Fruitful Branches, Fruitful Lives

“Fruitful Branches, Fruitful Lives”

John 15 grape-vines

John 15:1-8 (15:4) – April 29, 2018

Spring has sprung! Finally, everything in the garden is starting to get green.

On Friday afternoon, after a medical appointment, my husband and I went to the Chicago Botanic Garden. The day was cool, but lovely and sunny. Since Friday was during the workweek, all of the garden staff was busy planting, watering, pruning, and getting the Garden prepared for spring. Everything was just beginning to bud. We saw leaves on trees and bushes just starting to unfurl, and spring daffodils, poppies and hyacinths showing their colors.

All of this new life is refreshing to see. A joy to behold. It reminds me so much of what Jesus was talking about here in our Gospel reading today. Jesus compared Himself to a Vine, and compared His followers—that’s all of us—to branches connected to the Vine.

Let’s hear again some of what Jesus said in John 15: “I am the real vine, my Father is the vine-dresser. For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful.”

How can the Vine and the branches not be green and growing? Especially at this time of year, in the bloom of spring? At the end of April, we can very well ask that question. How can we not be green and growing, sharing the essence, the life of Jesus? Ah, but there is a complication. A large problem.

In the farming or gardening analogy that Jesus is using here in this reading, Jesus talks about pruning, and about how God His heavenly Father “removes any of my branches which are not bearing fruit and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit to increase its yield. Now, you have already been pruned by my words.”

Now, that is a problem for me. I can follow Jesus when He talks about His followers sharing in His life, and being connected to Him. But when Jesus talks about pruning, and how God removes any branches—or followers—which are not bearing fruit, that is where I have difficulty. Big problems. This seemingly harsh statement does not square with other clear and loving statements Jesus made in other places in the Gospels.

Let’s go back to my visit to the Botanic Garden. As I said earlier, dozens of workers were out planting, watering, gardening, and pruning, all over the huge garden. They were preparing the Garden for the wonderful summer season, when everything is in full and glorious bloom.

As my husband and I walked by one of the large lagoons, we saw dozens of bushes all along the lagoon’s edge. I could see how the bare twigs were just beginning to sprout little leaves. I can’t remember what kind of bush they were, but my husband and I could see about twenty-five or thirty feet of bushes that were cut back to within a foot of the ground—severely pruned. There was a wheelbarrow half full of branches, and no staff worker around. The gardener had taken a break, apparently.

Then, further down the path were additional bushes that had not been pruned yet. My husband and I talked about how we had seen different kinds of bushes, in past years, that hadn’t been pruned, and how straggly and badly managed their growth was. We compared those bushes to the severely pruned ones we were looking at, by the lagoon.

I wonder whether that was the idea Jesus wanted to convey to us in this reading today? Did Jesus know that some wise and prudent pruning from a knowledgeable Gardener or Vine-Dresser might encourage the branches to grow?

Some preachers and some commentators on the Gospel of John say that God is going to prune away the unfruitful branches—or followers—of Jesus, and just throw them away. In other words, be fruitful for God, or die! That is such a harsh understanding of this reading. And, again, I wonder whether this understanding of the person of God is too harsh, as well?

One of my commentators J. Vernon McGee mused “no doubt that the Lord does some pruning. He moves into our lives and takes out those things that offend, and sometimes it hurts. He removes things that are hindering us.” [1]

Sometimes bushes and branches do need to be pruned. Sometimes—like on Friday, when my husband and I observed those dozens of bushes being pruned—pruning can help the overall health and growth of the whole plant. Sometimes, our loving, wise Gardener or Vine-dresser knows He has to do some pruning in our lives in order to make us more fruitful, and in order to cause additional life and growth in the whole plant—or, the whole family of faith.

Dr. David Lose, another commentator, adds “I think this is less intended as a threat about what happens if you don’t abide in Jesus but more a metaphorical description of what actually happens when you are not connected to the source of life. You end up cut off, withered, useless, like the branches and scraps we clean up from our yard and haul away or burn. Plus, if you’ve ever seen pruned bushes, you know it’s not a pretty picture.” [2]

With all this talk of pruning and cutting back and unfruitful branches, I am getting uncomfortable. I don’t want to be just a scrap or a branch that is cleaned up from God’s gardens and hauled away, or even burnt. I want very much to stay connected to Jesus, my source of life.

