Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:1-11 [12-21]
I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing.
Texas, like so many other places, has been suffering from a drought. It has become very obvious when looking at the hillsides that are filled with dead and dying trees. I have noticed that things are much greener this year as I have gone on my wildflower adventures, but the years of drought have taken its toll and many of the scrub fields need major maintenance. In ancient times, the earth healed itself with fire. A lightning strike set a field to blaze which burned the dead wood and made the earth ready for new growth. Those same fields today have homes and businesses that need to be protected. It is important that those owners do something to clean up the dead and protect the living.
As you drive down these roads at this time of year you can see the work that is happening. The old trees are cut and stacked in tall piles. They are left to dry for days, weeks, perhaps even months depending on the weather. When everything is ready, they carefully burn those piles of wood, protecting the surrounding field. You can often see fire crews standing by to ensure the fire does not get out of hand, and then smoldering piles of ash. The removal of the old dead trees leaves room for the living ones to grow. The landowners know how to make things right by removing that dead wood which is ugly, useless and dangerous.
It might seem like a lot of trouble for the wide open spaces of unused wilderness, but a healthy field is better for all those who dwell there, including the birds and animals. A tended field has much more wildlife because there is good food and shelter for them. That's why the earth naturally heals itself, but as caretakers of God's creation, we are given the task of helping the world be as fruitful as possible even while we subdue it for our use.
Have you ever felt like you are living in a time of spiritual drought? There are times in everyone's life when we find it difficult to pray and worship. We doubt God and get angry with Him. We can't read the bible or if we do, it is like a foreign language that just doesn't make sense to us. We can't see God in our neighbor or in our daily lives. We feel empty, confused, abandoned.
This can happen in many different ways. We can get sick or suffer some sort of crisis in our life, leaving us wondering where God is in the midst of our trouble. We can be hurt by other Christians or by our church and walk away from the fellowship. We can get so busy doing the things that need to be done at work or with our families that we miss out on time in worship, prayer or bible study. After awhile it is hard to get back in the habit. We can walk down the path that leads us away from our God.
Faith can survive any of these experiences, and God never really abandons us even when we feel like He has. The trouble is that when we lose touch with Him bits and pieces of us can die. Sometimes those bits and pieces need to be removed so that rest of us can become healthy again. We may not always understand what is happening to us, and we might be hurt or blame God for our trouble, but eventually we realize that the difficulty was actually a good thing; we realize that God was cutting away something that was making us unhealthy. A time of drought might actually be a time for God to prepare us for a time of re-growth and renewal.
It is so easy to get lost, however. I knew a young man on the Internet who had been a very passionate Christian. He loved Jesus, worked in the church, shared God's grace with everyone he met. One day he suffered a severe blow and he began to doubt everything about his faith. He tried to find answers, but he did so in a way that led him farther and farther from God. Eventually he stopped believing. It wasn't that he was angry or uncertain. He simply stopped believing. His faith was dead, like those scrubs in the field. I don't know what happened to him; eventually he simply disappeared from my life. Miracles can happen, of course, and God can fan the smallest spark into a great and powerful faith, but sometimes the disbelief is so strong that it is beyond reform. Some people reject God so completely that they are cut off, thrown away like a branch and withers, then thrown into the fire with others and burned.
We don't want to hear this because we don't like to hear that some people will not be saved. We don't want to think that it is possible for us get to the point that we will lose touch with our God so completely that there is nothing left to hold us to Him. We don't want to hear it, but we have to understand that we can become so focused on the wrong things that we lose sight of the One who is our life. That's why Jesus reminds us to abide in Him.
He says, "I am the true vine." He probably said this while standing in the shadow of the Temple buildings on which was a large gold decoration of a grapevine. The symbolism is obvious, as the scriptures often use the image to describe Israel. The decoration at the Temple was so large that some of the grapes were as large as a human head, and it was created out of gifts from benefactors to the Temple. The gold was even engraved with donor's names, much like we put names on buildings or other donations. Jesus reminds the people that He is the true vine, the one that really abides in God and through whom faith and fruit comes. "Look to me, abide in me, and bear fruit." Unfortunately, we often spend so much time looking outward, away from God, focusing on our fruit that we lose touch with Jesus. We can't bear fruit without Jesus; we can't bear fruit without faith.
Keeping our eyes on Jesus is scary, though. We like to be in control. We like to know what we are doing. We like to go our own way, to accomplish the things that matter to us. God might just ask us to do something we don't want to do. He might ask us to step outside our comfort zone. He might send us on the road into the unknown.
