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May 15, 2016

The Vine

The Vine

Passage: John 15:1-11

Speaker: Bruce Van Blair

Series: Sermons

Category: Pentecost

Keywords: pentecost; holy spirit

The Vine

May 15, 2016

Pentecost Sunday

John 15:1-11

THE VINE

         I am so glad and grateful that, for many of you, Pentecost is a great day, no matter how much or how little our world may celebrate it. I have friends who think it strange that Christians do not make a greater celebration over Pentecost than they do for Christmas. But it has not worked out that way, so only deep within the Christian fellowship itself is Pentecost remembered and celebrated. The disciples were waiting around Jerusalem, wondering what to do next. Jesus had been crucified, and all their hopes of a Messianic Age were dashed to pieces. No Righteous Warrior was coming to kill off all the bad guys, set things right, and make a wonderful world of brotherhood and peace. We keep forgetting to wonder who among us would survive such a purge. Anyway, back to reality ...

         And then the Risen Christ started appearing in various ways and places. Gently, quietly – as was His way – not disturbing the world order at all. But more and more of them encountered the Risen Lord. What could it mean? He had not been the Messiah; He had been killed – defeated. Yet He was Resurrected – alive again – still knowing them and caring about them. That was far more – far greater – than anyone had ever expected of any Messiah. It was terribly disorienting! Nothing was happening like it was supposed to. It is hard when life is so confusing that we cannot tell whether to grieve, or celebrate – whether to cry, or shout for joy. And what does it mean in the normal cycles of our own days? Do we still get up in the morning, eat breakfast, go to work? Should we still raise our families, invite each other to dinner, and go to the movies, or should we be organizing some vast march on Washington? He is risen! And surely life can never be the same again. On the other hand, it has been fifty days since Easter – this Day of Pentecost. The sun keeps rising, the bills keep coming in. What to do?

         So the disciples hung around Jerusalem, wondering if they should be back in Galilee, fishing. Then on Pentecost, like tongues of fire, the Spirit fell, descended, came upon them. JESUS ON THE OUTSIDE HAD BECOME JESUS ON THE INSIDE. The next phase of this campaign would be conducted not by Jesus of Nazareth, but by the Holy Spirit of Jesus the Christ – the same Jesus, but personally available at all times to each and every one of them ... and to each and every one of us. This is the birthday of the church, the dynamism that created the church – the power of the Holy Spirit that transformed a tiny band of bewildered devotees into a world religion that swept through and took over the known world within two hundred and fifty years.

         And yet ... as it won, it lost. Or more accurately: As it wins, we throw it away. Each time that the Holy Spirit guides and directs us to effectiveness beyond our wildest dreams, we turn away from the Holy Spirit and go back to our own ways. Upon finding success, acclaim, power, money, and resources, we “take back” our allegiance and devotion and try to manage and control things our own way. We organize vast Ecclesiastical Dominions. Every denomination that gets successful enough wants to switch over from spiritual to political power. Jesus taught us how to die, even demonstrated what that could mean in extreme circumstances. But we keep turning our dying back into killing. Jesus conquered by the Cross, but Constantine decided he knew better and, painting crosses on the shields of his armies, he went back to killing instead. Ever since that day, Christendom seems more eager to follow Constantine than Christ. If we kill Jesus’ enemies, Satan wins. Only if we convert them does Jesus win.

         True conversion is an awakening. There is no way to cheat or pretend it. If it is not genuine – if it is not from within – it does not count, nothing comes of it, and it does not last. What is the true church? It is Pentecost: each individual in communion with the Holy Spirit; each individual in allegiance and obedience to the Holy Spirit of Jesus because they want to be, more than anything else on earth – in life or in death. The church is not what any of us can name or see on the outside. The church – whether millions of us or only two or three of us – is people who walk each of their days in willing obedience to the Holy Spirit of Jesus. If that is not what we are doing, then it doesn’t matter how high we jump, how loud we shout, how marvelously we sing, how impressive our buildings or organizations – if following the Holy Spirit is not what we are doing, then we are not the church.

