We are living in-between two times – the one we’ve known which is fading, and the one to come. Church historian Phyllis Tickle notes that about every 500 years or so, the Church has a yard sale where they do some Spring cleaning and let go of some things that are not as useful as they once were. It’s been 500 years since the Protestant Reformation began – the last major Church yard sale. We’re in another right now. How do we know? Not because the Church as a whole is proactively seeking to get rid of junk, but because the people the Church is trying to serve are doing it on their own. Martin Luther, the Catholic monk who is credited with beginning the Reformation, did not get permission to split the Church from his superiors. The yard sale – as yard sales usually are – was messy, chaotic, time consuming, and taxing. The physical and emotional toll this major change took is incalculable. Think how hard it can be to decide whether or not to part with some family artifact that everybody else knows if a tacky piece of junk. You’ll probably have to pay somebody to take it away, yet for you it is priceless. Yard sales are had in this regard. The Reformation was a long lasting, very complex, excruciatingly painful yard sale that set all sorts of new thoughts and behaviors in motion which are still impacting the world today.
How do we know we’re in yard sale season? Not because Church leadership is proactive, but because a growing number of folks who are not the authorities are cleaning house, starting with themselves. People are voting with their feet and their finances in our country today. While we may be fooled by a few signs of what appears to be growth in the American Church, the reality is that people are leaving it at an unprecedented rate. Far more churches close every year than are being started. Why? The reports from those who have left have difficulty articulating it en mass, but the collective voice is saying that they feel the Church has lost its way, that it does not seem reflective of the loving Jesus it claims to model itself after, but has become in many ways the opposite: judgmental, dogmatic, rigid, unwelcoming, and more about politics than people. The group that has left has good reason. One of the catch phrases that speaks volumes is a very common phrase that has been shared many times by countless people when asked about faith, and more particularly about why they have left the church:
“I am spiritual, not religious.”
We’ve talked about the phenomenon a lot here at CrossWalk because we’re a church that recognizes and applauds the yard sale in Napa. We are in process here: we discover and grow and recognize what needs to be hauled out to the lawn, and we do. Over the last 20 years we have done a lot of deconstruction work, and have also been engaged in constructing what seems to make more sense biblically and theologically, what appears to be more aligned with the character and nature of Jesus, who was so clearly tied into the presence of God. On this subject of spirituality we have a lot to say that I think will be helpful to a lot of folks who want to cultivate their spirituality. Jesus certainly lived with a healthy spirituality, and he had some words to say about it to his disciples recorded in John 15: 1-17.
As I reflect on his words, I think of my Grandfather, Pieter Smit. I am named after him. He was a pastor for decades, serving in Kansas, Iowa, California, and Minnesota. He was sharp as a tack, reading the latest books from popular Christian leaders right up until he died in his sleep at 95 years old. One thing that he did which was incredible had to do with prayer. He would rise every morning at 5:00 for coffee (of course) and prayer. He had a personal prayer list he worked through every day which included every member of his family (including me) as well as friends near and far. I think it took him an hour a day to pray through the list, which is a great exercise for connecting with God and loving people. When you’re praying for someone, you’re thinking about them in helpful, supportive ways. That’s a loving thing to do. He would pray throughout the day, too, as the Apostle Paul instructed when he encouraged his readers to pray without ceasing. There are a lot of spiritual activities – formally called spiritual disciplines – that foster an ongoing, growing personal relationship with God. Utilizing contemplation, meditation, worship music, walking in nature, offering acts of service, reading spiritually-oriented materials, fasting, etc., are all examples of such disciplines. Whatever you’re into that works for you, it only works if you actually work it into your life. Put it in your calendar. Make it a habit. Lots of research has shown the connection between integrating spiritual disciplines and a higher quality of life.
Jesus was talking well beyond personal devotional time, however. He was telling us to remain in him and be fruitful. What does it look like to remain in the footsteps of Jesus? I think it looks a lot like Jesus. At CrossWalk, we are building our ministries around what we believe to be the ethos of Jesus, particularly as witnessed in the Gospel of John. He was a lifelong learner, so we choose to stretch in our understanding of Jesus and God throughout our lives. What are you doing to stretch your faith? He was often engaged in serving people’s needs, so we choose to kneel in service of others. How are you choosing to be engaged in the service of others? He was a leader who proclaimed God to be loving and forgiving, so we choose to act as agents of grace in an often hyper-critical world. How do you choose to be graceful toward others? Ever have a moment like Jesus had standing up for the woman caught in adultery and mistreated by the authorities? He was also deeply rooted and motivated by his awareness of God’s Spirit working in and through him. We choose to be incarnate similarly, allowing it to lead us to come alongside others in ways Jesus came alongside all he met. How are you living this idea out of being truly infused with the Spirit? He also chose to connect with God, which is what we’re looking at today, which is about all of this (plus one massive thing yet to come). If we actually engage this stuff, I think we will also experience results similar to those Jesus experienced, which is what he was talking about when he mentioned the need to be fruitful. He didn’t say that we’d be deemed healthy by how much inner peace we can muster in isolation. It was about fruitfulness that was a byproduct of doing what Jesus did, of following the lead of the Spirit within.
