vinedresserBible verses for reflection: John 15:1-12

Apart from me you can do nothing? Certainly we can do something? Right? Can I not make a good grade or score a goal or close the deal or build a table apart from the God we know in Jesus?

If we were speaking solely about the sovereignty of God today, we would ask: From whence comes the gift of intelligence? Or from whom do we receive the kinesthetic ability of an athlete? Who has supplied the raw materials of the earth with which we work and the gift of creativity?

But today, we speak not only about God’s sovereignty, but about how God is the source of our love for one another. In daily life, as long as we are allowed to have breath and life, we are given the freedom to do many things apart from God. Apart from a relationship with God, we will do and say many things, for good or ill, every day. But what Jesus is talking about in this passage is bearing the fruit of the kingdom of God, which is love – the self-giving, self-sacrificing love we have come to know in Jesus.

Picture Jesus and his friends in the garden of Gethsemane, surrounded by gnarly olive trees and crawling grape vines. Jesus says, Look, “I am the vine, you are (like) the branches, and my father is the vinedresser.” “No branch can bear fruit by itself. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me…If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you!” “This is to my father’s glory, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.”

At the Confirmation retreat at the Retreat Center a couple weeks ago, several of us were reminded of the old Gale Sayers autobiography, I Am Third. Tom Sizemore and Candler Broom told me that there was once a Sunday school class here called the “Me Third” class. For those of you younger than I am, Gayle Sayers was an outstanding running back. Sayers was a first round draft pick for the Chicago Bears in 1965, a two-time college All-American and five time first team all-pro. His competed with his good friend, Brian Piccolo from Wake Forest, for the running back position.
When Sayers got injured, Piccolo helped him through his rehab. When Piccolo, at the height of his physical ability, was diagnosed with a carcinoma, Sayers was at his side all the way to the end. Though Piccolo died far too young, his witness to his friends and fellow players in his last months was extraordinary. Sayer’s bi-racial friendship with Piccolo was recounted in the book I Am Third, and was so touching that it was made into the 1971 movie, Brian’s Song.

Sayer’s learned that for him, the basic theology of life would be that God is first, friends and love ones would be second, and he would be third. All his hopes, his dreams, his goals, and his desires would all be subservient to the love of God and love of neighbor. There is tremendous power in those three simple but profound words – I am third!
And Sayer’s book and movie impacted an entire generation of young athletes. Would that more people in this 21st-century take to heart that basic theology of life – I am not first, nor am I second. I am third.

Another way of getting at this theology is to consider who is on the throne of your life. If you are on the throne, making all the decisions, you’re in the wrong seat. Another image to consider is that no one is a stand-alone tree or vine. You are not the vine. You are just a branch. You are I are very temporary branches connected to an eternal vine.
And we are neither in charge nor are we able to secure our own lives. We are only human. We will become fatigued, overwhelmed by human selfishness and need. We will be tempted and will go astray. We will burn out or rust out without a strong connection to the Source.

Jesus said, love one another as I have loved you. This fruit of which I speak is that you lay down your lives in love for one another. This is what we cannot do apart from the vine. We cannot love as Jesus loved apart from the vine.
We cannot lay down our lives, over and over and over again, without being connected to the source of love.

Vernon Gramling’s small group work has been immensely helpful this past year. He reminded his Faith in Real Life small group the other day that if we are questioning our connection to God, if we are questioning whether we are good enough or worthy enough or have done enough to deserve being connected to the vine, we have missed the point. It is not about us and our ability to love. It is not about the measure of our strength or faithfulness. This whole conversation about being connected to Jesus is about who Jesus is and about who we are because of his desire to abide with us. Our first task is to recognize and be grateful for what connection we do have, and then to respond to what he has given us by sharing his love with others.

If we feel as though we have let Jesus down in some small or large way, then welcome to the club. We all have fallen short of God’s glory. There is no one who is righteous, not even one. So our next task, after gratitude and loving others, is to confess, to recognize our waywardness, and seek again the presence of God. Someone recently claimed, “if God seems far away, guess who moved?”

The next chapter in the gospel of John, chapter 16, begins:
“All this I have told you so that you will not fall away.”

