Thursday, July 09, 2015

A Thought for Thursday 9 July 2015

“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 bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.  Abide in Me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in Me.  I am the vine, you are the branches.  He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit, for without Me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.  If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.  By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (John 15:1-8 NKJV).

If there is any single passage of New Testament Scripture that defines the Church’s mission so clearly, this would be at or near the top of a list.  The “fruit” to which Jesus refers are new disciples.  More specifically it may actually refer to disciples who are also equipped to make disciples themselves.  That is, we don’t simply make benign believers or get more people to come to church or Sunday school; we make disciples, members who are devoted to a vital and healthy and missional Church. After all, a fruit-bearing tree does not bloom only for a single season – unless, of course, it is invaded by parasites that make it necessary to cut the tree down.

The analogy is compelling when it is taken within the context of the challenges facing the 21st- century Church in America.  We’ve heard the numbers and we’ve watched churches of all denominations finally close their doors, but even this does not tell the story.  Thanks to Steve Harper, a religion professor, we must now look at the declining numbers within a whole new – and positive! – framework.  We must also explore this passage with much more depth than in the past and stop thinking in terms of “personal” theology or “personal” salvation, think in much broader terms, and consider whether – and how – Christ “abides in us and we in Him” – as the Church, the very Body of Christ.  Not “you” – but rather ya’ll!

Bottom line is that Mr. Harper suggests we follow his lead and think of the Church not in life or death terms but look, instead, at a very biblical third alternative.  What if, Mr. Harper asks, the Church is merely being “pruned” by the Vinedresser Himself?  What if, in the face of such gloom-and-doom numbers and instead of blaming the devil, Muslims, or homosexuals, we are being prepared by the very Hand of God Himself for something much greater that makes it necessary to cut away the “dead wood” – that is, complacency? 

To this end Jesus surely must be assuring His disciples (that would be us) that if our “desires” lead us to ask for more of what The Lord would entrust to us, having proved to Him that we are good and responsible and faithful stewards, that He will grant it!  Prosperity gospel preachers have tried to hijack this passage as a means to their own fund-raising ends, of course, but we can surely see that what Jesus is promising us is not opportunities for personal gluttony or get-rich schemes!  Rather He is demanding “much fruit” beyond ourselves – and from each of us!

This does not mean we can rest on our laurels or on some smug sense of “personal salvation” as if we are somehow above the pruning efforts of the Vinedresser.  No, our Lord is pretty clear that the non-fruit-bearing branches will be “cast out”, will “wither”, and will be “burned”.

This does not mean we become desperate, for we know desperate people are often irrational.  It means we pay more attention to the “word that cleanses” and go about the real business of the Church: making disciples who can also make disciples themselves.  Whatever may be “pruned” away is a necessary Gift so we no longer have to work around or step over the “dead wood”.  We can go right to the task at hand.  And in and by the power of the Vine, we can.

Indeed we must.


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