Vine Branches in a Storm
By Linda Rex
May 2, 2021, 5th SUNDAY OF EASTER—This week I got a phone call telling me the sum of my car repair expense was in the four-digit range rather than the three-digit range. This news was quite upsetting since I would have postpone taking care of several other important things I was planning to do. Once again, I was reminded that all I own does not belong to me, but to the One who gives and who takes away. Job stands as the great OT example of someone who learned this the hard way and had to come to terms with the reality that life includes suffering and loss, and that everything in this life is transient and not to be clung to.
Indeed, it is helpful to periodically be reminded of our need to remain detached from the things of this life while remaining solidly attached to the One from whom all things come. We find this in Jesus’ illustration of the branches on a vine—a branch’s fruit-bearing ability is directly related to the branch’s connection to the vine and how well the branch has been pruned. The idea of pruning in this passage involves the cleansing or removal of anything from the branch that inhibits its ability to produce good and abundant fruit.
Jesus said that we need to abide in him in order to bear spiritual fruit and that this involves his words abiding in us. There is a mutual indwelling which occurs via the Holy Spirit, and we participate in Christ’s intimate relationship with the Father by faith. The life we live, we live by the faith of Jesus Christ—it is Christ in us who is our hope of glory. When we live unattached to Jesus Christ, we die spiritually—we become fruitless and of little spiritual value, only useful as fuel for the fire, the Savior said.
Abiding in Christ has a lot to do with relationship. Relationship with God is something we talk a lot about at Grace Communion Nashville because a relationship of mutual indwelling with God through Christ in the Spirit is what we as human beings were created for and redeemed for by Jesus. When we invite people to turn to Christ in faith, we are encouraging them to participate in that union and communion with God that each and everyone of us was created for, and for which Jesus saved us. We have this incredible gift from God in which we can live, but will we open our hands and our hearts to receive it and live in it?
Sometimes the reason it is so difficult for us to receive this gift of eternal life in Christ Jesus is simply that our hands and our hearts are too full with other things. I am reminded of the passage from Matthew 13:22 where Jesus described the seed that was sown among the thorns. This seed or person was unable to thrive and produce abundant spiritual fruit because he was a person who heard the word, but the worry of the world and the deceitfulness of wealth choked the word, and it became unfruitful. Jesus reminded us that it is very easy for us to become preoccupied with the daily necessities or interests of life and to neglect what really matters—Jesus Christ and his word being deeply rooted in us and producing fruit.
Abiding is a word that we don’t use very often nowadays. But there is this sense of setting down deep roots and staying in a place for a long while. To indwell, which is another way of saying abide, is to reside within the same space as another person or object—something the members of the Trinity do, indwelling one another in union and communion.
The ideas of sharing the same space with Jesus Christ or setting down deep roots into Christ should help us to understand what it means when Jesus says we are to stay attached to him as the vine so we can produce much fruit. He is the means by which the fruit is produced, where we are the place the fruit grows and ripens, preparing to be harvested. He calls us to set our roots deeply into him, putting his words into our minds and hearts, loving one another, and living a life of prayer, of talking with and listening to God day by day.
What about those Job-like times when we are dealt difficult blows and we struggle in our relationship with God? We will all face hardship because of the choices we as human beings have made—not just our own choices, but the collective choices of humanity which disrupt our earth, our communities, and our families. As we are grounded in the reality of God’s love for us and reminded of his faithfulness, we can weather such storms with grace, trusting in Christ in the midst of tragedy, loss, and suffering.
This has been a long season of struggle and suffering for the people of the world, especially in view of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related economic devastation. There are many whose lives will never be the same due to what occurred these past months. We can sit on our ash heaps and bemoan our fate, or we can move closer to Jesus Christ, asking him to open our eyes to the goodness, grace, and love of God, and to enable us to trust him to walk us through to a better place.
