Nick at Night

What does it mean to be born again? How are we born of water and the Spirit?
Let us understand the newness of a spirit life.
We will examine John 3:1-17, Nicodemus, regeneration, and why we are not to condemn others.
Nicodemus is also called Saint Nicodemus. He was a Pharisee and a senator in the Jewish ruling council, the Sanhedrin. He appears three times in the Gospel of John. He visited Jesus by night to ask questions (John 3:1–2), he challenged condemning Jesus without a hearing (John 7:50-51) and assisted Joseph of Arimathea preparing Jesus for burial (John 19:38-39). He is possibly the Nicodemus ben Gurion in the Talmud, a wealthy and popular Jewish leader famous for miraculous powers. Jesus explained to him the mystery of regeneration as was taught in the prophets. Nicodemus was not offended at Jesus’ correction but received it in humility. He defended Jesus openly against the Pharisees, assisted at his burial and was later kicked out of the synagogue for believing in Christ. He retired to his country home where he died.
Symbolism of Nick and the Night
The night time meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus was symbolic in two ways. First of all Nick was representing others who were not immediately present because he said “we know” (John 3:2) and so Jesus answered him in the plural speaking “unto thee” (you plural) and “ye” (you plural). Jesus was speaking to all those others for whom Nicodemus had spoken, other religious leaders, and perhaps also other believers and perhaps too all of us. Secondly, Nicodemus came at night, symbolic of the darkness that we all faced until light came into the world and we came into that light (verses 19-21). In the Old Testament the law was that light, now it is Christ. Even the most devout and moral people who may obey all the commandments can still be in darkness, because the true light is Jesus.
Nicodemus’ Belief was not Enough
Nicodemus was a believer in Jesus, but what kind of belief? Nick was impressed with the miracles that Jesus has performed but needed something more. He needed to start life all over again. He needed to be born from above. Nicodemus believed but did not see the real Jesus. Other people followed Jesus because of his miracles and wanted to crown him king. Even today like an evil and adulterous generation too many focus on miracles instead of the need to be born from above. Jesus was not anti-miracle. He performed miracles. He wanted Nick to go beyond that level of faith to something more. Many who have performed miracles in his name will not even enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21-23). Paul says that miracles without love are worthless (1 Corinthians 13).
Sky born
The circumstances of our birth can make a big difference in our worldly fortunes. Some are born into power and wealth. Others are born into subjugation and poverty. Equal opportunity simply does not exist. According to the Opportunity Index, income inequality is closely associated with opportunity inequality. That means that those from poor homes are less likely to have what is necessary to take advantage of opportunities. No matter what our circumstances are we have a better birth in God. To be born from the sky, from heaven above (John 3:3), is to belong to heaven. We owe our allegiance to a different kingdom not of this world. We are a child of God. Every level of status in this world is inferior to that which we have from heaven. In God we have the highest status of all.
Born from Above is also for the Elderly
Was Nicodemus old? Why do some elderly people tend to become bitter? Born again elderly people are not. The Greek word in John 3:3 is similar to a musician taking it “from the top” or from the top of the music score again. So too the Greek word can mean either born “again” or “from above”. Nicodemus took it to mean only born again, when it means so much more: born from above, from heaven. Popular understanding takes Nick’s interpretation instead of Jesus’. Being born from above is an act of God, not a human deed. It is regeneration, a change of orientation. We give up our earthly birthright, nationality, status, heritage and identity to receive a heavenly one from God above. Even in old age, life in Christ is new. We have reason to live with youthful joy.
Born of water and the Spirit
Born from above or from heaven is also described as being born of water and the Spirit (John 3:5). Water is used in our baptism, Jesus turns water into wine and Jesus will later speak of living water. Our human rituals are insufficient without the transforming power of that living water from above. Christian baptism is not just a water ritual, but includes an unseen spiritual component. That unseen component is like the wind. We may know generally that cold winds come from colder regions or that warm winds come from the tropics, but we cannot tell specifically where they came from or where they are going to. Our new Spirit born life is as mysterious as the wind. Christianity is not about condemning certain immoral acts, but a life of faith trusting God where his Spirit may blow.
