a way back to Grace but a person who lived it 24/7, and not out of His own strength but out of the overflow of His relationship with Father God. Wow, they wanted some of that for themselves.
Now a choice once made can be undone but repetance is a choice we must make daily as we constantly realign ourselves with Jesus and His purposes and become a channel of His grace. Last week we saw that the circle of repetance and belief propelled us further on in our spiritual journey, and the activist disciples could be forgiven at this point for thinking that the way of Jesus would be forever doing the works of the Father until all are caught up into His Kingdom. How wrong they were: this is the upside down Kingdom, greatest becoming least, poor becoming rich, activists becoming those content to rest in Him, and Jesus not prepared to let anything get in the way with His relationship with His Father.
So at the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, the disciples were staggered when after the nest launch event anyone could have hoped for in Capernaum (great teaching with authority, exorcisms in the synagogue, healings galore, even Peter’s mother-in-law) Jesus ups and goes off early in the morning to be with His Father, and having received rest and instruction, tells them they are leaving! Of course following His baptism (a very public affair) He had also gone off into the wilderness for a long time. Not the way to win friends and influence people or so they thought!!
So the way of Jesus was first and foremost a way of rest (through extended times of retreat, daily times of quiet resting with the Lord and teaching His disciples to rest). Mark’s gospel abounds with these examples: alone at the lake before teaching (2:13), withdrawing from His disciples (3:7), time on the mountainside before calling His disciples (3:13), leaving crowds and getting into a boat (4:35), at the hillside (5:1), crossing the lake (5:21) and sending the disciples ahead, dismissing the crowd and not going to the mountain to pray (6:45-46). The way of Jesus does not come easily to our activist personalities: sadly most of us have swapped our true identity as Human being for that of the world’s plastic equivalent: Human Doings, and as a consequence, we are less happy, more stressed and have let go not only of our first love: Jesus, but also of the abudant life that is His gift to us, and those good works He prepared im advance for us to do. Many of us have become so immersed in Church Life that we have lost sight of the Lord of the Work, and only have eyes for what we think is the work of the Lord.
Genesis rightly shows us God’s plan: working for six days and then resting on the seventh. Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy made God’s top ten but not to make us so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good! Sabbath rhythms in my life and your’s make us fully human and enable us to reach our pinnacle of fruitfulness as God intended. Oh and Sabbath does not necessarily for everyone mean Sunday: for Lorna and I it’s Monday as self-evidently we seek to serve you guys on Sundays!
So this second discipleship principle which builds on the circle of repent and belief, is the semi-circle that shows that we need to live in God’s rhythm of life to truly be productive. The world encourages us to rest from work but the Bible counter culturally encourages us to work from our rest! Discipleship must start from a place of resting and abiding in God.
So let’s root this in scripture: our reading from John 15 is one of the seven ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus. All seven are crucial: but this one in my pastoral observation is the one we have least understood and even less learnt the discipleship lesson from. The lesson in a phrase is ‘learning to abide in Jesus’. Crack that one and your whole life and living will be transfored: why? Because you will have discovered the Grace Fountain that awaits those who respond to Jesus’ gracious invitation when He says: Come to me (all you who are weak and heavy ladened) and I will give you rest! (Matthew 11:28). So here Jesus says: I am the true Vine, and my Father is the Gardener/Vinedresser. Not any old Vine: this is the real thing, with the real life flow, and embodied in Jesus. Who tends the Vine: God the Father described here as the Vinedresser (AV) or the Gardener (NIV). This is a hands on Trinitarian bit of scripture: Jesus the Vine, Father God doing the cultivating, and the Holy Spirit providing the life flowing sap. What a great picture but it gets a bit close to the spiritual bone when we realise by verse 2 that we are the branches (oh my goodness: part of the Jesus the Vine, under the watchful eye of Father the Gardener, and experiencing the dynamic flow of the Holy Spirit).
And every branch says Jesus gets attention: branches that do not bear fruit Father God takes away, branches that bear fruit get pruned by Him so it (we) may bear more fruit. The Christian life can never be static: none of us can absent ourselves from the divine vinedressers attention.
