Stay Connected

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Jesus said:

“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 I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also 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 you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are 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 done for you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8, NIV)

“Remain in Me”

The word “remain” means to linger in the present moment – to be mindful to ourselves and our situations and stay connected. It is to have continual unbroken fellowship with Jesus.

To have a connection, there must be two ends to connect. The Jesus connection is consistent. It’s always there. We are the other connection. And, frankly, we can be flaky – pulling away and coming close. Which is why Jesus gives a repeated invitation to keep the connection. Here are a few other translations of John 15:4….

Stay joined to me, and I will stay joined to you. Just as a branch cannot produce fruit unless it stays joined to the vine, you cannot produce fruit unless you stay joined to me. (CEV)

Live in me, and I will live in you. A branch cannot produce any fruit by itself. It must stay attached to the vine. In the same way, you cannot produce fruit unless you live in me. (GW)

Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. (NKJV)

Stay connected to me, and I will stay connected to you! A branch cannot produce fruit on its own but only if it has a vital connection to the vine. In the same way, there’s no way you can produce fruit, at all, unless you have a meaningful connection with me.

Jesus (John 15:4, own translation)

Our task as Christians is to remain connected to Jesus. So, the question is: How do we keep the connection without breaking it? How can we be fruitful?

Focus On the Relationship

Christianity, at its core, is about a living relationship with Jesus. Yes, doctrine is important. And it is necessary to know the basic tenets of Christian faith. Yet, any knowledge and understanding we gain about Christianity is to be channeled into developing the relationship.

Bible trivia is only as good as the understanding we apply to build the relationship. Knowledge makes us proud of ourselves, while love makes us helpful to others. While knowledge makes us feel important, it is love that strengthens the church. Knowledge puffs up but love builds up. (1 Corinthians 8:1)

Christ’s redemptive events of incarnation, holy life, death, resurrection, and ascension are all meant to restore a severed relationship with humanity. Therefore, knowing doctrinal truth is not the same as using the doctrines to connect with God in a loving relationship.

As with all relations, it takes planning, dedication, time, and effort to grow and maintain our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we fail to use our time and energy on that relationship, then the leaves on the branch begin to wither.

Scripture, silence, solitude, community, prayer, giving, and fasting have always been at the center of Christian practices which are designed to put us in a position to hear and receive from God.

Relate Well to the Other Branches

The church is a community. Christ and the church have a vital union with each other. We are a living growing community. I used to live in a place where there was a tree that had grown up next to an old fence post. The tree grew tall and engulfed the post to the degree that now you can only see part of the fence post.

To try and remove the post, you would need to remove the tree. The two have become one. And the tree is still growing. Not only are we connected to the trunk, but we’re also connected to each other. We are all part of the same vine. We aren’t separate vines. So, we all need to do our part in the system of the vine.

Keep Close to the Vine

My grandmother had a grapevine in her backyard when I was a kid. I have firsthand understanding that the best grapes are located closest to the trunk of the vine. The sweetest, juiciest, biggest, and best tasting grapes are found in the middle, securely next to the vine’s trunk.

If you’re into sour grapes, then pick the ones at the end of the branches. Show me a sourpuss Christian, and I’ll show you a Christian who is not close to Christ. Show me a sweet Christian and I’ll show you a believer who daily works at their connection with Jesus.

Pruning is Necessary

Healthy vines need to be pruned, at least once a year. Ideally, twice a year, in the Spring before budding; and in the fall, after the harvest. To ignore pruning is to compromise the vine’s ability to produce both good grapes and lots of grapes. The branches of a grapevine need to be kept short because the nutrients are concentrated in and near the vine. Long branches compromise the harvest.

Pruning hurts. From the perspective of us branches, pruning feels like judgment. But it isn’t. Even though pruning is painful for us, it makes us healthier and tastier. It’s better to do a few things well, rather than try and do a lot of things for which we have limited time and energy. It is a good practice to do some pruning twice a year.

