An Empowered Church

Fifth in the Series “A Church Without Walls”
Delivered June 13, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

See also CPC Distinctives – Our Vision – A Church Without Walls.

Theme: We are not just looking for people who make a decision to follow Jesus. We are looking for people who press on and really do follow Jesus. We need to stay in touch with God to have the power to live changed lives.

Sermon Text:
John 15:1-17

Well let me go back and get this branch here. It is dead on the end isn’t it? There is cicada damage like this all over the city. You look at some of these large trees and on the end of almost every branch it’s dying like this. And it’s dying because the leaves don’t have the nutrients going to it; there has been damaged happened. This one is broken here but it’s still holding on physically, it’s still connected, but there is no sap getting to it. There is no connection to the life of tree. The life of the tree essentially ends about right here and all of this is dead. It can’t do anything anymore this part of the tree. It no longer produces anything for the tree. It doesn’t get anymore life and it gives no life back to the tree. All it is good for now is that eventually this part is going to fall off, it’s going to drop a new generation of cicadas in to the ground and become some mulch.

Our spiritual lives can get like this sometimes. Where we dry up spiritually. You know just like there was no automatic guarantee that the end of this branch was going to live to maturity and provide everything that the tree needed and bear fruit for the future that something happened. There’s no automatic guarantees in our spiritual lives either. That everything is going to go well and we are going to come to full maturity and bear fruit for the kingdom. Things can happen. God wants love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to be in our lives. God wants that fruit to come from our lives. God also wants us to have an impact on the world around us. He wants to answer our prayers. He wants us to be able to heal. He wants us to be able to fix things in the world on some level, to be salt and light in this world. That’s what God desires and that’s so often what we desire too and yet it doesn’t always happen. Because it doesn’t come automatically flooding in to our lives. Its not like we make a decision to follow Jesus and then effortlessly and automatically everything we touch turns to spiritual gold. It would be nice if it were that way, but it doesn’t happen that way. Spiritual life, like all of life, is a process and growth takes time. Spiritual life involves growth. It involves development. It involves staying connected to the source of life. In today’s passage Jesus is teaching about some of the rules or not some of the rules, but just some of the realities of the spiritual life. He told his followers that he was the vine and that we are the branches. What is there in this image that Jesus is trying to teach us? What are the things that are really important? What can we learn here from Jesus? Let’s take a look at John, Chapter 15 and I will be reading Verses 1 to 17.

“I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Remain in me and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I am him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me he’s like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given to you. This is to my Father’s glory that you bear much fruit showing yourselves to be my disciples.

As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants because the servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit -fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. This is my command: Love each other.”

Let’s pray. Gracious God we thank you for this your word and we pray that you will open our eyes and our hearts to whatever you want to say to us. For we ask these things in Jesus name. Amen.

There is an amazing amount of stuff in a passage like this and I can’t possibly touch upon all of it. Mary in her article talked about us studying this passage on our own and maybe that’s a good idea because you will get plenty more out of it if you study it. I just want to focus on a few things here. Jesus begins by saying “I am the true vine.” When he says something like this all of the people who are listening to him have a picture in their mind that they understand because all through the Old Testament Israel was considered the vine of the Lord or the vineyard of the Lord. And so they always envisioned themselves as God’s people, as being the vine and yet now Jesus says I am the true vine and when he says that he is pushing aside their conception that by being born in to Israel or by being part of the Jewish institution, a religion, that they were part of God’s vineyard or God’s vine. Instead he starts to focus on the fact that what connects them to what God is doing is a relationship, a relationship with himself. And so as we go into this time of thinking about what it means for us to be connected spiritually and to be growing and to be empowered, we have to remember right up front that we are not talking about our relationship to an institution, a Christian institution like the Presbyterian Church. We are talking about an inward, real, spiritual relationship with a person, Jesus Christ. That is where we start. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches.

Jesus goes on in Verses 4 and 5 to say this, “Remain in me and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself. It must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine and you are the branches. If a main remains in me and I am him, he will bear much fruit. Apart from me you can do nothing.” “Remain in me.” This is one of the few direct commands in this whole passage. There aren’t many commands here, but the command that does come up is “remain in me.” The command is to stay connected, to stay in relationship. If we remain connected we will bear fruit. So there is no command here, “go out and bear fruit.” The command is to “stay connected” and if we stay connected we will bear fruit just like on this plant the part that is still healthily connected, or at least was so until I cut if off, this is still green, but the part that’s been disconnected dies.

