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.

Take the Stairs Out of the Basement Shame Lounge

Since then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4, NIV)

A century ago, the English novelist, G.K. Chesterton, observed that in the house of life, many people are content to live in the cellar. In fact, they assume the cellar is the only room in the house. Cellars and basements have certainly changed in the past one hundred years, yet Chesterton’s observation still holds true – that people often seem content to dwell in conditions far beneath what they could experience. 

Maybe the basements of today provide a way to extend Chesterton’s metaphor. Rather than take the stairs and dwell in the house itself, we create spaces in the basement, game rooms and family rooms, to avoid dwelling in the main part of the house. We might even make the basement a shame lounge, complete with old purple shag carpeting, dimly lighted with a lava lamp, and stocked with cheap $2 a bottle wine. Its where we go when we are down on ourselves.

It’s hard to be joyful in the basement, especially when it’s a shame lounge, because it is a place where people hate themselves because of their failures, are disappointed with God for what has been allowed to happen in their lives, and blame others for their sadness.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Colossian Church to lay a solid foundation of teaching on who Jesus Christ is and what he has done (chapters 1 & 2); and to give some solid encouragement and exhortation on what that theological foundation means for daily life (chapters 3 & 4). 

The Colossian believers were to avoid getting sidetracked by false teachers telling them they belong in the basement of life, in the shame lounge, and that the only way up the stairs and out of the cellar is through a crazy, circuitous route of constant rule-keeping.

The truth Paul wanted the Colossians to grasp is that Jesus has made the stairway clear through his cross and resurrection. Those who believe in these redemptive events are full participants in the death and life of Jesus. Christ rising from death is not merely a doctrine to believe; it is a powerful reality to be lived! Christian doctrine always has the upward trajectory of changed lives. Paul gave three reasons why we must live upstairs instead of hanging around the shame lounge….

1. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because Christ’s resurrection makes it possible.

Paul made up a word that takes five words for us to communicate in English (συνηγέρθητε – “you have been raised with”). It is meant to communicate the truth that we have a vital connection and union with Jesus (co-raised with Christ). Jesus has so closely identified with us that it is as if we are his body. 

The bond existing between Jesus and the believer is so intimate and so close that when Jesus was raised from death, we took part with him in that event. The incredible implication of this is that our life is to be the life of Christ. Our task, then, is to live up to who we are in Christ. 

Paul exhorts us toward that end by telling us to set our hearts on things above. Today, on Easter Sunday, is the day to get our hearts out of the shame lounge and live upstairs with Jesus, who is seated at the right hand of God. 

Empty Tomb by Anneli Anderson

Being seated at the right hand is a symbolic picture that the work of Jesus on the cross is finished. Therefore, the only work left to do is to believe, and to participate in the life of Christ. We do that by living upstairs with Jesus. Christ’s heart was set on giving us eternal salvation from sin and death, and he accomplished it. 

Now, Jesus Christ has his heart set on seeing us experience freedom from the habits of shame and addictive practices which keep us from living upstairs with him. Jesus wants our hearts. Christ does not want us getting headaches from smoking nasty cheap cigars in the shame lounge any longer because his resurrection has made it possible to be with him in the clear bright sunshine of grace. 

We are to set our minds on things above, not on earthly things. We must get our heads out of the cellar and get them upstairs with Jesus. If our heads are not in the main part of the house, shame thoughts will fill the void. The shame lounge becomes a prison because our thoughts do not rise above the bad circumstances we have experienced. You, however, have been raised with Christ. We can ascend the stairs of grace and enjoy life.

The believer in Jesus will follow him up the stairs and dwell with him in God’s house. The Christian will develop the life of the mind by being seeped in the living water of Jesus and not the cheap wine of shame. The follower of Jesus will take the stairs with a heart of prayer that talks to Jesus on a regular basis, instead of sitting in the shame lounge, mumbling speeches to oneself.

The person raised with Christ will take the stairs and serve the Lord with all their heart, mind, and strength because staying in the confining walls of the basement shame lounge prevents the believer from seeing the immense need of people in the neighborhood who are lost, sick, dying, hurting, hungry, depressed, and longing for someone to show them the stairway of grace out of the hopeless basement they are in.

So, take the stairs!

  • Take the stairs and leave the shame lounge behind with its anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language (Colossians 3:8).
  • Take the stairs as God’s chosen people who dwell in the upstairs grace by embracing the house rules of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another in love. (Colossians 3:12) 
  • Take the stairs to forgiving whatever grievances we have against one another because the Lord has forgiven us. (Colossians 3:13)
  • Take the stairs to love, which binds every good virtue together. (Colossians 3:14) 
  • Take the stairs into the large living room of peace, since as members of one body we were called to peace. (Colossians 3:15)
  • Take the stairs and let God’s house shape you as we enter the rooms of teaching and admonishing one another with all wisdom; singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with gratitude in our hearts; and doing all things in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him for raising us up with him. (Colossians 3:16-17)

Take the stairs and live the resurrected life!

2. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because we possess new life in Christ.

