Monday, August 29, 2011

bearing fruit: a bible study (john 15)

Jesus says, “I am the vine, and you are the branches…and apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15. 5) He is talking about growth, life, connection. The visible strength of the branches comes from a source, the vine.

Apart from me”, Jesus says, “you can do nothing”. At the core of Christianity is the assumption that we have a spiritual need. To be a Christian is to trust that God overcomes our weaknesses, forgives our failures, heals our brokenness.

We can live in connection with the God who wants to give us grace, help, forgiveness, salvation. There is a human temptation to keep God at a distance. And yet, to be a Christian is to admit that we need a Savior; it is to say, “I can’t do this on my own”.


Here is the good news: when we ask for help, we discover that God’s grace is present in our weakness and this grace is sufficient. The Twelve Steps movement says it this way: When we confess that we are powerless, we are connected 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.

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 in his presence, to live in him, and to know that he is alive.

I’ll say this as simply as I know how: you are invited into a friendship with Jesus Christ, to experience this connection.

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, we stay in touch. Friends talk, listen, ask questions. Friends are genuinely interested; they want to learn about what is going on in each other’s lives.

What does a friendship with Jesus look like? There is time to talk and listen. This is prayer. A friendship with Jesus is all about prayer. The late Henri Nouwen met a seeker who seemed to be uncomfortable they happened to be seated next to each other at a charity function. Finally their conversation turned toward the real issue “I’m having trouble believing in God, in all of this”, she said. He looked into the eyes of the woman, and with intensity he 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 who is simple and yet also so mysterious!

Can a friendship lose its meaning? Yes. We can become disconnected. Sadly, I have friends whom 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.

And so a friendship with Jesus is a relationship that we are called to invest in, to give time to. 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”, he teaches us.


The teaching of Jesus continues in the form of a command: Love one another, Jesus says, as I have loved you (15.12). He repeats these words in verse 17: Love one another. Love is absolutely at the heart of the gospel, the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus. This morning I want us to think about love as communion, as the experience of community, Jesus reaching out to people through people. If God is love, then God’s people make God’s love visible. Again, in John’s Gospel there is always something visible, tangible about God’s love. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son (John 3)…Jesus, the word of God, became flesh and lived among us (John 1).

Years ago I remember the great evangelist John Stott posing a provocative question. It is even more relevant in our post-modern culture. “ How can the world believe in an invisible God?

The answer, the suggested, is found in I John 4. 11-12:

"No one has ever seen God; if we love one another,
God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us.

We experience the love of God through God’s people! This love is a gift, but we must accept it, and this acceptance involves giving up on the idea that I can live the Christian life on my own, without community, apart from communion with others.

A few years ago Robert Putnam wrote about the values of our culture in his work Bowling Alone. The simple thesis of the book is that more people are bowling than ever before, but fewer people are involved in bowling leagues. We are bowling, but we are bowling alone. It is all about the individual.

On the way to communion we overcome the obstacle of individualism. We really do need each other.

We cannot do it alone. We need each other.

For many this is the way to salvation, and this was true in my own life---I was impressed, drawn into, overtaken by a small community of Christians who included me and accepted me: a Sunday School class of four people, including the teacher; then a work team that helped to build a storefront church in Brooklyn; a Bible study group on a college campus; and the quiet witness of people in my own family. My way into the Christian faith came through other Christians. I experienced the communion with other people, and then I made the connection with God!

The communion with each other happens most often in smaller groups: Sunday School classes; Women’s Circles; Bible Studies; Mission teams; Choirs. I cannot overemphasize the importance of being in a small group. We need a connection with God, but we also need a communion with each other, and the scripture teaches me that we cannot have one without the other.

He is the vine. We are the branches.

We are connected. And the life that flows from the vine into the branches is a life of love. There are no individual, solitary Christians. We are grafted into each other, into the tree of life, to use another image from scripture, into the body of Christ, to use yet another. I cannot be a Christian without you, and you cannot be a Christian without me. For some reason God designed it all in just this way. And so a part of our conversion is into the communion, the body, the believers, the household of God.

In his little spiritual classic Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison cell, reflects on the communion that we share with each other, and our temptation to take our life together for granted.

“It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let us thank God on our knees and declare: it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters”.

The core conviction is our need for a friendship with Jesus. “I am the vine, you are the branches”, he teaches his disciples. We draw our strength, our life, from him: “Apart from me”, he says, “you can do nothing”.

Next, the command and invitation that we should “love one another”. To make the point negatively, we cannot love Jesus, whom we have never seen, if we do not love our brother or sister, whom we have seen. Said positively, we experience the love of God through God’s people. Christianity is always incarnational---it takes on human flesh.


