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Lessons from the Vine (Part 3)

grapes on trunk photography

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”  John 15:8

There is no such thing as a useless believer.  Christians do works of service, for God and for others, as the expression of their faith.  Theologically, you can’t opt for salvation without service anymore than grape branches can change their genetic code.  Practically, Jesus wants us to take the theology we learn into the street and enjoy doing the things that people attached to Jesus do. . . things like little bursts of worship when we see beauty and blessings in our life, things like hugging hurting people (well, when we’re past covid-19, I guess) and helping those who have needs.  Connected to Jesus, the Vine, Christians bear fruit.  That doesn’t make them Christians; that demonstrates that they are Christians.  What we do to please God doesn’t make him love us; we do these things because he loves us.

Some people want to define Christians by what they don’t do, a whole list of bad behaviors.  Jesus defined his followers by what they do; and what they do is inspired and characterized by love.  God’s love for us results in a corresponding love for him and for others.  Directed toward God, that love is worship – hymns in a church or praise in our hearts, confessing a creed or testimony to a friend.  Directed toward others, that love is encouragement for the distressed and celebrating with the blessed, giving food to the hungry and giving suggestions to the wealthy, holding hands in hospice care and reminding the grieving of the eternal life won by Jesus.  Just two chapters earlier in John, Jesus told his disciples: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Our purpose in life is to glorify our heavenly Father, to make him happy, make him look good.  Come to think of it, two chapters later in John’s Gospel, Jesus said that his purpose was to glorify his Father.  Because we didn’t, he had to.  Because he did that for us, we can now do it freely, joyfully.  Scripture says that at God’s right hand there is pleasure forevermore and that we will serve him day and night.  We don’t have to wait till heaven to understand that our greatest pleasure is serving our God.

Did it ever occur to you that God finds pleasure just watching you try to sing a new hymn or praise song….no different than the pleasure a parent gets watching a small child take her first toddling steps?  God gets satisfaction from your awkward efforts at witnessing to others, just as a mother smiles when her little boy brings her a bouquet of dandelions.  But God enjoys watching his children grow up.  Jesus said it twice: we glorify our Father by bearing much fruit.

PRAYER: Be glorified, Father, in our humble efforts to worship, to witness, to love and to serve.  Because Jesus lived and died for us, we seek your help to live for him, for as he said: without him we can do nothing.  Amen.


Living Sacrifice

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“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”  Romans 12:1-2

Worship.  We all have our picture of what it is.  Sitting in a pew.  Then standing.  Then sitting again.  Hymns, songs, prayers, confession-absolution, readings, creed, sermon, communion, benediction, done.  Go home. 

And do it all again next week…maybe.

But Paul would have us redefine what worship is.  More than an hour a week, it’s every hour of every week.  Worship is how we live our lives.  Paul calls it “presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice.”  A “living sacrifice” – that’s a new one.  Old Testament worship was all about sacrifices, dead ones.  Blood shed as a reminder of the seriousness of our sin.

But since Christ has sacrificed Himself, once for all people for all sins for all times, we no longer need the dead sacrifices.  Instead we ourselves are living sacrifices, witnesses to the grace of God in all our lives.

And this “living sacrifice” thing means we can’t compartmentalize our worship into an hour at church.  Rather, the time we spend with our spouse, our kids, at work, at play…it’s all worship. 

But what does that mean?  I think above all it means being mindful of God’s presence.  His closeness.  His involvement in all of our lives.  He wants us to talk to Him, to consider His Word in our daily decision-making, to talk about our faith as naturally as the weather or the Packers.

Does this mean that weekend worship at church isn’t important?  Hardly.  It’s so important.  For when we all gather together to receive his Word and Sacrament, we receive the strength and power to live our daily lives of worship.

The world sees life differently.  Which is why Paul wants us to not be conformed to this world.  God help us to be transformed by the renewal of our minds so that by testing we may discern what is the will of God.

Gracious Heavenly Father, you have called us to be living sacrifices, to worship You in all that we do every day.  Too often worship becomes something that we attend once a week.  Forgive us for compartmentalizing our faith, and help us to live out our faith each and every day as we remain close to you in Word and prayer.  For Jesus’ sake, Amen.


Lessons from the Vine (Part 2)

green grass field during golden hour

“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 does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  John 15:1-2

I’m no gardener, but as I understand it, gardeners prune off the errant shoots that rob nutrients from a plant’s primary purpose.  Jesus says that his Father will do that for you and me also.  I don’t know if plants feel pain, but cutting off misdirected shoots doesn’t sound pleasant.  There’s some Christian truth in the slogan: No Pain, No Gain.  If partying or shopping or whatever else you’d rather do than what you need to do is taking up too much of your time and attention, God loves you enough that he may take the fun out of it or the funds away from it.  Ouch!  If you tend to forget what’s really important when times are good, a little suffering may be good for you.  Ouch!  If there’s a particular temptation that has your number, God can make that sin so abhorrent, the guilt so distressing, that you don’t ever want to go there again.  Know what I mean?  You’ll never realize the potential God has invested in you when you’re chasing rabbits of temptation and wasting energy on what’s unimportant.