We died, and our lives are now hidden with Christ in God. The shame lounge is now dead to us. We can ascend the stairs and live a new life. One of my friends in college was a party girl; she partied every chance she got. Then, she became a follower of Jesus. She received an invitation to a kegger and sent this response back: “I regret to inform you that I will be unable to attend your party because I have recently died.”

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:20, NIV)

Since the shame lounge is dead to us, take the stairs and then burn them behind you so that you not go back there again. The basement may feel safe and familiar, but as a believer in Jesus, you and I now belong to God. Our security is firmly with Jesus upstairs, not downstairs.  God has called and gathered us upstairs out of the shame lounge.

Don’t go back downstairs. If we don’t burn that old stairway we will eventually go back down into the basement. Then, someday, someone will find your lifeless corpse down there. Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to the shame lounge: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, and greed, which is idolatry. (Colossians 3:5)

3. We must take the stairway out of the shame lounge and live upstairs because of the future glory that awaits us.

Christ is coming again. When Jesus returns, the believer will share in God’s glory forever.  Christ has not returned yet because he wants to live through us here on this earth for a while longer. Jesus desires to spread good news of grace and forgiveness through us. Jesus Christ wants others to have the chance to ascend the stairs and live a new life. He is patient, not wanting any to perish in the cellar, but for all to experience the resurrected life. The Apostle Paul himself struggled to put all his energy into living the resurrected life:

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:10-14, NIV)     

Move to another level. Leave the shame lounge basement behind. The first step up the stairway of grace is always a step of surrender so that our heart, mind, soul, time, possessions, and energy are revitalized to new ways of living.

Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Alleluia!

Praise the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

He has given us new life and hope.

He has raised Jesus from the dead.

God has claimed us as his own.

He has brought us out of darkness.

He has made us light to the world.

Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

On Knowing Christ

Pietà by Elisabeth Frink

The ancient Philippian church had lost sight of their purpose, of what is the primary reason for their being in existence. Simply put, they needed to unify around what is the central and most valuable core of Christianity: knowing Jesus Christ. For the Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Church at Philippi, Jesus was so valuable that he literally gave up everything to become a Christian and follow Jesus. (Philippians 3:4-14)

It was no little thing that Paul did, converting in such a completely life-altering way to Christ. Paul had everything going for him. He was the up and coming star in Judaism. Paul had the Jewish pedigree, the intelligence, the personality, and the drive to become one of the greatest Pharisees of all time. And yet he forsook it all to pursue and know Christ. 

It might be hard for us to imagine just how significant Paul’s turn around was. On a much smaller scale, it would be like Green Bay Packer quarterback, Aaron Rodgers, at the height of his career, leaving football altogether to become a missionary to some remote place few people have ever heard of. Most might likely think he lost his marbles and was throwing away (pun intended) something valuable and important. So, it was with Paul.  Everyone thought he was nuts for becoming a Christian.

However, this would be to misunderstand what is really of greatest value. There are plenty of people in our society telling us what we need. With all the noisy rhetoric, from political pundits to commercial marketers, the person and work of Jesus can easily get lost in an ocean of competing voices. On a practical level, it can be far too easy to simply toss Christian discipleship on the smorgasbord of good ideas we get handed each day. Jesus might get misplaced and forgotten on our plate of life because of the mass of other food that is piled alongside him.

World Communion Sunday (always the first Sunday in October each year) reminds Christians that Jesus is our surpassing greatness, the highest and most worthy asset we possess. When we come to the Lord’s Table, there is nothing else to feast upon except Jesus, and Jesus alone. In the act of receiving the common elements of bread and cup, we proclaim that we need no one else and no other thing to make us happy in this life. Jesus is enough for us. What is more, we stand united with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world in a common purpose and value of knowing Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

The Elements of Holy Communion by Jacques Iselin

The core value and heart of Christianity is a faith and love relationship with Jesus, to know him. This was the heartfelt cry of the Apostle Paul, and it was so meaningful to him that he gave up everything to pursue Christ and follow Jesus.  If we ever strip Christianity of this core value and stray from knowing Christ, the vacuum will be quickly filled with all kinds of other stuff, like the sheer duty of perfunctory prayers, clean living, and dispassionate robotic service. 

Paul longed to know Christ better. There are two words in the Greek language for “know.” One word refers to information; the other refers to an experiential knowledge – and that is the word Paul used with the Philippians. He deeply desired an intimate experience of Jesus. And Paul craved this so much that literally everything, when compared to Jesus, was “rubbish” to him. 

In the ancient world there were no landfills and dumps – the street served as the place people threw their garbage. The trash then got trampled into the ground, along with the generous amounts of animal dung. That is how Paul thought of even the best things in life as compared to knowing Jesus. 

There is no comparison between a freshly grilled T-bone steak and microwaved liverwurst. There is no comparison between a billion dollars and a penny. There is no comparison between the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears (sorry Chi-Town). And there is no comparison between Jesus and anyone or anything else, no matter whom or what it is. 

Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, in the fifth century, described life apart from Jesus as “disordered love.” By that he meant we pursue whatever our affections are set upon. One might love family, friends, job, and hobbies, yet if Jesus is absent or must compete for our affections in the middle of those things, then it is a disordered love. The solution, for Augustine, is to rightly order our love by having Jesus as the premier object of our affection. The New Testament frames it this way: Repent and believe the gospel.