The final big piece that I think we need to see in this text is easily missed in our culture because we are so oriented toward radical individualism. To really be connected to God by following Jesus’ footsteps, we need to be in community. This faith thing isn’t about the Gospel and me; it’s really about the Gospel and “we”. You really can’t obey Jesus’ commandment to love one another unless there is another to love. You can’t do this alone. And, the command was to love one another the way Jesus loved, which is very likely somewhat different than the way you naturally express love. You cannot learn this key piece alone – you need practice. Others need you to practice on. I know a man in his later years who is one of the most devoted men you could meet when it comes to knowing his Bible. He works very hard to study it daily and live a moral life. Because the Bible says we are to make disciples, he offers a Gospel message and invitation whenever he gets the chance, including his 90th birthday party which was attended entirely by Christians! That’s commitment! He has also attended church faithfully most of his life. I am confident that he can quote lots of scripture and tie it all together with a well-articulate theology which he has honed over the years. Furthermore, he feels very confident about how he has lived his life of faith. Yet he missed this last, most important commandment from Jesus to love one another the way Jesus loves. Decades ago, this man’s son came out of the closet. He was immediately shown to the door and essentially told that he was no longer his son so long as he was gay. We think the son lives in Palm Springs. They haven’t communicated at all for decades. He had theological differences with his daughter, and now they are estranged. This guy does not know how to love, and definitely doesn’t know how to love like Jesus. When we are truly in community, however, we place ourselves in an environment where we can learn to be loved, learn how to love, be taught, be corrected, become the love of Jesus.
Nicolas Herman, on the other hand, was deeply devoted to God and to the church. After serving in the military where he was injured, he joined a monastery out of his love for the Church. He worked in the kitchen. Over time he came to a provocative realization: he felt closer to God peeling potatoes and washing dishes than he did in chapel services. Walking in the woods brought him more intimacy with God than Bible studies or prayer services. He began to commune with God throughout the day, and because he did, his understanding and wisdom set him apart. He would later put his thoughts down in the form of a short book (among many other writings he produced). The book was named Practicing the Presence of God. You may be more familiar with the name Nicolas took when he took his vows at the Carmelite monastery: Brother Lawrence. In our radically individualistic American culture, this idea of finding God anywhere but church is music to our ears. But that’s not what really took place for Lawrence. It was his community that gave him a context in which to process his thoughts. It was his community that encouraged him to write. It was his community that invited others to come learn from him. It was his community that helped him learn to love. I would go so far as to say his capacity to know and experience the love of God was only possible because he was in a community that helped him know what love looked like. The same is true for us.
Want to feel connected to God? Personal spiritual disciplines are key. So is modeling your life after Jesus. And so is true community, because you can’t learn to love one another like Jesus loved if there’s no other to love.
What spiritual practices are currently working for you? How did you learn about them? When/how do you practice these disciplines?
How are you doing staying connected with God by following in the footsteps of Jesus? Which of the following come easily to you, and which ones are more difficult? Stretch (lifelong learning), Kneel (service), Grace (spreading love and forgiveness), Incarnate (embodying the presence of God with everyone unconditionally), and Connect (making a concerted effort to stay with God).
How does community play a role in your connectedness to God? How have you learned about your areas for transformation from community? Why is “going solo” a bad idea for faith?
The Vine and the Branches
15 1-3 “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
4 “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.
9-10 “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.
11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.
17 “But remember the root command: Love one another.
Notes from Gail O’Day (New Interpreters Bible Commentary):
When one turns to Judaism, one finds vineyard symbolism that is consonant with the use of the symbol in John 15. In Sir 24:16–17, for example, Wisdom compares herself to a vine: “Like the vine I bud forth delights,/ and my blossoms become glorious and abundant fruit” (NRSV). The song of the vineyard (Isa 5:1–7) offers the parade example of “vine” as a symbol for the people of God. In this text, “the house of Israel and the people of Judah” are explicitly identified as “the vineyard of the Lord” (v. 7). The failure of Judah to live in justice and righteousness is expressed through the metaphor of yielding fruit: God, the planter, expected grapes, but Judah produced only wild grapes (vv. 2, 4). These verses also make use of the language of clearing away (v. 5) and pruning (v. 6) to describe God’s actions toward the vineyard. Similar imagery reappears in Jer 2:21; Ezek 19:10–14; and Hos 10:1 (cf. Ps 80:8–19; Isa 27:2–6; Ezek 15:1–8; 17:7–8). Vine imagery remained a symbol for Israel in rabbinic Scripture interpretation, as well as in the synoptic Gospels (Matt 21:33–46; Mark 12:1–12; Luke 20:9–16). The vine imagery in John 15:1–17 should thus be read in the context of the rich use of this symbol in Jewish Scriptures and tradition.
