Sunday 10 April 2016

Remain in me (John 15:1-17)

Jesus is preparing us for his death. What we have in Chapters 13 to 16 is one long conversation between Jesus and his disciples about what life will be like after he is gone. They don’t fully understand everything he says at this point. Jesus says he is going away. He says where he is going they can’t follow. At this point, the disciples are emotional – they are confused – but step by step, Jesus is preparing them for what lies ahead.

Of course, we know that Jesus will rise again after three days; and yes, we know that even now Christ reigns in heaven at God’s right hand. But it is significant that Jesus chooses this moment with his friends – just before he leaves, just before the cross – to explain what it means for them to remain in him. He could have said this after. But no, his words make the most sense here.

“Remain in me.”

It is remaining in Jesus in between the times. For them it was the time between the cross and the resurrection. For us, it might be between this Sunday and next weekend. The in-between times are the times when we are tempted, when we will be intimidated; when we are alone and Jesus seems far away. Jesus says to us during such times: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.”

This is more than loyalty. This is intimacy with Jesus that is tangible and real – that keeps us faithful to him and abiding in him. And what we find in in John 15 is a clear command to pursue such intimacy, to maintain such a connection with Jesus.

1. Remain in me

Jesus begins with his own connection with the Father.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.
John 15:1

More than Father and Son, God is a gardener and Jesus is the vine. This gardener is constantly cutting away at the branches of the vine.

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.
John 15:2

That sounds painful. Can’t God leave me alone to be fruitful on my own? All I need are the raw ingredients (from Jesus, of course) but I want to do this on my own. Jesus reminds us that God is a gardener who snips away at every area of our lives. Snip here. Snip, snip there. God only does this to fruitful branches to make them even more fruitful.

That’s still painful, isn’t it? Yet Jesus says pruning can be reassuring.

You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
John 15:3

Here is where the footnotes help us out. “The Greek (word) for prunes also means cleans.” It is making a connection between pruning and cleansing – one done by God in verse 2; the other done by Jesus’ word in verse 3 – a connection between our salvation and sanctification.

In other words, pruning is not punishment. If Christ died to take all your punishment on the cross, therefore, there is now no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1). Pruning can’t be punishment because there is no punishment left for those in Christ.

But if you are in Christ, you will be pruned. God will use every painful circumstance, every painful situation to make you more and more like Jesus. According to verse 3, he will keep pruning you because you have already been pruned (or cleansed; same Greek word) in Jesus Christ. God sanctifies all whom Jesus saves. He wants us to be fruitful.

“Endure hardship as discipline,” might sounds like something my Mum in Malaysia would say, but it’s actually from Hebrews Chapter 12, verse 7: “God is treating you as sons.” Jesus is saying the same thing: Don’t fall away. The hardest thing you could experience as a Christian is nothing less than the pruning of God’s love. It means he loves you as a daughter. It means he loves you as a son.

It is this specific context of pruning in which Jesus says, “Remain in me.”

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.
John 15:4

Many read this as Jesus’ call to endurance in the face of suffering. “Remain in me,” sounds like, “Endure hardship.” (In Cantonese, it’s “Teng Chui” or in Malay, “Tahan”). Later, Jesus warns that the world will hate them (John 15:18), persecute them (John 15:20), even kill them thinking they are doing a service to God (John 16:2). But that’s describing the world’s hatred resulting in hardship. The difference is, here, Jesus is talking about the Father’s love that leads us to fruitfulness.

Friends, the greatest temptation to fall away is never hardship; it is in hardship that we learn dependence and humility. No, the greatest temptation to fall away from Christ is our self-sufficiency. It’s saying, “I can do this on my own. I don’t need to be pruned or cleansed.”

It’s when you understand that God wants you to holy, but you respond, “I don’t want to be holy.” It’s when you understand that God wants you to be fruitful, but you respond, “I don’t need the pressure.” It’s when you finally get that God loves you, that he will never leave you in your sin; he will keep turning you back to Jesus, but you respond, “I don’t want to change.” That’s when we will be tempted to think life will be easier if we just took a break from God. That’s when we will be tempted to think we might be more effective, more fruitful if we just tried things our own way.

Self-sufficiency is the basis of self-deception. “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

Older translations have “Abide in me.” That’s because “remain” and “abide” are residential terms (Greek: “meno,” meaning to dwell, where we get “mansion”). It’s where you live. It’s your address – where you hang out and do your laundry – though it’s rare these days for people to live in one spot. We move from place to place – for study, for work, for holiday. Some of us do that with churches and relationships. We are mobile.

But Colossians 2:6 calls us to plant ourselves in Christ. To stay put. “Just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him.” It is a picture of a tree, planted in one spot, taking root and growing in fruitfulness. It is the call to abide in Christ. To remain in him.

2. Remain in my words

This picture of God as the gardener as Jesus as the vine is not new. Have a look at Psalm 80:

You brought a vine out of Egypt;
You drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it,
And it took root and filled the land.
Psalm 80:8-9

In the Old Testament, the vine of God equates to the people of God. It’s not something new – not to Jews or anyone who knew their bibles (see Isaiah 5). That’s why Jesus tells a parable about vineyards and everyone gets that he’s talking about them (and why they get offended in Matthew 20 and 21). Here in Psalm 80, the vine is transplanted out of slavery into a place God prepares for his people. It’s talking about Israel. It’s talking about them.

But now Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” in verse 1. And in verse 5, he turns to his disciples saying, “You are the branches.” What is he saying? Jesus is the true Israel and his disciples are God’s true people. If you are connected to Jesus, you get in. If you are disconnected from him, you get kicked out.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit, apart from me, you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown in the fire and burned.
John 15:5-6

If ever there was a more chilling picture of death; it is verse 6: to be discarded, dried up, picked up, thrown into fire and burned. It is a picture of death, judgement, rejection, condemnation; it is a picture of Hell. And yet, the point is: the branch was dead the moment it detached itself from the vine.

