Category Archives: Reading Scripture

Staying Centered on Christ

Back in September, I started a sermon series called “Discipleship 101.” In my planning, I thought it would last about 4 weeks, maybe six. It was intended to help the congregation of First United Methodist Church live into its mission to “stay centered on Christ and offer Christ.” We do pretty well at “offering Christ” through various ministries, but it’s that “staying centered on Christ” part that is often a struggle. This sermon series was originally intended to help us go deeper into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I thought it would be a handy bullet-pointed list of things we can do to grow in faith. Wow, was I wrong.
youth.bibleThe scripture passages from the Revised Common Lectionary kept bringing me to messages of forgiveness and reconciliation and living in community with fellow believers. As I prayed over these passages and listened for a theme to emerge, I discovered that the path to true discipleship isn’t a “to do” list at all. In fact, nothing we do in our own strength will bring us closer to Jesus or deepen our faith. Discipleship isn’t about what I do, it’s about the One I follow.
Followers of Jesus stay focused on the One they follow. Everything else – Bible study, prayer, spiritual practices, equipping people for ministry, generosity, hospitality – these are simply evidence of a life devoted to Christ. They aren’t the “how to” steps for getting there. The only way to become a better follower of Jesus is to ….follow Jesus.
Yes, it really is that simple. And that hard.
The next few weeks will bring us to the completion of this particular series, as we slide into “Discipleship 201” – but where will God lead us on this journey? I invite you to join us on Sunday mornings at 9:30 at First United Methodist Church in New Ulm, MN to discover “what’s next?” And if you can’t make it to worship with us, check back here for a link to the sermon each week. Together, let’s stay centered on Christ and offer Christ to one another. Peace be with you. – Pastor Jo Anne

Intersections: Where Science Meets Scripture – sermon on Genesis 1:1-5, 27 – 2:22

We’re in the middle of a series of sermons based on topics you have
requested, as we look at places where faith intersects with life. We started off learning how to wrestle with God. When God shows up in
your life, confronting you with your past, preparing you for your future,
the only option for your present is to grab hold of God and hang on. We
also learned that, any time you wrestle with the living God, you will be
changed, and God will bless those who engage in the struggle.

Last week, we looked at the intersection of faith with doubt. We
considered the possibility that the opposite of faith is not doubt, but  certainty, because if we insist on being certain, we don’t really need faith.
Doubt keeps faith alive and active. When Jesus asks us, “Why did you  doubt?” it’s an invitation to examine why we choose to believe.

Next week, we will examine how we can be faithful Christians who are ‘in
the world, but not of the world,’ and at the same time, connect with
people who need to know Jesus, but who see Christians as hypocrites or
snobs.

But this week, we get to tackle a topic that might be the most
controversial of all: how do we reconcile the biblical accounts of creation
with a scientific understanding of how the world came to be? Are science
and scripture mutually exclusive? Can you be a good Christian and still  accept that the earth is billions of years old, as scientists claim? Continue reading

A Visit to the Precipice – thoughts on Luke 4:21-30

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

modern nazareth from mt precipiceAbout a year ago, we were standing on that “brow of the hill” – or at least what is traditionally accepted as the spot. The modern city of Nazareth lies below the hill to the west.

And Mt. Tabor can usually be seen off to the east, toward the Sea of Galilee. However, on the day we visited Mt. Precipice, it was rainy and cloudy.

2015-01-09 clouds over NazarethAs the clouds rolled in over Nazareth, we had to use our imaginations to picture the vista below us.

 

We could mostly make out Nazareth to the west, but the rich farmland to the south and the valley between us and Mt. Tabor to the east were completely obscured by clouds.

2015-01-09 mt precipice toward tabor clouds

 

 

 

 

2015-01-09 mt precipice clouds

 

 

I noticed that our little group of tourists reacted to this phenomenon in a surprising way. Keep in mind that we really couldn’t see anything – the view was completely obscured by clouds and rain. But that didn’t stop us from lifting our phones and cameras …

shawna and amanda taking photos on mt precipice2015-01-09 07.37.48

tourists on mt precipice

 

 

 

 

But do you notice something about these pictures? Everyone is looking in a different direction.

