(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on October 2, 2016)
You may or may not have noticed that things are very politically charged and volatile right now.
You may or may not have noticed that issues in our church and denomination are a bit charged and volatile right now.
I’ve noticed! And it affects me. When I read the bible, or when I am thinking and praying about what we should focus on for Sunday mornings, I find my thoughts often go to how this applies to our current situation as a nation or as a church. That isn’t necessarily bad, but it can lead to more and more tension and division and, frankly, high blood pressure. For me and for everyone.
We were talking about this when we were planning worship this week, and it was Michelle Akins who said: “What I want is for the fruit of God’s Spirit to grow in me.” And I thought, yes! Me too!
Today, we’ll look at one of the beautiful pictures Jesus described for his disciples in John 15…the image of us being branches drawing all our life from Jesus, the vine of life.
Next week, we’ll look at Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he lists what we call the fruits of the Spirit. In the midst of a charged and volatile world and church, we can be people who are alive, who are drawing life from Jesus. We can be ones in whom God does a work of transformation that bring love and joy and peace.
Turn with me to John 15
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 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. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 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.
‘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.
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. 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 15:1-12, TNIV)
I leased a new car almost a month ago.
In some ways, it was a rather impulsive decision for me, although I’d been thinking about something like this for a couple of years. We went out to lunch after church with a group of people, and I ended up sitting next to Corwynn Beals. He started talking to me about this new car he got. He got his car because our friend Kirk Mylander had also gotten it, and Corwynn had convinced the Petersons and the Winters to get one as well.
It’s an all-electric Chevy Spark. Mine’s white, just like this, although I pulled this picture off the internet. It’s completely electric-it doesn’t use any gas at all, and the reason all of us got it is it only costs $99 a month to lease it. No gas on top of that, no oil changes…and electricity here in the Northwest is quite low cost, making these very economical to drive. I love it!
But having an all-electric car makes you have to change your thinking quite a bit. The car will go over 80 miles on a full charge, way better than electric cars used to be…but quite a lot less than the 350-400 miles that my old 2001 Toyota Echo would get on a tank of gas.
For most of my days, just here around Newberg, there is no downside to an electric car, and all upside. It drives better than my old car, is better for the environment, more safety airbags, bluetooth for my phone and music. Aubrey and I love that I can start it from my house in the morning and warm it up before we have to get in the car. For most days, there is no downside at all.
But, if I need to go to Beaverton or Portland…I have to think differently. How many miles is it? Will I have to find a public charger? Your mind is pretty constantly focused on how many miles the car can go before it dies, and where you can plug in next to recharge.
This is my life now.
We’ve started having these group texts, where we share about new charging stations with each other! You discover all these resources that were completely invisible to you before.
There’s a website and app called Plugshare, where you can find all the places where you can charge. This is important because they are all on different networks, and if it weren’t for this app you’d have to go to six different websites to check for a place to charge.
When you can only go a limited amount of miles, and there are far less chargers than gas stations, the places you can get power for your battery become critically important. Once I got home with only 6 miles left of range in the battery, and my scariest one was driving home after midnight after my 30th high school reunion and pulling in with 3 miles left to go. I haven’t got stranded yet, but I am hyper aware now of how important a charge is to my car.
The other reason it’s such a big deal is, it only takes like 5 minutes max to get your car filled with gas… while with an electric car, the refill time is much longer. At first, all I had was what they call the Level 1 charger that they sell with the car. This plugs into any normal 110 volt outlet like we have anywhere, which is convenient…but slow. When I had drained the battery to only 6 miles left and used that 110 volt charger, it took over 15 hours to charge the battery back to full.
So one of the game changers was when I used a rebate from leasing the car to get a Level 2, 220 volt charger and install that at our house. This is awesome! When I drained the battery down to only 3 miles left and plugged it into this one, I woke up the next morning and it had fully charged in just over 6 hours.
This car has become my new spiritual practice!
Here’s what I mean: in so many new ways, I’m reminded that the car is not self-sufficient. It is completely dependent on being plugged into a good power source, as frequently as possible. Of course, my old gas car was too, as is yours-if you run out of gas, your car isn’t going anywhere. But the short range of an electric car forces me to always be reminded of how important being connected to a power source truly is.
And there is where the spiritual practice comes. Thinking again this week about John 15, about Jesus as the vine in whom we abide and remain, I am it a spiritual practice that when I think about how important a charge is to my car, I will remember as well how important connection to Jesus is for me.
John 15 has long been an important part of the bible for me.
But what’s been transformed as I’ve looked at it this week is a recovery of the incredible good news that John 15 is. To be honest, my mind quickly jumped in John 15 to the pruning and the cutting off of branches. Without a doubt, there is something important in those images that Jesus is trying to communicate, and I’ll deal with those in just a minute.
But, my goodness, there is something so joyful here! Joyful in the same way that I am when I realized I was going to make it home before my battery ran out of juice, that I was going to be able to plug it into that beautiful, wonderful Level 2 charger!
The heart of Jesus’ message is, “I am the vine, and you are the branches.” I am your source of life! I am where your energy and growth come from! Tap into me, pull your nutrients from me.
If I were use my car as an example to write a paraphrase of John 15, I would have Jesus saying: “I am the FREE Level 2 charger, and you are the depleted battery!”
