Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Onward and Upward into the Light

I have come full circle. It is time once again for me to pursue my staff and coax from them a yearly evaluation and begin the process of turning toward a new fiscal year. I am a few weeks into my annual turning from the descent into the middle of winter and darkness, the sluggishness of hibernation, and the spent energy of the seasons of Christmas and of Epiphany. I have made some tentative steps toward and with the increasing light. I am walking or riding my bike most days, slowly gaining new fitness lost. Epiphany, though historically is considered a season in which we celebrate the birth of Christ the Savior, for me is really a journey through the night and then on toward a slow awakening. In each cycle of 24 hours after the winter solstice  my body senses movement as the daylight increases. Between January and February the daylight increases by almost an hour for each 24 hour cycle. Even though, I know Christ has been born, it is as though He has been hidden away in the month of January, to be revealed to me at some other time.

Yesterday was Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday. In New Orleans there was a big party, the last day of celebration, the end of the season of Epiphany. It marked an end of the celebration of Christ's birth and a turning of all attention toward and our participation in Christ's last days before his death. I ate my pancakes and contemplated the journey ahead through Lent.

Lent, with its conjugation with the increasing light, has become a longed for season in my life of cycles. I know and look forward to the time of turning from what was and toward what will be. I am not afraid to repent. I am grateful for the continual call to look intently and thoroughly at myself, knowing that I may strip off these filthy clothes through this process and that my naked. raw self will be clothed in Christ's blood stain garment. The light will purify me in the end. Lent and it's 40 days of desert dwelling is not to be dreaded because I know the know of the end of the story.

I know that the evaluation process is a good thing. It is a time to put off with the goal to put on the new. I will call my staff to look and examine with the goal being new growth. The light will increase with each new day. I will increase my walks and bike rides in distance and intensity. Christ will turn his face toward Jerusalem and I will follow once again. I know his death and mine with Him is a goal and a doorway. I do rejoice. Christ was born to die and be raised again. I am a part of his creative order. I will keep turning and the light will increase and we will cycle through from life to death to life. Upward and onward into the Light.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Preparing for Ashes: Looking Back at the Necessity of Pruning

John 15-16    Women's Bible Study
Blacknall Presbyterian Church
    March 13, 2003

Beginning in chapter 12 of the Book of John, the Pharisees begin actively plotting to kill Jesus and Jesus, knowing this, rides right into Jerusalem and into the center of the plot. With this hostility as His backdrop, to His disciples, Jesus predicts His death and calls His disciples to follow Him. To the crowd, the challenge is made to walk in the light while they still have the light. Then He leaves and hides Himself with His disciples.

In chapter 13, “knowing that it was time for him to leave this world”, Jesus communes very intimately with His disciples in what has come to be known as the “upper room discourse”. It is here in this place, in His last hours with these chosen friends, that Jesus, in an act of greatest humility, washes their feet.  Songwriter Michael Card describes this act in his song entitled The Basin and the Towel .
And the call is to community
The impoverished power that sets the soul free  In humility to take the vow
That day after day we must take up the basin and the towel

And the space between ourselves sometimes is more than the distance between the stars
By the fragile bridge of the servant’s bow,  We take up the basin and the towel

The example has been laid before them and the tone set for the rest of the evening. After this call to community through his example of humble service, Jesus speaks grievously of how He will be betrayed by one of the very ones whose feet He held and washed. And if this is not enough pain for Him to bear, He has to bring to light a truth not yet realized … Peter’s denial. One of those that He was most intimate with would, out of fear, deny that he ever knew Him.

I believe that this caused Jesus the deepest grief possible as that denial broke their unity. It was not until they met on the beach after Christ’s resurrection
that that fracture was bound and restoration began. When Jesus asked Peter 3X, “Do you love me?”, he was calling Peter back into the relationship. When He commanded Peter to feed His sheep, He was calling Peter again, giving Him the invitation to remain and to obey His command to Love One Another.

Last week we heard Margot speak from Chapter 14 of the of tenderness and compassion of Jesus in response to the disciples’ grief over what He had been saying and their confusion over what had been happening. Jesus speaks of Himself as the way home to the Father and He promises the Holy Spirit…the counselor…the Spirit of truth…the one who would show them the way and teach and remind them.  Then He speaks these amazing words: Peace I leave with you, my peace I give to you….do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. He declares at the end of Chapter 14 , “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me.”

Jesus has been doing, saying and predicting hard things. He has been asking them to follow Him to death. He talks about going away and coming back. He speaks of the prince of this world coming. In spite of  the comforting words spoken prior, can’t you feel the angst in the room. Can’t you hear the unspoken questions? Can you feel the tension in the room mounting as Christ’s words pile up.