But then, I have never been seriously ill, as an adult. (Yes, as a teenager, but that was quite a while ago, and frankly, I do not have a clear memory of that time any longer.) However, Dr. McGee did have that kind of pruning experience. Let him explain: “I can speak to that subject and confess that it hurts. I think the Lord was pruning me when He permitted me to have a cancer and allowed it to stay in my body. He prunes out that which hinders our bearing fruit.” [3]

Let me say that I do not think that God arbitrarily makes people get sick, or forces individuals to get cancer, or heart attacks, or strokes. However, Dr. McGee was a beloved preacher and bible commentator who spent decades poring over the Bible, and had a great deal of wisdom and understanding concerning the Scriptures.

I’ll be completely frank: I do have difficulty with this aspect of John chapter 15. I do not completely understand what Jesus was getting at here. That is why I try to read commentaries from wise men and women who spend their lives studying the Scriptures in depth. I try to glean some of their wisdom and communicate it to you all in sermons and bible studies.

I think I have come to a better understanding this week, as I’ve examined this reading. As John 15 says, “For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful. For the plain fact is that apart from me you can do nothing at all.”

What’s the bottom line here? Jesus wants us all to share in His life. Apart from Jesus, we can truly do nothing at all. No fruit, no ministry, no sharing, no giving, no kindness, no love. Without Jesus? Nothing. With Jesus? Sharing His life? Then, we can bear fruit, for Him.

If we share life with Jesus, we have everything we ever need. Including our ability to have fruitful lives, for Jesus’s sake.

[1] Through the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew – Romans, J. Vernon McGee (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 466.

[2] http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1532 Getting Real,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

[3] J. Vernon McGee, ibid.

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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Faith, Birth from Above

John 3:1-17 – March 12, 2017

Jesus and Nicodemus, JesusMAFA

“Faith, Birth from Above”

Got faith? Really, do you have faith in anything? Perhaps, faith in electricity, to keep the lights and appliances working in our houses. What about faith in our doctors, or in the medical profession in general? Some people would say “yes” and others “not so much.” How about faith in the Chicago sports teams? That kind of faith is getting more and more difficult to keep up.

What about in our Scripture readings today? We have already heard about Abraham, and how he had faith in his God. In each reading, we have a person in our list of faith recipients. A person who tried to have faith and trust in someone or something outside of themselves.

Let’s take a closer look at Abraham’s situation. Reading from Genesis 12: “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Everything the Lord was saying sounded strange and unfamiliar. God did not even name the country where Abram was supposed to go.

Turning to John 3, Eileen and I acted out the encounter Nicodemus had with the Rabbi Jesus; let’s remind ourselves of that situation. “Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.”

Nicodemus was trying to have faith in someone or something, but faltering. That sounds a lot like us. Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith?

“Jesus answered Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?”

This is a real puzzle for Nicodemus.  Added to that, Nicodemus had heard Jesus a number of times, thought He was right about a lot of things, but still was cautious.  Put yourself in Nicodemus’s situation. How would you like to be a big-shot teacher of Israel, well known not only among the common people, but also with his colleagues among the Pharisees? He brought his questions to Jesus at night when no one would see him and maybe make fun of him. [1]

Perhaps we are in a similar position, too, where some of us here are cautious or hesitant about finding out more about Jesus. For sure we are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith.

Another way of looking at this is that we need to find a new perspective, too, like the Apostle Paul said about Abram in Romans, our New Testament reading today.

Leaving everything familiar to begin a new life? Going to an unknown land, you don’t even know where it is, or how far away? Look, Abram is not coming back. This is certainly no there-and-back-again journey. This is no pilgrimage, either.

I was fascinated to learn some things from one of the commentators. “On a pilgrimage, one sets out to a new place or a holy place to learn something and return where one came from with some new insight for living back home. Abram’s is to be a permanent relocation, something far more like the experience of the millions since Abram who have immigrated to other countries, including the vast majority of the population of the current United States or at least their ancestors.” [2]

I know some of you here are familiar with computers. You might even know how to “reset” or “restart” your computer with a CTRL-ALT-DEL move on a Microsoft Windows®-based computer. Maybe that was what Nicodemus really wanted to do. (It does get frustrating, being uncertain and unsure, not knowing where on earth we are going!) Let’s look at the situation from Jesus’s point of view. Jesus wanted to bring Nicodemus into a whole new world. He started talking about a new birth, or birth from above.