Know Why You are Connected

Christians are joined to Jesus. Yes, we are connected so that we are saved from sin, death, and hell. And, yes, we are also linked with Jesus to experience life to the full. Yet, the goal or the end of the connection is to produce succulent fruit.

If there are no grapes on the vine, the vine is useless. Then we get rid of it. Grapevines exist to produce grapes. Christians and churches exist for the life of the world, to produce the fruit of righteousness consistent with our Christ-connected union: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

The church is not an end in and of itself. The church exists for the life of the world. Jesus said:

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16, NIV)

Pray

If we live in union with Christ, and if the words and ways of Jesus live powerfully within us—then ask for anything, and it will be done. Prayer is both an event and a process. It is something anyone can do, as well as a spiritual practice that needs growth and development.

God’s Word, the words of Jesus, are the nutrients for our spiritual life. When those words find a home within us, there is a divine/human conversation as well as a mystical union. Christ promises that if we just ask, it’s ours.

As our relationship with Christ grows, we learn to be thoughtful about our asking. Flippantly or selfishly asking for things disrespects the connection we enjoy with God. Claiming or demanding answers to prayer demeans the relationship. However, we can also dishonor God by simply not asking, at all.

Essentially, Jesus said to his disciples, “Go ahead, try me!” Prayer is the delivery system for our nutrients. And prayer is also the means of delivering the blessing of succulent fruit so that the world might live.

Jesus modeled prayer for his disciples, and for us. Those prayers are grounded in connection and unity with the Father. Just as God is One, we are to be one:

I am not praying just for these followers. I am also praying for everyone else who will have faith because of what my followers will say about me. I want all of them to be one with each other, just as I am one with you and you are one with me. I also want them to be one with us. Then the people of this world will believe that you sent me.

I have honored my followers in the same way that you honored me, in order that they may be one with each other, just as we are one. I am one with them, and you are one with me, so that they may become completely one. Then this world’s people will know that you sent me. They will know that you love my followers as much as you love me.

Father, I want everyone you have given me to be with me, wherever I am. Then they will see the glory that you have given me, because you loved me before the world was created. Good Father, the people of this world don’t know you. But I know you, and my followers know that you sent me. I told them what you are like, and I will tell them even more. Then the love that you have for me will become part of them, and I will be one with them. (John 17:20-26, CEV)

Conclusion

We are to live and to pray consistent with who we are and what our mission is. The church is to be one as God is one. Christians are to pray for unity because our triune God is always united. Believers everywhere are to remain and abide in Christ through a vital connection of loving God and loving neighbor.

Acts 4:23-31 – Why Not Us?

Hear My Plea by Rochelle Blumenfeld

The apostles Peter and John were arrested for preaching the good news about Jesus. After warning and threatening them to stop doing this, the ruling council of the Jews released them. This was the apostles’ response….

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth rise up
    and the rulers band together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.’

Indeed, Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. (NIV)

The early believers in Jesus turned to God in a time of persecution. They found comfort in how God had worked in the past. The ancient church claimed the strength to carry on with speaking about Christ in their everyday lives. When they heard about threats against the apostles, the believers did not get angry or upset about how terrible things were. Instead:

The church decided to concentrate on corporate prayer together.

God is going to do what God is going to do. No government, nation, institution, group of people, or individual person can thwart God’s agenda for the church and world. God is sovereign over everything. We are not. Our place is to participate in God’s agenda through the ministry of prayer and speaking the word of God.

God acted in the past, on behalf of those first believers who came to Jesus and worshiped him with all their hearts. God is still transforming lives. It happened in ancient Jerusalem, throughout the history of the church, and in places today around the world. It can also happen with us.

Prayer is like breathing – inhaling more of God and exhaling less of me. Prayer takes the form of first remembering what God did in the past. Then, we pray specifically for our current situation which connects to the larger purposes of what God is doing. All the while we anticipate God will hear and act, just as has been done throughout history.

Remembrance is an important dimension to biblical prayer. Memory is necessary because we have a tendency toward forgetfulness. The older we get the more we tend to forget (probably because we have so much to remember!). So, continually rehearsing what God has done keeps us grounded in Scripture and tethered to what God can do now.