Here we are at the top of the hill where Jesus himself was dragged, just so he could be thrown down the hillside and stoned to death for blasphemy. And we are looking in every single direction, through the fog, at things we cannot see. If we inch out to the edge of the path, we can look down the hillside and imagine a human being thrown down over those rocks.Amanda looking down from mt precipice

 

But the precipice itself is the only thing we can clearly see. Ponder that.

The precipice of Mt Precipice 2015-01-09 07.46.49

 

 

 

 

Made for a Purpose – Sermon on Genesis 2:4-9, 15-17

We’ve had a great start to reading The Story together.
Several of you have already told me about the way this has impacted your lives, and it is good to see God already at work among us.  If you missed the discussion on Wednesday night, let me bring you up to speed.  (Then plan to join us this Wednesday, as we dive into chapter two!)

Here’s what we have so far:

The beginning of our journey through the story of the Bible is like the beginning of an action-packed movie. If you miss the opening scenes of a good action movie, you will probably not understand the rest of the story. There is so much packed into those first few minutes, it’s worth sitting through all the previews to make sure you’re in the theater when the action starts.

It is the same with the Bible’s grand story. The story of Creation sets the scene for the whole revelation of God in the Bible. So many things happen here at the very beginning, and so many characters are introduced that you may miss an important fact if you skip this first chapter.
If you come into the theater after this movie has begun, you might think this is a story about Adam and Eve, and what happens to them.  

And you would be wrong.

The main character of the Grand Story of the Bible is God.
This is a story about who God is, and what God does.  The very first thing God does in this story is create. From Genesis 1:1, we learn that the beginning of the universe is not an impersonal accident, but the result of the creative purpose of a personal God.  

The story of creation is presented to us as a poem. It is art. The book of Genesis is traditionally attributed to Moses, but he wasn’t around at the beginning, so what he wrote probably came from words that had been spoken from one generation to the next. The easiest way to remember an important story and pass it along to others is to put it into the form of a poem or song. Here in Genesis, we have a beautiful work of art that tells us how the world was formed.

It’s arranged in an order that makes sense, and is easy to remember. First, God makes the places, and then he creates the things that belong in those places. So, on the first day, God makes light and dark, one the second day, he divides sky and water, and on the third day, God creates land and covers it with vegetation. Then on the fourth day, God puts stars and moon and sun where they belong, to rule over the day and night that were created on the first day. On day five, God puts birds into the sky and fish into the sea, and on day six, God populates the land with animals. God saves his crowning achievement for last. The final thing God makes is humankind.  God’s core passion is people, made in God’s own image. 

We read in Genesis 1:26-27:

26 Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

27 So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

All the beauty of creation is secondary to you. Let this truth sink in. God made you in God’s own image, whether you are male or female, for a purpose: to live with God while caring for his creation. God’s supreme passion is to be with us at all costs, to give us everything that is good. 

“In the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens, 5 when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the LORD God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6 but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7 then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8 And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9 Out of the ground the LORD God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. (Genesis 2:4-9)

“15 The LORD God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.16 And the LORD God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; 17 but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (2:15-17)

Notice that the tree of life was not forbidden for food. Only the tree of death, knowing good and evil.
And almost from the beginning, something goes wrong. We call it “the Fall” but it really should be called Adam and Eve’s rebellion. 

You see, when God made humans, his purpose was to live together with us in friendship. But God knew that the only way that could work would be if humans chose to love God the way God chose to love us. God gave Adam and Eve the freedom to choose.
They could choose life in friendship with God, or they could choose death, by knowing both good and evil.

God does not force love.
Love must be given freely, or it isn’t love. So God let Adam and Eve choose, and they made the wrong choice. Adam and Eve rebelled against God and ate from the forbidden “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” and God’s vision to be with people was ruined. 

But here’s the good news: the rest of the Bible is about God’s pursuit to get us back!

Sin damages the whole human race.
Because Adam and Eve chose a different vision than God’s vision, sin became part of their spiritual DNA and they produced more sinners. Their children were born with sinful natures, one brother even killing another out of jealousy. And the sin virus was passed on from generation to generation, until things got so bad, God said, “I want a do-over.”

