Monthly Archives: April 2018

A branch with connections?

What did Jesus mean by saying, “I am the true vine”? (John 15:1-8). It’s a saying that comes on the night of the foot-washing and (though John does not record the institution of the eucharist) the Last Supper. At the end of chapter 14, Jesus says “Rise, let us be on our way.”, but there are still 2 chapters of discourse and the prayer of chapter 17 before (beginning in chapter18) they go out across the valley to the garden of Gethsemane.

We can’t be sure, but interesting idea that, leaving the house at end chapter 14, they went to the temple, and saw the gates with their vine decoration. Psalm 80, as well as Jeremiah, Ezekiel and other prophets, had pictured Israel as a vine – thus the symbolism of the decoration. It would add force to this saying, if they were looking at the gates. Jesus would be making the point that from that time on, to belong to God’s people would be to be his – Jesus’ – followers, and not members of a nation. He had already replaced the 12 tribes, with 12 disciples.

What is so distinctive about a vine?  Although the stem is woody, and lasts, the shoots are sappy, and need support. When pruned, the shoots removed can be removed without secateurs or knife, and wither to almost nothing. It’s not flattering to be told that as branches of Jesus we have no strength, no backbone of our own. Not flattering – but we need to know.

And it might seem less than comforting to hear that God will not only remove unfruitful branches, but also prune those that do fruit! We might wince at the thought of pruning, or we might see it as explaining why difficult things happen, even to good people. Do you feel that Christians have had a hard time in the last few years? In western society generally, a move away from Christian ideas and practice – about honesty, care for weak and needy,  life and death as well as morality and family. Is some of this God pruning? Asking us to live distinctively, to show a better way because we belong to him?

Jesus picture is not complicated. A vine, perhaps many years old, with roots drawing water from six metres down, for the benefit of the frail branches. Without the plant, they are nothing. Only firmly connected to the knarled trunk can they fulfill their purpose and bear fruit. But the fruit is wonderful in itself, and can be made into wine, to keep its goodness and bring cheerfulness and energy for time to come.

Let’s take Jesus parable and put it into practice. We are already cleansed, or pruned, by Jesus words – as Christians, we have come to terms with our frailty, and our shared status as sinners. Let’s also make sure that we are well connected to be fruitful, for the harvest of the Kingdom.

Motivation

When a leader talks of self-sacrifice, it makes all the difference if we know whether he gives it, or expects others to give it.  Jesus is one of the few who lead by example.

This leads us to a great division between two motives for living as a Christian.  Some rely on the fact that the Christian faith is true, that Jesus has the authority of God, and that the promise of heaven and threat of judgement need to be taken seriously.  There is not a lot wrong with that, except that as motivation, it needs a very high level of self-discipline to keep going, and can be a bit – miserable?

I think there is a stronger motive, though I struggle to describe it without using cliches.  The motive is Jesus, who is worth following just because of who he is.  It comes out in John 10:11-18, where he uses the language of shepherding a flock to explain his ministry.  He is true – not because he talks about truth, but by his actions.  He is both justice and mercy, and at the same time.  He is not caught off balance, even when tired or threatened.  I hesitate to use the word love, because it is so often misused, but he defines it.  He gives, but gives only what is good; he never forces, never manipulates.  His love pays the cost, without whining, without announcing the fact or making demands.

You may be a Christian because you hold the faith to be true and accurate and offers the only sure way to heaven, and I shall have no complaint.  But I shall follow Jesus as much for what he is, for the way he gives our salvation, and invites our partnership.

If that provides a great motivation, I am afraid it is not well understood.  It worries me that I meet people who are not ready to serve.  Somehow they haven’t understood that to follow such a Lord comes before all sorts of other (good) things, like family, career, friends and lifestyle choices . . .  Odd! and sad.

Suffering and Supremacy

In several of the Easter stories, including this week’s Luke 24:36b-48, there is reference to the Old Testament writing about Jesus’ ministry.  Modern Christians have largely given up the idea that Jesus can be “proved” from Old Testament prophecy, and that seems right.  However, the fact that you cannot prove Jesus in that way does not mean that there is not a great deal to be usefully thought through and understood from the Old Testament texts.  With the benefit of hindsight, those who accept Jesus as Lord can look back and enrich their understanding.

During his ministry, Jesus was shy of using the title King (Messiah, “Anointed One”, the promised descendant of King David, who would come to rule a golden age).  It is not that he was not the Messiah, but he would combine “Messiah” with the “Suffering Servant” prophesied by Isaiah.  This hadn’t been predicted – or at least had not entered popular understanding.  Indeed, who could have imagined that the victory of the Messiah would come in criminal execution? Only after the resurrection can Jesus use time with his disciples to explain.

We can sympathise with the disciples, who heard Jesus warnings of coming suffering without really taking them in.  Later, they were remembered and recorded in the gospel. We have the benefit of hindsight. We ought to hear, understand and remember.

What do we hear? Prophecies of the King, descendant of David, mix with the Suffering Servant, whose suffering is extreme, yet somehow beneficial.  This is not all!  There are many other elements, both descriptive (eg the prophet like Moses of Deuteronomy 18), and specific (eg Micah locates the birthplace of the Messiah in Bethlehem). It is good to read the Old Testament with an eye open for such glimpses of who is to come, and how his ministry will work.

And it is important that God chose to act in that way. The good news of the gospel is not “We win, you lose, – tough”, but much better news. Hope for all, through repentance and forgiveness, won by a suffering Messiah, who gives those who suffer hope both for the future, and that there may be purpose in what they endure.  Jesus kingship is not yet another revolution, which in time will be replaced by the next group to grab power and rubbish their predecessors.  It is a lasting Kingdom, giving more than it takes, and offering support to those who do not wish to do others down, but long for hope and relief.

Why?

There are many ways of asking “Why?”.  The small child who endlessly repeats the question to each attempt at answer infuriates, and raises suspicions that attention is more important than an answer.  Yet for Christians, it is a sign of success when someone without faith starts to ask “Why are you bothering? Why are you doing this for me?”.  It is also a good question for Christians to ask at Eastertime: “Why is this happening? Why do others care about what I think or do?”

John’s gospel gives us an insight into the life and ministry of Jesus.  He takes us through both the success of his teaching and healing, and the pain of his passion and death.  But it is only in chapter 20 that he comes to the question “Why?”, with a clear answer, “these [signs] are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name”.

John 20:19-31 has shown us the disciples receiving both new hope and authority, then Thomas finding answers to his doubt, and the gospel writer summing up his purpose in writing.  The hope is that we who read the gospel now will see Jesus as the one promised to bring life to a climax, and that not in a merely intellectual way, but as the recipe for life as it is meant to be.

Like the repeated question of the small child, that needs us to do more than find the right words.  We have to pay attention, to engage, to change.  It is much easier to find an excuse not to – but then we miss out.