We continue today in our series on the “3 Simple Rules,” the guidelines for living the Christian life in such a way that we will actually be changed by God’s grace. Remember the image we’ve been using: if our sin and spiritual failures are like stumbling and skinning our knees, then we aren’t interested just in a faith that’s like a million band-aids; we’re interested here in a faith that invites us to grow into our spiritual legs so that we fall down less in the first place, so that, by God’s grace, we mature into being able to walk and maybe even run with God. So, the last two weeks we’ve looked at what it means to “Do No Harm,” and then to “Do Good.” That brings us to rule #3 which we’re going to translate a little, but first let’s look at the original text from back in the day:
General Rule #3
“Thirdly: By attending upon all the ordinances of God; such are:
- The public worship of God.
- The ministry of the Word, either read or expounded.
- The Supper of the Lord.
- Family and private prayer.
- Searching the Scriptures.
- Fasting or abstinence.
These are the General Rules of our societies; all of which we are taught of God to observe, even in his written Word, which is the only rule, and the sufficient rule, both of our faith and practice. And all these we know his Spirit writes on truly awakened hearts. If there be any among us who observe them not, who habitually break any of them, let it be known unto them who watch over that soul as they who must give an account. We will admonish him of the error of his ways. We will bear with him for a season. But then, if he repent not, he hath no more place among us. We have delivered our own souls.”
So the third rule is to attend upon the ordinances of God or, you could say, to observe the spiritual disciplines that help you abide in God. Bishop Ruben Job, who wrote the book that inspired this series, describes rule #3 this way: Stay in love with God. Stay in love with God. For John Wesley and the Methodists, a list like this, these sorts of things, were the tools of intimately relating to the Lord. They called them the “means of grace” because they’re gifts from God, for the people of God to apply, and God promises that when we put ourselves wholeheartedly into these things, we are guaranteed to meet God’s grace there. God is just waiting there, if only we come looking. So, the Methodists said, let’s go looking, weekly, even daily, through spiritual practice like this. Seek God.
Psalm 105:4 says, “4Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually.” If you have not struck up a conversation with God in a while, do it. I watched the movie The Shack a couple of weeks ago with my parents and I love how the little girl calls God “Papa.” I don’t think that that would come authentically out of my mouth, but I love the intimacy. If you’ve not been active in your relationship, it’s going to be a little awkward at first. There will be starting and stopping, but keep trying and practicing. Spiritual disciplines are simply about practicing our relationship with God, cultivating it. It may be like going a first date. One where you have one of your friends call for what is an “emergency” when conversation breaks down. Push through. Persevere. The conversation, the dance, the relationship IS worth it. You may be thinking, “It’s easy for you, Pastor. Sure! But I don’t have time. I don’t even know how to pray. I don’t know see God and I don’t even know if I trust God. God is an unfair and unjust God. God doesn’t care about me.”
As Matthew 7:7-11, “‘Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Seek – find. Ask – it will be given. Knock – door opened. God is a good God. God loves each of us with an abundant love. There is NOTHING that can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. As Harry said last week, Jesus wiped the slate clean of any of our wrong doing and we are stamped Child of God.
I think we place our human hang ups on God. We think God’s a punishing God, keeping a record of wrongs. We think God is a genie God, a wish fulfiller. God cannot be boxed in. God is Yahweh, the Great I Am. In our Monday Small Group we are reading Bob Goff’s book Love Does and he writes, “I used to think God wouldn’t talk to me, but now I know I’m just selective with what I choose to hear.” So clean out the ear wax and hear the words of God. “I love you. You are bought for a price. You are fearfully and wonderfully made for a purpose. Nothing will ever separate you from my love.” And if you live knowing that? Nothing can stop you from radiating God’s love to everyone you meet.
