“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. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. John 15:1-3 | ESV
And so Jesus takes the talk to the streets, making his way towards the Garden, towards the hour. On this night unlike all other nights, this night of the four cups, of the fruit of the vine, he hands them a crucial, ancient image to carry forward…who knows, maybe they just passed a vineyard…
“The prophets of old pictured Israel as God’s vine…well, hear this: I am the true vine, the real vine, and my Abba is the earth-working vintner. And he’s not in this for the greenery; he’s looking for the grapes – grapes that will make the mother of all wines. When he sees a branch that’s not producing anything, he doesn’t just leave it, he lifts it up, off the ground, lifting and connecting it where it can grow with other branches; when he sees a branch bearing fruit, he relieves it of excess foliage, focusing, maximizing its energy and potential to produce more and better grapes – which is precisely what all my spoken words to you are intended to do: relieve you of excess foliage so you can grow more grapes.”
MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
Jesus’ disciples were a diverse bunch, but there was one thing they all had in common:
They all grew up around vineyards.
They no doubt played in them as boys, helped work them as youths and adults (everyone gathered to bring in the harvest – it was a huge party for the whole community!). As Jesus leads them out of the upper room onto the path that would take him to Gethsemane and ultimately to Golgotha, he takes them to a vineyard.
This week’s reflections will be a little different. Rather than offering insights on each section of text, I would like to complement each section with a reading from Robert Scott Stiner’s book Lessons from a Venetian Vinedresser* – so we who have not grown up around vineyards or worked in them as these men would have can get a peek into one.
The rolling hills obscured my view from seeing very far ahead, but as I walked I heard someone singing and stopped long enough to recognize a man’s Italian voice not far ahead of me. I approached with caution. Slowly, I moved into position as if to look at a wild deer before it spots you and leaps off into the forest. Just as I got to the crest of the hill, down the same row and about fifty yards ahead of me, was a man. He didn’t see me, so I squatted down and watched him working. He was an Italian man that looked to be in his sixties with silver hair and a few darker traces still left from his younger days. He had on a long sleeve shirt, work pants and boots. Hanging out of his pockets were handfuls of those green rubber tubes and in his hand was a pair of small pruners. He worked alone in this vast vineyard…
My mind was reeling with excitement as I watched this man and for the first time I saw John chapter fifteen come alive before my eyes. Here was an old man singing to the vines as if to serenade them as he did the work that only he could do. Each branch he touched and ran his fingers along it; inspected and trimmed it in such a way that would cause it to bear the most fruit, the best fruit. He wasn’t in a hurry and the time this process took seemed to be irrelevant to this vinedresser. It was the end product, even if it would still be a long time away, which was of the utmost importance…
What do you find most impacting about this initial view of the vine and the vinedresser?
Abba, let me hear your song serenading the branches, serenading me. Let me feel and embrace your loving touch – whether in the form of caressing or pruning. Fill my heart with a deepened trust in you as the Vinedresser of my life. Through Christ.
* Unfortunately the book is out of print, but you can find used copies out there still on Amazon.com and other places.
Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here. John 14:27-31 | ESV
“That deep, abiding wholeness called shalom, peace. That’s what I bequeath to you – with no strings attached like the world’s ‘gifts.’ No more upended hearts consumed with turmoil and frothing with fear. Hold on to what you’ve heard me say to you: ‘I’m leaving, but I’m coming back to you.’ If you really loved me as you say, you’d be doing cartwheels for me, because I’m heading into Abba’s arms – and there’s no one like my Abba! No one! I’ve been giving you a heads up about all this before any of it happens, so that whenever it does play out, you won’t have a shadow of a doubt. But the time for talk is short – I don’t have much more to say! The Powerbroker of this world system is knocking on the door, and he’s got nothing on me. His arrival on the scene will only serve one purpose: proof positive to this world system that I love my Abba and that what Abba says, I do.”
“Look at the time! It’s time to step out into the wide world.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
My father wasn’t prepared when he died.
His will was outdated.
Ten years later, we did see some funds from his considerable wealth, but all I remember seeing in my hand at the time of his death, of all that he owned, was a set of his golf clubs. And I didn’t (and don’t) golf. I went out once with a friend to actually use them – to attempt to use them. When I swung the wood driver the ball flew – and so did the head of the wood. It flew off into the trees on the nearly abandoned (fortunately) course.
I never found it.
But I did use the headless club as a pointer during my Sunday sermons.
Some bequeathments are more timely and valuable than others. Of all the things that Jesus could say he is leaving to them, he singles out one key, rich Hebrew word: shalom.
Shalom holds so much more for us than the “absence of hostilities” we often associate with our word “peace.”