Now we conclude with a necessary implication. We are connected with God, and we are in communion with each other for a larger purpose: a calling in the world. “You did not choose me”, Jesus says, “I chose you”. “I appointed you to go and bear fruit”.

What does it mean to bear fruit? We can go back to those who heard this teaching for the first time, the disciples of Jesus. They would have heard these words and placed them in their Mediterranean context. The fruit of the vine produces figs, grapes, olives. These finally become food, oils, wine. But vineyards are primarily for the purpose of making wine. I am not an authority on wine, but I have close friends who are winemakers, who have reminded us of the old question, “How do you make a little money in the wine business? You start with a lot of money.”

It is not accidental that the scriptures are filled with the imagery of vineyards and wine, with the cycles of planting and nurturing and harvesting, with celebrations where wine is freely poured and enjoyed. When those who listened to Jesus heard his references to vineyards and wine, they would have immediately made the connections: the labor, the cultivation, the pruning, the growth, the fruit, the abundance, the feast. In a vineyard one experiences life in all of its fullness.

And so Jesus makes the claim, of himself, that he is the vine. I have come that you may have life and have it in abundance, he had announced to them. To abide in Jesus is to remain connected to him. When we lose that connection, when the branch is severed from the vine, there is no life, no growth, no fruit. “I want you to abide in me”, he is saying. “I want you to remain connected to me”. Why does he say this?

The reasons go deeper than a personal relationship with him. We remain connected to the vine because that is the way we bear fruit. And here the inward spiritual grace becomes an outward and visible sign. The natural consequence of a healthy root taking in nutrients is that it produces something wonderful. It bears fruit.

Jesus had been with the disciples for some time---he spent a significant amount of time with just a few people, hidden mostly from the crowds, investing all of this time in twelve people. He was teaching them about friendship with God. He was instructing them in prayer. He was opening the scriptures to them. There were good days and bad days. Sometimes they got it, and sometimes they did not. He also sensed that there were dynamics going on between them. There were struggles over who would sit in the places of power, over whose voice would be heard most clearly, struggles, by the way, that continue to be with the church. And so he gave them a command and an invitation: love one another.

It was always about more than an individual’s spiritual life, or a group of people and their love for each other. He wanted the disciples to bear fruit. He wanted their lives to make a difference. How do we measure all of that? How do we know if we are bearing fruit, if we are making a difference?

I love the insight of Oswald Chambers:

Our spiritual life cannot be measured by success as the world measures it, but only by what God pours through us—and we cannot measure that at all.”

What God pours through us”… I like that.

When I hear Jesus say that “I appointed you to go and bear fruit”, a word occurs to me: accountability. What is important is that we allow the grace of God to flow through us into the lives of others. We allow the inward and spiritual grace to become an outward and visible sign. The wine is to be shared, following the example of Jesus, who said, at the Passover feast, "this is my body, given for you, this is my blood, poured out for you” (I Corinthians 11; John 13).

He wanted the disciples to bear fruit; he wanted their lives to mean something. And this is our calling: he wants our lives to bear fruit, to mean something.

I invite you to discover, or rediscover, the abundance of the Christian life: It is a connection with God. It is a communion with each other. And it is a calling to bear fruit in the world.

Maybe you are at a place of beginning: a friendship with Jesus; you are searching for a connection. Maybe you are seeking community, relationships, a family where you know you are loved; for you the longing is for communion. Or maybe you want something more: you want to make a difference in this life; you are listening for a calling.

Wherever you are in life, the good news is that you are welcome at the feast, to connect with Jesus, to be a part of his communion, the disciples, and to respond to his call to follow him into a world that hungers and thirsts for the abundant life that he shares.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

the adaptive challenge and the local (united methodist) church

The United Methodist Church, through the work of the Call to Action and the Connectional Table is proposing four offices that will carry forward the programmatic work of thirteen present boards and agencies (note: additional work in areas such as communication, pension and health benefits and financial administration will take place outside these offices). This is for the purpose of responding to the adaptive challenge---to create more vital and healthy congregations. The four offices are projected to be new places for new people, leadership development, missional engagement and justice and reconciliation.

I have writtten before on this blog about the structural realities facing our church, at a macro level, but I have also given some thought lately to this scheme and what it might mean at the local level. If the adaptive work is really that which is given back to the people, what might these four terms mean for every pastor and local church.

Could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to help create one new place for new people? This could be any missional act of hospitality that engages new people, from a bible study at the local coffee shop to a new faith community. Could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to develop leaders? This could look like a Bible study, or, more simply, meeting with one or two seekers who wanted to go deeper.