So God looked for the most righteous person he could find, and he chose Noah to start over. But it didn’t work. The flood erased the wicked human race, but did not erase the sin nature from Noah and his family.  Once they were off the ark, Noah planted a vineyard, and made wine from the grapes. One day, his youngest son found Noah drunk and naked, and he went snickering to tell his brothers about it.

“When he drank some of its wine, he became drunk and lay uncovered inside his tent. 22 Ham, the father of Canaan, saw his father naked and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it across their shoulders; then they walked in backward and covered their father’s naked body. Their faces were turned the other way so that they would not see their father naked.”
(Genesis 9: 21-23.)


There’s a clue at the very beginning of God’s story that God has a plan to save us, and Noah’s nakedness points us back to that clue. After Adam and Eve sinned and became aware of their nakedness, they made fig leaf clothing to cover their nakedness. God took away the fig leaves and covered Adam and Eve with the skins of animals. Here’s the clue:  For God to restore humans to their place in Gods created order, blood must be shed. 

God created the world with the grand vision of living together with us in the world. It is God’s supreme passion to be with you. God gave us freedom of choice. Adam and Eve chose out of the freedom of their will to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and ruined God’s vision of living with us.  
Sin was deposited permanently into the nature of Adam and Eve, a deadly virus separating them from a holy God. God banished Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and set angels to guard it, in order to keep them from the Tree of Life, which would sustain life forever. Without access to this tree, they would eventually die.

We think God is being cruel by letting us die. But it’s actually an act of God’s grace to keep us from being able to sustain our life forever in a state of sin and hatred. Man’s choice resulted in separation from God, and it broke his heart. The ‘rest of the story,’ the entire Bible, tells us of the relentless pursuit of God and the extent to which he will go in order to get us back.

The flood is God’s first attempt to go to great measures to get us back. But it doesn’t work because it doesn’t deal with sin. Sin goes onto the ark with Noah, and it disembarks with him. But God isn’t finished. He will not let his good creation go.

Let’s review…

When God replaced Adam and Eve’s fig leaves with garments of skin, he gave us a clue as to how far he would go to fulfill his supreme desire to restore a relationship with us. Even when we are ashamed and feeling vulnerable, he covers us in order to restore our relationship with him, but covering us requires the shedding of blood. We are invited to soak in the fact that the God of the universe wants to be with us more than anything else on earth. You are the point of The Story.

God wants to be with you. Think about that. You. God wants to personally be with you. At great cost to God, God has done everything possible to get you back. You are valuable. Recognizing your own personal worth begins by believing what God says about you.

In Psalm 139 we read:

I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful, I know that full well.
My frame was not hidden from you when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
 before one of them came to be.
How precious to me are your thoughts, God!  How vast is the sum of them!
Were I to count them,
 they would outnumber the grains of sand— (Psalm 139:14-18)

There was a time in my life when I had to read those five verses out loud to myself every day. I did not feel fearfully and wonderfully made. I felt completely worthless. I was sure that God didn’t care about me anymore. I had wandered away from God. I had turned my back on him, and I was afraid to turn around, because I had convinced myself that God had turned his back on me. Yet, when I read these words, I began to realize that God had been waiting for me all along. God wanted me back.  

Then one day, I glanced backward in my Bible and read the last verse of the psalm right before this one, psalm 138. The psalmist writes,
“The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever! Do not forsake the work of your hands.” 

The Lord will fulfill his purpose for you. God made you for a reason. He gave you a purpose when he formed you, before you were even born. No matter how far away from God you wander, no matter how much you rebel against his plan for you, he wants you back.

The rest of the story is all about God’s work to restore each of us to our place in his perfect creation. We can take the first step toward that restoration when we confess our sins and ask God to forgive us. Psalm 139 ends with these words:

“Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.”

The way everlasting is the path back to God, whose love endures forever. His purpose for all of us is to live in loving relationship with him, and he has created you to do that in a way that is completely unique to you. God made you for a purpose that only you can accomplish. Will you let God fulfill his purpose for you? He will not forsake the work of his hands. His love for you endures forever.