It may be, if we are willing, that God may be wanting to release us from some burdens we have been carrying that he never meant for us to carry. It may be that God wants to grow us in new ways into the likeness of his Son and in order to do so, he must have our full attention. Perhaps God is wanting to take something out of our hands so he can give us something new, something much better. What is it that God wants to do for us in this season of pruning? Are we open to it?
I believe it is significant that immediately after the descent of the heavenly gift as a dove upon Jesus and his Father’s words of affirmation, “this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased,” the Spirit thrust Jesus out into the wilderness for a time of testing. God may be wanting to do a new thing in and through his body, the church. In order to do this, perhaps a time of pruning is needed. We can resist this, complain about it, or even deny it. But a better response would be for us, individually and as a whole, to go deeper into Christ, to connect ourselves more deeply with the One who lived our life, died our death, and rose again, bringing us into his intimate relationship with the Father in the Spirit.
I invite you to participate with me in this season of renewal, of seeking God’s face, of opening ourselves up more fully to what Jesus is wanting to do in us and through us. Will you join me in letting go of all these things that are distracting us from drawing close to Christ and hearing his word to us each day? Will you join me in a season of listening and of intentional obedience to God’s instruction? What is God asking you to do right now in this moment? What will your response be?
Dear Abba, heavenly Father, thank you for drawing us to yourself through Jesus in the Spirit. Grant us the grace to toss aside anything that distracts us from Christ, and to embrace all that he is for us. Let us abide in Christ as he abides in us, that we might produce abundant fruit that will glorify you, through Jesus and by your Spirit. Amen.
“Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” John 15:4–5 (1–8) NASB
“No one has seen God at any time; if we love one another, God abides in us, and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit. We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. We have come to know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.” 1 John 4:12–16 (7–21) NASB
The Fruitful Seed
By Linda Rex
July 12, 2020, PROPER 10—Incarnational Trinitarian theology is the basis of what we preach at Grace Communion Nashville. Our understanding of who God is and what he has done for us in Christ begins with seeing the truth Jesus taught us of how God lives eternally as three persons in one being. It is out of this communion of overflowing love God created all things, and specifically the human race to be image-bearers of him.
Knowing humans would turn away from face to face relationship with God, he determined before time began to send the living Word, the Son of God, to take on human flesh and bring us into inseparable union with the Father and Son in the Spirit. In the fullness of time, the Word came in the person of Jesus Christ, living our life, dying our death in the crucifixion, and rising from the grave. In the ascension, he brought our glorified humanity into the presence of the Father, and in sending the Spirit, offers this new life to each and every human being.
It is this point that so many have difficulty with. For in their minds, this is universalism. But the truth is that God gave each human being an amazing and beautiful gift when he created them—freedom—the freedom to love him or reject him, to obey him or rebel against him. This freedom that is a divine attribute is always meant to be kept within the bounds of divine love, but as human beings we have the capacity to move beyond those bounds into areas which are not a part of the light of life and which bring us into darkness.
When the seed, the living Word Jesus Christ, was planted in our humanity, we were given the capacity to participate in the divine life and love. The seed of the kingdom life has been planted in our humanity in that Christ’s objective union of humanity with the Triune God is a spiritual reality. And in the pouring out of the Spirit on all flesh which Peter describes in Acts 2 we find that this new life is available to each and every person. In this way the seed, the living Word, has been sown all over the field in every part of it, no matter the condition of the ground or what may be growing there.
The reality is that Jesus, the living Word, is a seed which when planted has within itself the power for new life. There is an inherent fruitfulness in the Spirit as he comes to us to germinate the seed of the Word of God which is to be planted in human hearts. The issue with failing to bear fruit is not a problem with the seed, for in Christ and in the Spirit is life everlasting. The issue is with our human response to the living Word of God, the growing conditions in which the seed is placed and is germinated.
Our failure to respond properly does not earn us some divine retribution in the parable of the sower, but rather creates consequences which impact our participation in the divine life and love and our bearing of spiritual fruit. What we learn in this parable is that our response to the living Word impacts whether or not we experience the joys and benefits of the kingdom of God and how much spiritual fruit we produce.