         Pentecost begins the church. Humans cannot produce it! The Spirit descended upon them. They did not go out and capture it and bring it home. Then it spread. People heard about Jesus and were amazed at the peace and love of His followers, and many of them wanted to be part of it. They asked to be baptized. Then what? Then we gave them Bibles, creeds, membership buttons, and pledge cards? Told them we had all the answers and that everybody else was wrong and going to Hell? Taught them to hate in the name of love?

         That is not the process that repeats over and over through the pages of the New Testament. In the wake of the baptism, THEY RECEIVED THE HOLY SPIRIT. That was the big deal! That was what drove it all. That was what changed Peter’s mind and made him welcome the Gentiles (when Cornelius and his household received the Holy Spirit). That was what changed the life of the Apostle Paul. That was the story of the early church. Not that its saga was perfect, or anything close to perfect, but the apostles were not peddling a perfect theology; they were wrong about a lot of things. What they were right about was that the Holy Spirit would come to anybody who sincerely opened their lives to it. That is the church. Nothing else is the church.

         Well, no use crying over spilled milk, as they say. Even if that milk is what Jesus came for – and lived and died for. And the amazing thing is that we can still get into it ourselves, if we want it badly enough. The offer is still open. The Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ is still available, and is always eager for us if we are eager for Him. Knowing that and trusting it, we can still invite others into the New Life – the LIFE of the church. Only, we have to be careful about using that word “church.” Lots of people in our time do not know that “church” means the people of Jesus – the people who walk by His Spirit. They think it means an organization, a building, a denomination, a creed, or some set of beliefs that separates the sheep from the goats. They forget, if they ever knew, that Pentecost is the birthday of the church. And that Pentecost is about receiving the Holy Spirit.

         Today, instead of talking more about Pentecost as a historic event, I want to suggest a kind of meditation for us. You see, I think most of you do want to walk by the Spirit. Having some comprehension and also some experience of what the church is really about, we love it, and we want to go on walking in the WAY. But our problem is that we get out in the false world and it’s hard to keep remembering that our little lives really matter. What difference does it make whether we walk by the Spirit in the midst of the vast business of the world? Does Syria have the bomb? Will we find a cure for cancer? How many unwed mothers can dance on the head of a pin? How do I raise my own children to live well, to live successfully, in a world like this? And so it goes.

         Naturally, Jesus has His agents – followers who walk by His Spirit – in all these arenas of life. And if we walk by the Spirit, we will be involved in it somewhere too, wherever He sends us. But “the big picture,” as we often call it, is not the real picture, and certainly not the eternal picture. How faithful we are is what matters, not how well we think it’s going “out there.” Part of the problem is we never really know what is going on out there – how it’s really shaping up. Only the Spirit sees such things clearly. We just take orders, one day at a time.

         So Jesus gave us a wonderful word-picture for this very thing – a parable for Pentecost and all we have been talking about. Since we are not in any special crisis, no more so than usual at least – and since the only way Jesus is “coming soon” is if He comes into our own lives and hearts – maybe the most helpful thing we can do today is remember the word-picture He gave us, and use it to get refocused, calm, patient, and joyful in His presence.

         “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

         Let the image sink in for a while. Let it have all the room it needs in your mind. The Spirit of Christ is like a great vine with its vast trunk system encircling and crisscrossing the earth in every direction – yet gently, subtly, just barely out of sight. It carries nourishment for the soul to every part of the globe – love, peace, beauty, truth, courage, hope, endurance, forgiveness, power, mercy. Do you need any of those things? We are all like little branches attached to the great vine, able to draw as much as we need or want from the source of all power and life.

         This is the truth of how it really is with the realm of the Spirit. Of course, we could get literalistic and hung up on the details. A vine and branches is not literally it. But Jesus says that the spiritual realm is something like this. We can understand all we need to if we go with the image. It is a spiritual vine, not limited by space or time. It is real, but not in a physical way – it is far more real than that. It is available, but never coercive. We can go on about our lives with no awareness or acknowledgment of the presence of the vine if we want to. And we can detach ourselves from the vine any time we want to.

