“The Vine of Life”
By Rev. Dr. Orville James
Sunday, April 3, 2022
Reading: John 15:1-16
“I am the vine, you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in him, they will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing… You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit…” John 15:5, 16
Here is this incredible, wonderful word from Jesus, about the possibilities and potential of following Him. I recognize immediately that there are several levels and layers we could examine: First, consider this, knowing that Jesus was speaking to His first disciples at the Last Supper; clearly, He was anticipating the challenge ahead, and giving them some last instructions.
We can also ask “what was happening in the early church when this was written around 90 AD?” This speech from Jesus is not recorded by Matthew, Mark or Luke. They were written much earlier – in the 60’s and 70’s. Why was this teaching remembered and included? In the 20 or 25 years that passed, had there been a bit of a drift, a falling away, and this was a call to re-connecting? “I am the vine, you are the branches…apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus’ whole conversation seems to point to self-examination of the status or health of our discipleship. It might trigger us to ask: What should a Christian look like? Act like? Is it possible to masquerade... to ‘fake it’ on the outside? I suppose you can put on a façade.
At a zoo a gorilla dies, and it is a major crisis. This gorilla had been extremely popular and was a main attraction. Children loved him – he engaged the tourists – making faces in front of his cage. A holiday weekend was coming up and the management team realized that they had to do something fast! They talked and decided that they must replace the gorilla. The Personnel Manager said, “I’ve got a young guy badgering me for a job. He’s an actor, and quite athletic. What if we put him in a gorilla suit for a few days, and keep the crowds happy, until we can find a new gorilla?”
So, they did it. He was quite good, and the first days went smoothly. Then, on the holiday Monday, he is swinging through the trees, and got a little too exuberant, swung too high, and landed over the fence in the cage next door… the lion cage. The lion gets up and starts to walk towards him. The actor panics, and starts yelling, “HELP! Get me out of here!” The lion is right beside him now, and the guy can feel his hot breath, when suddenly he hears a whisper from the lion: “Shut up you fool, or we’ll both lose our jobs.”
This little story raises the issue of what makes a gorilla, and of course, we expand that to ask the deeper question – what truly makes a Christian? Is it only what we see on the outside? OR… is it who is at the core?
“Jesus said, I am the vine, you are the branches; abide in me and I in you, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
I am realizing that the truth I find in this word from Jesus is the most important message I could possibly hear at this point in my Christian life. I need to hear it again and again, and I need to put it into practice day after day. And when I do it’s wonderful!
- There is a relaxed intimacy in this discourse from Jesus; He describes a wonderful relationship we can have: “You, my friends. I no longer call you servants. Instead, I have called you friends.” For me, that’s so liberating to hear. My Christianity doesn’t have to be a tight, tense, rigid striving to fulfill holy orders. Instead, it becomes fun; there can be this joyful exuberance that comes with warm friendship. What a friend you are to Jesus! Smile! Enjoy Him!
- There is still an element of responsibility too. “I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit.” Because we are in a friendship, it is no longer a duty or obligation; yet as in all friendships, we have responsibilities to each other. Jesus says, “I chose you, in order that you would go and bear fruit.” I like that. I feel some excitement from it. I have this great friend, and He has asked me if I could help Him. You bet I can. You bet I will!
- This word from Jesus is a call to connectedness. It can’t be a surface relationship, or a long distance one. Verse Four: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” I need to stay tight with Jesus and maintain a close bond.
- This leads me to a fourth thought, and it’s from personal observation. I have come to realize that there are varieties, or degrees of Christian experience. There are levels of spirituality, of connectedness, and commitment. Confession time: Over the years since I was ordained, my friendship with Jesus has warmed and cooled, risen and fallen. My clergy friends have heard me talk about how, in earlier years I caught myself slipping into the role of the hired pro – the professional Christian. I can do this, fulfill the duties, be a minister, I’ve got it down now. My dad was a minister, both my brothers are ministers, my daughter in Vancouver is a minister (apparently, it’s the family business). I can put on the gorilla suit, and play the role, on automatic pilot, on cruise control. It doesn’t take an exorbitant amount of effort, but it’s not the same, something is missing.
I liken it to the gas water heater in the pool I once had in my backyard. In May and September, the water in the pool would get pretty cold without that heater. There’s always a pilot light burning down there, and it throws off a wee bit of heat, but not enough to do much good. However, there are times, I’ll hear that water heater click on, the pilot light ignites the burners with a whoosh and there’s a tremendous energy of heat and light aglow underneath that tank. And in minutes, I can feel warm water gushing through the outlets into the pool. I sit in front of those outlets for awhile and it’s a great feeling.