So the command is for us to stay connected. A branch whether it’s a rose bush, a grapevine, a maple tree or an oak tree, it doesn’t matter, a branch does its thing naturally when it stays connected. And when its been disconnected, nothing can make it work right again. Any life it seems to have once you cut if off, will be short-lived. So the command here is for us to stay connected. So this branch, this part was still connected and so it still would bear fruit. It would still provide life for the tree and receive life from the tree, but when it’s disconnected it will die. And somehow that’s true for us spiritually as well. In particular a little part like this is still physically connected to the branch, it’s still physically on there, but you can see it’s dead. And there are some of us that are physically still connected to the church, we’re still in the church directory, we still come to events at the church, but inside, in our lives and in the fruit of our lives we can see that we are drying up and dying. You still got the connection to the institution but something has been disconnected. We see it all the time. There is no joy. You know Jesus talks about here, I want my joy to be in you and for that joy to be complete and yet we don’t have joy like that in our lives. Or maybe it’s that we are carrying around hate and resentment for people around us. We are restless and we are dissatisfied about everything and that’s a sign that something much deeper than any physical connection to an institutional church, something much more important has been disconnected.

So a question that we need to ask ourselves as we listen to something like this, is how are we doing spiritually? The key to spiritual life, the key to being empowered, the absolutely essential thing we can not ignore is staying connected, remaining in a healthy relationship to Jesus Christ. I want to read to you something that I got in the mail this week.

“Dear John, We have been members at Central for some 30 years and indeed she is an empowered church. It is in our opinion because prayer is always our first course of action. Even so, there is much room for growth and improvement, as you know. We do believe that lives are changed through the power of the Holy Spirit and the word of God. It is our most fervent prayer that you will continue to stress the priorities of prayer and systematic, constant studying and obeying Gods word. Only then all else will become evident as the fruit of the spirit in and through us.”

This captures the how-to. This is what we need to do if we need to stay close to Jesus. This person gets it. And it was really interesting that I was reading this right as I was pulling together today’s talk. Because I want to talk about exactly these things one by one.

The first thing that we say in the Vision Statement and it is also said in this letter is that lives are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus talks about this in Verse 4. “Remain in me and I will remain in you.” He’s talking about a spiritual reality here and it’s a reality that’s accomplished in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit. This particular passage that we are looking at in Chapter 15, Chapter 14 talks explicitly about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Chapter 16 again brings up the issue of the work of the Holy Spirit and this passage talking about this intimate relationship that we have with Jesus Christ is sandwiched between these two passages that talk about the work of the Holy Spirit. This is fundamental to Christian life is that when we respond to God in faith; God comes and dwells in us. This is what Jesus promises. He is the vine. We dwell in him and he dwells in us. And that’s done through the Holy Spirit. And so the Holy Spirit then works in our lives. The Holy Spirit gives us an inner sense of peace with God that we are part of God’s family. This is an inner work of the Holy Spirit. Having the power to change, to live in new patterns of life that put God first and to even want to do that, that is also a work of the Holy Spirit. Having the power to serve effectively, to want to go out into the world outside and serve Jesus. This also is a work of the Holy Spirit. And so we can’t be afraid of the Holy Spirit. We’ve got to be consciously alert, depending on God to do the things that he’s promised to do through the Holy Spirit. So we need to look at Chapter 14 Chapter 16 and other places of scripture and look at what God wants to do in us and to pray and to wait and to depend upon God to work in us what he wants to do in us, because he has promised to. Because it’s important to remember all the time that Christian life is not what we do for God. It’s what God did for us in Jesus Christ and what he is doing right now in us through the Holy Spirit. That is the essential of the Christian life. So it begins with the fact that we are now indwelled by the very Spirit of God. Jesus is in us and we are in him.

But then it says also in our Vision Statement, in this passage and in the letter, that our lives are changed by the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God and so that means that we need to expose ourselves to the Word of God. Jesus says this; “You were already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you”. The Word had power to do something in them. Verse 7. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish and it will be given you.” Again this focused on the fact that what God has spoken, what has been recorded, what we read and what we believe, these things have power to work in our lives. God choses through the Holy Spirit to use the Word of God to change our lives. And that’s why we have sermons in worship. But boy we need so much more than 20 or 25 minutes a week if we are going to grow as Christians. So if we want to stay close to Jesus, if we want to build that relationship, then we have got to expose ourselves to the Word of God. So that means we need to learn how to study on our own and that’s why last year there was a focus on journaling, to encourage all of us to get in to a pattern of regularly studying the scriptures. You can’t do better than that. Then there is small group studies where you can get together and share your insights together, but also as you learn together you can hold each other accountable for growth. That’s important too. There are classes that we offer on Sunday and other days of the week to give you a bigger picture of things, give you more details, help you put the pieces together. This also helps us in our spiritual growth. And then there is Bible memorization, meditation on the scriptures. Where we carry it around with us and when there is that open moment, we are thinking again about something God hs said. These things are important. Lives are changed by the Word of God, but it’s not by magic. It’s not like you can have your Bible and just have it in a prominent place in your house and its going to have an effect on your life. It doesn’t work that way. You’ve got to give opportunity for the truth to impact your thinking and your personality. You need to focus on the truth and understand it and savor it, and as we do that, God works in us. It takes time. So if we want to grow close to Jesus, if we want to remain in him, make time to study the scriptures.