Will you take the first step back to God?

Let us pray.

Lord, you formed us and made us in your image, but we don’t do a very good job of reflecting your glory sometimes. You made us to walk with you in friendship, but we often turn away from you. We know this breaks your heart. Yet, you don’t give up on us. Your steadfast love endures forever. 

Help us, Lord. Help us to see your way in front of us, and help us to follow in that way. We pray for the things that continue to break your heart: for the migrants fleeing war and terror with no place to go, for those who suffer from incurable disease, for those who mourn. We pray for leaders to rise up among your people who will stand for justice and righteousness. We pray all this in the name of your son, Jesus Christ, Amen.

Real Bread – Sermon on John 6:35, 41-51 Pentecost 11B

August 9, 2015 
“You are what you eat.” Where did this saying come from? As near as we can tell, the idea probably started in the nineteenth century in France or Germany. The actual phrase didn’t emerge in English until some time later. An ad for a meat market in 1923 stated: “Ninety per cent of the diseases known to man are caused by cheap foodstuffs. You are what you eat.” 

I’m not sure where the meat market got its statistics, but this does seem to be the first time the phrase “you are what you eat” made it into print. The simple idea that we need to eat wholesome food in order to stay healthy suddenly had its own catch phrase. 

In the sixth chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus has been teaching the crowds and his disciples about bread. A few weeks ago, we heard how he fed 5000 people with a few small loaves of barley bread. Last week, he described himself as “the Bread of Life.” Today’s reading repeats the last verse we heard a week ago, and then takes us further into the story, as we hear Jesus explain what he means by this radical claim. 

Jesus said to them, ‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven.’ They were saying, ‘Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, “I have come down from heaven”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, “And they shall all be taught by God.” Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ – John 6:35, 41-51 

This passage might raise more questions than it answers:

How is Jesus the bread from heaven? What does that mean, exactly?

What does it mean to ingest the bread of heaven into ourselves?

Why would we want to?

How does eating this bread give us eternal life?

How do we live into eternity in the here and now?

If “you are what you eat,” does feeding on Christ turn us into what C. S. Lewis called “little Christs?”

And maybe the biggest question of all for us: If I claim to be a follower of Jesus, and I’m doing everything I think a follower of Jesus is supposed to do, why do I still have this gnawing hunger inside me? Why am I not satisfied with the Bread of Life in my life?

Let’s take a closer look at what Jesus says.

First, Jesus makes one of his great “I am” statements. “I am the Bread of Life,” Jesus says, and the Judeans take exception to his claim to be “from heaven.” It might seem at first that they are misinterpreting the claim Jesus makes, until we realize they are responding to a verse we skipped over in today’s reading. In verse 38 Jesus says, “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will, but the will of him who sent me.”

The Judeans aren’t complaining so much about the Bread of Life identity; they are more upset that Jesus clearly says he comes from heaven, when they all know he comes from Nazareth. They know his parents and his grandparents. They have his family relationships all figured out. So they grumble, exactly the way the Israelites grumbled when Moses led them through the wilderness and they craved the food they’d left behind in Egypt.

Jesus argues with their grumbling by explaining that it isn’t his earthly family connections that matter. It’s his relationship to the Father, who draws believers to himself through the Son. Only the Son knows the Father, but he will invite anyone who believes into that Father-Son relationship for eternity.

Jesus repeats that he is the Bread of Life, and compares that to manna, which the Judeans’ ancestors ate in the wilderness and died. The true bread from heaven, providing eternal life to those who eat it, is Christ’s own flesh. John Wesley points out that, while the language reminds us of what happens in the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is really referring to the cross on which he will die for the sins of the world.

So maybe all those questions we thought were important a minute ago can be boiled down into this:

1. Is Jesus who he says he is?

2. If I’m still hungry, could it be that I haven’t been eating real bread?

Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, who currently teaches at Duke Divinity School writes, “Our hungers are so deep. We are dying of thirst. We are bundles of seemingly insatiable need, rushing here and there in a vain attempt to assuage our emptiness. Our culture is a vast supermarket of desire. … Can it be that many of our desires are, in the eternal scheme of things, pointless? Might it be true that [Christ] is the bread we need, even though he is rarely the bread we seek?” (William H. Willimon, Feasting on the Word: Year B, volume 3, 337.)