         However, the flow of nourishment between the vine and its branches depends upon our staying attached: gratitude, commitment, obedience, prayer. By our awareness and gratitude and trust, we increase the flow between us and the vine. If spiritual energy gets low, it is because we forget or refuse to drink from the vine. We do not always like to admit it when we have shut ourselves off. On the other hand, it is wonderful to know what’s wrong, so we can open up to the vine once again.

         Now, if Jesus had wanted to be a popular preacher or teacher, He would have stopped right there. It’s all very pleasant, very true, very helpful. But Jesus never leaves what we call “well enough” alone. So here comes the Gardener. Isn’t that exciting? There is always a “Gardener” in Jesus’ stories, one way or another. Jesus never leaves out God. This time God, or perhaps the Holy Spirit, is the Gardener.

         Sometimes the Gardener plants, sometimes he cultivates, sometimes he irrigates or spreads plant food. The Gardener does many, many things. In this particular story, the Gardener is pruning. Clip, clip. Snip, snip. Some of the branches are saying, “Oh, thank you!” Some are just saying, “Ouch!”

         Some of the branches are saying thank you because they are tired of carrying the deadweight of past mistakes, dead ends, and old efforts that no longer produce anything. And they are glad to stop pouring energy into offshoots. Some people call them “suckers,” I guess because we are a sucker to keep pouring life and time into things that will never bear any fruit. It is wonderful for the Gardener to clear out all the tangle and get rid of all the false goals we “sucker” into. Then we can get on with what we are really here for.

         Why do some of the branches scream “Ouch!” with such dismay? It doesn’t make much sense, but I have done it often enough myself to know why. Afterwards it gets pretty clear, but at the time of pruning, I frequently think that the Gardener is cutting at the wrong places. I could do it better myself, I say to myself, though I never seem to get around to it. And sometimes I forget that it takes grapes to make communion. I start concentrating on the branch that I am: how many twigs and leaves I can grow; how lush and green I can get. In short, we start thinking we are here to acquire things. We forget we are here to bear fruit. In that frame of mind, we deeply resent the Gardener.

         How sad that some people talk as if pruning were the wrath of God. Pruning is not punishment – it is improvement. All of us who prune our own physical gardens know this. Though we cut off much that looks wonderful at the moment, pruned branches are healthier, they soon far surpass the condition of an unpruned branch, and they produce far more and much better fruit. Pruning, after a short period of discomfort, is a great favor – as long as the Gardener is doing it. That is, the branches ought not to take it upon themselves to prune other branches. You probably have no idea what I’m talking about. In any case, when the Gardener prunes, it is not punishment – it is an act of love.

         Does the Gardener ever say to you: “You are trying to read too many books, watch too much television, see too many movies. You are trying to keep up with too many friends, appease too many relatives, be good at too many things. Prune back. Simplify. Get focused. Get back with ME. And you will be healthier, happier, more effective. And you will produce far more fruit.”

         I only ask because sometimes the Gardener says things like that to me. I am not a mindless branch, and so the Gardener often asks for my cooperation. Then if I pay no heed but stay on the vine – that is, if I will not take a hint but still essentially want to be faithful – then the Gardener starts pruning. Clip, clip. Snip, snip. “Ouch! Oh, now I remember. Sorry, Lord. No, it’s okay. Go ahead.” And then finally I remember: only if He stops pruning altogether am I in real trouble.

         The truth is, any branch that stops drinking in the nourishment from the vine begins to wither. Even if we know the truth but try to live it by our own power and wisdom, we begin to wither. Forgiveness out of the depths of our own understanding; offering help to others out of the pity of our own compassion; love out of the affection of our own benevolent hearts; ambition out of our own need for fame or glory – we do not carry enough sap within us to do such things very well, for very long. Only if the vine inspires us and fills us and backs us with its endless flow can we manage such things.

         And so the truth comes back in full force, in all its grandeur and pathos, in all its hope and terror: “No branch can bear fruit by itself, but only if it remains united with the vine.... APART FROM ME YOU CAN DO NOTHING!”