Interestingly the issue is fruit but the secret of fruitfulness is abiding. So let’s look at the fruit issue first: Jesus says of His disciples in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16): By their fruit you will recognise them. The issue is the fruit: roots are important but fruit is vital as we saw last Sunday night when I began to preach on the seven churches of revelation the lamp stand (the church) it is no good if it’s got no Light of Christ shining from it. Can I say this gently: we have tended to opt out of the fruit issue by suggesting it refers to the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23): that’s a misread of scripture for of course that’s not our fruit but the Spirits! No fruit means two things in scripture: firstly people that we introduce to the Saviour (new branches) and secondly, ‘Good works that have been prepared in advance for us to do’ (Ephesians 2:10) and it’s all ultimately fruit not of the branch but of the Vine who is Jesus! God’s purpose is to do His work in Gosforth and Newcastle through His people (not just as individuals but as divine community, branches of the Vine). The branch has no existence apart from the Vine (other analogies in the Bible bear this out: stones in the building, members of the family, citizens of the Kingdom). The OT bears this out too: here the Vine is a picture of God’s relationship with His people: He plants the vine and He cares for it: Israel was the Vine itself but it failed to fulfil God’s purposes. Isiah 5 laments of demise of Israel, Jeremiah calls Israel a rotten, worthless vine (2:21) and Hosea calls the nation an empty vine (10:1) but in Jesus we are given a new opportunity to get it right: He is the real/true Vine!
So to Abiding in Jesus: a Christian is not someone who believes certain facts or practices a particular ethic. He is someone vitally in touch with, or united to, Jesus by faith: a fruit-bearing branch vitally in touch with the true Vine. Such branches share the vey sap, the very life of the Vine and so bear fruit. Judas was apparently attached to the Vine, he associated himself with Jesus and the other disciples, he was a Christian in name and game, but proved to be dead and fruitless. Ultimately he didn’t share the life of Jesus; in the wrds of Jesus he was ‘not’ clean. He had not believed in Jesus in his heart nor obeyed Him in his life. So tragically he is cast away as a dead branch, withering and ultimately being burnt as dead wood. A dead nominal Christian, even though they may be a church member or even an office nearer is as useless in the service of Jesus as a dead branch. He must likewise expect the judgement of God unless he is cleansed and united by fatih to Jesus. Abiding in Jesus means being totally dependant on Him, having as it were burnt you spiritual boats abd chosen to trust Him alone. How we need to take far more seriously the words of Jesus when He says: ‘Apart friom me you can do nothing’. By the way: nothing means nothing! So how do we learn this?
Two ways: firstly, ‘If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you’. Physically we need our daily bread but we also need spiritual food: the words of Jesus, the promises of God’s word to sustain us. Jesus himself testifies: Man cannot live by bread alone. Words take root in us. Daily times at the throne of grace, daily obedience, and an increased dependence on Him through our prayer life. As a result, our prayers will become more confident and our lives more like Jesus: this is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit showing yourselves to be my disciples (v8). Put candidly most of us are not spending enough time at the throne of grace: such an investment brings eternal rewards. Secondly, we abide when we allow Him to prune our lives daily: He prunes every branch that does not bear fruit, so that it will be clean and bear more fruit. There are dead shoots on our branches (sins of pride, independence, selfishness, impatience and covetousness, to name a selection) that need to be cut away from our life to make us more like Jesus: so God’s word to us is sometimes like a pruning knife. It hurts, rebukes and humbles us. Sometimes He speaks to us through the circumstances of life and chastens and humbles us through suffering, disappointment or bereavement. But brothers and sisters know this: if He does or allows such things it;s always for our good-that we might become more like Jesus-for the Divine Gardener is a God of Love.
Interestingly, those growing grapes in the first century allowed their new Vines to be unproductive for the first three years. If fruit tried to grow it was cut off, because the vines were not yet strong enough to support the load of fruit. Many of us are still babes in Christ and like those first disciples in the first three years, like Paul with his three-year retreat in Arabia, we need to learn to abide during this formative period of our life in Christ. But many of us who claim to have journeyed with Jesus for much longer need to return to the school of abiding to and learn more about our glorious Master and Friend: only then will we be able to bear the fruit which has been planned and privileged for us to produce. And to God be all the Glory.
September 18th 2011