There is a wholeness, an “everything falling into place and being right where it belongs,” a thriving fittedness. The classic Old Testament picture is that of someone sitting under their own vine and their own fig tree within the pleasant boundaries of their own heritage.
It’s not just the absence of hostilities, it’s the presence of good that is felt soul deep.
The world can promise and arrange cease-fires.
Jesus offers a deep, healing, abiding wholeness of being that no fire can consume.
And in the rough and tumble of the now and the not yet, there is no bequeathment that could be more crucial or timely.
Don’t fret or worry. Instead of worrying, pray. Let petitions and praises shape your worries into prayers, letting God know your concerns. Before you know it, a sense of God’s wholeness, everything coming together for good, will come and settle you down. It’s wonderful what happens when Christ displaces worry at the center of your life. Philippians 4:6-7 | The Message
What have you been fretting over most recently? How can you allow Christ to displace this worry at the center of your life? What practical steps do you need to take to let it go?
Spirit of peace, I open my arms to you; I open my heart wide to you today. Take my list, my litany of consuming worries and shape it into a song in my mouth. Show me where and how to rest under my own vine and fig tree, as I sing, “Surely the boundary lines have fallen to me in pleasant places, O Lord” – even when the view is less than appealing. Through Christ.
“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. John 14:25-26 | ESV
“This is what I have to say while I’m still right here with you, but one day the lid will be blown off all this, that day when on my behalf Abba sends the Helper/Encourager/Supporter/Ally/Advocate aka the Holy Spirit – oh yes, he will teach you everything, nothing held back; and he’ll remind you of every word I’ve ever said to you, too.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“A teacher is two jobs. Fill young minds with knowledge, yes. But more important, give those minds a compass so that that knowledge doesn’t go to waste. Now, I don’t know what you’re doing with the knowledge, Mr. Holland, but as a compass, you’re stuck.”
I love this quote from Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Principal Jacobs had observed to a distracted Mr. Holland that she had “never seen a teacher sprint for the parking lot after last period with more speed and enthusiasm than his students.” Mr. Holland protests, “I get here on time every morning, don’t I? I’m doing my job as best I can.” It’s just that he had an incomplete job description. Education isn’t about the downloading of information to be regurgitated on tests.
To educate is quite literally to “lead or draw out” rather than “to cram in.” It is leading the student out of ignorance, out of previous levels of knowledge and understanding into a new set or level of experiences and awareness. And whenever we step out the door, it’s a good thing to have a compass – which is precisely what are promised.
“How gracious he will be when you cry for help! As soon as he hears, he will answer you. Although the Lord gives you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, your teachers will be hidden no more; with your own eyes you will see them. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it,’” says Isaiah.
“I will put my laws in their hearts and write them on their minds…no more will a man teach his neighbor or a man his brother, saying ‘Know the Lord!’ for they all will know me from the least to the greatest,” promises Jeremiah.
Standing on the other side of promise, John writes at about the same time he pens his gospel account, “You have an anointing from the Holy One and you know all things…you don’t need anyone to teach you, but as the anointing itself teaches you concerning all things and is true and is not a lie, and just as it taught you, so you are abiding in him.”
The Book points to an ever present Help in time of need – the Teacher who provides the compass with the life choices and daily decisions we each face. He didn’t sprint to the parking lot after the textbook was delivered. He holds nothing back and he’s not stuck.
Rather he repeatedly gets us unstuck.
He sits with us as we read,
and then walks alongside us as we actually put our feet on the path.
What is your personal compass as you make your way through the day? What part does the Holy Spirit have in this? What does this look like for you?
Spirit of God, be my compass today; be the voice behind me saying, “This is the way, walk in it”; be the inner anointing inundating my soul, reorienting my life, directing my steps. Through Jesus.
Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?” Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me. John 14.22-24 | ESV
“The non-Iscariot, non-betraying Judas, suddenly bursts out with an objection: “Time out, Lord! What’s happened? This isn’t how this is supposed to play out! Private revelation, private intimacies – I thought this was all about you going public on the world stage!” Jesus patiently answered him, “It’s up close and personal, Judas! Someone loves me then immerses herself in actually doing what I say to do and there’s my Abba loving her, and there we are, both of Us, showing up on her doorstep, ready to move in with her for good. But if there is no action, no life response based on what I’ve said, then there’s no love, no matter how much you insist otherwise. Why so serious? Simple. The message isn’t my device and doing, it’s all his – my Abba, the one who sent me.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
In the fall, prior to this Passover season, Jesus’ brothers had taunted him, “No one seeks fame by acting quietly in the corner. If you are legit, then show yourself to the world! Right now, on the public stage of Jerusalem.”
