The Church Then and Now

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ABIDING IS THE SECRET OF FRUITFULNESS–John 15:1-8

Whereas most people speak in terms of wanting to be successful, Jesus emphasizes that his servants should be “fruitful.” There is an important distinction between these two outcomes. Fruitfulness is the true test of the servant, because it means the reproduction and multiplication of the same kind of life. Jesus’ own life was a powerful and challenging demonstration of that principle. He was indeed concerned with outcomes, but not couched in the language of success and achievement.

The fruit a tree bears identifies it unmistakably. Jesus said, “By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:16). The fruit embodies the superabundance of life that the tree cannot contain within itself. It is the tree’s give-away life. Fruitfulness inseparably relates quality and quantity. It makes us ask the question, “What kind of an influence am I having on the people around me?” “What kind of an atmosphere do I create when I enter a room?” “What kind of a legacy am I leaving?”

In the church we are in the business of growing people into the likeness of Christ so that they become people who will go out and make a difference in the world. We do well to pause and ask ourselves, “In my workplace and family, do I try to see the unrealized potential in the people around me?” “Do I celebrate their achievements?” “Are people being helped or hindered in coming to believe in a gracious, loving and truth-upholding God?”

Wayne Jacobsen in his book In My Father’s Vineyard provides valuable insights in interpreting this extended metaphor as one who grew up in his father’s vineyard. He points out that the branches are an integral part of the vine, not simply attached to it. There is no fixed line where the vine ends and the branch begins. He highlights the important spiritual lesson that Jesus wants us to identify so closely with him that others cannot tell where he leaves off and where we begin.

We should not overlook the point that Jesus was not confining his remarks to individuals, but was addressing a community. In the Old Testament the nation of Israel was frequently referred to as a vine. The prophet Isaiah described Israel as a “vineyard” planted and lovingly tended by God (Isaiah 5:1-7). The Psalmist praised God, “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land” (Psalm 80:8-9).

In declaring to his disciples, “I am the true vine,” Jesus was claiming to have come to create a new people, realizing God’s intentions expressed long before in the Scriptures. He was here drawing a contrast between himself and official Judaism. The Gardener also comes to examine our lives to inspect the fruit. What kind of harvest will he find in terms of quality and quantity? We are left in no doubt what kind of fruit God is looking for. Centuries before the prophet Isaiah describes a previous inspection. “The vineyard of the LORD Almighty is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are the garden of his delight. And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed; for righteousness, but heard cries of distress” (Isaiah 5:7). God was not looking for religious people; he was looking for righteous people exhibiting the moral qualities of justice, self-control, fair dealing and compassion toward the needy.

How can this become increasingly true for us? How can we live fruitful lives? Jesus teaching explains that we have to do two things. These demands are simply stated, but applying them will challenge us our entire lifetime. The first requirement is to abide in Christ, and the second is to be prepared to submit to his pruning. “If” occurs five times in this passage as a caution that we have to actively participate in the life of the vine. For we can become easily distracted and preoccupied with other interests and concerns.

“Abiding” must be distinguished from “hiding.” It does not signify the avoidance of responsibility. It is not an invitation to become cowardly or lazy. It signifies a relationship rather than a refuge, meaning yielding to Christ’s control and drawing our very life and sustenance from him. Bishop J.C. Ryle, a renowned bishop of Liverpool in the nineteenth century, paraphrased our Lord’s command: “Abide in me. Cling to me. Stick fast to me. Live your life of close and intimate communion with me. Cast your whole weight on me. Never let go your hold on me for a moment…”

Jesus was here addressing his disciples. For them “abiding,” meant developing an already existing relationship. The same lesson applies to believers today. But some of us may still need to take the initial step in coming to Christ. Having come, we all then need to learn to remain in him, and not to attempt to go it alone, for that would only result in disaster.

Wayne Jacobsen makes the point that abiding signifies remaining, which is repeated ten times in this passage. It entails demonstrating love for the long haul. He notes that the only difference between a cane and a branch is longevity. A cane is this season’s growth, whereas a branch may be forty or more years old. Furthermore, these older branches not only channel life, they bear weight and multiply fruit. Abiding is not a changeless state of being, but is a relationship that must be sustained through the changing seasons of life. Jacobsen draws out the significance of the distinctive seasons in the growth cycle of the vine. Springtime is a period of rapid growth, but vines take their time. They are not the first to herald the spring. Although the growth of the vine is rapid it is vulnerable to adverse weather conditions and to weeds and pests. The new canes have to be trained to run along the supporting frame. We too may resist being bent against our will.

Next, the vines require summer heat to bring the fruit to maturity. This is a time for the maturing of the vine. The vinedresser during the hot summer months has to work hard with little to show for his backbreaking routines. But then summer gives way to autumn, the time for harvesting, which means hard but rewarding work. But it can also be an anxious time as the vinedresser is aware that his crop could be destroyed before he has had time to pick it. The vinedresser is concerned not only for the abundance of the crop but also for its quality in order to produce a good vintage as well as seed for planting to ensure future vines. Then comes winter, providing a welcome period for rest and re-staging. There are times in life when we have to learn to let go.
When Jesus stated that we could do nothing apart from him (5), he was not implying that we were rendered utterly helpless if we chose to ignore him and live an independent life. People who do not profess to be Christians can be good spouses and parents.

