Sunday, May 14, 2006

The Connection That Brings Life

John 15:1-8
[Shared with the people of Friendship Church during worship celebrations on May 13 and 14, 2006.]

The words in today’s Bible lesson were spoken by Jesus as He sat in that famous upper room with His disciples on the night of His arrest. They’re also words meant for all of us who claim to be His followers today. I want to take a look at a few things He tells us.

First, He says:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
That word translated as cleansed can also be translated as cut back or pruned.

When I first came to faith in Christ, of course it was good news to learn that God loved me, sins and all.

But I learned something else: Before Jesus’ good news can soak down our lives, before we can look to eternity with hopefulness and have the confidence that comes from an earthly future with Christ by our sides, we have to let Him make us miserable.

By that, I mean that we must willingly part with the things that obstruct our relationship with Christ, the sins which, if we insist on holding onto them, will block Christ, His forgiveness, and His life from our lives.

Years ago, a woman came to see me for counseling. “I want Christ in my life. But there’s a problem. I’m in love with a married person and for years now, we’ve been involved in an affair. I can’t have Christ and my affair, too, can I?” “No,” I said, “you can’t.”

I don’t know what decision that woman ultimately made. But she faced the kind of choice all who would follow Christ must make:
Will we allow Christ to cleanse, prune, or cut away the things that block His grace and power from our lives and so, live with God forever?

Or will we go it alone and be destroyed?
Putting God ahead of our own desires can be a jolt.

It can also take away habits we’ve come to enjoy or depend on.

But putting God ahead of our own desires can also liberating.

Through the years, I’ve known many recovering alcoholics. For each one I’ve met, the story of their unfolding freedom from booze has been the same.

First, they admitted they had a problem. It wasn’t something they’d wanted to admit. Their alcoholism had become a part of them, like their skin, their friend, their god. To have alcohol removed from them was like being pruned, like having the love of their lives ripped from their arms.

Yet, they knew the alcohol was enslaving them and taking them far from God’s intention for them. And so, they relied on their higher power--for the people I’ve known personally that’s always been Jesus Christ--to rip and tear through their defenses, to divest them of the addiction that was enslaving them and to free them to become the people God made them to be.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is the third volume in C.S. Lewis' wonderful Chronicles of Narnia. Throughout the series, a lion named Aslan is a Christ-figure who dies for the sins of the people who inhabit an alternative place called Narnia.

In this third book, a horrible boy named Eustace accompanies two of his cousins, who have been to Narnia before, in traveling to that magical land. For many weeks after his arrival, Eustace is selfish and hurtful and petulant. At one point, he goes off by himself and ends up in the seemingly-abandoned lair of a dragon. There, he covetously ogles jewelry and other treasures.

He puts one bracelet on his arm and he is turned into a dragon. In this form, he's lonely and miserable and he begins to realize how horrible he has been toward others. In this state of regret, the lion Aslan comes to him and urges Eustace to rid himself of his dragon skin.

Eustace takes off several layers. But he doesn't make much progress, representing the futility of our own efforts to improve ourselves on our own steam.

Finally, Eustace submits to allowing the lion to tear away his dragon skin, representing our submission to letting Christ take away our sin.

It's painful for Eustace at first. But in the end, he is freed to become his new and better self, precisely the process of forgiveness and growth God wants all of us to undergo through Jesus!

When we first come to faith, Jesus’ message prunes us clean. But that isn’t the end of what God wants to do and can do in the lives of those with faith in Christ. Jesus goes on to say:
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Someone asked a marriage counselor, “What’s the most difficult phase of marriage?” She thought about that for awhile and said, “The part right after the couple says, ‘I do.’”

Many people think that once they’ve said "I do" to a relationship with Christ--once they've been confirmed or baptized or responded to an altar call or recited a creed--they’ve done their religious bit. They put themselves on spiritual cruise control. They confuse belief in God with intellectual assent, as though merely believing that Jesus died and rose to save people from sin and death is heavenly fire insurance. Folks, that’s erroneous thinking: Even the devil believes that Jesus died and rose to save people from sin and death. But that doesn't mean he has faith or that he's going to spend eternity with God.

In God’s lexicon, believing in Jesus means entrusting ourselves totally to Him every second of every day.