Why do we still hunger? How are we not satisfied? Could it be that we have not really ingested this living bread, but only tasted it? Could it be that we have not completely internalized Christ’s sacrifice for us, and made it the very center of our selves? Have we held back from committing ourselves completely to Jesus? Has our love for him been superficial, limited to showing up on Sundays, or helping with a project, but not really devoting ourselves to a life of following Jesus?

A superficial faith is not enough to experience the abundant life that Jesus promises to us. Going through the motions of eating won’t fill you up. Jesus tells us that if we want the hunger in us to be satisfied, we have to believe he is who he says he is, God with us. We have to start living like we believe it. Our lives must have Jesus at the core.

How do we get Jesus into our core? John’s gospel opens with the familiar lines, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Spending significant time in the Word is one way we begin to become what we eat. Devouring the Bible, ingesting the Word, makes us into different people.

Over the past couple of weeks, the Friday Five has made available a link to a Bible reading survey. This short questionnaire asks a few simple questions about your own personal Bible reading habits. The goal is to get an honest picture of our whole congregation’s current status. Some of you don’t have access to the Friday Five, or maybe you don’t spend much time on the internet, so there’s a Bible reading survey in your bulletin today, and I’d like you to take it out right now and take a moment to answer those questions as honestly as you can. No sugar coating or giving yourself the benefit of the doubt. The ushers will collect them in a few minutes. If you need a pencil or pen, raise your hand and the ushers will bring one to you. (Pause for survey completion) When you’ve answered the questions, hold up your paper so the ushers can collect them. Thank you.

In a few weeks, we will begin to follow The Story as a way to engage our whole congregation in reading God’s Word the way you would read a best-seller. As we look at the over-arching story of God’s action in and among his creation, we will also see the under-story, the way in which humans have responded to God’s story throughout history. And we will examine how our individual stories fit into God’s great story.

We’ve ordered books for every age group, so that whole families can read The Story together, so we can all partake of the same feast. We think it’s important that children, youth, and adults each have a version of The Story appropriate to them, to encourage regular Bible reading. Over the next few months, I hope that your own Bible reading habits might develop into something that, like any really good habit, you just can’t live without.

But Jesus asks more of us than committing to a Bible-reading plan. Jesus asks us to go all in, to make him the very center of our lives. Not an aside, not someone we think about once or twice a week, and then go on about our usual business as if he didn’t exist. Jesus asks for our usual business to be rooted and grounded in him.

You are what you eat. If you get by on snacking a few worship songs on Sunday and nibbling a little Bible study on Wednesday nights, you’ll have barely consumed enough to keep your faith alive. But Jesus invites you to feast, to thrive, to grow in love of God and neighbor, to be transformed and transforming. to become a disciple who makes disciples – not by any effort of your own, but by the grace he pours out on you when you give him your all.

Over the next year and a half or so, our church will participate in the Minnesota Conference process for church growth and vitality called Healthy Church Initiative. Being good Methodists, it won’t be long before we start calling it by its initials: HCI. This is an intensive process, requiring that we take a good hard look at ourselves, and open our church up to some close scrutiny by outsiders. We will examine our strengths, our weaknesses, and how those strengths and weaknesses affect our dreams for the future.

We have been invited into Healthy Church Initiative by Bishop Ough, even though our congregation is slightly smaller than the recommended size for this process. The bishop thinks we have the capacity to benefit from the work that it will make us do. And it will be hard work. As we go through the process, we may discover that, as a congregation, we must change the way we do many things, in order to experience the kind of spiritual growth that satisfies our deepest hungers and invites others to join in the feast.

This is a chance to go deeper, to become more like Christ, to ingest him fully, to begin living abundant, eternal life right now.

You are what you eat. You become what you consume. Take, eat, this is Christ’s body given for you, that you might become Christ to someone else who hungers for God. Jesus is the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever. Christ gives his own life for the life of the world. He asks us to be like him, and do the same thing, giving all that we are to him. Amen.