         I wonder what our world would be like today if all the Christians would step away from all the missions they have NOT been sent on. The only thing better would be if we also stepped up to the missions we HAVE been sent on.

         Well, pruning, despite its marvelous good purpose, is not really the good news. Getting detached from the vine (and withering) is not the good news either. But having felt the truth and the reality and the necessity of the vine, then the reality of the promise comes in full strength also: “He who dwells in me, as I dwell in him, bears much fruit.... Ask what you will, and you shall have it.”

         That’s good news! I love that promise. Do you? Looking back, it seems to me that most of my problems and difficulties have been the result of my wanting to bear fruit. Not that such desires were wise or well-executed, but I wanted to do something right someday; accomplish something of value before it was over; make a difference for the Kingdom. Is it not the same for you? Only, I keep thinking too much about my own efforts and not enough about His. I keep putting too little trust in His promise.

         It is what we get FROM THE VINE that produces the fruit. If I stay on the vine, I don’t have to worry about bearing fruit. I don’t have to worry about how well I am doing or what is coming of it. And you don’t either. We cannot dwell in His love without producing fruit. It is a universal impossibility! If we stay on the vine, the power fills us and the fruit grows, and no power on earth can prevent that!

         “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Thank You, Lord.

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Nov 01, 2015

The Vine

The Vine

Passage: John 15:1-17

Speaker: Bruce Van Blair

Series: Sermons

Category: Love

Keywords: bearing fruit and pruning

The Vine

November 1, 2015                                                                  John 15:1-17

THE VINE

         I thank God that we get to take communion together today. I always need it, and sometimes I even know how much I need it. Sometimes our awareness of our need is greater than at other times. I happen to know that some of you particularly need communion today as well.

         Before we get to our meal, let us come together in our usual fashion, to focus on our story – on the power and love of the Christ who is our source and meaning and purpose. To gather our scattered lives and thoughts and anxieties and confusion, I know of no better passage than this one from the fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel: “I am the vine, my Father is the gardener ... you are the branches.” If together we do not produce grapes (fruit), there will not be any communion – between us, that is. The blood of Christ starts it, makes it possible – a thing beyond our power to produce. But we receive and respond: “Love one another, as I have loved you.”

         We need to let the image of the vine sink in again. Let it have room in your mind. It can fill all the room you can give it. It is an image of the true church – the invisible church – of which our physical institutions are merely shadows: our sincere but feeble attempts to be the “church,” the ecclesia, the people of God. The Holy Spirit of Jesus the Christ is “like” a great vine with its vast trunk system encircling and crisscrossing the earth in every direction. Only gently, subtly, just barely out of sight. It carries nourishment for the soul to all parts of the globe – love, spiritual peace, beauty, truth, courage, hope, endurance, forgiveness, power. And we are all “like” branches attached to the great vine, able to draw from the source of all power and LIFE.

         It is the truth about how it is with the realm of the Spirit. Of course, we could get hung up on the details of the imagery. A vine and branches – that is not it. Jesus only says, for lack of better words in our poor language, that the spiritual realm is something like this – an analogy. So we have to leap and go with the image. It is a spiritual vine. It is not limited by space or time. It is real, but not in a physical way. It is available, but not coercive. If people prefer, they can go on about their business without any acknowledgment that the vine is really there – with no appreciation or awareness that whatever sustenance they are getting is coming from this vine.

         The detriment, however, is that the flow of nourishment between the vine and its branches depends upon this appreciation and awareness. That may not be totally true; it may not be an absolute principle. But by our awareness and gratitude we limit or expand the amount of flow between us and the vine. We do not like to think of it in such terms; we do not like to think that some of our spiritual shortages are our own fault. Nevertheless, if the spiritual energy gets low or begins to dry up, it is because we forget to drink or refuse to drink from the vine. It is also wonderful to know this, of course, because then if our spirits begin to dry up, we know what to do about it: open up again – drink again from the vine!