A sermon website I go to from time to time had a superb illustration. (I’m sorry, but I don’t know the name of the anonymous pastor.) “When I was a country pastor trying to get directions to a farm that I had never been to before, if the directions were complicated, the directions sometimes began with “you can’t get there from here.” It was their way of saying that starting from a different place would make the trip easier. Sometimes the best spiritual advice is like that — in order to get to life in the kingdom/reign of God, we have to start from a new place, a reborn place in our lives; and that we can’t get there (to the kingdom) from here (our life of sin apart from God). Nicodemus has trouble thinking that you can start from a new place, that you can’t take along all the history and baggage of the past — “how can these things be?” (vs. 9)” [3]

In computer terms, it is almost as if Jesus tells Nicodemus that he has to “reboot” — that he can’t run his program any more because there are too many error messages flashing in his life. We need, and God is ready to supply, an entirely different operating system.

Too true! Jesus offered the cautious Nicodemus more than a new perspective. It’s a new birth, and whole new world. And, how is he able to reach it? By faith, that’s how.

When God called Abraham, Abraham left everything he knew to move to a place that had not been named.  That is brave and bold.  That takes faith.

All that faith business is centuries in the past. Nicodemus lived when Jesus lived, and Abram lived a lot of centuries before that. What does all that have to do with today? With modern life, and with us here at St. Luke’s Church? Don’t we hesitate and falter sometimes, when trying to have faith? Today, Jesus would tell us the exact same thing.

Some people treat our relationship with God as something we earn by what we do, by “being good” or at least “not being bad” on the basis of some checklist of good or bad behavior. Have we reduced a life of discipleship to Jesus to morality and status instead of actual faithfulness to trust Him and follow where he leads every day? [4]

When we gather together our courage and go to see Jesus under the cover of darkness—like Nicodemus—He welcomes us. He enters into a relationship with us. We are in the same boat as Abram: we don’t know quite where we are going, or where this new land really is.

What about when we get to the end of that lifelong journey, and cross the River Jordan? There will be a welcoming party when we arrive in the Promised Land, for sure!

My original question at the beginning of the sermon: got faith? This whole trusting-Jesus-business requires some faith. The best part is that Jesus will help us. He understands our difficulties. He is patient, and will walk with us as we journey towards that new land. He’ll be right by our side in the valley of the shadow. Step by step, we strive to have faith in God.

What a Savior. What a Friend we have in Jesus. Amen.

[1] http://worshipingwithchildren.blogspot.com/2014/02/year-second-sunday-in-lent-march-16-2014.html 

[2] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

[3] http://desperatepreacher.com//bodyii.htmhttp://javacasa.com/resources/dps_form_results/jon3_1.htm

[4] https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/worship/lectionary-calendar/second-sunday-in-lent4#bow

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

(Thanks so much to the good folks at UMC Discipleship.org! I am following their Lenten series. Their online Lenten sermon notes and worship helps are invaluable.)

New Life Reality

“New Life Reality”

Acts 2-42 teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, prayers

Acts 2:42-47 – June 7, 2015

Have you ever looked through a photo album, or a scrap book? Showing memorable photos, distinctive times to remember. Hitting the high points of a person’s life, or of a family’s experiences. Or, if not the most wonderful times, at least the most significant times.

That’s what we are going to be looking at, in this summer sermon series. We are going to focus on the book of Acts, and see what vignettes Dr. Luke has for us, in this photo album of the Early Church. We’re starting with the Day of Pentecost, and its immediate aftermath. Right after Peter’s sermon, and the great big revival meeting there in the city of Jerusalem.

When last we left our intrepid heroes—I mean, the disciples—their revival meeting had a tremendous response! The report given here at the end of Acts 2 is that three thousand people came to belief in Jesus as their Messiah, who died on the cross, buried, and risen from the dead. Just as prophesied by the Hebrew Scriptures.

Now what? Sure, this extremely large group of people had their “come to Jesus” moment. The Holy Spirit blew through all of their lives. I do not at all wish to diminish this glorious experience. Dr. Luke records this marvelous “Kodak moment” in each of these individuals’ separate lives. Yes, God reached down, and touched each one.

But, in all seriousness, I repeat—now what? Where do they go from here? The group of believers in the Messiah Yeshua—or, Jesus Christ—went from a couple of dozen to 3000 people. All in one morning!

Wait just a moment: imagine a huge group of people, milling about. Think of a large location, like a high school auditorium, or a large gymnasium, or a festival at the lakefront. Now, imagine yourself plunked down in the middle of that huge crowd. We have a huge group of people who just came to a saving belief in Jesus as their Messiah. Now what? Is there any larger purpose? Any master plan?

Acts doesn’t tell us exactly who came up with this plan, but our passage today does tell us what they did. It’s a systematic listing. Four simple, straight-forward steps.

Verse 42 tells us the new believers “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” Four simple steps are the spiritual glue that binds this miscellaneous group—diverse believers from all over creation—together as one cohesive whole.