Being God’s Kids – Sermon on 1 John 5:1-6 Easter 6B 

5/10/2015 (Mother’s Day)

It may seem that the heretics we read about in John’s letters are far removed from us. After all, they lived more than 2000 years ago, and a lot of theological water has gone under the bridge since then. We’ve had plenty of time to figure out what it means to be Christians.

Biblical scholars have written tons of books to explain the hard parts of scripture for us, and great leaders in the church have managed to refute most of the questionable beliefs that emerged during the early years of the faith. Those crazy ideas about Jesus being just a spirit who appeared to be human sound strange to us. It would never occur to us that Jesus was ever anything but fully God and fully human.

We live in a time when we don’t hear much about people standing their ground in theological debate. Our scholars and Christian leaders aren’t famous for hashing out the finer points of Christ’s identity as the Son of God. Instead of arguing about who God is and who Jesus is, we argue about who can be married in our churches or preach in our pulpits, or how we should respond to global warming, or what we should do about bigotry in all its forms.

That time seems far away, when Paul and John and Mark and Luke were still defining the very essence of Christian faith. And yet, the questions they faced were very much like the questions our culture asks today:
Who is God, anyway?
Why does Jesus matter?
What if I want to be “spiritual, but not religious?”
How can I know what lies beyond this life?
Who is going to love me, when I don’t love myself? Continue reading

Good Grapes 

I 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.” – John 15:5 

Our neighbor’s grapevine straddled the fence between our yards.  A few years ago, I decided it was time to put those grapes on our side of the fence to good use.  I read the complete article on jelly making from Joy of Cooking, and decided to try the “old-fashioned natural” method that didn’t require a thermometer or commercial pectin.  I knew the jelly probably would be less stiff, but the cookbook promised “a far superior product, depending on the quality of the fruit.”   As I mashed grapes, waited for them to cook, and strained the grapes and juice through a jelly bag, I kept thinking about that “quality of the fruit” phrase.  <!–more–> I had time to sit down with John 15 again, and think about Jesus’ vine metaphor.

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide 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. I 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.” (John 15:1-17)

First, it’s important to remember that we are the branches, not the fruit.  We may be cut off from Christ, the vine, if we produce no fruit at all.  We may be pruned to produce more and better fruit, and we are admonished to abide in Christ, just as the branch abides in the vine.  Notice that we can only produce fruit if we abide in the vine.  That fruit is love, given freely.

Our job, as branches, isn’t to focus on the fruit. Our job is to stay connected to the Vine. God will take care of the fruit. For jelly, it’s best to harvest the grapes when they are just barely ripe, and maybe a few are even a little green.  Branches don’t like to let go of their grapes, so the clusters have to be cut from the vine.  Likewise, we may enjoy feeling God’s love for us, but refrain from sharing it – it’s sweet to hold on and savor that goodness; it’s hard, sometimes, to make ourselves vulnerable to others, to give away the love God has made known to us.  But Jesus encourages us to let God the vine dresser distribute the fruit according to His plan.

Sometimes, that may mean that the fruit is a little green, not so sweet.   Mature fruit has its own purpose, however.  By definition, fruit holds seeds. Unless the fruit ripens, it will be impossible for those seeds to develop into something worth planting.  As followers of Jesus, our purpose is to make more disciples.  We need to allow our own seeds of faith, surrounded by the ripe fruit of God’s love, to develop into something worth planting in the hearts of others.

A couple more observations:  When you make jelly, draining the cooked grapes through a jelly bag strains out everything but the clear juice.  If you squeeze the bag to get more juice faster, all you accomplish is getting stuff in your jelly that belongs in the compost.  It’s important to let God refine us in His own good time, for the highest quality, for the clearest product.

And finally, sometimes things get messy.  Love isn’t always tidy.  Following Christ isn’t always neat and easy.  Grape juice stains easily.  But, depending on the quality of the fruit, God promises a far superior product to anything the world can offer.

May the gift of Christ’s Spirit bear much good fruit in our lives.  Let us allow God to take his time with us, as we share his love with others, planting seeds of faith in those around us.  May God prune us and tend us, that the fruit we bear for his Kingdom might be sweet and plentiful.