They can achieve academically. They can perform brilliantly in their professional lives. They may have profound spiritual insights, and they can live according to a high moral code. But no one can live a Christ-like life unless they abide in him.
If we are beginning to think that abiding has a cozy ring to it, Jesus’ second point will soon dispel that image. Abiding not only requires patience, it entails pain. Jesus wants us to be better and to do better. He is not content to leave us as we are so he trims the excess from our lives. Pruning is a drastic and painful process. Consequently, the amateur gardener tends to prune timidly for fear of damaging or killing off the plant. But the skillful professional is prepared to cut right back. It is a drastic process, which can appear very cruel at the time. God may use pain, sorrow, disappointment, or frustrated ambition to prune our lives. It is a paring back to essentials and entails cutting out the dead wood. The objective is not to increase foliage, but fruit. The Lord is not being destructive but helping us to realize that there is a price to pay in order to become more productive. As with the gardener, that is seldom obvious at the time. We believe it through faith and experience. The purpose of pruning is greater fruitfulness, “more fruitful … much fruit” (1,5).

Pruning provides a powerful test of the seriousness of our intentions. Do we really want to abide in Christ? Do we want to develop into a Christ-like character? Then pruning is an unavoidable part of the price we pay. Perhaps at this time you are experiencing a painful cutting back. Wayne Jacobsen comments that we sometimes feel that we are being cut through by a chain saw rather than cut back by a pruning knife. “Lord how much more do we have to lose?” we wonder. Abiding in Christ is relatively easy when everything is going well.

But when Jesus said, “Abide in me.” He wasn’t asking us to stay and be pruned to the point that there is nothing left. In his hands the pruning always leads to fruitfulness provided we learn to submit to it. But what when the pruning ends in death? There is the supreme test of faith. As Christians we believe that life on this planet is an inconclusive experience. Our years here are but the preface to the fuller life. Fruitful living is a far more worthwhile lifetime goal than successful living. The two questions that all servants of Christ need to ask themselves are: “What do I want to be known for at the end of my life?” The second is, “How can I finish well?” The secret of finishing well is to abide in Christ, and to submit to his pruning, no matter how painful. Fruitfulness is not the result of what we do, but is the outcome of who we are.

17 APR

Tony Jones, The New Christians. Jossey-Bass, 2008

The author is the national coordinator of Emergent Village. He provides a comprehensive review of the Emergent Church conversation, helpfully summarizing its main tenets in the “20 dispatches from the Emergent Frontier” that are scattered throughout the book. It is a must read for anyone desiring to understand the complexity of these new Christians who cannot be neatly pidgeon-holed either theologically or ecclesiastically.

12 APR

Invitation to Relationship and Mission—John 14:1-14

This passage is part of Jesus’ farewell discourse to his disciples. Arrest, trial, crucifixion looms. The world is going to radically change for these followers in the next hours. Jesus offers his disciples comfort: “don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.” Jesus is stating that though the disciples’ world is going to be turned upside down, this is not the last chapter. “I am going to prepare a place for you,” Jesus says. This is a message of hope: I am not abandoning you. You are not alone. Continue Reading »

05 APR

James Choung, True Story: A Christianity worth Believing in. IVP, 2008

James Choung pours his experience of sharing the Good News of Christ as a divisional director of InterVaristy Christin Fellowship. In recommending the book, I wrote, “True Story does not gloss over sincere and profound questions concerning the content of the gospel and the way it is lived out, but grapples with many issues that arise in the give-and-take of a discussion between friends.

05 APR

WHO ARE WE FOLLOWING? (John 10:1-10)

In our media saturated culture there is no shortage of voices and personalities claiming our allegiance. Many false shepherds claim to have our interests at heart, but are in reality simply promoting their own agendas and lining their own pockets. The present themselves as benefactors, but turn out to be robbers. We are the worse off for having believed their claims annd succumbed to their influence. With so many voices clammering for our attention we need discernment to hear the voice of God, and to respond to his call. In the imagery of Jesus’ story we need to be alert to distinguish the shepherd from and sheep rustlers.

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28 MAR

China!

I just got back from a trip to China, sponsored by Fuller Seminary. I had the wonderful privilege of meeting with pastors from the Chinese Christian Council. This is the state-regulated church. I know there is a lot of discussion and debate concerning the registered and the underground church in China. I am still trying to sort it all out. It will take some time. But this much I know. These pastors in the Chinese church are wonderfully evangelical and are working hard to proclaim the gospel in a difficult situation. I went to one church with a huge building with over 6000 people in attendance on a Sunday. Their worship is heart felt. When they sing, they sing with great joy. When they pray the Lord’s prayer, they pray like they believe God is listening. When they hear the Word preached, they are attentive and seeking to discover how to live out their lives as followers of Jesus. Continue Reading »

28 MAR

The Eighth Day—Luke 24:13-35

This week’s passage is the fantastic story of Jesus walking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus. It is an account of the resurrection story being real in the lives of followers of Jesus. It speaks of the ushering in of a new season in the lives of God’s people. This is not just the first day of the week. This is the eighth day of creation. This is the eighth-meal in Luke’s gospel (Earle Ellis). This is the beginning of a new creation. God is doing a new thing!
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27 MAR

The Human Face of Church, Norwich, UK: Canterbury Press, 2007

This is a scholarly study of the social interaction in both fresh expressions of church and traditional churches in transition. The authors, Sara Savage and Eolene Boyd-MacMillan, are both Research Associates with the Psychology and Religion Research Group at the University of Cambridge. Although scholarly in its approach it is also accessible in its presentation and practical in its application. Each chapter concludes with interactive exercises. Highly recommended.

27 MAR

OPENING LOCKED DOORS – John 20:19-31

The disciples had been presented with the evidence of the empty tomb by Peter and John. Mary Magdalene had reported that she had seen two angels in Jesus’ tomb who challenged her as to why they she was so sad, and then Jesus himself had spoken to her and commissioned her to report to the disciples. “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead t my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” Despite these reports, the disciples were still in turmoil and filled with apprehension. On this Resurrection Day, they met behind locked doors for fear of the Jews.

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