Jesus in two places at once
Some interpret John 3:13 to mean nobody goes to heaven when we die but await the resurrection while they lie unconscious in a grave. Others believe it means that Jesus ascended to heaven before he died. Remember: Jesus said this before his ascension. It means that Jesus’ unique position was someone on earth and at the same time “in heaven” in constant communion with the Father. Jesus is the bridge between heaven and earth. In a similar sense, all believers are “seated in heavenly places” (Ephesians 2:6) much as Jesus resided “in the bosom of the Father” (John 1:18). Jesus is able to reveal heavenly secrets to Nicodemus because he “has ascended to heaven” and “is in heaven.” In Jesus, there is a bridge from heaven to earth which all those who are born from above experience.
Problem, Cause, Solution
Ancient Israel was often impatient with God. One one occasion, God punished them by sending poisonous snakes into their midst (Numbers 21:4-9). The people regretted their slander and Moses prayed and following God’s instructions made a bronze snake on a pole. When the people were bitten and looked on the bronze snake, they lived. The immediate problem was snakes. The cause was their lack of faith in God. The solution was to stimulate them to repentance and faith. In similar fashion humanity is in trouble and we are mostly to blame (John 3:14-15). Just as the solution to a snake problem came via a snake, so has the solution to our human dilemma come through the man Jesus Christ. He too was lifted up on a pole and we who keep our eyes on him will also live.
Loving the hateful
Think of a group of people who absolutely hate us. Maybe it is a country that hates ours. Maybe it is a group of hate-filled and demented terrorists whose only plans are our destruction. Maybe it is another class of individuals who despise us. Imagine then that we decide to die for that group out of love. That is what it means when the Bible says that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). Amazing! The word world just about everywhere else in the Bible refers to those who hate God, yet "God with us," Jesus Christ died to save that same God-despising world. While we use faith to divide, God teaches us one simple rule, love that unites.
How God Loved the World
Greek students ought to make their own translation of John 3:16. Often familiar verses have had their true meaning clouded by popular assumptions. The first word is outos in Greek. We take that to mean that God loved the world very much. It actually means in this way or in this manner God loved the world. We could also say that God loved the world in this manner. The King James Bible still influences translation committees because they have a hard time changing its familiar wording. “For this is how God loved the world.” (New Jerusalem Bible). “For God loved the world in this way” (Holman Bible). “For this is the way God loved the world” (New English Translation). How did God love the world? By lifting up his son on the cross as Moses lifted up the serpent.
Non-Judgmental yet Discerning
Are Christians judgmental if they disagree with certain sins or bad teachings? Some may be, but that does not mean that everyone is. Can a Christian be non-judgmental yet discerning? In John 3:17 Jesus said that he did not come to condemn the world. Unfortunately some Christians do just the opposite, condemn. Does that mean that we may not disagree or discern that a particular idea is wrong? Of course not. In the same chapter where Jesus taught us not to judge (Matthew 7:1, 15) he also said to watch out for false prophets. There is a big difference between a condemning, hypercritical attitude and having an opinion that something is wrong. Jesus Christ is the final judge, not us. Our judgment now ought to be righteous — not a damnation, but a discernment of right from wrong.
When Christians Condemn
When Christians criticize national leaders, neighbors and each other what should we think? We are all guilty of such judgmental behavior. Yet, at times when we are tempted to condemn other people, perhaps we should all rethink what Jesus said in John 3:17. He did not come to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Of course, there are things in this world worthy of condemnation. Even in the church, surprise, surprise, there are things that occur which are just not right. That kind of thing occurs in every denomination without fail. Some Christians love to play Satan, the accuser of the brethren. Others just like to look down their noses at the shortcomings of others. Perhaps we all ought to reconsider our graceless approach of condemnation and realign ourselves with the mission of Jesus Christ.
What would Jesus say?
We are extremists. We either condemn adulterers, homosexuals, polygamists and cohabiting singles or we approve their actions. Jesus did neither. On one sexual sin, he said that in the beginning it was not so, but due to hardheartedness Moses allowed it. Jesus did not condemn a woman caught in a sexual sin, but told her to sin no more. He did not come to condemn the world (John 3:17). It does not mean that Jesus could not condemn the world, or that he will not at the judgment, but that he does not now. We also know that it is also not our business now to judge. So, what would Jesus say to sexual relationships that are different than was intended in the beginning? What would Jesus say to those who miss the sexual ideal? What should we say?