Remembering God’s saving actions and finding our own personal stories in the grand story of redemption helps us to pray in biblical ways.

The prayer of the early believers was a rehearsal of God’s mighty reputation, from creation to King David, to the redemptive events of Jesus. They reminded God of when, in the past, there was divine intervention. The church collectively quoted Psalm 2 about the Messiah. That psalm declares how the nations of the earth plot in vain because the Lord is the One who shall prevail over every hard circumstance. 

God bends each malevolent action toward the redemption and transformation of humanity. God will work out benevolent plans and purposes, even using people who have no acknowledgment of God. God is not surprised by our troubles and our tough situations.

God is never frustrated by people acting badly, because divine providence and guidance is in control, even if we cannot always perceive it or see it in the moment.

Remembering and rehearsing what God has done in the past helps us realize that, during any trouble, God is in control and will accomplish good plans on this earth. The prayer of the believers in Acts made the connection between what God has done and what they needed.

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Interestingly, the believers did not pray for relief from oppression or for God to judge their persecutors. Instead, they prayed for boldness to speak the word of God in the middle of their trouble. They rightly discerned that they needed to pray for courage to speak about Jesus. So, the church prayed for God to act in power, for God’s Word to go forth, and for Christ’s Name to be glorified.

God’s response to the prayer was immediate. The place where the church was praying shook. God did exactly what they asked for – filling them up with the Spirit, so that they spoke boldly about Jesus. Just as God empowered people for service in the past, so it was done in the present. What’s more, God will empower us with the same courage.

It is completely normal to simultaneously yearn for bravery while being afraid of getting a prayer for boldness answered. This is more than trying to overcome feelings of awkwardness or shyness. For the early believers, a very real and immediate danger to speaking up about Jesus was present.

It seems to me we need more people who know how to ask good questions and have the patience and attention to listen well and respond thoughtfully. It does no good to simply dispense answers to questions people aren’t asking. Speaking about Jesus does not mean making spiritual cold calls on strangers. And it certainly doesn’t involve being obnoxious or acting like a spiritual pester pup.

Discussing Jesus mostly means speaking casually, one-on-one, with a friend, co-worker, neighbor, or family member you already know. Too often we might try to fly under the radar and avoid people because we think talking about Jesus is going to be too hard, or out of our league.

Confidence and courage are not telling people what they ought to believe. It is rather like sharing a precious gift with someone. It begins in relationships with people we care about and extends to a relationship with God. It is about discovering God together, and not arm-twisting others to personal ethics or churchgoing.

Yet, it may still all sound too scary. So, maybe we start with this: “Tell me what’s going on.” Then listen. After listening, say, “I’ll pray for you.”  The next time you encounter the person, ask how that situation went.  Express that you’ll pray again. Keep doing it and watch what God will do through you.

When we pray for boldness, and courageously make ourselves available to God, then we are living sacrifices. This is our spiritual act of worship. (Romans 12:1-2) Who knows? Why not here? Why not now? Why not us? After praying, we might find our meeting places shaken, lives transformed, and everyone filled with God’s Holy Spirit.

God almighty, as you sent the Son, send us into the world with your compelling love. Help us by means of your Spirit, to share your good news of love, forgiveness, justice, peace, compassion, and care. Revive your Church, o Christ. Gracious God, work everywhere reconciling, loving, and healing your people and your creation. Open our eyes to your mission in the world. Send us to serve with Christ, taking risks to give life and hope to all people and all your creation. Amen.

The Price of Prayer

 
 
All of the Christian life is grounded in two important theological truths:  God is good; and, God acts powerfully in the world for good.  Prayer is based in the conviction that God is concerned to hear us; and, that he is able to respond and answer.  Prayer might be something that we can engage in at any time, but real God-focused, God-honoring prayer has a price.  It will cost us time, effort, vulnerability, and following through with action.  Biblical prayer is not just throwing up some private requests, but is an activity that requires something of us as a community of believers in Jesus (James 5:13-20). 
 