In today’s lesson, Jesus calls it abiding. We could also call it remaining, or staying connected with Jesus, or being steadfast.

Those who abide in Christ are the ones who, as Jesus puts it, bear fruit. They end up accomplishing the greatest good for God, even if the world considers them failures. The love and power of God surge through their lives. They have the things that in another part of the Bible, Paul calls “the fruit of the Spirit”: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Three years ago, I recounted a story told by author John Ortberg, in his outstanding book, The Life You’ve Always Wanted. It’s a story worth re-telling. Mabel was a resident of a nursing home, blind, nearly-deaf, and suffering from a cancer that was hideously disfiguring her face. Bedridden for twenty-five years, with no known relatives, Mabel should have been bitter, incommunicative, self-absorbed.

When he was a student chaplain, a man named Tom Schmidt decided to militate against his revulsion and try to present this awful-looking woman with a flower, he figured Mabel would be unresponsive. “Here’s a flower,” he said. “Happy Mother’s Day.”

Mabel pulled the flower close to her face, attempting to smell it and then, in somewhat slurred speech, said, “Thank you. It’s lovely. But can I give it to someone else? I can’t see it, you know, I’m blind.”

So, Schmidt rolled Mabel to another resident and heard her say of the flower, “Here, this is from Jesus.” “That,” said Tom Schmidt, “was when it began to dawn on me that this was not an ordinary human being.”

As Schmidt’s acquaintance with Mabel grew, so did his sense of awe. He felt each time he entered her room that he was walking on holy ground. Often, he would read a Scripture to Mabel and from memory, she mouthed the words along with him. Then, she might break into a song praising God. “I never heard her speak of loneliness or pain except in the stress she placed on certain lines in certain hymns,” Schmidt recalls. The student chaplain began going to Mabel’s room with pen in hand, ready to jot down the amazing things that she would say.

During one week, Schmidt says, he was stressing out, thinking about exams at seminary and a million other things when the question dawned on him, “What does Mabel have to think about—hour after hour, day after day, week after week, not even able to know if it’s day or night?” So, Schmidt decided to ask Mabel the next time he saw her. “Mabel,” he asked, “what do you think about when you lie here?” Listen closely to Schmidt’s recollection:
“...’I think about Jesus...[she said]’ I sat there, and thought for a moment about the difficulty, for me of thinking about Jesus for even five minutes, and I asked, ‘What do you think about Jesus?’ She replied slowly and deliberately as I wrote...’I think about how good He’s been to me. He’s been awfully good to me, you know...I’m one of those kind who’s mostly satisfied...Lots of folks wouldn’t care much for what I think...But I don’t care. I’d rather have Jesus. He’s all the world to me.’”
If anyone had reason to just give up--on God, on Jesus Christ, on living--it was Mabel. But she didn’t give up. She kept abiding in Christ.

As I studied this text this week, I began to ask myself some questions. I didn't always like my answers. Let me ask them of you and see what you think.
  • Do you begin each day with Christ?
  • Do you ask for His guidance throughout the day?
  • Do you ask that He help you do His will, to help you love and serve both Him and your neighbor?
  • Do you consider it spiritually dangerous not to worship regularly God along with God’s community, the Church?
  • Are you depending on Him more than anybody or anything?
  • In other words, are you abiding in Christ?
Jesus tells us today, “Without Me, you can do nothing.” By that, I think He means we can't do anything of lasting importance, nothing that’s good or helpful, wholesome, healthy, or holy. We need Christ!

Jesus says that if we remain connected to Him, submitting to the cleansing of the Father, we’ll bear fruit.

Let's pray:
Every day, God, help us to be one with You and with Your family, the Church. We surrender our whole selves to You. We’ll do it today and tomorrow and, with Your power surging through our souls, all the days of our lives and on through eternity. We ask nothing more than that you do Your will in us and through us. In Jesus’ Name we pray. Amen.
May God help each of us to abide in Christ.


DennisS said...

Great illustration with Mabel. I've been priviledged to know such a lady, though not blind.

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you, Dennis.

People like Mabel--and I've known a few of her ilk as well--inspire our faith. They're definitely fruit-bearers!