Non-Condemning, Non-Condoning Love
Jesus told a woman caught in a sexual sin neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more (John 8:1-11). He did not come into the world to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17). Why do some Christians condemn the world? Our business is to join Jesus in his job of saving. Jesus' suggestion was that who is without sin cast the first stone. Before he even got to the "go and sin no more" part, he had already told her that he did not condemn her. There are two reactions that we can have towards sin, becoming a hater or a lover. If we are to love our neighbor, then condemnation is sinful. Christ's own example was not one of condemnation but of love. The only legitimate Christian response is non-judgmental, non-condoning love.
While we recognize that sin exists in the world, we are not qualified to judge and condemn others. We should not remain as haters but allow the Holy Spirit to transform us into lovers. Even in our old age, we should be reborn from above with a new youthful spirit from heaven.

Pentecost Every Day

How can a mere human being understand the things of God?
I want us to understand the means by which God reaches out and touches us so that we can begin to understand him.
We will look at John 15:26-27;16:4-15 and discover how the Holy Spirit works in our lives.
John 15:26-27 speaks of the Holy Spirit testifying to the disciples on Jesus’ behalf and them testifying to what they had witnessed of Christ. To testify means to bear witness. A witness is there for all to see and hear whether we know it or not. We are witnessing at every moment. People see how we act and hear what we say. If we are always talking about ourselves or our denomination, are we giving witness to them and not to Jesus? The Holy Spirit gives witness not about himself but on behalf of Jesus. If we give witness to the Holy Spirit and not Jesus, we are perverting his mission. As the disciples gave witness to their personal experience with Jesus, so too do we. Our experience as followers of the Christ is the subject of our witness.
Daily Pentecost
Acts 2 was an unusual Pentecost. John describes a daily Holy Spirit experience. He comes alongside to plead our case as accusers condemn our failures. He helps us testify to Jesus in the face of opposition. He puts the world to shame regarding sin, justice and judgment (16:8). The opposite of sin is not impossible law-keeping, but faith. The remedy for our failures is faith (16:9). The Holy Spirit convicts us that the world’s idea of justice is unjust and causes oppression, inequality and poverty. The Holy Spirit in us judges the world (16:11). The Holy Spirit guides us into the truth which is in Christ and nowhere else (16:13). Christian discuss our becoming like God in various ways as theosis, growing into union with God, divinization, spiritual formation or sanctification. It is a mystical experience.
The Spirit of Truth
The Holy Spirit is our advocate, encourager, comforter and helper. He is also the Spirit of Truth. We are told that he will guide us into all truth. Over the centuries many wacky and troublesome ideas have been proclaimed as being guided by Jesus Christ. How can we discern what is truth guided by heaven and what is just an idea pulled out of thin air by mere humans? First of all we note that the Holy Spirit will not speak on his own initiative, but only what he hears. Second, he will glorify Jesus not any human being or institution of human beings. Third, it is from Jesus that he will receive what is to be made known, not from a mere human being. Fourth, if it is something that receives wide acceptance in the church, it is a safer teaching.
Creating Unity
How can we Christians be unified? We can keep unity by following God’s example expounded in John 15:26-16:15. Here we see the way Father, Son and Holy Spirit act in perfect unity. The Holy Spirit guides us into all truth. He is not a rebel, who speaks words that divide, but speaks only what he hears. From whom does he hear those words? It is from Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit receives the words that he makes known to us. As we look down through Christian history, perhaps we can see that division comes from politics, lust for power and words of mere human beings. However, there is something that unifies us all, the words of Jesus. When we emphasis the truths that Jesus taught, we become more unified. The Trinity teaches us how perfect unity behaves.
The Work of the Spirit in the World
In John 16:8-11 we learn of the work of the Spirit in the world. He will prove to those in the world that they are wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment. 1) Those in the world are wrong about sin because they do not believe in Jesus. Sin here is not described as a moral failure, but a lack of faith. 2) Those in the world are wrong about righteousness because Jesus went to the Father. In other words, though the world condemns Christ, God shows his approval of what Jesus did. 3) Those in the world are wrong about judgment because the ruler of this world has been condemned. The ruler of this world whoever that may be, whether human or demonic, is condemned for bad judgment primarily because of unbelief in Jesus as King of Kings.