            The entire church is to pray – all of us, the happy and the suffering, the healthy and unhealthy.  More specifically, the New Testament letter of James tells us that the leaders/elders of the church are to pray for those who are “sick” (James 5:14).  The word James used refers not just to a physical illness, but also to those who are weak and weary, those who are completely worn down because of their life circumstances.
 
            James provides a clear chain of responsibility.  The onus is on the sick person to contact the elders of the church.  James clearly puts the need for communicating the situation on the person who is undergoing the trouble.  For many people, this is humbling and difficult, so they do not do it.  But prayer has a price – it will cost us some openness.
 
            When the needy person communicates the trouble, then the elders are to anoint the person in the name of the Lord and offer a prayer of faith on his/her behalf.  It is the leadership’s job to pray.  In the Bible, anointing with oil was a deeply symbolic act of encouragement in which a tangible thing was being done in order to lift the person from the trouble.  Physical ailments of bodily sickness; sinful problems of anger or bitterness; spiritual struggles of doubt; emotional challenges of depression; anything and everything that would cause a lack of health could be prayed over and people could be anointed and encouraged.
 
            Prayer for James was not a strictly private affair; it was a communal activity.  I want us to entertain the notion that if we are not experiencing healing, wholeness, and health whether it is physical, relational, or spiritual, then maybe God is calling you and I to not only personal private prayer, but corporate prayer offered by the elders of the church.  It is not just the prayer offered by one solitary individual that makes the sick person well – it is the collective faith prayer of the church’s leadership on the troubled person.
 
            The goal of prayer is healing in its complete form:  physical, mental, emotional, relational, and, of course, spiritual.  Effective prayer results in reconciliation with others, and a restoration to the community of faith.  To bring those who wander from the truth back – to realize a return of a prodigal – will result because of prayer (James 5:19-20).
 
            In the past ten years, the American church has experienced a pronounced slide of people out the door.  According to Christian pollster, George Barna, 25% of the U.S. population now identifies themselves in the religious category of “none.”  They have no religious affiliation.  Many of them have left churches.  You already know this.  You know it because this is not a statistic to you.  You know some of the “nones” personally.
 

 

            What will you do about it?  Wish it were different?  Lament it?  Complain about it?  Or will you and your church pray with heartfelt, earnest, passionate, deliberate, sustained, and believing prayers so that prodigals will return and those who have wandered far from God will experience the grace of Jesus Christ?  Bring them back.  Do it with prayer.

A House of Prayer

 

 
 
Prayer is one of those things in church ministry that gets assigned a lot of value and importance, but when it comes right down to it prayer often gets lost and sandwiched in a worship service between the singing and the preaching.  Church meetings get the bookends of opening and closing prayer, with the “real” work of business and ministry taking place on our own. Our own contemporary reality of church ministry and prayer may not be far off from the ancient world.  When Jesus made his way to Jerusalem, he strolled into the temple area and found a situation that disturbed him to the point of making a whip and driving out all who were buying and selling animals for sacrifice.  Christ’s reasoning for taking such violent action was:  “It is written, ‘My house will be called a house of prayer’ but you are making it a den of robbers.”
 
This bit about Jesus in the temple sounds a lot like an old western where the sheriff strolls into town and acts like he owns the place, shooting up the bad guys, defending the women and children, and cleaning up the town.  This is a side to Jesus that might surprise some.  It can be tempting to reduce Jesus to one-dimensional qualities like ‘compassionate’ or ‘accepting.’  But this story reminds us that Jesus defies stereotyping, and that we need to see a fuller profile of who he is, and what he is up to.
 
Jesus is not just a merciful and modest king who graciously heals and forgives people; he is equally a mighty and awful judge who does not tolerate sinful systems and cleans house.    Because Jesus is superior over the temple and Lord of the church, he is not some Being that we can domesticate for our own personal use.  He did not come to this earth to simply supplement our lives with some occasional answered prayers, to hang around in order to bail us out when we need it, or to help us get ahead in life with the thing we want.
 