As we come to Chapter 15, the subject matter begins to take on a heavier weight.
Here we will hear Jesus discuss 3 relationships:

His relationship with His Father….the vine and the gardener
His relationship with His disciples….the vine and the branches
His relationship and the disciples’ relationship with the world

Unity or lack of unity in Relationships are the leading players in the drama of
creation. It is in relationships that we see and participate in the fleshing out of the triune God.. It is also in relationships that we see and participate in the brokenness that results from  sin.

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, and I will 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.

Grape harvest in Northwest PA  where we lived for almost 16 years would take place around the first of  November. In a matter of days the vineyard in front and back of our house would be stripped bare. The season would be over. The vineyard would lay fallow….but life would not end.

At some point not long after the harvest, I might look out my front window, across the mile and a half toward the McDonald’s on Rt.20 or off the back deck toward Lake Erie a mile away. Somewhere across this orderly array of vineyard rows I would see through the snow that was falling sideways, a lone trimmer. Bundled in his Carhardt coveralls, with trimming tools hanging from his shoulder and waist, he would begin to move slowly and meticulously from branch to branch. He was skilled and thorough. He knew exactly what to do in order to make sure each branch that had produced fruit in the previous season would be able to do so again in the next. He trimmed each branch to just the right place so that the branch would still draw life from the vine. The portion no longer useful would be pulled and piled between the rows. And the branches that were no longer producing fruit would be cut off from the vine entirely. It was a process with a purpose…that fruit might be produced by way of the life line of the vine through the branches.

Over the course of the fierce PA winter the trimmer would make his way through the vineyard. There was no mechanical substitution for this work. It was lonely and it was slow. But it had to be done and it had to be done thoroughly for the branches to have a chance to be healthy.

There was a vineyard down the road from us that had not been tended for  several seasons. The branches had not been trimmed and had grown out of control…long and wild. There were so many branches and so much foliage each season that in time this vineyard produced no fruit at all. This vineyard eventually was cut down. Ruined by unmanaged excess that had “looked” good with all its foliage and proliferation of branches, only to have fruit production choked off.

In contrast, the vineyard trimmed and cared for through the dreary frigid days of winter would be able to produce its fruit  in season, in keeping with the purpose drawn from the vine.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up and 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 given you. This is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit showing yourselves to be my disciples.

In these 2 short paragraphs Jesus uses the word REMAIN 8X’s. In the next paragraph He will use it 3 more times. Can you sense the urgency in His message? This was a crucial time in the spiritual development of the disciples. They desperately needed to “get it”. What was to come would test them to the limit.  

Let us try to understand this command to remain by first looking at the results of remaining.  Let’s look again at the image of the vine and the branches and at barrenness and fruitbearing in the context of remaining.  vs2 : He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.   vs4: No branch can bear fruit unless you remain in me.  vs.6 If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers. And in contrast: vs2 While every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. I am the vine, you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.  Remain in me…I in Him….bear fruit….remain in me. Don’t remain…wither…be thrown into the fire.

May we say then, that to Remain means: to abide, continue to choose to stay, go on being, endure, persist, in order to produce fruit.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear fruit. Is it adequate to say it to remain means to BE IN and STAY IN relationship with Christ such that fruit bearing the image of the Vine is able to grow? May we also say that to remain means to be in and stay in a healthy relationship with the church, with one another, with the Body of Christ?

Let’s look at this from a different angle. Doesn’t to remain imply that these disciples, and now we who believe, are already in Christ, in this intimate relationship… as branches growing from the vine. Sometimes we get confused and think, if even unconsciously, that we are not there yet, that we have to get into Christ … as though the branch had a life of its own and could somehow grow itself into that connection…. No, you believe, you are there. It is Christ that has taken hold of you. He has loved you first. Now, your response…remain. “BE “ in that relationship…sharing thoughts, emotions, intentions, and power. Stay in that relationship. Relate…in Christ, Him in you. Stay connected.…and bear fruit.

Ask yourself: Am I connected to the vine? How do I know? Do I believe? Do I bear fruit? What does my fruit look like? Does it look more and more like Jesus…or does it look like the world? Is  my love for Jesus manifesting itself in footwashing behavior? If it isn’t …have I drifted away…am I denying I know him because I am afraid of the consequences? Or worse, am I grievously betraying Him out of selfishness or greed….