To have “disordered love” is a nicer way of saying “spiritual adultery.” Using this metaphor, the appropriate response is to return to our first love. “You have forsaken your first love,” said Jesus to the church in Ephesus.  “Remember the height from which you have fallen!  Repent and do the things you did at first” (Revelation 2:4-5). 

Christianity is not some religion in which we strike a deal with God to go to heaven if we accept Jesus. Rather, Christianity centers all of life in the person and work of Jesus. The Lord is a jealous God, feeling slighted when Christians moonlight with the world at night while acknowledging Jesus during the day.

Specifically, Paul wanted to know the power of Christ’s resurrection. He yearned to experience a supernatural change from the inside-out – to be a new person in Christ. Paul did not simply turn over a new leaf; he did a dramatic 180 degree turn and went hard after Jesus. A desire and/or decision to know Christ is to be more than a milquetoast “I’ll try to do better.” Christianity, at its core, is dying to self and being reborn in Jesus with new life.

Furthermore, Paul wanted to know Christ and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. Paul ached to know Jesus so much that he embraced suffering, just as his Lord did. Paul was not some spiritual masochist; he rightly recognized that spiritual growth and intimacy with Jesus largely comes from the harsh realities of life’s trials and difficulties, as faith is stretched.  We would not know Christ the healer if we were not broken; Christ the provider if we were not in want; and, Jesus Christ and him crucified unless we were aware of sin in the world along with our own personal sin.

Each time a Christian approaches the Lord’s Table, they set aside competing voices and forsake rival gods to have Jesus. For us who believe, let the ingesting of the elements be an act of fellowship with God. May we, along with Paul, Augustine, and all past saints desire to have Jesus completely take over our lives because he is so valuable to us. We never need to be perfect to partake of bread and cup. Instead, we only need to strive toward what is ahead and decide that today we will press on toward the higher goal of knowing Christ.

Ephesians 2:1-7 – Raised with Christ

Ascension

You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)

In the wake of recognizing and remembering Ascension Day, Christ’s ascension to heaven, we must linger a bit with the implications of that great redemptive event for us. Today’s New Testament lesson from the letter to the Ephesians is a wondrous place to do some holy loitering.

The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church and gave them a theological explanation of their true position as Christians. They were once located in the realm darkness, the place of disobedience and selfishness. Now, however, as believers in Jesus Christ, they have been relocated to the realm of light, the place of love and kindness. This major relocation project is the direct effort of God’s merciful initiative. Jesus descended in his incarnation and lived at the garbage dump with us. Christ’s life and death delivered us from that putrid existence. Jesus ascended to heaven. He did not leave us in the dump.

The rich theology which Paul expresses to the Ephesians is so robust that he makes up new words just to try and communicate it. Through God’s gracious action he “made us alive together with Christ,” “raised us up with him,” and “seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Paul took words and smashed them together to create new compound words to try and communicate the amazing reality of the Christian’s position in Jesus Christ. In English, we need to use several words to translate Paul’s original compound words.

Paul used new words because he was expressing a new reality. Ascension is more than Christ’s own – he, spiritually, takes us with him. We belong with him. Our union, our intimacy, with Jesus is so vitally connected that what happens with Jesus happens with us. With Jesus as the Head of the Church, and we as the Body of Christ, there is absolutely no separation between the two.

The implications of this understanding are tectonic:

  • Since God’s action was done out of love, our spiritual DNA has love written all over it. We no longer feel as if we must manipulate, cajole, or twist arms to be noticed and have our needs met.
  • Since God is rich in mercy, we have a new place to live – with Christ – and no longer hang out in the shame lounge drinking cheap wine and smoking nasty cigars.
  • Since God has given us new life in Christ, we are aware of our position and now can deliberately choose to participate with him in a mind-blowing, gut-busting, heart-exploding divine/human adventure beyond what we could ever have imagined. We no longer are in the position to create selfish agendas and ignore the common good of all humanity.
  • Since God has picked us up, cleaned us up, and sat us down next to Jesus, we have a front row seat to the triune God showing kindness to us and so many others. We no longer have a truncated worldview which sees only pain and heartbreak.
  • Since God has orchestrated deliverance from the old life; since Christ has achieved that deliverance for us; and, since the Spirit has awakened us – we now have a new life thoroughly imbibed with the medicine of faith, the healing power of hope, and the elixir of love. With grace binding our lives together with God, no more judging, blaming, shaming, nor hating need occur anymore.
  • Since we belong to God, we enjoy all the love of the Father, the mercy of the Son, and the vigor of the Holy Spirit. We have risen above all the terrible muck of sin and given a new place to live. Since Jesus ascended, we ascend with him. Praise be to God!

As people, we live into who we believe we are. We are the precious children of God, redeemed and adopted into a divine family. May we live up to our position in Jesus Christ.

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep me, I pray, from returning to the pig pen of an old life. May I be ready in both body and soul to freely choose things which belong to your purposes of love; through Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.