Fellowship: John 15:1–17
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service over the Internet.
The recording is long, including the reading of the Bible passage by Gareth Morgan.
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‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
‘I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: love each other.
John 15:1–17 (NIVUK)
And thank you so much. Fellowship is one of those words that we've looked at a number of times over the last four years since I've been at Main Street. Fellowship is one of the things that drew me to apply for the church leader role here: the togetherness of believers, to praise God, to worship, to offer support and spiritual care whilst doing life together, showing the world how to live a life in accordance with the ways God would have us live.
In the last year, of course, we know how important and impossible it has been for us to meet together, to meet together as a fellowship in the way that we've become accustomed to—that Christianity has become accustomed to over centuries. While some mavericks in the media have complained that their civil and religious liberties are being taken away by not being allowed to worship together, we've decided at Main Street that it's in the common good to physically stay away from the building.
Even when a few of us were gathering together, honestly, I think it felt a bit weird. The active fellowshipping, the chatting, the sociability, the getting to know one another over coffee or a sandwich, worshipping together, opportunities for serving, just weren't there. After services on Zoom, there are opportunities for chatting to a few others in the breakout rooms. It's something I didn't have the chance to do when we were meeting in the building. I confess I find it easier to pop into different breakout rooms to catch up with people but I really miss the actual togetherness of being together under one roof for worship and fellowship. I'm no longer making it my daily thing to visit people's doorsteps, partly because it's cold, partly because I don't want people to lose the heat from their homes, but also because of the strain of the new virus we're told is much more easily spread. I certainly don't want to be guilty of losing someone when it could have been prevented.
As I reflect on these kind of forms of loss, I've been wondering what it is that's pulling me through all of this. Part of it is the habits of some of the stuff that I know to be right. That's why I wrote recently about my mindset of this lockdown. Perhaps being at home, being like being in a monastery, having regular routines to keep me going. Most of us need some form of pattern to help us keep going. For me, because fellowship and relationship is so important, I've had to find different strategies of moving forward in those relationships. I'm not too sure if I'm quite there yet.
For me, the discipline of hanging on in different ways is the way that I'm getting through. Sometimes it's being quiet, sometimes it's reading. At other times, it's going out for a short walk or being in contact with others, helping them share the load. I seem to be drinking a lot more tea than I ever did. I find it hard to do faith alone and it's one of the reasons that I'm grateful for Zoom because at least there's the opportunity for interaction.
Here's the thing. If I'm finding this whole COVID thing dragging on somewhat, I'm not going to be the only one. The Health Secretary is telling us that right now is the hardest part. The speck of light at the end of the tunnel is in sight but we're not there yet. We need to keep obeying the rules and hanging on in there. Brighter days around the corner, we keep being told. Some of our older and perhaps more vulnerable folk are having their COVID jabs and this is cause for celebration, but tomorrow is Blue Monday, the most depressing time or day of the year. Blue Monday because Christmas is now well and truly in the rear=view mirror. January's pay-check perhaps hasn't yet arrived. People might be in debt and there's not much to look forward to in terms of weather or even planning the summer holiday. Things just feel so, so far away and so it's important that we keep looking to God, that ever-present help, in times of trouble.
In looking at John 15 today, a popular part of scripture to read, we have a number of recurring themes. The words of Jesus to His disciples towards the end of His life and ministry just come out like a bullet from a gun, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom. Remain in Me. Remain in My love. Love one another. This will bring joy. You are My friends, be like me as I am like Father God. I thought that for a few Sundays at the start of this year, and perhaps to help us as we remain at home, missing out being physically together, we might look at what the spiritual discipline of remaining or abiding in God could look like. We might look at what the spiritual discipline of abiding means.
Thinking about some of the things that Jesus talks here in John 15, as well as in other places. When we think of spiritual disciplines, we often think of techniques which might improve our spiritual times, our prayer lives, our understanding and knowledge of the Bible, or actions in the world. I know that I'm guilty of comparing myself to more holy people than I am because I don't seem to be able to attain their dizzy height, to the dizzy heights of their spirituality. Try as I might, there's that element that wants to be a better Christian by learning the techniques. I wonder if there are quick-fix ways of being a better Christian. I wonder if that's what spiritual disciplines are about. I don't think they probably are, actually.