The Work of the Spirit in Believers
In John 16:12-15 we learn of the work of the Spirit in the Church. He guides us into all the truth. Some teachings of the Church have only been more fully formulated since the New Testament was written. What the Holy Spirit speaks will always be entirely consistent with the teachings of Jesus and glorify Christ, just as Jesus echoed the Father’s teachings. If the Spirit guides us into all truth, how can sola scriptura (the Bible alone) be our entire source of truth? Perhaps a more logical term is prima scriptura (first the Bible) and secondarily tradition which includes the Holy Spirit’s inspiration throughout Christian history. We could add to tradition reasoning and experiences that are consistent with the Bible. Worshiping God with our minds, and our experience of the Holy Spirit’s activities play important roles in Christianity.
Spirit of Truth
In Acts 2 the disciples spoke in tongues. What was their purpose here? It was to make the Gospel plain to people who spoke other languages. What is the Holy Spirit’s purpose? When John called the Spirit the Paraclete (the one called close beside us) he explained that his purpose is to to be with us forever, teach us everything, remind us of all that Jesus said, he will testify on Jesus’ behalf, to prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment, and guide us into all the truth (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7-15). In our passage (John 15:26; 16:13) he is called the Paraclete, and the Spirit of truth, meaning the Spirit who communicates the truth. His purpose in Acts 2 was to reveal that truth to those who spoke other languages.
The Holy Spirit is here with us today to reveal to us the things of God. He convicts our faith, leads us to Jesus, helps us reject the world and guides us into all the truth.

The 2 Ways

If we could boil all the world’s religions and political philosophies down to their essentials what would we come up with? Are they real alternatives or are they just facets of the same worldly way of life?
We will see that there are only two ways and examine the world’s ways.
We will look at John 17:6-19 and examine the two ways.
God’s Way and the World’s are Opposite
John 17:6-19 is part of what some call the real Lord’s prayer, a prayer he prayed for us in the faith community, shortly before his death. It is a prayer for those whom the Father had given him, and that includes us (vs 20) in a chain of faith that passed from believer to believer down through history. We listen in on Jesus’ prayer as did the disciples. He prayed about what God gave him and what he in turn gave us. Giving illustrates the difference between God’s way and the world’s way. God gives but the world takes. God gives to Jesus and Jesus gives to us and we give to others. In this context the “world” (kosmos) refers to the inhabitants of the world, an ungodly multitude, alienated from God, and hostile to the cause of Christ.
In But Not Of
Jesus prayed that we would be separated from the world, not in where we live but, in our behavior. We are in the world but do not belong to it, as ambassadors of a different kingdom. God does not remove us from our neighbors but sent us to them to give to them. But the world is a spiritually dangerous place. In John 17:11-12, 15 Jesus prayed for our protection from the evil one. Our separation from the world in spirit is indicated in vs 17 & 19 by the word sanctify. It means to make holy, make us saints. How? God uses the word of truth to separates us from the world and make us saints. That is Jesus, the word made flesh according to the context of John. That truth is what we follow and which sanctifies us.
No Need for Self-Justification
The world teaches us to justify ourselves. We don't have to pretend that we are more perfect than we are or defend our egos. We can freely admit our sinfulness. We simply acknowledge that God forgave all our sins. He set us free. And we are free to forgive others and be different. When we know we are forgiven, we can show respect and love to ourselves and others. There is no need to play the world’s games of belittling others and pretending that we have no faults. Sanctification is a process that develops when our faith is fed from the Word of Truth. If Jesus prayed for us once, do we think that he continues to pray for us? Pastors take their church directories and pray for everyone on the list. I believe that Jesus still prays for us.
The 2 Ways
Psalm 1 refers to two ways. I hesitate to accept the title Two Ways of Life because only one is the way of life and the other is the way of death. It is the same as the contrast between the way of the world and God’s way in John 17:6-19. Psalm 1 contradicts modern thought which would describe happiness as a psychological state, by claiming that the more of an ethical and upright lifestyle we live the happier we are. Whether we walk, stand or sit we are tempted by advice of the wicked. Happy are those who delight in and think about God’s instruction all day long. They have staying power and bear fruit. The wicked will not last. Even now in the church, that division is there and the wicked will eventually perish unless they repent.