Now, the thing is, you may have a hard time connecting to “stay in love with God” with a list like this. They can feel like spiritual chores, or eating our spiritual broccoli, and your love relationship with God can feel like rules and regulations, or something wild and personal and free. The thing about spiritual disciplines is that they depend on your perspective. They can either leave us feeling words like, “Boring. Difficult. Unattainable. Guilt” and, in our minds, we relegate spiritual discipline and holiness to only the few, aged maternal or paternal saints who are one-in-a-million Christians, the exception to the rule. Or we look at them like getting to know a friend better or cultivating a relationship with the lover of our souls. We need to rest in that knowledge and form a core and center in it. If we lead from our cores, if we act out of our cores, if we live in the live and grace of God that emanates out of our pours…than we will truly take this world by storm and bring God’s kingdom to earth. If we abide in the vine our core…
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he pruned to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Stay in love with God. Abide in God’s love so that your joy may be complete. If we keep our eyes and ears open, and our hearts, there’s a lot to this specific way of abiding, and if we’re brutally honest, some of the things that make it most special are the same things that, on occasion, make it really difficult.
First, not all of us at any given time like the idea of being pruned. Even metaphorically. In verses 2 and 3, Jesus describes how, with him, we’ll be pruned and cleansed, and it’s actually the same Greek verb both times, repeat after me: katharos. Katharos. A good English connection is catharsis. A catharsis is an expression of emotions that leaves us feeling deeply relieved. So, for instance, an ugly cry from time to time, whatever inspires it, that physically just cleans out your sinuses and emotionally unloads your burdens; that’s cathartic. Funerals are some of our biggest occasions for catharsis, to get everything out, and start to heal. This is the root of what Jesus says God the gardener does for us as branches in the vine: God prunes, gets the burdensome stuff out, purges the stunted growth, and leaves us whole by doing so. Great news, right?
Unfortunately, not all of us like to be pruned, we don’t always like self-denial, the idea of sacrificing things we’ve grown attached to. We look at God and say, “Can’t I just keep that one part of that one branch? I’ve gotten really comfortable with it. It’ll hurt if you remove that. Can’t I just send out a new branch in that direction, ‘cause I want to do that.” And pretty soon we’re a lot less like a fruit-bearing vine than a wild kudzu – more concerned with consuming in all directions than flowing with full life. Are you familiar with feeling that way? It’s why abiding is tough.
Second, not all of us at any given time really appreciate feeling tied down. Not only are parts of our lives open to pruning when we abide with Jesus, but he also says that we’re confined to the existence of branches. Now, again, sounds pretty great in a sense. Being intertwined with the Vine means having direction, having something to guide us. If you’ve ever ridden through a vineyard, these big gnarly stalks are usually carefully staked in, and supported on trellises, and there’s twine and gear everywhere to keep the branches properly placed to maximize production. It’s this big network of spider-web growth, orderly and efficient, and awesome. Even more, how awesome is it that Jesus is basically saying we get to live off his abundant, true life? Like, the very sap and richness and nutrients of God Almighty flows through the Vine directly into us. Really cool.
What some of us also hear in there is that abiding in the Vine means none of us gets to be a stand-alone plant. Nobody gets to be a towering trunk all on our own. We might start to fear that we won’t get to control our own destiny; or make our own decisions; or be creative and original. What if we won’t get to stand out from everyone else, or take credit for our own glory, or enjoy the spoils of OUR victories? Pretty soon we feel an itch to be, instead of a fruit-bearing vine all “tied up in knots,” a majestic oak that stands alone and knows no bounds. Are you familiar with any of that feeling? It comes natural. It’s why abiding is tough.