First, the central activity: they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching.” I suspect many of these 3000 people, these new believers, had only heard of Jesus of Nazareth. Some had never heard Jesus’ teachings directly, never mind about seeing His miracles! Why was this aspect so important? Because if these new believers started traipsing after their own ideas, they might go off into flights of fancy. The wild blue yonder. They needed to be grounded in solid teaching, directly from the men and women who learned from Jesus for three years. His disciples, and followers. Then they would know for sure what Jesus did—or did—not teach!

Has anyone here ever watched a plastic television preacher? Or listened to a sketchy evangelist on the radio or on a podcast? How about someone who was preaching the “health, wealth and happiness gospel?” Jesus wants us all to be healthy, wealthy and happy! Look at Job, after the Lord gave him everything back! Look at King David and King Solomon! Fabulously wealthy! All of them had favor with God, and you can, too! Just send the evangelist lots of money, and then you’ll be blessed! Just make sure you walk the straight and narrow, otherwise the Lord will smite you with sickness and poverty! Are you sick? Are your loved ones poor? Then, you’re not sending the preacher enough money! And, you don’t have enough faith!

Hold it! What I just said? False. Not true, at all.

Not the health, wealth and happiness gospel, not sending some huckster preacher or evangelist money in order to get health and prosperity. This is skillful twisting of Scripture passages, and is NOT GOOD AT ALL. This is exactly why it was so important that these new believers had ready access to the apostles, and paid such close attention to the disciples’ teaching. To prevent this kind of false teaching from getting started. It was true in the first century, and is just as true today, too!

Second on the Acts 2 list, fellowship. That means hanging out together! Eating meals together, visiting each others’ homes, going places together. This is closely followed by number three, breaking bread together. In other words, eating together! How many here just hang out together, occasionally? Visit, and be friends together?

Our friends from Love Sharing Congregation, do exactly that! If you come here early on a Sunday morning, before most people from St. Luke’s Church come into the building, you’ll find Love Sharing Congregation meeting together for early worship, and fellowship. They meet together, eat together, and hang out together. Then, again, every Sunday after 12 noon. They meet for worship service, and then eat a meal together. Be together, some more.

What a wonderful way to live out the activities the book of Acts recommends.

Fourth on the list we have “the prayers” mentioned. Not just general, private times of prayer, although the life of Jesus certainly models this for us, if anyone examines His life closely. “The prayers” probably refers to set times of prayer at the Temple. Gathering together regularly for prayer and worship was and is considered to be an important way to join together with others, horizontally, as well as joining with God, vertically.

These four things are activities that this group of brand new believers were involved in, from the get-go, from the very start. And, guess what? Their group continued to grow, and grow some more! Let’s take a special look at verses 46 and 47: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, 47 praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” This is what their new life together looked like! And, people noticed. They wanted to find out more.

I wonder whether the new believers might have been onto something?

On an online bulletin board, I read earlier this week about a church in Minnesota. This post was written a few years ago. I can’t tell you what the pastor’s name was, since he or she did not leave it. However, the pastor wrote about this awesome example of togetherness: communal living, spending time together, eating together, and hanging out together.

“The most profound example of communal living I see in our world is the work being done in homeless shelters. We often take our Sr. and Jr. High kids to a shelter and bring an evening meal for the shelter’s staff and residents. Individually, we cannot feed them because of the great need but, when we work together and plan together, we have more than enough to provide a good meal for the 70 or 80 residents of the shelter.

“In our church, it has become a badge of honor to insure that we can provided the best food for these folk and we now go to the shelter once a month. The point we make with our church members is that the residents of the shelter deserve our best, so we strive to provide it. Our youth like the work because it is a direct way to put their budding theology to work.”

You all see? Life together. Fellowship. Being friends. Eating and drinking together. Worshipping and praying together. Did I mention being comfortable together? This is “doing church,” at its best. Of course, we are all humans, and disagreements occur. Disappointments happen. But, this passage shows us a snapshot of what our life as a church can be!

Something to shoot for. Something to hope for. Something all of us can strive for. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if people in Morton Grove—Niles—Glenview—Park Ridge—Des Plaines—noticed what was going on here at St. Luke’s Church? The new church in Acts 2 reported “having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” This is what their new life together looked like! People noticed. They wanted to find out more.

Let’s celebrate the power of the Holy Spirit! We have that same power here. Nothing is impossible for the Spirit of God. This is a wonderful reminder of what church is all about.

Can I hear an “amen?” Alleluia, amen!

summer sermon series

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my daily blog for 2015: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind .  Thanks!)