In my alone times at home recently, I've wondered whether the idea of a spiritual discipline is not trying to improve how I feel about having faith, or having more faith, or praying, or praying more. What if a spiritual discipline was about ongoing transformation. Change from glory to glory as the old hymn says. In his book, The Life You've Always Wanted, John Ortberg looks at the art of spiritual discipline. He talks about it as following Jesus, which simply means learning from Him how to arrange my life around the activities that enable me to live in the fruit of the Spirit. He goes on to say that a spiritual discipline is any activity that can help me gain power to live life as Jesus taught and modelled it. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-controller are all fruit of the Spirits.
How did Jesus teach and model it? “Abide in Me” or as the translation that we heard earlier, “Remain in Me.” Perhaps we rush over these words when it might be the start of such spiritual disciplines. Just want to spend a few moments this morning, mulling over what Jesus might have meant by this. The disciples knew Jesus was something special. What did it mean to Him and to them to abide in Him? For us today, how can this little phrase help us? The word abide has various connotations in the New Testament as a place, as in abode, but more than that, it is being and remaining and continuing in that state. The idea that Jesus brings to His disciples here is in the context of His leaving and promising the gift of the Holy Spirit, as they remain following the way of obeying Jesus. If they fulfil God's will, which brings Jesus joy as He lives in them by His Holy Spirit, so they remain in Him also. It's a reciprocal thing. It's the nearest thing to fellowship in a way that perhaps more so.
Jesus knows that He will be leaving his disciples, but He won't be leaving them alone. The Comforter, the Counsellor, the One who draws close and abides with them and in them can only come if He goes. Jesus, the man can only be in one place and that will be at His Father's side when He is risen from the dead but the power of the Holy Spirit will be in all and with all the disciples. The Holy Spirit will be all that the disciples need and more. This seems to involve keeping close to one another, abiding in Christ, just as Christ abides in Father God. The Holy Spirit draws every believer towards God, unifying them. That's why it's so important to remain in fellowship with one another and—by abiding in relationship with God.
Jesus has spoken about Himself being the vine, and His followers, the branches. For John's readers and listeners, and for the disciples who originally heard Jesus speak these words to them, this could only mean one thing. Jesus was central to Israel's success and to their relationship with God. The Old Testament was full of imagery of Israel being like a vine. Jesus as the true vine would really hit home the idea that He was the Messiah. As for the branches, well, they're integral to a vine. They're no different. They're perhaps just smaller. They help increase the yield of the vine if they are good and healthy, and if they're not, then they need to be cut clean off. They need to be pruned.
Often, the verses of Jesus bring the true vine are misinterpreted to only mean our mission in the world and we can see how this works. I wonder whether this is the main or original point that Jesus is making. Among the things He is trying to get across to the disciples in these last precious hours before His arrest and crucifixion,
Jesus is telling His friends in summary form what's really, really important. Abide with Him, stick so close, that they mimic Him. Just as a vine has branches so this is how Jesus sees His friends. Their spiritual fruit will produce good stuff if they stick close to His ways, His teaching. They're the example to Israel's future.
Abiding in Jesus does not only mean obeying His commands, though. This rich passage has offshoots that really help us get to grips with what a deep spiritual life can really mean. Abiding in Jesus, sticking so close to Him, will mean that we want, as the Lord's Prayer says, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” When Jesus says, “If you abide in Me, and My words, abide in you, ask whatever You wish, and it will be done for you,” I don't think that God is a prayer-answering slot machine. I think that the sense here is that if we know Jesus so closely and intimately, we will know what will please Jesus, and so ask in His name. I don't think it means that if we become a Christian, we will become God's favourites and He will give us everything we want all the time. The overarching theme of abiding or remaining in Jesus, I think, is the key.
