Monday, May 01, 2006

a friendship with Jesus (john 15)

Once we lived in a vital connection with the earth. If we worked the ground, cared for the soil, supported the vocation of farming, we were blessed with the fruits of the earth. Now we fill our carts with produce and meats and canned goods and beverages, we run our plastic card through a scanner, punch in a few numbers on a key pad, and we have daily bread. If floods come, or ecological disaster, or famine, another market will be found. There is no longer a vital, visible relationship between what blossoms from the earth and what feeds and sustains us. We don’t always see the connection.

The setting of this very simple teaching of Jesus, “I am the vine, and you are the brances…and apart from me you can do nothing”(John 15. 5) is one of growth, life, and connection. Of course there can be no growth apart from the vine; of course there would be no life apart from the sustaining force of the vine and the visible strength of the branches.

The image, of vine and branches, helps us to understand and evaluate where we are in our relationship with Christ. How strong is the connection? If we no longer have that vital connection with the earth, but continue to enjoy its fruits, could the same be said for our spiritual lives? As individuals, we can become wrapped up in doing good things, being in the right places, observing those who are religious, selecting the right church, as we would a school or a neighborhood…without actually living in connection with Christ. North Americans are efficient, rational, problem-solving individuals. We get things done. But still, we can lose that vital connection.

Gerald Kennedy, a Methodist Bishop of the last century, spoke of this at an institutional level when he remarked that the Methodist Church was so well-organized that it would flourish in America long after Christianity had ceased to exist! And so sometimes we wonder: Where is the connection? Where are we in the spiritual life? The Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill posed the matter this way: The interesting thing about religion is God”. And so the question becomes: what does this have to do with God? And what do I have to do with God?”

If the connection sometimes seem loose or fragmented, there is help for us in the scriptures. Jesus describes the connection with the image of a vine and branches. He uses the image both positively and negatively. First, the positive statement. It is translated in THE MESSAGE with these words: Live in me. Make my home in me just as I do in you.

It’s baseball season. Bartlett Giametti, who served as the president of Yale and later as the commissioner of baseball was once asked why the sport of baseball enjoyed such fascination and almost reverance among fans. He responded: Baseball is about getting home, and we all want to get home.” To get home is to experience connection. The spiritual life is about being at home with God, coming home to God.

Some of you know that my family lives about five hours from here, to the south. Over the years I have made that trip at different times and for varying reasons: late at night, early in the morning, in heavy Thanksgiving traffic, in the snow following Christmas, with very young children or by myself, or just with Pam, in anticipation of family gatherings, maybe a funeral or a birthday, or a reunion. I usually get down a couple of times a year, and even though we see each other infrequently---we each have our own lives--- there is a connection, there is an experience of home. The accents are thicker, the pace is slower, they don’t put slaw on hotdogs, and someone usually asks when I lost my accent!

Jesus said, “Live in me. Make your home in me, just as I do in you”. Just as the branches must remain on the vine, the disciple is to remain in Jesus. There is a mutual indwelling---we are in Christ, Christ is in us. This is what experiencing a connection is all about.

But Jesus also expresses the point negatively. The connection can be loose, fragmented, broken. There can be, in words that are familiar to us, a “failure to communicate, mixed signals, different wavelengths”. In the early years of computers I would try to do something and I would receive this message: ABORT, RETRY, FAIL.

“Apart from me”, Jesus says, “you can do nothing”. At the core of Christianity is the assumption that we have a need for God, that there is something within us that can only be completed through the presence of Christ. To be a Christian is to trust that God overcomes our weaknesses, forgives our failures, heals our brokenness. On one level it is very simple.

I am aware that many people had bad experiences early in life by hearing presentations of a simple faith that did not square with the world they actually lived in, or by being pressured toward a fundamentalism that was oppressive. Jesus is the answer”, we would be told, when no one was very clear about what the question was in the first place. I was helped by a statement, whose origin I am unclear about. Here it is: I would give nothing for a simplicity on this side of complexity. I would give everything for a simplicity on the other side of complexity.