         THE VINE is the Life Force: the power, the nurture, true security, sustenance (in but not of this world). In Christian language, the Holy Spirit of Jesus the Christ is the Life Force. We are THE BRANCHES: reaching out, growing, exploring, learning – connectors between this spiritual power and the outer world. A branch does not die instantly when cut off from the vine. It may think it is just fine for quite a little while. But cut off, inevitably the sap begins to dry up. The branch apart, by itself, loses connection – meaning, it becomes increasingly brittle, bitter. It stops growing, expanding. Cut off, it begins to think and experience more and more about less and less, until it is only of self and unto itself.

         Now, if Jesus had been trying to be a popular preacher or teacher, He would have kept this parable shorter and simpler. But NO, Jesus never leaves “well enough” alone – at least not what we think of as “well enough.” So here comes the Gardener. There is always a Gardener in Jesus’ stories, one way or another. Well, there is always God. This time, God is the Gardener.

         Sometimes the Gardener plants; sometimes the Gardener cultivates; sometimes the Gardener irrigates or spreads plant food (see, I’m getting better). The Gardener does many, many things. In this particular parable, the Gardener is pruning. Clip, clip. Snip, snip. Some of the branches are saying, “Oh, thank you!” But many of the branches are saying, “Ouch! Don’t you know how much that hurts! I hate you.”

         Some branches are saying “thank you” because they are tired of carrying the deadweight of past mistakes and old efforts that never produced anything and never will. They are glad to stop pouring energy into offshoots (some people call them “suckers”) that are never going to bear any fruit. It is wonderful when the Gardener clears out all the tangle and gets rid of all the false goals we “sucker” into. Then we can get on with the real business of Life and spiritual growth.

         Why do some branches say “Ouch! I hate you”? It doesn’t make much sense, but I’ve said it often enough myself to know why. Sometimes we forget that it takes grapes to make communion. We start thinking that we are here to acquire things – anything and everything. We forget that we are here to produce fruit. Whenever we get in that frame of mind, we deeply resent the Gardener.

         The truth still is that any branch or twig that stops drinking in the nourishment from the vine begins to wither. Even if we know the truth but try to live it by our own power and resources, we begin to wither. Forgiveness, but out of the depths of our own understanding; trying to help others, but out of the pity of our own compassion; love, but out of the affection and acceptance of our own great hearts; dreams of great accomplishment, but out of our own need for fame or recognition – it will never work for long. We do not carry enough sap within us to do it very well or for very long – unless the vine is backing it up with its full and endless flow.

         A withered branch is a branch that tries to be great enough to go it alone. “Give some people an inch and they think they are a ruler.” A “sucker” tries to steal it from others instead of getting it from the vine. While the “sucker” may be very plush itself, it never produces any fruit, and it never gets to experience communion.

         Of course, some people make the parable even harder than Jesus intended it. They instantly jump to pictures of the Gardener cutting them off entirely, instead of just pruning. You would have to be totally dead to the Spirit before that could happen. And if that were the case, you wouldn’t care anymore about anything anyway, so no need to worry about that.

         Pruning, I remind you, is not punishment. It is improvement – quality control. If you were not worth so much, the Gardener would not bother with the pruning. Pruning is a great favor – as long as it is left up to the Gardener. Which is to say that branches ought not to take it upon themselves to prune other branches! I have even seen branches so full of pride that they take it upon themselves to prune themselves. Only the Gardener does it well. And when the Gardener does it, it is also an act of love and is done in love.

         Next the truth comes in at full strength – in all its grandeur and pathos, in all its hope and terror: “No branch can bear fruit by itself, but only if it remains united with the vine.... APART FROM ME, YOU CAN DO NOTHING!”