This is life changing and great news!
The promise that Jesus is making to us is so good, so needed, so positive in this tense and turbulent world. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit.” It’s a powerful offer of hope to each of us who wants to be known as a disciple of Jesus Christ. We have access to power, life changing power, access to someone who can bring out of us fruit and transformation that is for the good of others and for the good of the whole world.
“No branch,” Jesus says, “no branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine.” Some translations say “abide” instead of remain. It’s a word that definitely means a lasting connection, drawing all the nutrients from, abiding and remaining and being connected to the source of life.
Here’s another way, maybe, that the electric car model can be a spiritual practice or teacher. You can drive 80 miles in about an hour and a half, but even with my new Level 2 charger, that would require 6 hours of recharging to be able to go and drive that hour and a half again.
More time is needed connected to the charger than out driving and doing the work.
When I thought of that image, it was like a big finger pointed right in my own face. I don’t model that when it comes to the spiritual life. I don’t model taking more time to be connected to Christ than in doing the work.
Part of that, to be fair, is a fault in the analogy. I love the famous book by Brother Lawrence that is hundreds of years old now, where he talks about practicing the presence of God while washing the dishes, while cooking and cleaning, while going about your daily life. There is great truth to the fact that “plugging in” to Jesus does not only have to come when we are NOT doing anything else; we can pay attention to, draw energy and life from Jesus any time and all the time.
Yet there is another part to Jesus’ words that rightfully challenge us. We so often live life go-go-go, thinking we can do it on our own, forgetting that true life and transformation is found in a living, vibrant connection with the living God. We need to be reminded that Jesus IS our source for life and transformation!
What does it look like to draw from the vine? What does it look like, in the spiritual sense, to “plug into” Jesus our power source?
Let’s take just a minute or two to shout out ideas. We’ve done things like this before, and it isn’t overwhelmingly complex. There are many ways to draw life from, to pay attention to Jesus. Yet we need to remind each other of them, we need to choose to actively remain and abide in Jesus, for our own health and good. So let’s share a few with each other: what does it look like for you to draw life and sustenance from Jesus the true vine? What activities help you do that? [ASK]
The good news here is that we can do things which plug us into Christ and give us life. The reality here is that when we don’t, we really don’t have much range on our own. There is a removal and a pruning of the things in our lives that die when they have lost connection to Jesus the life.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”
God is at work tending the whole garden, all of creation. There is a removal of the parts that have lost their life-giving connection to Jesus. Raymond Brown, one of the most respected scholars on the book of John writes: “For John, love and keeping the commandments are so much a part of the life coming from faith that one who does not behave in a virtuous manner does not have life at all. Life is committed life.”
There’s clearly a strong call to commitment here that Jesus is making, commitment to himself that is serious and life-altering. At the heart, it is the good news that power and life come from Jesus, and there should be no taking that for granted.
Just as clear is the fact that it is God who removes branches and prunes. Other branches are not given that job; and we are all branches, all dependent on Jesus the vine. This strong call to commitment does not mean I look around to figure out which of you deadweight branches I should get rid of! This strong call to commitment is for each of us to connect to Jesus in such a profound way that our life, our direction, our goals, our values come from Christ. My commitment is to connect to Christ, not prune the whole plant.
Do you remember that science experiment a lot of us did in grade school?
You take a white carnation flower, and you put it in a jar that has water and food coloring in it: red, yellow, green, whatever. When you come back the next morning, you see the roots have drawn that color up into the flower. It’s a vivid illustration for us. The things we consume, the ways we spend our time, the things we watch and read…we draw them into us, and they color us. They shape us. They define in many ways what our values become.
This principle is what Jesus is talking about, and it’s true. In real life, things are quite as simple and black and white as the grade school experiment. I was listening to a podcast a couple of weeks ago about the network of roots beneath a forest. Roots from different kinds of trees are connected to each other, and scientists are discovering more and more ways everything is interconnected and interconnected, how good nutrients and bad pollutants and pests alike get shared in this complex life that goes on underground.
They’ve discovered the way fungii play a role, all kinds of fascinating things…but the bottom line is, it isn’t easy to find a “pure” source of tapping into Jesus, the vine. We’ll find that sometimes American values creep in and shape us, for instance. I don’t say that to discourage us from trying to draw everything from Jesus! I just mention it so that we are aware that real life can be complicated.
But the bottom line is this: Jesus is rightly teaching us that he is the source of all good life, and we should aim to draw from him, so that good fruit is the result in us.
When we do this, the result, the fruit, the transformation that is comes because of Jesus is love.
Not that I try to overlook other people’s irritating things and paste on a smile and be nice. Not that I try harder to get along with other people. Not that I somehow overlook our political or spiritual differences and somehow try and create a fake bond between us.
No, I take the time to read the bible, take the time to journal, take the time to praise God out in creation…I take the time to draw everything from Jesus, and in doing so, I find Jesus remaining, abiding, living and loving in me.
The result is love. As we take time to be in God’s presence in open worship, let me read again these last few verses which emphasize the love God wants to birth in you and me in this divided, charged and volatile world. May God help us be agents of light and love because we are connected to the vine!
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. 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 15:9-12, TNIV)