It’s like the fresh food section at Sainsburys. You look for the juiciest fruit and the freshest veg but what you are looking at are dead things. They were dead the moment they were plucked. They were dead the moment they were detached from the source of life. That’s Jesus’ point. Dead things don’t look dead. Disconnecting from Jesus might not seem a big deal now but it is. You are detaching yourself from the source of life.

Ephesians 2 says we were dead in the sins in which we used to live. Death is not a destination but a direction in life. When we walk away from God, when we live as if we were God, the bible calls us the walking dead (Some of us are thinking: zombies, others are thinking: condemned criminals. The walking dead are those who are unresponsive to God, whose senses are dead to his love). The same passage from Ephesians goes on to tell us how God made us alive in Christ while we were still dead in our sins. He raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. Finally, he created good works for us as Christians to walk in. We have a new direction in life, no longer living for ourselves but living in obedience to his will.

If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
John 15:7-8

Life in Jesus comes from obedience to Jesus. To have Jesus’ words remain in us means more than memorising bible verses. It is talking about obedience to his commands. It is walking according to his will. This is why we can ask whatever we wish and it will be given us. We are praying in accordance with God’s will.

Having said that, it is his word that enables us to know his will. Earlier, we saw how Jesus cleansed his disciples through the word spoken to them (verse 3). In verse 25, Jesus says, “All this I have spoken while still with you.” That is, Jesus’ commands were entrusted to his disciples as his spoken word, passed down to us in his written word, the bible.

So to have Jesus’ words remain in us does mean more than memorising the words of the bible because it means obeying words of the bible (in which case, memorising helps!). Revelation 1:3 says, “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” The blessing is for those who take his words to heart, for those who obey his commands.

3. Remain in my love

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 by 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.
John 15:9-11

What does it mean to remain in Christ, the true vine? What does it mean to pursue intimacy with God? To experience the reality of his love?

The answer is: Obedience. Verse 10: If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love. What it means to remain, to have his word remain and to remain in his love is simply to obey his commands.

Jesus connects obedience with love (verse 10); obedience with joy (verse 11). Yet if we are honest, obedience disconnects us from God. Being told to do stuff doesn’t sound loving. Obedience does not overwhelm me with emotion. Some of us were searching for that mystical connection, that experience that lifts our spirits to the heavens. Some of us would rather retreat to the mountains to meditate and be alone with God. That’s what we thought it meant to remain in him, to remain in his love.

But no, Jesus says it’s obedience. Why? Because obedience to his Father’s commands is why Jesus died on the cross. Obedience is the key to understanding his love.

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 a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from the Father I have made known to you.
John 15:12-15

The command is to love like Jesus, to love our brothers and sisters in Jesus and to love sacrificially as Jesus loved us: “Greater love has no-one than this: that he lay down his life for his friends”. Distilling down further, Jesus is telling us to love in such a way that it points others to his love. It is love that points to the gospel as the ultimate display of God’s love for us in Christ.

Twice, Jesus says to us, “As I have loved you… as I have loved you.” The first time he says this in verse 9, he is demonstrating the Father’s love. “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you.” The second time in verse 12, we are demonstrating Jesus’ love. “Love each other as I have loved you.” This is an upward, directing love. It is love that points to a greater love – the greatest love, in fact, according to verse 13 – that Christ demonstrated on the cross.

Two implications of this command. Firstly, it’s helpful. My love for my brothers and sisters will always, always be a subset of Christ’s love for them. It doesn’t mean I can get away with being stingy with my love. It’s not an excuse for being choosy with whom I love. But what makes this so helpful is the fact that I’m always pointing back to his love, his sacrifice and his obedience on the cross.

But secondly, it’s humbling. Jesus calls us his friends. It’s one thing to be humbled by a boss who puts you in your place by ordering you around and keeps in the dark about the details but this is different kind of humbling. Jesus commands us to do nothing that he himself has not already done. Jesus lets us in on the Father’s business, indeed, everything he learned from his Father he makes known to us as his friends. Meaning: Jesus wants us to be just like him, to work alongside him and to enjoy the same benefits he has received from obeying his Fathers commands.

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 one another.
John 15:16-17

Abide with me

“Abide with me” is a hymn commonly sung by soldiers in the trenches during the First World War. Looking at the lyrics, you can understand why. It’s a prayer for God to be near us, to stay with us in times of darkness and helplessness.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Friends, what we have in John 15 is Jesus saying these words to us. The Lord was just moments away from facing his own darkness and Hell. In his last few moments with his friends, he says to them, “Remain in me.” The difference is he says this not for his own comfort but for ours. Jesus’ main concern is that we remain in him.

If you are in the trenches now, you need to know that Jesus is right there with you. He hasn’t moved away. He is and has always been by your side. The question is: Are you abiding in him? Is his word living inside of you? And are you abiding in his love?

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.
John 15:4

Sunday 3 April 2016

The most loving person

In God’s economy, the most loving person is the most forgiven person.

This wonderful truth means that the even the most selfish, sinful, cynical person can be changed through the simple act of forgiveness.

Sadly, this also means that the gentlest, most loving person will change when left in a state of unforgiveness. Unforgiveness results in a discounted love, an embargoed love – always reserved for a rainy day yet insufficient even for today.

As Christians, we must never lose sight of the cross of Jesus Christ. There we find full and final forgiveness. There we receive God’s abundant love written in the blood of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little. Luke 7:47