I love today's first lesson. Philip's faith is such an inspiration to me, but the story is quite frightening. After all, can you imagine God calling you to do what He called Philip to do? "Rise and go..." He said. Go where? Philip was sent into the wilderness on a dangerous road, alone. The road was filled with thieves and murderers, definitely not the place for a lonely traveler. Then, when he got to the desert place, the Holy Spirit told him to approach a caravan of Ethiopians with an important official of the court of Queen Candace. He would have been surrounded by a protective force and companions, an intimidating procession and not very welcoming to strangers on the road. The first thought of those armed soldiers would be to protect their official and his companions.
Philip was not concerned. He knew that God was with him and that God would accomplish His work no matter what happened. He went on the road and approached the caravan with no fear. I like this story because I hope I can do the same when God calls me out of my own comfort zone. We are saved and sent to bear fruit, and it is only with God's help that we can do so. The willingness to go on the dangerous road and approach the intimidating procession is only possible in the life of the person who abides in Christ.
The other thing that is inspiring in this story is that Philip was not afraid to speak. I can't imagine what it would be like if God sent me to approach a learned man who was reading the scriptures along the road. I might be able to explain what it means, but I have to admit that I rely on notes and commentaries; I'm thankful for the Internet and the thousands of other people who came before me who have studied and written on the subjects.
I've been working on a study of John the Evangelist and his writings. I've read the scriptures for myself, of course, but I have also looked into many resources, to see what scholars say and what has been understood since the beginning of the Church. I've checked on word meanings and relied on the work of others who delved deeply into the details, the history, and the language. There is nothing new under the sun, so it helps to join others in the study of the scriptures, searching for understanding with the rest of the church.
Philip did not have two millennia of study when he approached the Ethiopian. He had the teachings of Jesus, had listened to Him as He opened the scriptures to the disciples. He had the Holy Spirit to guide his words and his understanding. Yet, it was Philip sitting there with the Ethiopian. What if he had been reading one of the more difficult texts from the prophet Isaiah? As it happened, the text was about Jesus, an easy subject for one of His disciples. Philip was able to speak with confidence and grace, to tell the Ethiopian about the forgiveness that Jesus won for the world. His words, by the power of the Holy Spirit, revealed God's mercy to the Ethiopian. He was baptized at the side of the road and went away with joy.
We have an advantage over Philip because we have the whole history of the church behind us. We have the writings of the disciples, the Gospel stories and the letters of Paul, Peter, James, and John. We have the writings of the early Church fathers who knew the Apostles or were only a generation or two away from them. Their writing has been tested for millennia, and their understanding has developed into the basic beliefs of the church today. Those thoughts were developed into the historic creeds and the foundation of the Christian Church as it has been understood for two thousand years.
Of course, we have to be careful when we are relying on other people's thoughts and interpretations. John reminds us not to believe every spirit. There are, indeed, many false prophets and have been from the beginning of time. The fact that we have 'lost Gospels,' writings from the earliest days of the Church that tell us a different story testifies to that fact. Those very writings still find an audience today by those who hear words that tickle their ears and satisfy their desires. There were competing understandings of Jesus even in those early days, but those writings were rejected by the Church for many reasons. There are still many competing teachers today, selling a Gospel that does not fit the Biblical witness of faith.
We have to be careful about listening to the wrong spirits, but we also have to beware of our own understanding. We can be easily swayed by our own life experiences. We are selfish and self-centered. We interpret God's Word to benefit our own desires. If we are in a spiritual drought or facing a difficult time, we will twist the scriptures to justify our anger or uncertainty. We can be swayed by every thought, inward and outward, and if we are not abiding in God, those thoughts can come from the spirit of the antichrist.
Jesus is the true vine and we have no need to fear living and working in this world because God will be with us through the good and the bad. Even when we have difficult times, we can be at peace knowing that in the end God will use it all for His glory. He calls and sends us out into the world, sometimes He sends us outside our comfort zone into unknown experiences. He will not throw us on the heap to wither and be burned when we keep our focus on Him and He will produce the kind of fruit that makes a difference in the world. Who knows, we might just be the one to explain the scriptures to a stranger on the road, sending them off with joy in their heart and today's psalm on their tongue.
The world might be frightful, but abiding in Christ gives us reason to sing. And our singing will be shared by those who hear and believe the Gospel we share. We bear this fruit with His help, by His power, with His Holy Spirit. So, let us abide in Christ as He abides in us, always holding on to the only One who can truly change the lives of those who hear His Word and believe.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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