The unproductive branches of which v. 2 speaks are those people within the Christian faith community who do not bear fruit in love. This verse is not a polemic against Jewish apostasy, nor does it point back to Judas’s betrayal.515 Its concern is with those people who are already in relationship with Jesus (“every branch in me”).
John 15:1–17 poses challenging questions to the contemporary Christian community about its self-identity. What does it mean for the church to live as the branches of Christ the vine? What would “church” look like if it embraced this model for its corporate life?
1. First, the image of community that emerges from John 15:1–17 is one of interrelationship, mutuality, and indwelling. To get the full sense of this interrelationship, it is helpful to visualize what the branches of a vine actually look like. In a vine, branches are almost completely indistinguishable from one another; it is impossible to determine where one branch stops and another branch starts. All run together as they grow out of the central vine. What this vine image suggests about community, then, is that there are no free-standing individuals in community, but branches who encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch depends on its relationship to the vine, nothing else. What matters for John is that each individual is rooted in Jesus and hence gives up individual status to become one of many encircling branches.
The communal life envisioned in the vine metaphor raises a strong challenge to contemporary Western models of individual autonomy and privatism. At the heart of the Johannine model is social interrelationship and corporate accountability. The vine and branches metaphor exhorts the community to steadfastness in its relationship to Jesus, a steadfastness that is measured by the community’s fruits (vv. 4–5). To bear fruit—that is, to act in love—is a decidedly corporate act. It is “rooted” in Jesus’ love for the community (v. 9) and issues in the community’s embrace of that love as the central commandment of its own life (vv. 10, 12, 17). To live as the branches of the vine is to belong to an organic unity shaped by the love of Jesus. The individual branch is subsumed into the communal work of bearing fruit, of living in love and so revealing itself to be one of Jesus’ disciples (vv. 8, 16). To live according to this model, then, the church would be a community in which members are known for the acts of love that they do in common with all other members. It would not be a community built around individual accomplishments, choices, or rights, but around the corporate accountability to the abiding presence of Jesus and corporate enactment of the love of God and Jesus.
2. Second, the metaphor of the vine suggests a radically non-hierarchical model for the church. As the description of a vine and its branches suggests, no branch has pride of place; no one branch can claim precedence or privilege over any other. The descriptions of the cutting and pruning of the branches in 15:2 and 6 underscore this point. Fruitfulness is the only differentiation among branches, and the discernment of fruitfulness falls to the gardener (God) alone, not to any of the branches. It is the gardener’s role to prune and shape the vine to enhance fruitfulness. All branches are thus the same before God, distinguishable only by their fruit. There is neither status nor rank among the branches. Hierarchy among the branches of the vine is precluded, because all members grow out of the one central vine and are tended equally by the one gardener.
This dimension of John’s metaphor also poses some serious challenges to the ways in which institutional church life is understood and maintained. For the Fourth Gospel, there is only one measure of one’s place in the faith community—to love as Jesus has loved—and all, great and small, ordained and lay, young and old, male and female are equally accountable to that one standard. Were the church to shape itself according to the Johannine metaphor, it would be a community in which decisions about power and governance would be made in the light of the radical egalitarian love of the vine image.
3. Third, this metaphor is stark in its anonymity. That is, the visual image of the branches lacks any and all distinctions in appearance, character, or gifts. The anonymity of this image is brought into sharp relief when compared with another NT ecclesial metaphor, the Pauline metaphor of the church as the body of Christ. First Corinthians 12 is irresistible in the anatomical fantasy it puts before the Corinthians: talking feet and ears, entire bodies composed exclusively of ears or eyes or noses. Unlike the Johannine metaphor, the Pauline image does not remove the differences among the various members of the body, but actually points to those differences as definitional of what it means to be a body. Each member is able to see the place that his or her individual gifts occupies in the corporate body (1 Cor 12:12–13, 27–30). Paul holds together the oneness of Christ and the diversity of gifts and members in the body metaphor.
The Johannine metaphor undercuts any celebration of individual gifts, and this, too, challenges contemporary Western understandings of personality, individualism, and self-expression. Were the church to live as the branches of Christ, individual distinctiveness would give way to the common embodiment of love. The distinctiveness of the community would derive solely from its relationship to God and Jesus, not the characteristics or even gifts of its members. The mark of the faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members. There is only one gift, to bear fruit, and any branch can do that if it remains with Jesus.