Last, when it comes to abiding in the Vine, a more elusive truth is that not all of us always want to be fruitful. We don’t always feel like it, don’t always think we’ve got it in us, don’t always appreciate the pressure of bearing fruit. But Jesus makes no bones: why does God prune? What’s the end-goal of my life flowing through you? So that produce comes forth. Not what you used to do. Not the result you got 10 years ago. I’m here living in you NOW. Just open your eyes to the possibilities and don’t live in the used to’s of your past. If we open our eyes to the unimaginable things God wants to do through us, then what can we not do? What is our limitation? Again, it can sound like the glory of glories that the Lord of Heaven and Earth chooses to use humble old us to accomplish amazing, eternal, life-saving, earth-changing feats of power and love. But as soon as we admit that we have the capacity to bear much fruit for God, all of a sudden it makes me wonder: “So where is all the good fruit then? Why does it seem like I’m not seeing any? What, instead, am I wasting my time on selfishly? What other priorities are driving my life? What if I just don’t feel like dealing with other people sometimes, or putting myself out there, or going out on the limb (vine humor), or doing it all over again? What if I can just never believe that somebody like me could ever do anything to seriously contribute to what God’s doing?” And pretty soon, rather than abiding in a fruit-bearing vine I’d much rather be, say, a nice, self-contained little cactus. Unassuming, inwardly-focused, good to go unto my own survival, sure a little bit prickly but, hey, now God won’t need to worry about expecting anything from me. Are you familiar with any of those ideas, those feelings? Anybody else ever have a little cactus in’em? It’s why abiding is so tough.
What I’m saying is that, for everything that makes a relationship with Jesus sooo good, so unique and powerful and one-of-a-kind on earth, so life-giving and glorious, there’s something that rubs against our sinful nature. There’s a natural drawback, hesitation, and even a sense of “let me run in the opposite direction.” I think these are the same reasons why the spiritual disciplines, the means of grace, as beautiful, powerful, and life-giving as they are, are usually described as confining, boring, and impossible to attain: because they are the ways that we know how to abide, and abiding is tough for our human nature. We would sometimes rather do a thousand other things than these; we’d rather get to these things last if we have time; we’d rather choose all sorts of artificial substitutes over these things, in order to feel like we get to grow what we want to grow, the way we want to grow, as selfishly as we want to do it. Sometimes, the “disciplines” we have to stay in love with God just aren’t that attractive to the part of us that is rooted in the world, but there’s freedom in that as well. Bob Goff writes, “The cool thing about taking Jesus up on His offer [to abide in him] is that whatever controls you doesn’t anymore. People who used to be obsessed about becoming famous no longer care whether anybody knows their name. People who used to want power are willing to serve. People who used to chase money freely give it away. People who used to beg others for acceptance are now strong enough to give love. When we get our security from Christ, we no longer have to look for it in the world, and that’s a pretty good trade.” That is a heck of a trade. Not to get our value from the world. Knowing and trusting God to give us the only value we need.
Y’all, as we close today, this passage isn’t supposed to be bad news. To the disciples’ ears, shortly before Jesus’ death, these words were meant to offer the hope of how they would get to remain in relationship with their beloved Lord and Master. Just listen to how Jesus wraps up in verse 11: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” The same is true for us. We know that when we pray, when we worship publicly, when we study scripture, when we fast and abstain, we have a chance to meet God, to know God, to be in love with God, and to stay in love. In these practices, God’s pruning helps us slough of the dead things that are draining our life; growing in Christ our Vine means living into holy design; and bearing fruit means taking part in the Lord’s redeeming work. As one of the three simple rules, abiding through the spiritual disciplines, means we are going to work on this together. The mighty redwood trees of California’s Sequoia National Park are the largest life-forms on Earth; yet it is a rare thing to see a redwood standing alone. This is because the roots of the Sequoia do not extend deep into the earth, as most tree roots do; they snake along just beneath the surface of the soil. So shallow are the redwood’s roots that, when a tree is young, it is easily toppled by the wind.
The redwoods that survive — and that grow to such astounding heights — are the ones whose roots intertwine with those of other trees, forming a great interwoven mass of support. The storms that bluster their way through the valleys of the Sierra Nevada can work no harm on those trees: for they stand strong and tall together, in community. We will walk with each other spurring each other on to good works. We will stand stronger together because we are going to create a firm foundation as we all seek to abide in Christ. We are asking and seeking to become more faithful followers of Christ and the Spirit of Christ will abide in us as we abide in him. Praise be to God.