The next thing that was mentioned in this letter and it’s mentioned in our Vision Statement is the call to prayer. It’s also mentioned in the article in the News and Views. All of these things have been thread through the life of this congregation up until now and by God’s grace it’s going to be part of the fabric of this life in the future because it’s so fundamental and important. Jesus says here that apart from me you can do nothing. But that’s not true, is it? Think about all the things that we do without any conscious dependance or second thought about God. What we do with our time isn’t consciously related to our relationship with Jesus so often. How to spend our money, even sometimes how much we give, as an offering is not necessarily something we pray about. How to raise our kids, how to run our businesses. All of these things can happen apart from this kind of relationship with Jesus Christ. Non-Christians do many of these things all the time. Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Churches can do things apart from Jesus as well. We can have all kinds of religious programs, we can be busy day and night, and all without looking carefully towards God. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” What is Jesus then saying to us? Obviously we can have activity, we can do things in life apart from Him, but what does He mean here? It means that sure we can fill our calendars, we can fill our schedules with all kinds of activities, some of them religious without consciously pursuing this relationship with Him, but it will never amount to much, whether we are doing it as a church or whether we are doing it as an individual. We can have calendars filled with church activities that don’t change lives. We can have a life that’s filled with activity all over the community and yet it not bring love and joy and peace to our lives. Apart from Him the really important things won’t happen. Part of that is that the eternal things won’t happen. Apart from me you can do nothing. When it comes to eternal things, apart from Jesus Christ we can do nothing. If we had a rope that went from here to the moon, all of the life that we are living right now would just be in the first quarter inch of that rope and what God is doing now in that quarter inch is important for all the rest of eternity, but none of that will happen apart from our relationship to Him. Apart from Him none of that important stuff, that preparation, that relationship that we are building with God will happen. Apart from me you can do nothing. To not pray is to lose touch with the one whom we will spend the rest of eternity with and it’s to lose touch with the one right that’s preparing us for that. So that’s one thing. But we also lose touch with things that matter right now. Things that matter for eternity matter right now too, because right today is part of eternity. Without prayer we can certainly stay busy, but we won’t experience love, joy, peace, satisfaction. These are the sorts of thing that only God can give. So prayer. Setting aside time to say again that God is the center of things and have a conversation with God about life and what we should be doing with it is an irreplaceable part of staying close to God. So we need to pray.

Then this passage talks about obeying. “If you obey my commands you will remain in my love. Just as I have obeyed my father’s commands and remain in his love.” It all boils down to changed lives. Particularly this issue of loving one another. This is on God’s heart. If all the other things happen that we have been talking about and it doesn’t result in changed behavior in our part, we really haven’t gotten started yet. There are people who are very concerned with the visible action of the Holy Spirit, but they are not concerned about their obedience to God and so if that is true their lives and their ministries are in danger. There are people who know the scriptures backwards and forwards, but view it as an academic exercise, or worse than that, they view it as a law book that they can use to judge other people. And if that’s the place of the word of God in your life and nothing more, then they are in a dangerous position as well. There are people who attend worship and say all kinds of prayers, but if they are not having that heart conversation where they grapple with God about how their life falls short, then prayer comes to nothing too. God is in the business of changing lives, so that means the church has to be the place where lives change. So that’s why we say this in our Vision Statement and I would like to read it to you.

“Jesus Christ has torn down the wall of sin that divided us from God and now we belong to him. We are dependent solely on God for effectiveness. Prayer is always our first course of action. Moving people toward Christ and helping them be his devoted followers is the center of all that we do. We believe that lives are changed through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word of God. Effective ministry is borne out of an ever-deepening relationship to God. We encourage each other to grow in Christ and to seek after God with our whole hearts so that God may reveal his will for us, individually and corporately, and empower us to do it.”

So that means that at Central Presbyterian Church we are not just looking for people who make a decision to follow Jesus. We are looking for people who press on and really do follow Jesus. Not just decisions, but disciples. And so may God empower us to be the kind of place where he can deeply change lives.

Let’s pray. Gracious God we do pray for just that, that you will work in us to change our lives, to take us where we are because we know that you love us and accept us, but move us on to where you want us to be in life. For we ask these things in Jesus’ name. Amen.