This is what was expected.
We always look for the overt, “did you see that” move of God that leaves everyone gobsmacked and all the bad guys in their place (hell would be nice, thank you very much). So it’s no wonder that with all this talk of Jesus manifesting himself to the disciples that those disciples would be left wondering, “Wait a minute. What about the rest of the world? Everyone knows Messiah makes a big splash on the front page, every eye seeing him, society being changed, the world being transformed. So what’s this ‘revealing yourself to us’ business?”
When they thought Messiah, they thought of a broad community context as Jesus is revealed to and impacts the entire world.
We tend to have the opposite problem.
We zero in on our personal encounter with Jesus as we “accept him into our heart” as our “personal savior and we tend to marginalize or even erase the wider community aspect, dismissing “church” as unnecessary, community life as optional, and faith as something to be held privately on the down low.
It’s another radical middle.
The ultimate move of God is “Immanuel” – his move into our hearts to make his abode with us, a move that ripples subtly and dramatically outward into the wide world. Once again, these aren’t poles to be crossed in opposition, they are to be joined.
To what extent do you see faith as a private personal decision rather than as a public confession of faith with worldwide impact? How can we help ensure that the one leads to the other in practice?
Immanuel, welcome. Make your home here. Let my life be a house of your divine love, flowing not only in me, but through me – and through me right out the doors of my life into the wide world. Through Jesus.
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” John 14:18-21 | ESV
Look, I’m not leaving you abandoned in the orphanage of life! I am coming for you! In a few fleeting moments I’ll be history as far as the world is concerned – but our history, yours and mine, will go on and on – oh yes, an ongoing, living history with me fully alive and so you fully alive too. And then you’ll be totally dialed into this wondrous, merged reality of me in my Abba, you in me, me in you. And the core dynamic of this ‘merged reality’ of Father/Son intimacies? Love. Love that’s not just talk about what I’ve been telling you to do; love that actually follows through with each command, each instruction (especially, once again, that whole love one another business). Love me like that, and you’re in line for some serious loving from my Abba – and he won’t just love on you, I will too – and you’ll see me like you’ve never seen me before. MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“Church movements are fluid, starting on the right side of the continuum as people crave experiential reality. Then they move toward the Word side as they seek to ground their experience in biblical objectivity. We call the Word stream in church history Evangelicalism and the Spirit stream Pentecostalism. However inadequate these labels, the point is clear, and the words represent points of emphasis…History shows that the Word without the Spirit quickly becomes dead orthodoxy, and the Spirit without the Word quickly becomes cultish…The challenge is, as it has always been, to affirm both Word and Spirit and aim for the radical middle.”
Bill Jackson, The Quest for the Radical Middle.
The “radical middle” may not be a term specifically mentioned in Holy Writ, but the tension it represents continues to be the challenge of every faith community. And it is woven all through this “Upper Room Discourse” in John as we see the threads of Spirit and command/obedience/word not separated but fully integrated and woven around the loom of love.
We tend to strongly contrast
law and love,
grace and truth,
Spirit and Word,
obedience and faith.
Jesus weaves them all together into one whole, healthy dynamic he ultimately calls the kingdom of God, or to use John’s frequent phrase “eternal life.” We tend to play teeter-totter with Spirit and Word as we go through one season emphasizing the Spirit and then veer back the other way towards Word to help us stay balanced. Or worse, we use one to eliminate the other, using Scripture to downplay or extinguish any “Spirit experience” or rejecting the written Word because of our most recent experiences.
Jesus shows how they flow together.
While it may be possible to “keep the commands” without love, love seeks out the practical application of experience like a heat-seeking missile.
As so often proves to be the case, what we naturally assume is an either-or proposition is in reality the radical middle challenge of both.
Where to you find yourself most at home: in the pages of the Bible or in fresh Holy Spirit experiences? Why? When have you most vividly experienced the “radical middle” of both powerfully intersecting in the same moment, the same event?
Lord, lead me into a healthy dance of Word and Spirit, Spirit and Word. Let me not fear or shun either, but learn to move in the two-step of both. Through Christ.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. John 14:15-17 | ESV
“Here’s a general rule: If you loudly profess your love for me, you’ll be just as loud about carrying out my instructions (particularly that whole ‘love one another’ business). And with us being on the same page like this, you know that my Abba will be quick to respond when I ask him to send you the Helper / Encourager / Supporter / Ally / Advocate who will be for and with you as I have been, and more – and he’ll be with you till kingdom come! I’m talking about the Spirit of truth. The current world system can never acknowledge or embrace him for the simple reason it has no grid for seeing him or recognizing him. Ah, but you recognize him. He’s been right at home with you and soon he’ll be right at home in you.” MAV (Mike’s Amplified Version)
“My main passion was teaching and preaching the Word of God. I believed the most important thing in life was to study God’s Word and that most of our needs – or at least our most important needs – could be met through studying the Scriptures. If they could not be met in that way, then we were in trouble, for I had embraced a theological system that didn’t leave God much room to help us in other ways. The God I believed in and taught about wasn’t as involved in our lives as he had been in the lives of New Testament believers. At the time that didn’t bother me very much because I thought he wanted it that way. I thought he had made the changes. To be sure, I thought God answered prayers, but only certain kinds of prayers.”