Jesus warns them that they will face hard times. They will be persecuted for their faith. They will be put out of the synagogue and some of them will be killed. But he promises them that the Holy Spirit will come to them, to comfort them and guide them into all truth. Though he would not be with them in the flesh, he will be with them in Spirit, always.

Next year in high school, you 8th graders will be persecuted for your faith. You may not be thrown into a lions’ den or nailed to a stake, but your faithfulness to Jesus and his way of self-giving love will be tested nearly every day.
Your abiding in Jesus will be tested by all the distractions and opportunities that come your way.

Do not miss this key verse –
“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete!”
Abiding in Jesus is not only the source of our faithfulness, our ability to love our neighbor, but also the source of much joy, of complete joy. Abiding in the vine, staying connected to the source, leads to true satisfaction in life. Far, far too many people live this life unsatisfied and without much joy. The source of love and joy, as well as peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control is the vine, and how we stay connected to the vine is the Holy Spirit, the One Jesus promised would come alongside to guide us into all truth.

Someone will ask, so how do we abide in the vine? How do we remain connected to the Source? How do we receive the Holy Spirit? This confirmation class of mostly 8th graders can offer us guidance here. For the last four months, they have been reading God’s Word together in a small group and on their own. They have been participating in corporate worship. They have engaged in service. They have enjoyed good fellowship as part of the family of faith.
At least one very strong answer to how we abide in the vine is to remain vitally connected to the community of faith, to the body of Christ, the Church. Worship, Bible study, small group fellowship, service – these practices will put in circumstances to receive the Holy Spirit, who will enable us to bear fruit that will last.

A second answer to abiding in the vine is to be aware of what areas in our lives are blocking the light, taking away breathing space for the parts of us that need to grow. Just as the grape vine needs to be pruned in order to bear fruit to its full potential, so our lives need pruning from time to time to make space for what is best. The vinedresser cuts off branches that do not bear the fruit of God’s kingdom. Those branches that do bear fruit, he prunes so that they may become even more fruitful. You have already been pruned, cleansed, by the words that I have spoken to you.
Abide in me, and you will bear much fruit.

The word meaning “to prune” in Greek also means “to cleanse or make clean.” And the sound of that word “athairei – he prunes” is very similar to “airei – he takes away”. These word relationships are not accidental. The Gospel writer intends for us to understand that God’s pruning of our lives is the same as making clean, and that the experience of one’s life being made clean often feels like a taking away of something that has seemed of great importance.

Many people in Decatur have very full and busy lives. We have many distractions, even or especially on Sundays.
We have many material pursuits and pleasurable activities which could lead us away from bearing fruit, fruit that will last. Since the good is ever the enemy of the best, what needs to be pruned from our lives? What items on our calendars or expenditures from our checking accounts should be cut away, cleansed, in order for us to become more faithful, to be more fruitful, to be able to be more loving to God and our neighbor? We may need God’s help to remove activities, pursuits and even relationships from our lives that seem very important. We may need God’s help to prune our family’s expenditures so that we are able to share our resources for the sake of God’s kingdom.

Jesus told his disciples that they would no longer be the same after following him. And I expect, to some extent, that these confirmands will not quite be the same after these last four months. God has been at work in their lives, guiding, teaching, pruning.

When I was about the age of these confirmands, this old today’s English version of the Bible sat on the table by my bedside. I would open it and read it, most often at night time, to see what it had to say to me. I discovered in its pages true guidance, challenging correction, inspiration, and hopefulness. One of my favorite verses that I discovered is from the Old Testament is Isaiah 40:28-31. I discovered these verses during soccer season in my junior in high school. I was playing center midfielder for the Marietta Blue Devils, running almost nonstop for 90 minutes during games. These verses gave me strength beyond my own. Recalling these words gave me assurance that, whether it was overtime in a difficult game, or facing the challenges of daily living, facing temptations to my faith and faithfulness,
I was not alone nor would I ever be left alone to my own resources.

Hear the word of God from the prophet Isaiah:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth.
The Lord does not grow tired or weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.
The Lord gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths will grow tired and weary, and young men will stumble and fall;
but those who trust in the LORD will find their strength renewed.
They will rise up on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not faint.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
May 1, 2016
Confirmation Sunday