Saturday, July 16, 2016

A Vines and Branches Illustration

"I am the true vine, and my father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit."  John 15:1-2

For the past 20 summers, I've coordinated a World Changers project somewhere, from Nashville to Missouri to Arkansas and Texas, to Indiana and now, in Pittsburgh for the past three years.  This year's project was called a "combo," meaning that there were crews doing construction ministry, and crews working with local church planters. 

The construction ministry works to assist low income homeowners, and older homeowners, with repair work that helps improve their home.  Much of the work we do in Pittsburgh involves improving access, like building hand-rails along walks, and ramps from driveways to doorways.  And one of the aspects of this work in Pittsburgh involves some weeding and pruning work around the house, especially for older residents who no longer have the physical ability, or financial resources, to work on their yard.

One of the crews, working in the New Kensington area, needed to clear out an entire lot before any work could be done.  Vines had grown up all over the place, along with weeds, and even some wild trees, because the homeowner had not been able to get out into his yard for several years.  As it happened, the scripture reading and devotional for Monday morning was John 15.  And the crew devotion leader had a visible demonstration of exactly what that passage means.

Jesus uses the analogy of branches to represent our lives.  When we are redeemed, he begins the process of removing the branches in our lives which are not spiritually productive.   And he prepares those branches within us that are producing the fruit of the spirit to be able to produce more by pruning them.  The idea is that we are to be spiritually shaped by Jesus, letting him have control of our growth, so that he can remove those things within us that are not beneficial to our spiritual growth, and taking care of those things which do. 

The lot that the crew worked on Monday took two days to clear.  There was a lot of undergrowth and overgrowth, which was preventing the light from getting to some of the flowers and blooming plants that were deliberately planted there.  The old vines, with their thick, leafy covers and branches twined around all of the plants and trees, were keeping new growth from happening.  It was amazing to see the array of plants and flowers underneath the growth, all of which now has a chance to bloom again.  The analogy is very clear.  "Pruning" doesn't mean that Jesus selectively removes people from his church that he doesn't think are productive, nor does that apply to anything else except your own self, and your own spiritual growth.  He's speaking about that part of you as an individual that gets in the way of your own personal spiritual growth.

Think of yourself as the lot, and the overgrowth represents your inner self, your soul, before Christ came into your life.  Then Jesus comes in, and brings his "vinedresser," in the form of the Holy Spirit.  Just like that lot in New Kensington, there was no way that a crew of 8 kids and 2 adults could trim it and clear it out in a day, it took a little bit of work here and there for four days before it began to look like it should, and before the plants that were put there to beautify the space, would begin to grow again.  The trimming takes some time, because the sin that has rooted itself in our life is not easy to get rid of, and it has a tendency to keep coming back, if it isn't kept trim.  It depends on the vinedresser getting in there to use his tools, which is his word.  And as the flowers and shrubs grow, they are pruned in order to continue to keep them productive, and to make room for new growth, which will eventually be strong enough to push out the weeds and the vines.  From a physical perspective, all of this takes time, and likewise, it's not something that happens overnight spiritually, either.  Sometimes there are setbacks.  But faith makes it possible for the Holy Spirit to work in you, provide you with gifts for ministry, and bring about spiritual growth in your life. 

Monday, July 11, 2016

We Know Love by This...Theme Verse for 2016-17

"We know love by this, that He laid down his life for us--and we ought to lay down our lives for one another."  I John 3:16

The chapter and verse divisions found in the Bible are not part of the original text, but were inserted to provide points of reference in order to facilitate the study of scripture.  History credits the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton, as the individual who used the chapter and verse divisions as reference points, and the Wycliffe translation into English in the 1300's was the first translation to use them.  Since that time, Langton's reference points have been commonly used as the standard in all other translations.  There is no content in these reference points, though in the way we read and interpret English, some of them do not seem to be well placed.  But the intention of their use was never to change the flow or the actual reading of the scripture, only to make it easier to find specific passages and places with thesis statements and corroboration.

Understanding that makes it interesting that, among the works of the Apostle John, in his gospel, chapter 3, verse 16 is the place he is addressing the purpose of Jesus coming to the world, an act of the most supreme love by God.  In John's epistle, chapter 3, verse 16, the same theme appears.  The kind of love that comes from God, and can only be known in that context, is defined by the willingness to lay down one's life for another as a result of it, because Jesus laid his life down for us. 

Love is defined by Jesus, and it was illustrated perfectly in his willingness to endure the suffering of the cross in order to set us free.  Likewise, the kind of love that is expected of us, toward our fellow human beings, is exactly the same, "we ought to lay down our lives for one another." 

There is some context here.  John was writing to Christians in churches in Asia Minor.  Whether he was writing to one specific church, or a group of them, they were probably living in the area in and around Ephesus, where increasing persecution was breaking out against Christians.  John's words were penned to educate the church and strengthen its belief in Jesus as their savior, who was both wholly human and wholly divine, in contrast to some false teaching that was spreading.  Christians there were faced with a very real threat of death because of what they believed, and John was writing to encourage them to stand up for each other, and protect each other, because within them they carried the kind of love that had led Jesus to his death. 

It is an expectation that this is the kind of love that we will find in the Christian church, whenever we encounter it.  This kind of love is a visible means of identifying the true believers in the body of Christ.  There is no place in scripture that changes this concept, or defines it as a characteristic that only specifically applies to places where the church is in danger of persecution.  The statement that follows this one clarifies and defines it even more, and provides a specific example of how that kind of love is demonstrated. 

There are some specific references to the church in the New Testament when it did behave this way.  In the early chapters of the book of Acts, after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, the body of Christ came together as no other group of human beings had ever done before.  Acts 2:43-47, and 4:32-37 describe particular signs that the church was being what God intended, and that the love they had for each other was real.  This provided a foundation for miraculous signs and wonders performed by the apostles as part of their ministry, which was fuelled by the love that these people had discovered and demonstrated for each other. 

Would the world be the way it is today if the Christians who make up the church had continued to have, and demonstrate, this kind of love for each other? 

We see glimpses of this vision at times.  The social media photos of our students enjoying play time with kids in the Dominican Republic is a good illustration of how the love that we are to have for each other works, even through a language and cultural barrier.  Those mission trips make a difference for both the recipients and the participants.

But do we treat our fellow Christians, and the people around whom we live and work every day, with the same kind of love?  That's a rhetorical question, and we already know the answer.  So the challenge for our students, with this as our theme, will be to see what kind of a difference we can make for each other by demonstrating the kind of love toward each other that only comes from God.  This year, we will teach them what this means, and encourage them to put it into practice.