         It reminds me of another phrase I once heard: “By myself, I am powerless.” Do you really know this? I must confess that I do not fully know it. Rather, I know it but I have not fully learned it. If I could fully and finally learn it, I would not keep running the gamut between momentary enthusiasm and battle fatigue. I keep wanting to do something on my own – sometimes for my own pleasure or glory, to be sure, but lots of times with my very best motives too. I keep wanting to do something on my own and in my own way. I don’t even like to hear it spoken, but we have to get real here if we are going to get anywhere. So I’m sorry, but sometimes I try to do things, well, to sort of “make Jesus proud of me.” It is a natural human desire, I suppose, to go off alone or in secret to win a battle or to build something good so we can bring it back to the Lord as a kind of special trophy. Maybe then the Lord will truly love us, by which we usually mean “bring us lots of special privileges” and “set us up above the other children.” Only, when we get finished with these tasks we do on our own, they reek of Satan, and all we have won for Christ is more time on the Cross.

         We ought to know by now – I ought to know by now – that not just any kingdom will do. Some kingdoms should never have been built in the first place. The greatest failure of all is to succeed at something that never should have been started in the first place. But that is what happens when we set out to earn God’s love instead of trusting God’s love to be there for us already and always. When we trust it, we are on the vine. When we try to earn it, we are already cut off and we are withering.

         Most of us do not get famous for our evil any more than we get famous for our good, but that does not limit or define the repercussions of our efforts in either direction. The most important thing to know in all Christendom next to the Gospel of God’s love itself is this great truth and warning: “APART FROM ME, YOU CAN DO NOTHING.” STAY ON THE VINE! I wonder what our world would be like today if all the Christians would get off of all the missions they have not been sent on. The only thing better would be if we also got onto the real missions that we have been sent on.

         Maybe someone here today is feeling like the person in the Bible Study group who said, “I know some things I can do apart from Jesus. I can brush my teeth and go to the movies and play golf without Jesus.” To which a friend replied, “I don’t know about your teeth, but that explains a lot about your golf game.” Most of us would nevertheless agree that we can make money, drive cars, practice law, build cities, or make scientific progress apart from Jesus if we choose to – at least apart from our conscious awareness of the Christ.

         As always, John sees and reflects Jesus as the Eternal Spirit who was from the beginning – who always was and always will be, whether people are aware of it or name it or not. In that case, even brushing our teeth will not qualify as an exception. But giving it a half-truth rating, people can do many things without having any conscious awareness of the help they are receiving. Even that may be nit-picking. Hear the verse “Apart from ME, you can accomplish nothing” this way: Apart from Jesus Christ – the Vine – we can do nothing of value, nothing of importance, nothing for God’s Kingdom, nothing of eternal worth or value. In that light, there are no exceptions.

         Pruning, despite its good purpose, is not really the Good News. And being reminded of my dependency on the vine, while it feels good for the perspective it brings, is not really the Good News either. But having felt the truth and the reality and the necessity of both, then the PROMISE comes in full strength and high glory: “Anyone who dwells in me, as I dwell in them, bears much fruit.... Ask what you will, and you shall have it.” This is assuming that we are on the vine, with the channels wide open. To be sure, being on the vine changes the nature of our requests. Still, there is no limit to the flow. In fact, if bearing fruit is what you are here for and care about, then the more you ask, the better the vine likes it.

         I love that promise! Do you? I mean, half of my troubles are because I want to bear fruit: I want to do something right some day, accomplish something of value, make a difference for people, be a part of Christ’s Kingdom. It is the same for you, yes? And here is this glorious PROMISE. It is what we get from the vine that produces the fruit. If I stay on the vine, I don’t have to worry anymore about how well I am doing. And you don’t either. We cannot dwell in His love without producing fruit. It is a universal impossibility! That is where the joy gets complete. If we are on the vine, we are open to God’s power; whatever seems to be going on around us, fruit will come of it. (“All things work together for good, for those who love God.”)

         So we just keep “being there” – keep dwelling in Christ – and the power and love and LIFE of the vine takes over and flows freely. The stress goes out of the effort, the impossible tasks become the joyful play of trusting children, and the fruit grows.

         It is not like that every day, for me; just sometimes. But I know it can be. It is more that way now, and more often than it used to be. Nevertheless, the power is not in me or in you or in us together. The power is in the vine. If we will drink, the fruit will grow. And that is the promise of the Christ!