            Instead, John’s Gospel tells us that zeal for his father’s house consumes him.  Jesus is all about pleasing his father and seeing that his church is what it is supposed to be.  It is our task to conform to Christ, and not the other way around.  That will happen as we let Jesus be the sheriff who drives out our sin, and restore prayer to its place so that people can truly and genuinely connect with God.  Jesus cleaned house by attacking the system he saw in operation.
 
            At the time of Passover all pious Israelites would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  Cattle, sheep, and doves were used for sacrifices and the only place where those sacrifices were made was at the temple in Jerusalem.  That meant that anyone wanting to worship God from outside of Jerusalem would have to do some traveling.  Over time, a system was set up in which there would be vendors that would line the temple courts who would have animals for sale as a matter of convenience.  Since there were folks that came from a long way, often from outside of Israel, they brought their foreign currency with them and it could be exchanged at the tables set up by money-changers.
 
            This situation all makes a good deal of sense, so what is the problem with a little capitalism taking place by providing a service for the people?  Jesus doesn’t have a problem with capitalism per se; his problem with the whole system is that it should not even exist – these guys should not be in the temple at all!  Jesus attacked the system and made a huge scene because the vendors and money-changers, even if they were using sound business practices (which they weren’t), should not even be there because it trivialized the temple and took away from its intended purpose as a house of prayer for all nations.
 
            Here is how the system was supposed to work:  coming to the temple from outside of Jerusalem was never intended to be easy or convenient; in fact, it was supposed to be difficult.  A family would spend the whole of a year raising, for example, a lamb.  The lamb would actually become part of the family, much like a beloved family pet.  But when Passover came, the family would pack up, bringing the lamb along – to be slaughtered as a sacrifice.  The miles and days of walking to Jerusalem would be a sober reminder of sin, and a time of contemplation anticipating worship at the temple.  Coming to Jerusalem with no animal, just money to buy one would be like entering into the Lent season by paying someone off to not eat chocolate for you, so you don’t have to go without it.  It misses the entire point of the system, and actually hinders people from genuinely connecting with God through prayer.  Jesus will not put up with it to the point of rather violently driving the whole system out of the temple.
 
            Jesus is not one to play around with sin.  He didn’t ask the money-changers to move their tables somewhere else; he didn’t strike a deal with those selling animals and doves to sell them at cost.  Instead, he went all town sheriff on them because the whole system was an act of terrorism against the right and true worship of God!
 
            It has been the sin of the Church through the centuries to find ways of doing ministry and worship by not actually doing it (just think of the Reformation and the abuse of selling indulgences).  We might feel good by coming to a worship service and giving money and going home without ever having done anything to meaningfully connect with God because our orientation may not be toward bringing something of ourselves to sacrifice, using our spiritual gifts, and laying our lives down.  It is really a heart issue.  For example, we might give to missions, and that is right and necessary, but if we give without any real thought to doing missions ourselves and being missional people, then we are in grave need of having Jesus clean house by overturning the tables in our hearts. 
 
            So, what sacrifice do you bring for worship?  What would we do if Jesus came in to our churches, started moving the furniture around, and driving the whole system out of the way we do things?  Jesus will actually put up with a lot, but the thing he will not tolerate is having obstacles to worship so that people do not genuinely connect with God. Not only was the business done in the temple, it was done in the Court of the Gentiles so that non-Israelites were not able to pray.  So here is the question that this story creates for us to ask:  Does the way we do things help people to connect with God, to pray, or does our system prevent other people besides us from worshiping God?
 
            In order to be a house of prayer, the first step is to identify any systemic change that needs to take place.  Trying to lay elaborate plans for a prayer ministry, or just trying to motivate people to pray in the church will bear little fruit until the systems underlying the lack of prayer are dealt with.  I wouldn’t suggest taking a whip into the next worship service you attend, but I would encourage us all to think about what changes need to take place that will put people in a position to hear God, and help them to truly pray and know God.