My Christian life is like that too my friends. I can sometimes just have my pilot light lit and it’s not enough. I need to get lit up by Christ in my heart regularly. Daily!
Let me tell you an idea that I got from Tony Campolo (Professor of Sociology in Pennsylvania, activist preacher, and mission leader). He says, “I wake up every morning and I load up. You know, I lie in bed, and I basically surrender to a Presence. I mean, I believe that Jesus is a resurrected spiritual presence, and in the stillness of the morning, I just lie there, and I don’t pray for anything, except to be filled. Sometimes I say His name; sometimes I don’t. I just yield to His presence.”
Friends, I’ve been trying it, and it works. It’s about staying connected, remaining in Jesus, letting His Holy Spirit fill, and empower, restore, heal, guide, renew me.
“Abide in me, he said, “for apart from me you can do nothing.”
Which leads me to this next thought: My effectiveness, and my joy as a Christian will be maximized when I’m tightly connected to Christ. Not just believing in Him (or cognitively accepting his historical existence). Not even being a minister or servant leader in the church; (nothing wrong with those things) but the real fun, and impact comes when the power of the Living Christ is with us and in us! It’s not that I, or any of us, are that great or spectacular, it’s who is within us or who is behind us.
I heard a story from Holy Trinity Anglican Church, the large church in London, England, from whence comes the Alpha movement. Sandy Miller, the one-time senior minister tells a story of when he was standing at the back of the packed church. A woman came into the service with a dog. Sandy said, “I love dogs, but we don’t have a ministry to dogs, and this was a mean looking dog, a pit bull or Doberman. I spoke to her. The church was packed, and I was afraid that someone would step back and tread on the dog and things would get ugly. So, I said, ‘I’m sorry but you can’t bring that dog in here.’”
She said, “I’m going to.”
Sandy had to respond, saying, “I’m very sorry, but if you bring the dog in here, I shall have to call the police and have you and the dog removed.”
She said, “Go ahead’ and continued to walk into the church. So, he had to summon a police officer. Sandy said, when the police officer arrived, he looked about nineteen. But he was wearing the uniform of the Metropolitan Police and, as he walked in, the woman saw him, turned and walked out a far door, and was gone.
That’s authority. That young police officer didn’t say anything to the woman. He didn’t have to. Behind the uniform lies all the resources of the Metropolitan Police, and behind that all the Queen’s horses and all the Queens men; not as many as she once had, but enough to deal with a woman and her dog. The point is that we belong to Jesus, when we are connected to Him, we have behind us, within us, a tremendous source of authority and power. Jesus wants his church to exercise his ministry through their connection to Him.
I think I want to probe this truth a wee bit more. With the thought that our effectiveness as Christians will be maximized when we are tightly connected, abiding in Him. There is a measure of joy that cannot be explained. There is an enthusiasm for life, an easy, amazing confidence and peace that allows us to deal with each day as an adventure with God. I’ve seen that before and I’ve been inspired and encouraged.
In the early years of my ministry, I had several heroes – ministers who were part of the “faith at Work” movement. Two of them were Presbyterians: Lloyd Ogilvie and Bruce Larson. That may not mean much, but if you ever met these men, there was a warmth about them, a friendliness and a zest for life. They talked with cheerful gusto, of living in the stream of the Spirit, and of Life in the Spirit. These were not goofy, whacky religious nuts. Both were scholarly, thoughtful, well-grounded leaders of the Church. I still read their books, and it is exhilarating to catch a glimpse of some of the things God will do, in lives that are connected to the vine of life: to Jesus.
Can I tell you one more story? It’s intriguing – one of those accounts that can leave us scratching our heads – but I want to assure you that I trust the source; an Anglican priest who is now the Assistant Bishop of London.
He told of an 84-year-old widow who was part of his church in South Wales, in Britain. She had been blind for 14 years. She took part in the Alpha program at her church, and on the weekend when they teach about the ministry of the Holy Spirit, she was there, and received the prayer, and the laying on of hands. It felt right, and she went home happy and content. That Sunday night she took her white cane and went back to the church for the Evensong service. She went up for communion, and while she was kneeling, hands upstretched to receive the bread, she suddenly realized she could see the priest; she had been healed. She could see for the first time in 14 years! Afterward she went home, and her 8-year-old grandson met her at the door, and she saw him for the first time. Her grandson knew something was different, her face pointed intently toward him.
“Gran, what happened?”
She said, “Jesus healed me!”
An 8-year-old can be very practical, and he said, “Did you say thank you?”
She replied, “Yes, I did!”
Friends, I do not know what the Vine of Life, the Living Christ has in store for you, and me, and for our church, but I know that if we stay connected to Him, if we abide in Him, then we can bear much fruit. And we will thank Him. Amen.