One way to tell whether we belong to the world (John 17:6-19) is by our thoughts. How much do we meditate on God’s word? We are sanctified by the truth in God’s word, not by false interpretations of it, but by the truth that is there. Psalm 1 says that the the righteous are always meditating on God’s instructions. Meditation in the Bible means thinking, not some vain repetition of a mantra or emptying the mind. Christian meditation is one way that we love God with our minds. It is thinking about God’s instructions in the Bible in which the Holy Spirit plays the role of illuminating the Holy Scriptures to our understanding (1 Corinthians 2:9-10; 2 Corinthians 4:6). Repetition of key passages of Holy Scripture during services helps to commit them to memory and daily meditation.
He Ascended into Heaven
In Luke 24:44-53 we read of power from on high to enable Christ’s followers to proclaim repentance and forgiveness to the whole world. Our job is to proclaim a better way, the way to life. The world’s way is that some win and others lose. Heaven’s way is that everyone wins. Jesus had planted the first Christian church with a core group of 12 men and several women. He taught them principles and left them to apply them. One of the kindest things that a church founder can do today is to then leave so that the newly planted church can thrive. Jesus did not leave it until it was fully equipped with everything it needed to multiply, 3 years worth of his teaching and example, to be followed up by the ever present help of the Holy Spirit.
In Luke 24:44-53 the word that is important. Jesus teaches us in summary how the Gospel is to be proclaimed: Christ was to suffer and rise again. In turn we are to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in his name. The Old Testament Scriptures point to Christ’s suffering, death, resurrection and ascension. This is the full preaching of the Gospel. What does this have to do with our passage in John 17:6-19? Colossians 3:1-2 gives us an answer. In Christ, Christians have been raised out of the dead ways of this world. If we have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above. We Christians do not seek the ways of the world, but the things of God. Repentance is a turning of the heart from the way of this world to the way of God.
This world’s way is not the way to life. There is only one way to life and only one source of life. God is the way and the source of eternal life. We have been raised with Christ, so let us seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for we have died, and our lives are hidden with Christ in God.

The Basis of Christianity

In the midst of slurs and attacks on Christianity which are popular in the media today, what is Christianity really all about? Are the critics right? Is Christianity irrelevant and out of touch or is it still the most relevant belief in existence?
Let’s understand how love is the basis of real Christianity.
Sermon Plan
We will look at John 15:9-17 and Jesus’ command for us to love each other.
Abide in Love
John 15:9-10 emphasizes keeping Christ’s commands and abiding in the love of God and Christ. That is the fruit that will abide or last (vs. 16). It is fruit that only comes to those who remain in connection with the vine. Love is the major discussion of this entire passage: God's love for Jesus, Jesus' love for us and our love for each other. The Greek root words agape and philos are used interchangeably. When Jesus says that we are his friends he means “those who are loved.” To be Jesus' friend and to love Jesus are the same thing. That friendship is defined as keeping Jesus' commands, the chief of which is to love. John referred to himself as the one Jesus loves. What would it mean to us to identify ourselves primarily as ones that Jesus loves?
What does the word command mean in this passage? Nowhere does it say Ten Commandments, so let us not assume without any further evidence that is what it means as some seem to do. Jesus speaks of his commands and his Father’s. Jesus’ commandment is clearly to love one another (John 15:12). Jesus obeys his Father’s order. What are they? The Bible does not contain all of God’s commandments. Some are those orders which were only between the Father and Son. The context here seems to actually refer to Jesus' life of obedience to his Father’s wishes. Jesus' obedience to his Father's command shows his love for the Father. Our obedience to Jesus' command shows our love for Jesus. In John 15:10 the word keep actually means to hold dear because of a joyful response of our love for God.
Mother Teresa once said that America has become a selfish nation. Even our religion is primarily about us, our health and our wealth, and not Christ. We have lost the meaning of love, which is to give until it hurts. Love is giving. Jesus gave until he died. That is the Gospel. The focus of the Gospel is what he did for us. Unlike the “decision for Jesus” movement, Jesus said that we did not choose him, but he chose us (John 15:16). The word Gospel in Old English meant God’s story. It is about what God has done, not what we do. Statements to choose God, follow Jesus or do you love the Lord are not Gospel. They are not about what God is doing, but us. The Gospel is about what God is doing and his choice.