Paul's recurring message in the New Testament is about those who are in Christ. According to one concordance, “in Christ” appears 97 times. It's a good theme to be getting to grips with. It's Paul's way of using John's language of abiding, remaining. Abiding in Christ means to live His way. That's the true spiritual discipline. Of course, when we understand His words, and our prayers are in line with His way, then maybe prayers are likely to be answered.
I wonder whether we have, perhaps over many years, being told that true spiritual discipline involves getting up early to pray for hours on end, or to study the Bible more, or to have longer quiet times, or to be more active in church, or to behave better, to do more to show the love of God in the world. Personally, I struggle with the, “Let's do more, let's do better type of Christianity.” When folks say I really ought to read the Bible more, while this may be true, let's not make it sound like a chore. Similarly, with praying more. Of course, it's a choice to do it. Let's not feel like we're being bullied into it by some spiritual ogre, who will punish us if we don't do it for a certain length of time.
When Jesus says here, “You are my friends if you do what I command,” it often comes across less of a command and more as a demand. I'm unsure the translation is helpful. I wonder whether the keenness of Jesus to abide in Him, to live His way, to be and to stay so close to Him, that all His friends want to do, is please Him. I wonder if that's the real understanding. When we know someone really well, of course, we want to please them, not out of guilt or some kind of pressure, but because their personality oozes such grace and love, that we want to do nothing else but please them. Isn't that what love is about?
Abiding in Christ. Yes, it means giving up stuff. It may mean, offering time to pray or for bible study but they're not the only things that make us spiritual. I hope that these spiritual disciplines and others do more than give us jobs to do that make us feel like we're getting closer to Jesus. We read our Bibles and we study because we want to know more of Jesus. Some of us find it hard to read, to concentrate. Perhaps we beat ourselves up about not doing it that may be that you have been taught scripture so that you know helpful Bible stories and verses that you don't have to read them because you know them, and you live them. You have remembered them over years, and they have become so ingrained in your soul that you live out what you know. Although you might struggle to read, perhaps. You just know. Your obedience to that story and to Jesus is honouring to Him. In this way, you abide in Him. You muse over what you know and grow deeper. You live the story of Jesus and you tell His story. If you love reading and love reading the Bible, then your response will be different. Maybe a spiritual gift is to help others understand things more deeply and thereby giving deeper, truer appreciation to what Scripture is saying. You too muse over stuff and maybe appreciate it in a different way.
Similarly, to people who love to pray or befriend or have a joyful disposition, all these things grow out of your innate love of Jesus. They're not tasks to fulfil to make you a better Christian. It's fruit. It's fruit that helps you grow into a deeper relationship with both God and those around you. Just as a vine produces good fruit when it's well looked after so we produce good fruit of love and joy, and patience and peace, and kindness and goodness, and faithfulness and gentleness, and self-control and lots of other spiritual fruit that Paul doesn't mention in his list in Galatians 5.
When you know, you can spend time with Him, get to know Him better but not out of any religious way of feeling that you have to. Take that time, because you know He loves you, because you want to invest in this way of life because you love it too. For Him, “Abide with Me” has been swimming around in my head as I prepare this message. It's nothing when I associate with funerals but as I thought about just the title, “Abide with Me,” I got the sense of someone sitting with another person by the side of a stream. They're not talking or doing anything special. They're just there together in one another's company. Words don't need to be uttered because the presence of the other is enough. Maybe that's the key to our abiding in Christ. The key to deepening our friendship with Jesus.
I'm reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 11, “Come to me if you're weary, and heavy laden, and I'll give you rest.” Our ability, our wanting to be close, and somehow enabling this to take place. Even if we're fed up and weary, or even if we're joyful and raring to serve, the starting place seems to be to abide with Him. Perhaps the key to so much of our faith is to put ourselves in places and at times where we can both give and receive from God. As we abide in Him, He abides in us. Jesus had to go away from His friends to enable the abiding presence of His spirit to live in and with them.
This week, let us allow God's Spirit to continue to abide and live and work in us, according to His good purpose.
Ortberg, John, The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002).
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