Is it possible for you to step outside yourself’s center and look at you, the branch? Maybe you need someone to help you do that. Are you willing to take the risk to allow yourself to be seen honestly with the goal to bear more fruit? Can you trust yourself to the Father to care for you? Can you trust the Father with your productivity? or lack of? Or do you want to be the gardener?

Don’t leave. Don’t go off on your own fueled by fear, selfishness or greed, as you will not be able to bear true fruit apart from Christ. You may be able, for a while, to produce a lot of foliage through your good intentions….good programs, “right” deeds, even fine preaching, teaching, or acts of service. But, the true fruit bearing the image of Christ  is only possible through remaining.

Remaining is a state of being, thinking, believing, living with conviction and commitment, responding to and with the vine so that the fruits of faith rooted in Christ’s love will grow through the branches. It is a relationship. It is community. The Father…Jesus….the believers…the Gardener, the vine, the branches…One.

How does that community happen? The One who already holds you asks you to come, just as you are. You choose to “stay home”. You confess and claim by faith …you say it outloud…over and over… “Jesus’ blood is sufficient to cleanse me of all unrighteousness…To create in me a clean heart…to renew a steadfast spirit within me…to restore and sustain me…..And make me able to remain…You CHOOSE TO TRUST. You lay down your life. What does this mean to you? How do you see this fleshed out in your life?

Maybe to remain means you choose to draw from Christ, the Vine, what you need to be able to forgive the one who hurt you through neglect or denial or betrayal, because you know the one who forgave you. Maybe it means you draw from the Logos the energy you need to remain until your heart or legs or mind are healed, knowing the One who laid His life down for you. Maybe it means you allow the trimmer to cut away that which is causing you to die…bitterness, anger, malice… in order to save your life. But, primarily, you choose to believe in Christ and who He is and stay in Him even though everything may be crumbling around you. In believing, you remain.

 What would it mean to these men Christ spoke to?

It was imperative that the disciples remain, that they believe, that they love one another.
Things were changing. The True Vine had come into the world. History was on the edge of a cataclysmic event. Jesus knew that these men needed to know what it meant to remain. So He says it again…and again.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in His love. (this is the first he speaks of obedience in this vine and branches/remaining discussion) I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete. (so, Jesus is bringing remaining and obeying and Joy together). To remain  means to believe and bear fruit…and what is that fruit?…obedience and joy …..and Christ’s command that we are to obey is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

His example is right before their eyes. Jesus and the Father  have lived in a perfectly harmonious relationship marked by Jesus remaining in the Father’s love and obeying. He has fleshed this out before the disciples in the years they have been together. Now He calls them to live out this same relationship of remaining, believing, and obeying out of and through love. And His promise to them is Joy….complete Joy.  Joy that is founded in the Way and the Truth…in Jesus.  Joy that supersedes circumstances. Joy that is greater than our own hearts’ capacity to experience or truly understand. Joy that cannot be stolen by war in Iraq, destructive disease, or the horror of terrorism. Joy that is indestructible as it’s origin is founded in the One who indestructible.

Remain…obey my commands…love one another…joy
They are all connected…inseparable.

But, can’t you hear the disciples thoughts? …our thoughts? “Lord, this is TOO BIG.  I am weak…just a person…Not like you. I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can take up this responsibility. I don’t know if I want to take on this responsibility.  I am afraid I will fail.” Jesus doesn’t let them off the hook. He can’t. They have to “get it”. He can’t let them retreat into their fear and selfishness. Nor will He let us. He gives this command: Love each other as I have love you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.

It is the call to community. He knew they would need one another. He knew they had to take up the basin and the towel of humility and wash one another’s feet. He knew they would have to love one another to the extent that they would even lay down their lives for their friends. It is no different for us today…no different.

It is no different  when the Lord calls you to love your sister  who persistently blames you for the family chaos. It is no different when the Lord says, Go again and love that friend who is unable to love you or receive your love. It is no different when the Lord says forgive your mother for her inability to love you well. It is no different when the Lord says Let the past be the past. Let what was die. Release the captive. Cancel all debts. The command to lay down your life is no easier now than at the time Christ spoke it. He knows that.

Jesus was telling the disciples that they were to choose to release their firm grasp on their own lives and on how they thought their lives should be. Christ calls these men to be like-minded with Him. He calls them His friends. He is going to lay His life down for them. He chose them, He revealed everything He learned from the Father to them. He appointed them to bear fruit. He has been their connection to the Father to whom they may go and ask for that which is in line with all that Christ is. He is paving the way for them to take up His role in the world and understanding this command was vital. So, He says it AGAIN: Love each other.  The key to this command being obeyed is found in Christ. It is Christ that makes this possible. I have loved you. NOW, remain in my love.