The Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ According to John.
Jesus said to his disciples, ”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches.
Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” John 15:1-8
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Some years ago, I was at a clergy conference. The chosen speaker was a young woman who led us in a workshop, on a process called Natural Church Development.
I had been aware of the program before I went to the conference, but Connie, our speaker covered the subject at great depth. It was exciting, heartening and encouraging, all at the same time. She introduced an image that was used to denote a church – a barrel.
A barrel is made of staves, of course, and in Connie’s representation, each stave represented a quality needed to make a dynamic and growing church. Hopefully the staves are the same length, of course, since a barrel can never be full – the church effective – if even one stave is shorter than the rest.
Research that had been carried out at thousands of churches throughout the world had shown that the longer, and equally in length ‘the staves’ are, the more fruitful the church would be.
The idea is that the shortest staves, preventing a full barrel, as it were, are identified and can be worked upon.
The staves, eight of them, represent the characteristics that all healthy churches have. You might do a mental check as I list them and consider how many are evident in your own church.
They are: Empowering Leadership, Gift-oriented Ministry, Passionate Spirituality, Functional Structures, Inspiring Worship Service, Holistic Small Groups, Need Oriented Evangelism, and Loving Relationships.
Some churches have most of these but could be held back by staves which are shorter, and, hence, less effective.
We could discuss the relative value of each of these characteristics at length and you might think of these in your own church – which are present, and which may not be – but today’s Gospel reading in which Jesus relates the parable of the vine leads me to look at one in particular – Passionate Spirituality.
As I understand it, Passionate Spirituality is in evidence when the believers in the church are inspired and enthusiastic:
Someone who is passionate about their faith will pray often. A passionate believer will want to touch God in prayer; be involved in praying for others – and to live a prayerful life.
A passionate believer will want to read scripture. Not as a discipline, but as a means of being fed by the Word.
A passionate believer lives a life that is close to God through prayer and the word, and in which one is actively looking out for others.
A passionate believer is one who wishes to feel connected to God, and finds that connection through prayer, and the word, and worship. Because it is in being connected to God that we are fed, and can grow, and be fruitful.
And we are connected to God through Jesus. As he says in the words of John’s Gospel, “ I am the true vine.…. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me.” That works on a number of levels, doesn’t it?
Quite simply, we can’t claim to be followers of Jesus unless we actually, and actively, follow him. We need to seek for him ; we need to cleave to him. Whatever we do in the church has to be done in his Name, or it won’t work. And the only way to know what God wants from us is by talking and listening to Him in prayer, and by reading His Holy Word.
We have to be grounded in Jesus. And we have to be nourished. The branches are nourished by the vine. Cut off the branch and it will die.
Worship is another way in which we are fed, and where our spirituality is encouraged to be passionate: praising God through hymn and psalm; experiencing His presence in the Eucharist; being present with other followers; hearing his word explained; learning to live for others in this community, nurturing and being nurtured by others – some of the ways in which we may know we are passionate in our faith.
Anyone who tells you they can be just as good a Christian as you, by not coming to church is talking through his or her hat. Fact is, if you are not being fed and watered then you are dying as a Christian, as a branch that is not connected to the vine, will die.
I don’t think we have to pray a specific number of times a day, or read the Bible so many chapters a day. But prayer and scripture are part of what it means to be passionate about our spirituality. Similarly, we don’t have to be in church very single Sunday but worship is part of what it means to be passionate about our spirituality.
You know, pastors have always struggled with getting their members into church regularly. Not just because we like to see a good number in church, but because we want as many people as possible to be fed. Pastors have used various ways to get their people into church.
One such idea, came to a pastor, in a church out West. In his church was a man who had begun to attend church just a few months earlier. He had taken to the faith with great enthusiasm and had been baptised. He had an eagerness to serve the Lord, and was always pestering the minister for some church work to do. He was a bit rough around the edges, but he was on fire for God, and was just itching to do something to show his passion.
The pastor, in desperation gave him a list of ten people. He said, “These are members who seldom attend services. Some are prominent men of the city. Contact them any way you can and try to get them to be more faithful.. Use the church stationery to write letters if you want, but get them back to church.”
About three weeks later, a letter arrived from a prominent physician, whose name was on the list. In the envelope was a cheque for a thousand dollars and a note: “Dear Pastor, enclosed is my cheque to make up for my missed offerings. I’m sorry for missing worship so much, but be assured I am going to be present every Sunday from now on, and will not miss services by choice again. Sincerely, M.B. Brown, M.D. PS. Would you kindly tell your secretary that there is only one ‘‘t’ in dirty and no ‘c’ in skunk.”
There used to be a word used often in church when I was growing up. It was ‘ backslider’ . A backslider, was a person who had quit coming to church and was sliding back into the old life again. Because, it was emphasized, when someone stopped coming to church, they did slip back into old ways. There was always lots of anecdotal evidence presented to prove that.
But think about it. Yea, sometimes the services are not as exciting as others. Sometimes the sermon goes on too long. Sometimes the hymns are difficult to sing. Sometimes one of our brothers or sisters in Christ will say something that makes us feel less than charitable.
But you know, I have had some horrible meals in my life. They never put me off eating. I have had some crummy coffee too, but it never put me off coffee. I can’t think of anything bad enough to keep me out of church. Because I need to stay connected to Jesus. He is the reason for everything we do – or should be.
Fore example, a perennial subject up for discussion has been installing air conditioning in the sanctuary, usually at the height of the Summer. Just for our comfort?
Sorry to tell you, but the answer is ‘no.’ But as followers of Jesus, passionate about our spirituality, we want more and more people to be aware of the love of God in this world. We want more and more people to come through that door to find out about him – from us.
It is hard enough for a new person to enter a strange church as it is. Finding the temperature at about 95 when they come in will only make it harder. We don’t want anything to prevent a seeker from joining this community. And if it makes us more comfortable at the same time, then that’s a bonus. It had better be done for Jesus’ sake or it will do nothing for us at all.
Finally I will leave you with an image that has stayed with me since I was a child. My dad took me to the movies – sometimes. I can remember about three times, in all.
One movie that made an impression on my young mind had a villain, who toward the end of the movie, donned a deep-sea diving suit, with helmet and oxygen line, and went down to the sea bed, to search for something around an old shipwreck. He was a bad guy, and everyone in the cinema wanted him to get his come-uppance.
There he was, walking slowly on the sea bottom, close to an old ship, and in the process picking up whatever it was that he had been searching for, and putting it into a bag hanging from his neck, when he noticed that his air-line had become snagged on a beam of the old ship. He pulled at it, and it wouldn’t come free. He then signaled to the surface for them to haul him up, hoping no doubt that that would free his air-line.
Those on the ship above tried to do so, but the line was pulled taut against a sharp metal stanchion, and severed. The line that might have hauled him up also had become caught in the tangle of wreckage.
Without oxygen, and without pressure, he was going to die. Even though he was the villain, I watched with horror as the water filled his suit and leaked into his helmet. He tried frantically to hold his mouth above the water that was filling his mask, but to no avail. We could see, through the face plate, the water filling his helmet, as the final curtain closed on his contorted face.
Our ‘ air-line’ is our connection to Jesus!
Hang onto him for dear life itself. Get all the ‘oxygen’ you can.
Be alive and be passionate about it.