Maybe you’re thinking, why do I have to reach my potential?  What’s wrong with just being a good Christian, whatever that means?  Can’t we be satisfied with being saved and wait for heaven to realize our potential?  That thinking turns spiritual life into a religious obligation and has us looking for minimum requirements.  It takes the love out of our relationship with God and the excitement and energy out of our life in the Gospel.  Does an apple tree ever think that remaining a seedling should be good enough, that apples are optional?  Jesus used an illustration from horticulture because growing up to be what he designed us to be is just the nature of things.  Of course, unlike plants, you and I have a will.  So, while it is in our spiritual nature to grow and bear fruit, we can actually decide not to.  We can leave behind our relationship with Jesus and Christian friends and get caught up in careers and agendas and self-centered lifestyles. Ultimately, that is the decision to become what Jesus called “dead branches.”

So, what’s the key to becoming more of what Jesus has made us?  Listen to verse 5 of John 15: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”  Growing in faith and Christian life is simply staying connected to Jesus, the Vine.  We do that as we hear his Word and – as the Old Testament encourages – seek his face.  In worship and prayer, in devotions and discussions, we confirm our connection to Jesus and grow closer to him.  And as we do that, we become more of what he died to make us – branches to his Vine.

PRAYER: I want to be more like you, Jesus.  So take away the desires and habits that would lead me away from you.  Draw me closer to you through your Word and center my life in your will.  Help me to find joy in my life of faith and make me more focused on what you have designed my life to be.  Amen.


Live in Harmony

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Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”  Romans 12:14-18

It would be a good idea for us to read these words every morning before leaving the house.  A concise, clear, beautiful reminder of how God would have us treat others.

But, oh, so difficult to pull off.

Because, let’s be honest, sometimes we deal with some difficult people during the day.  People who irritate us, fight against us, gossip about us.  People that seem to have it out for us for no particular reason.

Paul would have us love them…empathize with them…refuse to seek revenge…live peaceably with them.   He would have us check our egos at our door before leaving the house, and he would have us humbly listen to others’ points of view, instead of being “wise in our own sight.”

Living in harmony is hardly the mark of our society.  We are often a contentious, arrogant lot.  Always pointing out our opponents’ faults, while rarely acknowledging our own.  But Paul – inspired by the Holy Spirit – gives us a beautiful reminder of how God would have us treat others.

Perhaps after reading these words before leaving the house…we should pray that God would give us the strength to live them out.

Dear Heavenly Father, You are good and gracious and bless us in countless ways.  One of those ways You’ve blessed us is teaching us how to treat our neighbor in love.  Not only that, You’ve shown us what it looks like in Your Son Jesus Christ, who loved all and willingly suffered and died for all.  Give us by Your Spirit a Christ-like attitude and heart in dealing with our neighbors.  In Jesus’ name, Amen. 


Lessons from the Vine (Part 1)

shallow focus photography of bluberries

“Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. . .  I am the vine, you are the branches.  Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.”  John 15:3-5

What if a bird never figured out how to make a nest?  What if a salmon got tired of swimming upstream and wanted to be the grizzly bear?  What if a fig tree got tired of producing fruit and decided to just look pretty in leaves?  Well, we can answer that one.  Jesus cursed such a fig tree, and it was dead before another day dawned.  Most of creation has no confusion over why it exists, no unhappiness with the design of its Creator.  Just human beings.  Our first parents were told by Satan that there had to be something more to life; and they fell for it.  Ever since, people have been mistrustful of their Creator and dissatisfied with their circumstances.

In the analogy of the vine and branches, Jesus teaches you to be what you are.  What you are is clean, stripped of every wrong thought and sinful act in your life.  You have been declared righteous by the powerful Word of God, restored to a perfect relationship with your God by Jesus. Your life is not about trying to make God like you, or bless you, or at least get off your back.  You aren’t running away from your past or worrying about what’s going to happen when you die.  You are God’s dearly loved child.  That is your identity.  So don’t waste time in some philosophical search to “find yourself.”  Who you are and where you stand with your God were established at a cross two millennia ago.

What you are is purposefully connected to your Savior, like a branch to a grape vine.  You are not alone in the universe, some existential bubble floating on the sea of nothingness.  (I read that somewhere, but I don’t understand what that means either.)  You aren’t left to your own devices, as though God caught you in a free-fall toward hell and put you back on the tight-rope of self-righteousness to try again.  You aren’t supposed to make your way through life with your mostly good intentions and limited moral resources.  You are connected to Jesus by the new life of faith he birthed in you.  But get this straight, HE is the vine, not you.  So you don’t have to figure out what a branch is for or how to bear fruit.  Right after reminding us that our salvation is by grace through faith alone, St. Paul in Ephesians wrote: “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”  In other words, the purpose of your life has already been designed into your new life of faith, and the ability to fulfill that purpose comes from the Savior who attached you to himself like a branch to his vine. 

Don’t make life complicated.  Treasure who you are and what you’re here for.  Don’t wish you had someone else’s gifts and personality.  Don’t make Christian life a burden or a problem.  Let Jesus live through you.  That’s how this works.

PRAYER: Thank you, Lord, for your grace in making me your dear child.  Help me to appreciate all that this means and to find joy in living as your dear child.  When doubts come and life gets complicated, bring me back to the reality you established at Calvary.  Amen.