Helping Others Win
Imagine a game where the purpose is to help the other team win. What kind of sport is that? It’s a strange sport called Christianity. It is the sport of Jesus. Imagine playing pick-up teams and picking the weaker players first rather than last as usual. Imagine every score was for the other side. Of course there are limits to this analogy. Jesus had real enemies and we would not want them to win. Among them were the Pharisees, the pious people who prayed three times a day, knew their Bibles, obeyed God's laws, fasted weekly and gave 10% of their income. Jesus did not choose them. He chose fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot, a bunch of rejects.
A Love that Gives Life
Many of us honor our mothers and fathers who gave so much of their lives for us. It is a sad fact when such giving is spurned in favor of a selfish life where career and money come before the love of children. Children are too often an inconvenience to be farmed out to a babysitter school system and day care. Those things have their place and every parent certainly needs a break. However, when the priorities are for self, our children suffer neglect. Yet the love of an unselfish parent can teach us to love each other, just as the love of our heavenly parent teaches us what selflessness is all about (John 15:9-17). A self-love that takes life from others destroys the taker. A love that gives life is the greatest love of all.
The Love Vine
Jesus taught about abiding in the vine, then abiding in his love (John 15:9-17). The two ideas are connected by the context. How do we abide in his love? If we keep his commandments we remain in his love. What commandments? His commandment is this: that we love one another as he has loved us. Remaining in the love vine makes us able to bear much fruit. It is such an important command that it is repeated: love each other. How is that love defined? What is the supreme example of such love? Laying down one’s life for one’s friends can be applied in many ways. Death is one way to lay down one’s life. So is living a life of self-sacrifice. It is the kind of love that a parent shows when time is given to a child.
Obeying Stupid Rules in Love
Some rules just don’t make sense. Stupid decrees which are a waste of time and resources just incite rebellion and disrespect. It especially makes Christians angry to be judged for ignoring brainless rules made up by bossy control freaks who think they have the right to interfere in private lives. Nobody likes to be shackled by idiotic regulations. Yet there is one rule that makes more sense than any other. If we all obeyed this rule the world would be wonderfully transformed. Those who disobey it are fools because it benefits everyone. That rule is to love each other (John 15:9-17). Sometimes it even makes sense to obey a stupid rule, if by doing so we are showing love to those whose faith is weak and tied to that rule. We show love by not offending a little one.
Brotherly Love & Love of Neighbor
Philadelphia is known as the city of “brotherly love.” The Greek word philos embodies the great command to love our brother. John used it to describe the friendship Jesus has with us. It means someone dearly loved. It is love for neighbor. For example, in John 15:9-17 Jesus stated that if we keep his commands we remain in his love. The principle command that he issued was to love one another. Then he stated that we are his friends if we do what he commands. When churches fall into squabbles over disputes about sins, money and power they fail their calling. Churches succeed in love when they give humanitarian relief during war, calamity or natural disaster disrupt communities and when they fight for the poor and oppressed foreigners. When we love one another, we are dearly beloved friends of Jesus.
The basis of Christianity is love. That love overrides all the silly criticisms that come from outside and inside. It is that love that built hospitals, shelters, serves the poor and provides humanitarian efforts to change the world. It is the love of Jesus that the world needs now.

Hang in There & Bear Fruit

Jesus prayed that we remain in unity, but we have let our Savior down. From the Great East-West schism between the Eastern Churches and the western Church, to the further divisions between the various branches of the Church of God we have let our Savior down.
Let’s understand how we must fight for unity and have faith in the Head of the Church to fix those things that are wrong.
Sermon Plan
We will look at John 15:1-8 and the need to abide in connection to one another and to Jesus.
In John 15:1 Jesus describes himself as the true vine, sometimes called the trunk. We are the branches, sometimes called cordons. Each year new shoots grow. On these shoots grow leaves and tendrils. Tendrils grow opposite to a grape cluster and attach to anything available to provide stability for the grapes which grow opposite.