Some people have spent their lives running away from a stereotype of Jesus, either the Jesus of fundamentalism or the Jesus of the secular scholars whom the media find so fascinating, and in the process they have cut themselves off from the One who is the source of life and healing, strength and mercy.

We can live in connection with the God who wants to give us grace, help, forgiveness, salvation. But there is a human temptation to keep God at a distance. To be a Christian is to admit that we need a Savior; it is to cry out for help in the middle of the night; it is to say, “I can’t do this on my own”.

Here is the good news: when we ask for help, there is a lot of help there. The 12 Steps movement says it this way: When we confess that we are powerless, we are put in touch with an incredible power. Apart from me, you can do nothing, Jesus says. But if you live in me, as I live in you, there is an incredible power, an amazing grace.

And if we read ahead in the story, we discover something equally astonishing. Jesus says, I no longer call you servants, but I have called you friends (John 15. 5). To be a Christian is to be a friend of Jesus, to be at home with him, to live in him, and to know that he is alive. I’ll say this as simply as a I know how: you are invited into a friendship with Jesus Christ, to experience this connection, because you matter to God. If we live long enough, we discover the importance of friendships, because in friendships we become aware that we matter to some other person, and so we try to stay connected.

How do friends stay connected? Again, simply, they stay in touch. They want to know “what’s up”, as my kids would say. Friends talk, they listen, they ask questions and they are genuinely interested in each other, they want to learn about what is going on.

What does a friendship with Jesus look like? There would be time to talk and listen. This is prayer. A friendship with Jesus is all about prayer. The late Henri Nouwen met a seeker who was having difficulty believing in God. They happened to be seated next to each other at a charity function. I’m having trouble believing all of this”, she said. He literally seized the woman, looked into her eyes, said to her, “Give me five minutes a day, five minutes a day to be silent and in the presence of Jesus…five minutes”.

We pay attention to our friends. We talk and listen. Could you give five minutes a day to spend in the presence of Jesus? Beyond talking and listening, we ask questions and learn about the lives of our friends. One evening recently I traveled with a couple of friends to an event that was out of town. Since we had time in the car together we were able to learn about each other, our hobbies, our children, our work. We laughed. We talked about serious issues. There were silences in the midst of the conversation. A friendship takes that kind of time.

How do we ask questions, how do we learn in the spiritual life? We turn to the scriptures. We open the Bible and we dive into it with our questions, and we begin to learn about this Jesus that we sing about and read about in the news media and perhaps called upon sometime in our life along the way. Here I want to plant a seed. If you have not taken Disciple Bible Study, I hope you will plan, now, to be in a class that starts in August. Disciple, more than any other Bible Study, is an exercise in diving into the scriptures, asking questions, learning about the Christian life.

Can a friendship lose its meaning? Yes. We can become disconnected. Sadly, I have friends who I would not be able to find if I wanted to. We have lost touch. I regret that. And it’s true in the spiritual life.

I am the vine, you are the branches, and apart from me you can do nothing, Jesus teaches. This is the first in a series of three messages over the next weeks. There is more to the spiritual life than a friendship with Jesus. There is our life together---he taught us to love one another. And there is our life in the world---he called us to go and bear fruit. Those are like the ripples of water that extend beyond us.

But we must begin here. The center, the core, the foundation is a friendship with Jesus, a friendship that we are called to invest in, to give time to. Jesus is the source of our strength. Speaking, listening, asking questions, learning. It is a gift, but we access the gift through the simple acts of prayer and scripture. To do these simple acts is to stay connected---“I am the vine, you are the branches, and apart from me you can do nothing”, he teaches us.

A simplicity on the other side of complexity. As we move through this life’s journey, things will happen, questions will emerge, crises will erupt, wounds will be opened and disappointments will linger. We will need the companionship of Someone who walks beside us, whose promise, “I am with you always”, is real, a friend, who gently reminds us of a simple truth, even on the other side of complexity: apart from me you can do nothing.


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