Staying on the Vine

“I am the vine; you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him,
he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
(John 15:5)

I have a knee jerk reaction whenever I hear someone try to succinctly state what the Christian life is all about.  Because we are talking about life, any description cannot be succinct.  Any attempt to summarize the Christian faith and life will inevitably leave something out.  Given the nature of this brief, hastily written, belated midweek message, I know I will omit a thing or two as well, that’s why I keep writing week after week.

Still, in preparation for my sermon this week on Matthew 21:18-22, the story of Jesus cursing the barren fig tree, my mind has been racing around the idea of how the Christian life is about being fruitful.  The fig tree represented Israel.  The tree’s show of fullness and health only masked it’s emptiness; there was no fruit to be found.  Israel’s pomp and hyper-religious production only masked it’s emptiness; they failed to recognize their King, they had turned a house of prayer into a marketplace and den of thieves.  What had been meant to be a light for the world had become a Sun-Tan salon for the spiritually superior, with the ensuing cancer eating away at the soul of the nation.

Those who are called God’s people are meant to be fruitful; to be a blessing to the nations, to be the light of world, the salt of the earth.  This was Israel’s calling, and the fig tree stood as a symbol, a parable, of the curse that would come because of their fruitlessness.

The message serves as a warning to the Church today.  Are we fruitful?  Is the evidence of God’s Spirit working among us showing forth in a growing love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – showing in the fellowship of the congregation and in the individual lives of its members?

This isn’t a call to work harder at being a better Christian.  The Pharisees and Priests in Israel, the “religiously serious” had a pretty good handle on how to work harder at doing right by God – and Jesus called them whitewashed tombs.

No, the answer to fruitfulness in the Christian life is not doing more stuff.  And here’s where I might narrow the focus a bit:

The purpose of the Christian life is not in the doing, it is in the being.  Christ did not come so that we could be better people, so that we could have the encouragement to try harder, or so that we could have a better example of how to live.

No.  Christ came to make us a new creation, to cover our brokenness with his perfection, so that our lives would become lives of thanksgiving and praise to God for such a gift of salvation.  The fruitfulness that Christ is looking for in the life of His church, in the lives of His disciples, is not the product of harder effort, but of true fellowship with him.

This is what Jesus is getting at in our reading from John.   We are branches grafted into the vine.  Our strength, our fruitfulness, does not come from the branch, from ourselves, but from the vine which is our source of life.  When we are connected, fellowshipping, in union with Christ, our lives will bear the natural consequence of that union: fruitfulness.  When we are absent from Christ, when we fail to listen and obey His word, when prayer and fellowship with Christ is forsaken, then we will cease to bear fruit.

Fruitfulness is the natural consequence of faithfulness to Christ.

We have some friends who like to burn scented candles in their homes.  When you go to visit, the aroma of their candles permeate and saturate your being.  When you leave, you carry that aroma with you.

So it is with Christ.  The beautiful aroma of sweet fellowship with Christ permeate and saturates your life, until everything you do is an overflowing of that fellowship, and comes forth like fruit from the vine.

May your fellowship with Christ be seen in the fruitfulness of your life.


Bring the Wet Blanket

You are the salt of the earth…
(Matthew 5:13 (ESV))

I don’t wear a collar; I rarely even wear a tie.  I do have a “Clergy” sticker on the back of my car, but that’s only so I can park in the clergy parking space at the big city hospital.  Otherwise, I don’t think that I have any outwardly distinguishable features: no halo, no angel chorus as I enter a room, no supernatural powers (like the ability to turn baked chicken into peanut butter and jellynwhich my three year old son frequently asks me to do).

Still, most people know that I am a pastor.  I’ve been serving this particular church for 6 years now, I’ve been active in the community, so most people know who I am.  And I guess, because of that, I do have one super-ordination-power: I can kill a party.

My wife and I have noticed this on more than one occasion.  When invited to parties (which we do get invited to them) my wife and I will approach our friend’s home, the sounds of jocular festivities spilling out into the street, only to be greeted with an instant quieting.  It’s as if everyone stops and says, “Great, the pastor’s here, now we’ve got to talk ‘churchy.’”

Recently we attended a wedding dinner for a couple whose marriage ceremony I had just officiated.  There were many people were at the dinner who had not been at the church, so they had no idea who I was.  My wife and I sat with some friends and were having a wonderful evening.  Just to the right of me, however, were some people I had never met.  They sat next to me, adult beverages in hand (and I was having one, too) and began to regale one another with wild stories about the past weekend and lurid gossip about everyone else assembled at the dinner.

Then came time for the prayer before the meal.  I went forward to the table where the bridal party was gathered, prayed for the couple and for the meal, then returned to my seat.  My new companions were obviously troubled.  Immediately their conversation changed.  They told me how they appreciated my prayer, told me how hard it is for them to get to church, gave a history of which church they used to attend and why they left, and even suggested I was too young to be a minister (whatever that means).

I know what they were thinking, “I better be careful, the minister’s right here.”  But friends, let me tell you, I am not God’s spy.

I don’t mind people being careful about what they say when I’m around, as a matter of fact, I’m glad people do change the way they talk when they know I’m a pastor.  Truth be told, I’d rather not hear the vulgarities you were about to pour forth.  I’d rather not be privy to the idle gossip that you feel necessary to share with everyone in range of hearing.  It’s amazing; You can ban a man from smoking in a public place and polluting the air, but you cannot touch the anger and profanity in his heart and mind that pollutes the hearts of those around him.  Only prayer and grace can defeat those demons.

Actually, the change that comes when people know I’m a pastor is something I consider an essential part of every Christian’s influence in the world.  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth…”  One of the beneficial qualities of salt is that it is a preservative.  It fights off the spoiling and destructive corruption of decay.  In the same way, the presence of the Christian in the world should have a preservative effect, fighting off the spoiling and destructive corruption of sin.  So every Christian should have a healing quality to conversations.  People should speak differently when they are around you.  It is a good thing.

This doesn’t mean that Christians cannot have a good time, cannot be the life of the party, should not be enjoyable company.  In fact, when you have Christ, you have the one true source of joy, and that joy is contagious, infectious, and it lasts.  A Christian can have a good time with friends, never worrying about impressing others, because he has already been validated and received by his heavenly Father.  The Christian doesn’t have to sing hymns to fend off the corrupting influence of Gaga.  But because he has already sung the hymns, he knows the true source of joy, love, and peace and is strengthened against temptation.

The fact is, though, God doesn’t need me to give him a report of your conversation; he’s watching and listening, even when I’m not there.  God knows your every thought and intention, even before you do.

God doesn’t ask me to spy on you; He calls me to pray for you.  When I meet someone new, without knowing anything about them, I give God thanks for the opportunity to meet them, I listen for ways that I can be praying for them, but ultimately, I pray that God would show them the same grace and mercy and love that He has so abundantly shown to me.  I don’t cast out judgment, I offer up prayer.

Does that put a damper on your festivities?  Consider this; if you’re partying things up just to hide the insecurity and doubts from that nagging sense that your life is falling apart at the seams and will quickly end up as a flaming ruin, which would you prefer: a wet blanket or a lampshade?