Friday, May 8, 2015

Connections (John 15:1-11) by Rev. Dr. Alan W. Deuel

Nancy and I enjoy visiting wineries in CA.  We have been to winemaking regions in Temecula, Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and Napa/Sonoma.  In doing so we learned a maxim that winemakers will tell you.  “How do you make a million dollars in the wine industry?  You start with 2 million.”  If there is one investment that has more to do with the heart than the head, it’s vineyards.    

Wineries and vineyards are the second most popular tourist attraction in California, the first one is Disneyland.  The United States is the larges retail winemaker in the world, and this industry employs 35,000 people.  Annual shipments in the U.S. total some 14 billion dollars.

Jesus brings a different perspective when it comes to vines.  Rather than speaking from an economic perspective, Jesus talks about vines from a spiritual perspective, as a metaphor for the connection or relationship of followers to him in the kingdom of God.  Yes, it’s good to be connected spiritually to Christ. 

Think about the many ways we are connected today: You have an insurance claim, but you’re in good hands with Allstate; you have car trouble, you call AAA; you are looking for a job, you turn to networking as a resource; you undergo surgery and receive pints of blood donated by volunteers; you desire safety in your neighborhood, you are part of a Neighborhood Watch program; you have chest pains, call 911 and paramedics arrive in minutes.  I haven't even mentioned our connections through social media like face book. 

Which leads us to Jesus’ message about grapevines. Jesus draws upon the image of a vine to convey the nature of our relationship with Him.  “I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower, you are the branches.   As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.”

Jesus commands us: “Abide in me as I abide in you.  A branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine.  Apart from me you can do nothing.”  Abide in Christ, that is, cultivate a relationship to Jesus Christ, an intimate relationship of commitment, trust, love, honesty, and obedience.  Live daily in Christ.  Seek and expect God to guide you, to direct your paths, to teach you, to renew your spirit.  Abide is about cultivating a spiritual union, communion with the Spirit of Christ. 

I recall when we were living in CO when I was pastor of the Monument Community Presbyterian Church. We had the opportunity to go skiing and I was surprised to see a blind person skiing. The blind skier, wearing a bright colored vest, was skiing down the mountain directly behind an instructor, listening for instructions from the instructor.  It was beautiful to behold.  Over the next several days I saw many blind skiers, invariably following the instructor, skiing gracefully along trails and slopes safely down the mountain. Abiding in Jesus means staying near, following closely, fostering a close spiritual relationship.

We cannot live the Christian life and be fruitful Christians apart from Christ, any more than branches can live after being torn off the vine.  Every branch draws its identity, it sustenance, its life from the vine.  No two branches are the same and yet they are all the same.  Every Christian is unique and yet every Christian is the same.  Our life and identity is derived from the Vine.

God established the principle of dependency - Life is connected to life.  Life is interdependent and dependent; it requires constant care, nurture, nourishment, sustenance and love.  It requires personal investment.  Relationships don't deepen and grow automatically or magically. 

But despite the truth of Jesus’ teaching, people will act the opposite and disregard his wisdom.   Over the years, I have seen examples of how Jesus' warning comes to pass.  Marriages become an empty shell or lead to divorce, because the couple start leading independent lives and gradually stop investing the energy and time that a marriage requires.  Parents and children grow apart and become estranged because they are doing their own thing and don't make time for one another.  Kids are more and more on their own, unsupervised, without parental guidance, and we all know the price children pay and society pays when this occurs.  One’s faith gradually diminishes because worship becomes rare, prayer is spotty, the Bible collects dust, and sharing with others in ministry fades into oblivion.

Someone took the excuses people use for not participating in church and applied them to another area of life – 7 Reasons Not to Wash. I. I was forced to as a child.  2. People who make soap are only after your money. 3. I wash on special occasions like Christmas and Easter.  4. People who wash are hypocrites—they think they are cleaner than everyone else.  5. I used to wash but I got bored so I stopped.  6. None of my friends wash so why should I.  7. I’m busy, I can't spare the time to wash.   Like removing a hot coal from a bed of coals, and setting it off by itself, one’s spiritual life will eventually wither away and grow cold. 

Jesus further speaks about spiritual pruning in the Kingdom of God.  “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes, to make it bear more fruit.”  There is such a thing as an unproductive life in the Kingdom of God.  Are you leading an unproductive life?  A winemaker prunes a vine, to produce more fruit, to increase the capacity of the vine to produce a higher quality and quantity of fruit, to increase fruit production.  Vines aren't supposed to just grow foliage; they are designed to produce grapes. 

And that's why God prunes.  Pruning is a metaphor for spiritual discipline.  God never tempts us, scripture is clear about that, but God sometimes disciplines us to strengthen our character and faith.  God sometimes tests our faith through divine pruning.   God allows us to suffer the consequences of poor decisions or judgments or to go through difficult periods to prune us.   “If you are having a tough time, ask, God, are you pruning me?”

What needs pruning in your life?   What is prohibiting you from bearing fruit?  You may know exactly what needs pruning in your life.  I can assure you that God knows what needs pruning in your life and in mine.  I’m going to pause a moment now and in silence, invite you to ask God to get out his pruning shears.   Why? Because we all need it, I need it, you need it.  Why? Because God wants us to bear more fruit. 

And the glorious news is that if we abide in Him we will bear fruit, much fruit.  Jesus' speaks about abiding and pruning not to be a killjoy, but so that his joy may be in us.  We experience joy when we are bearing fruit in His name.   Joy is the by-product of bearing fruit.    Joy is the surprise which comes when we are using our gifts and talents for the Lord in His Kingdom.  Joy comes when we are doing what God wants us to do and are where God wants us to be.

According to a Gallup poll, which makes a distinction between happiness and joy, nearly 60 percent all Americans today feel happy.  But a new study cautions that there's something much more important than happiness, because happiness fluctuates.  It is finding meaning in life or a life purpose.  Having purpose and meaning in life increases overall life satisfaction and contentment.  After interviewing nearly 400 Americans, the study found there is one major difference—happiness focuses on "taking" while meaning/purpose focuses on "giving."

The researchers concluded that happiness is about feeling good, its about thinking life is easy, and  being able to go places and buy the things that one needs and wants. The study stated, "If anything, pure happiness is linked to not helping others in need."

In contrast, people leading meaningful lives get a lot of joy from giving to others. Having more meaning in life was associated with activities like buying presents for others, taking care of kids, or serving others.   People whose lives have high levels of meaning help others even when it comes at the expense of happiness.  So what's your most important goal in life—happiness or meaning?

Bearing fruit shows forth a Christ-like character in your everyday life in fruits of - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.   It glorifies God, it pleases God, it expands His Kingdom; its about being productive.  As branches of the Vine, Jesus Christ doesn’t expect us to produce more than others or more than we can, for we are unique persons.  But Christ does expect us to produce all that we can, by the power of the Holy Spirit working within us.  That is often more than we might think possible.  Someone wrote: “We often expect too little from God and we attempt too little for God.”    

Jesus says: ”I am the vine, you are the branches.”  We are connected, let us go forth and bear fruit.  Amen!

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