God Prunes
Who does the pruning (John 15:2)? Sometimes we feel guilty when people leave. We wonder what we did wrong. Sometimes we are guilty of causing offense, but let us not forget that pruning must also be done. People come to us who have agendas for personal aggrandizement and are not team players. There are people who are habitual church hoppers and have not developed that spiritual fruit of faithfulness. There are many other reasons why people cannot do as Christ taught and stand firm. I remember a story of a church that had 80 people, but would not grow. A new preacher came to town and the church rapidly shrunk from 80 down to 20. People were upset and wanted to get rid of him, but then the church grew to many hundreds. God had pruned it for growth.
Pruned Clean
Grapevines need to be pruned drastically in order to produce. The biggest pruning is in late winter when 85-90% of one-year-old wood is removed. Minor pruning is done in summer to remove excess shoots, leaves and grape clusters. Many people like the four- or two-arm Kniffen system, but a head-trained vine works well on some grape varieties. Some grapes do well growing up from a horizontal branch called a cordon, and some do better growing down from a cordon. The biggest problem in grape pruning is not removing enough. In the church we are reluctant to let go of people who are here for the wrong reason and we are reluctant to acknowledge God’s pruning or cleaning of those who are productive (John 15:2-3). The disciples had already been pruned clean by the word that Jesus spoke to them.
Blessed are the Katharoi
The Greek word translated as clean in John 15:3 is katharoi which is also translated as pure in the beatitudes where it says “blessed are the pure in heart.” In Greek, pruning was seen as cleaning away the unwanted or unfruitful wood from the vine, so that the vine could focus its energy on the fruitful parts of the plant. We too can use the word in a similar sense in English, such as to clean off a trunk of unwanted branches. As Christians our goal is to become pure or clean of heart, something that God does in us. It does not happen through our own efforts. We must simply abide in Christ.
Abide is Community
What kind of Christian community does John 15:1-8 encourage? What does a grapevine look like? A horizontal branch or cordon is attached to the trunk. Shoots grow from each branch and stems, leaves, tendrils and fruit grow from the shoots. There is a connection that must exist for fruit to grow. Church unity is based upon this kind of connectionalism. Independent churches and independent Christians that are not attached to each other or a denomination are not going to produce much fruit. When we are connected to each other and to Jesus we are healthy and produce much fruit. The vine pictures the church as a community that is connected to Jesus. We do not come into the church to promote our individual agendas, but to be a part of a community of love serving each other in Christ.
Abide is Connectionalism
Christians support ministries far beyond our local churches. One local congregation cannot serve the world. Connected we can. As the parable of the vine and branches in John 15:1-8 points out, we are connected to Christ and each other. Because of “connectionalism” we are able to share leaders and financial resources to provide health care, education, justice, disaster relief, and other aid. In John Jesus has only one standard of orthodoxy, love. That standard is the great equalizer. In the allegory of the branch there is no difference between us. All are required to love and remain in relationship with Jesus. All are expected to bear fruit. The connection with Jesus is a new understanding. Jesus is the vine and the Father does the pruning. To grow fruit, all are needed, the gardener, the vine and the branches.
Abide is Stick-to-it-iveness
In Greek the word abide (John 15:4) means to stay, remain, endure, continue, not to depart, not to leave, but to continue to be present. Quitters don’t abide. When we don’t wait on God, but take matters into our own hands, we don’t abide. Branches must stay connected to the vine and disciples must stay connected to Jesus. Those who take confirmation in the church but do not abide, will not bear fruit. Those who leave churches every time they don’t get their way or are offended by someone will not bear fruit. Abiding or not abiding is our decision as the branches. The inability to abide has fiery consequences. Removing fruitless branches from the vine is the decision of the gardener. People don’t bear fruit apart from the vine. If they are already abiding in the vine they will bear fruit.
Abide is Faithfulness
The parable of the vine and the branches is addressed to those who are disciples. We cannot begin the journey of discipleship and quit. A key fruit of discipleship is love (John 13:35). Our job is to abide (John 15:4) faithfully attached to the vine. Jesus’ job is to develop in us the fruit of love. The fruit of love does not develop all at once. Some people are attached to the vine for many years before the fruit of love becomes evident. It must eventually develop or we run the risk of being pruned by the gardener and thrown in the fire. As we grow, the gardener will prune us. Life sometimes seems like 85-90% of what we were has been removed, but we must have faith that after such a hard pruning, wonderful fruit will come.