Could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to lead others in missional engagement? This could be a servant team, in the community or across the planet, or a sophisticated major missional initiative that involves community, denominational and ecumenical stakeholders. And could pastors be encouraged (and held accountable) each year to take concrete action toward justice and reconciliation? In this way clergy leaders would speak prophetically for those who have no voices.

Of course, the accountability of pastors would not be in isolation from a shared evaluation of congregations. Vital and healthy congregations are not sustained, for any length of time, apart from vital and healthy clergy. The opposite is also true: clergy are shaped by their environments. Thus a process of shared accountability, at the local level, is essential. The Call to Action reporting seems also to include a vision for accountability at the Annual Conference level, and so a new set of questions emerges: what would several hundred new places for new people look like in a geographical area? or several hundred leaders who are being discipled in deeper ways? or several hundred servant teams, with major missional initiatives in each area? or clear and strong voices speaking for justice and reconciliation? What kind of leadership, episcopal and otherwise, makes such an outcome possible in an area? And what kind of resources (education, textual and social media) are needed?

A shift toward the adaptive challenge, at the local level, will change every facet of the United Methodist Church's clergy system, from recruitment and formation to oversight and supervision to recruitment. It will require a massive investment in the areas of support and accountability. We will need to resist the temptation to copy models of support and accountability in the secular professional spheres of North America. These have not been a blessing to our culture. The work of the General Boards will likely shift to the creation of this alternative culture----Bishops are simply too engaged in the essential tasks of deploying clergy----and it will likely take a generation to establish. At the same time there are initiatives that are beyond the scope of the local church (the beginning of my list would include Africa University, the Upper Room, United Methodist Women, the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Change The World) and simply must be retained as priorities. But those that I mention, and there are others, are largely strong at present because they so clearly engage the local church.

Much work remains to be done on the adaptive challenge. The work of the Connectional Table---at least that which has been shared publically---has leaned more to what Ronald Heifitz would call "technical solutions": rearranging structures and shifting funding patterns. This is necessary work, and yet we have done this work before, and it did not lead to congregational vitality or effective clergy leadership. I am supportive of the movement identified in the Call to Action; at the same time, it is imperative that we begin to think about what all of this will look like at the local level. This is missional strategy, and it deserves careful articulation and the corresponding constructive development alongside the streamlining of work done now by boards and staffs at the general church level.

Monday, August 08, 2011

missional is wesleyan and wesleyan is missional: eight affirmations

The missional church lives by the grace of God. We understand that God’s grace is present in the lives of others before we encounter them, that the grace of the crucified and risen Lord saves us (Ephesians 2. 8-9), and that our growth in grace finds expression in the love of God and neighbor (sanctification).

The missional church knows that church is not an end in itself. The church exists to bear witness to the love of God in this world. A church’s vitality or strength is a by-product of its mission beyond itself---koinonia is the result of missio. The mission is for the sake of the world, and in this God is glorified (John 17).

We do the mission for the sake of the mission. We cannot control outcomes, or even visible fruit. This does not mean that we do not count people, money or other resources. It simply implies that we serve as faithfully as we know how, combining faith, intelligence and rigor, and we trust the end result to God.

The means of grace sustain the missional church. The mission of God is more than a human endeavor or a political activity: it is work that calls forth our love of the neighbor, which cannot be separated from the love of God. In the absence of a disciplined life, in which we are in touch with the means (ordinary channels) of grace, we become disillusioned with God and apathetic toward our neighbor.

Holiness is always personal and social. The missional church holds together, in its own life, the yearning for spirituality and justice. The missional church hears the still small voice (I Kings 19) and the cries of the oppressed (Exodus 3). Personal holiness without social holiness is escapist. Social holiness without personal holiness is works righteousness.

The missional church is connectional. Because we know that the gifts of God are within and beyond our local expressions of felllowship, and because we understand that human needs are greater than our local capacities to meet them, we rejoice in and depend upon our connections with the denomination, our ecumenical partners and friends in agencies and structures who work for the common good.

The present economic context requires a missional church. The attractional church is an expensive endeavor that depends on large sums of financial capital and creates consuming participants. The missional church is most at home in the deepest aspirations of people: to be healthy, to be educated, to be employed. These basic needs were the place of connection in many of the missionary movements in prior generations, and are unfortunately growing in our own time.

Young adults resonate with the missional church. Many in the younger generations are seeking a community that has integrity (no hidden agenda), is not hypocritical (separating personal and social holiness), is not judgmental (and thus knows a gracious God) and is real (and thus includes the “winners” and “losers” in our world). They will search for this community, and, if necessary, they will piece expressions of it (such as spirituality or justice) together wherever they find it.

The Wesleyan tradition embodies, at its best, the core of what it means to be missional: grace, holiness, discipline, an open table, a world parish.

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