Jack Deere’s testimony from his book Surprised by the Power of the Spirit so mirrors my own. In my more strict Evangelical past we weren’t even coy about it. We flat out acknowledged that the Holy Spirit’s job in olden days was to deliver and testify to the Book.
Now we have the Book.
Job done for the Holy Spirit!
Anyone who tries to usher him back in compromises the Book and in effect impugns the Spirit’s former work – as well as opening the door to subjectivism and emotionalism that will be the ruin of us all. Some even went so far as to say that the Book is the Spirit and the Spirit is the Book. Many believers are professing Trinitarians, proclaiming Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but are Jesus-only-in-the-Book practitioners.
We love Jesus as we cling to the Book but thank God we don’t have to deal with a stern Father or mess with the Holy Spirit.
But Jesus doesn’t announce to now anxious disciples, “No worries! Sure I won’t be here anymore, but I’m sending a Book that will explain everything.” He told them, “I am sending you another helper, Someone who has been with you and will be in you. You will not be alone.” A bibliophile like myself would probably have been very happy with the announcement of a future book delivery.
Until life hit, until the world burned and I couldn’t see the pages anymore through my bleary, teary eyes.
A book – even the Book – doesn’t groan with you.
It doesn’t hold you.
It doesn’t whisper your name.
It doesn’t plead with you, breathe with you, hurt with you, laugh with you.
The Book doesn’t have Jesus saying, “I’m sending you a Book”; it has Jesus promising us another helper.
The Book is not the point;
it points us to the Point,
and the Point is Jesus.
And Jesus says, “You are not alone. I am sending the Helper.”
How would you describe your relationship with the Holy Spirit? Rich? Fulfilling? Tenuous? Sporadic? Non-existent? Why?
Lord, show me how to take the Book seriously as I take the Holy Spirit very personally. Show me how to be a practicing Trinitarian. How me how to embrace and celebrate the rhythms of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in my life in healthy and life-giving ways. Through Jesus.
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
John 14:12-14 | ESV
“Double underline what I’m saying to you: you let faith in me settle deep within you and from that foundation will flow a stream of divine expression and working that will rival – no, that will easily surpass! – anything you’ve seen me do – all because I am going to my Abba. Imagine the possibilities! Ask it, I’ll do it as you take your stand in who I am. Why? So the Son can put a spotlight on the beauty of his Abba. Ask me! Try me! Anything! For no other reason than because of who I am, I’ll do it!” MAV
We started the week with “mansions” and conclude it with prayer that appears to have guaranteed results. Both can lead us to startling, towering misconceptions that result in more religious noise than divine song.
So easy to reduce prayer to the correct change for some sort of cosmic vending machine from which will tumble what we want – the exit from this bad scenario, this cancer, this joblessness, this broken marriage, this lost dream, or the entrance to this promised land, this aspiration, this plan, this proposal.
If only the change is correct.
Just enough faith.
With the right words.
By the right people.
In the right place.
And so prayer becomes fraught with care as we count our religious coin and then bang on the machine when it withholds our selection – sometimes tantalizingly so, hung up just out of reach.
What a marvel to be freed from the cosmic vending machine, from the counting of our religious change – and to be released into a universe of limitless divine possibilities because we are moving in connective harmony with our Abba! What wonder to wake to when we are freed from any notion that prayer is getting God to hear our voice and is instead the deepening experience of hearing his.
Imagine the possibilities of walking hand in hand with Abba, experiencing the stress and mess of life through his eyes, feeling his touch.
Imagine the possibilities when prayer is no longer an exercise in trying to get God to move, but the natural reflex of one who is moving with her Abba in each breath, each sigh, each laugh, each groan.
Imagine the possibilities…
To what extent has prayer seemed like a “cosmic vending machine” to you? What do you think is the key to prayer becoming more than this in our daily lives?
Lord, teach me to pray! Lead me into a richer, more meaningful conversation with you which is less about me getting you to hear me and more about me seeing the possibilities opening wide before me as I rest in your arms. Through Christ.