Abide is Resting
Jesus encouraged us to abide in him (John 15:4). Rest is a dirty word among those who have inherited the Puritan work ethic. Yet, rest was incorporated into the design of the original creation. God took the seventh day and rested, not because he needed to, but because we need to. Some Christians insist on applying the letter of the law to either Saturday or Sunday today, but there is no such command in the Bible for the church. We are no longer under the schoolmaster and so apply the law in spirit. People in some professions must simply take another day of rest for the body. A day of rest is good for body and soul. Abiding in Jesus is not just once a week. Abiding in Jesus, provides a permanent rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28-30).
Abiding in Church
Abiding in Jesus (John 15:4) means abiding in church and that can be problematic. We must also abide with people problems. We may not want to, but Jesus wants to be around his people. He knows our sins, but forgives. He knows our silly fights between people, but perhaps is not as interested in our picky opinions as he is in grace. Forgiveness and grace are necessary in any human relationship, perhaps even more so in a church setting, where we expect higher standards of conduct. Yet, do we also expect higher standards of grace and forgiveness from ourselves? So then abiding in Christ, means that we also abide with each other. Surprising as it may seem, those who do, live longer and healthier lives than those who cannot abide church, so there must be something to this abiding.
Staying where Jesus is Preached
There are many reasons why people don’t go to church. “But the music is boring,” may be one excuse. “The preaching is not very exciting,” may be another. Another popular reason is a particular church has political issues, or people are too narrow-minded. If I was a starving person, I would not care what music was playing, or if they only had green beans and no ice cream to eat. And I certainly would not care if the staff did not get along perfectly or what their opinions about picky issues were. Abiding in Jesus means that we stay — no matter what (John 15:4). If a church preaches Jesus, that is, not just his name but also what Jesus taught, then that’s a place I want to be. The music, style of preaching, and personal problems are insignificant.
No True Friends but a Closet full of Shoes
Today’s world offers many fake substitutes. The Bible calls wealth a delusion because we substitute it for life’s most valuable things, and the best things in life are still free. Perhaps we have witnessed the woman on television with no true friends, but a closet full of shoes. Perhaps we have had a glimpse of the billionaire’s life, filled with material things, but marriages that continue to fail. One of the great blessings of church life is that connection to God and his people (John 15:4). If we abide in that connection, we get the best things in life for free. Abiding in church creates a support network of true friendships that stand the test of time and a friendship with Jesus develops a fruitful life that will last for all eternity. Apart from Jesus we can do nothing.
Pruned by God
We came to Jesus for Sabbath rest for our souls (Matthew 11:28-30). We decided to stay, abiding with him (John 15:1-8). When we attach ourselves to his vine, we also agree to the terms of the arrangement which include being pruned by God. Vines do not have nerve cells and so there is no pain, but pruning does still include certain minor temporary setbacks, which must be accommodated. In the long run, pruning keeps a vine from going wild and helps it produce a much better grape harvest. It may sound silly, but a vine that is cut off cannot bear any fruit. It is just headed for the fire. Cutting ourselves off from Jesus and connection with the church causes our lives shrivel up. We cast our lives into the fire. Better to stay connected and fruitful.
The Fruit
God, the gardener, removes dead wood and prunes the good branches. How many Christians expect a free ride, to inherit eternity without abiding in Jesus Christ? In the context of John 14-15, the fruit (John 15:4) is love. Galatians 5:22-23 expands upon that, but begins with love. Does this mean that those who do not love people in the church will eventually leave? God prunes everything that keeps us from bearing the fruit of love. Throughout the New Testament the word fruit refers to repentance, practicing truth, our offerings, Christian character and bringing others into the church. Fruitfulness includes conversions. God expects his church to grow. Is our church bearing fruit and growing? Are we seeing the fruit of love in our congregation? Fruit can reproduce. The fruit of a disciple is another disciple growing in God’s love.
God created his Church to be unified and connected. Jesus prayed for it and the Holy Spirit leads us to it. Let us not be quitters, but abide in connection with each other and with God. Let us hang in there and bear much fruit.