The four different responses to the planting of the seed embrace the whole human race. On God’s side, he has been very generous with the planting of the Word of God, having made this new life available to every human being. On our side, we can live our life in a variety of ways, each of which produces a different result, but which is the consequence of our own personal free choice as to what we do with Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God he offers us.
Jesus began this parable with the seed sown by the side of the road. This seed which has such potential for fruitfulness lays on top of the well-trod ground and the birds eat it up. The living Word speaks to us by the Spirit and calls us to himself, but there are may other voices in this world which speak more loudly to us—our family, our friends, our culture, our religion, our government, our suffering. The pains and twistings from our past may also inhibit our ability to hear the Word and respond in faith. And so the seed can never produce the fruit it is meant to, since it never is able to germinate fully.
What we know today is that birds eating and expelling seeds is one way they are carried from place to place and are given the opportunity for sprouting in a new location. We may find that it is after many encounters with Christ over our lifetime, when previously the evil one stole away the seed which was being planted in our hearts, that eventually the seed lands in a place where it can begin to grow. As long as the seed is taken way by the lies, distortions, and confusion of the evil one, it cannot bear the fruit it was meant to bear. It needs fertile ground to sink its roots deeply into in order to grow.
Jesus then talked about seed sown on rocky soil—seed which sprouts but has nowhere for its roots to go. When the sun comes out, its roots are exposed and quickly dry up. In our modern world, the proclamation of the gospel reaches into nearly every corner of the world. The announcement that God loves us and this has been expressed to us in the gift of his Son Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension can be heard in a wide variety of ways and media. The living Word may be experienced by people in a meal, a casual conversation, a good deed, or a radio program. People may experience Christ in the beauty of God’s creation, hearing the whispers of the Spirit telling them the truth about who they are and who God is.
There are many ways in which Jesus touches people with the truth that he loves them and wants them to trust in him, to live life in intimate relationship with him. But this good news doesn’t really penetrate deeply into their hearts. Like seed on a rocky soil, even the watering of the Spirit cannot get the roots down any farther than the surface, for the hardest heart has no room for the love and grace of God in Christ. There is no living space available for the indwelling Spirit to settle down into. When difficulties or troubles come, the Word is abandoned for other solutions or addictions and so it cannot bear fruit.
Seed which grew among thorns was next on Jesus’ list. Perhaps last year’s thistles weren’t dug completely up and started growing about the same time as the seed. Here Jesus points out how the worries of everyday life and the subtle deceitfulness of wealth choke the living Word so that no fruit is born. Note that the seed has germinated and is attempting to produce fruit. But there are other things which wrap themselves around the new life and prohibit its ability to flower and produce fruit.
Pay attention to the reality that the living Word is the seed which is fruitful—our problem is with the environment the seed is set in, not the seed itself. The seed when planted, grows and produces fruit. Unfortunately, though, when we embrace Christ, we often embrace other things as well. We draw our life from the temporary things of this life rather than finding our real life solely in Jesus Christ himself.
One of the reasons we as the western Christian church today are so ineffective as spiritual fruit bearers may be because of our obsession with financial and material success. The opportunity for us to bear spiritual fruit is inhibited so often by the many distractions of modern life and our concerns about things we should be turning to Jesus with rather than trying to solve ourselves. And our comfort and safety tend to become more important than the need to right injustices and endure hardship for the sake of the gospel.
Jesus finishes his parable with a description of the seed which falls on good soil—the seed finding root in a person who allows the Word of God to sink deeply into their soul, the roots to penetrate every part of their life. They understand and are being transformed by this gift of new life in Christ. The fruit which is born is unique to each person, since we are each unique in our relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ and in how we participate in him in what he is doing in us and in our world. Fruitfulness is not something we do, but is solely a result of our life in Jesus by the Spirit—his life in us produces fruit as we abide in him.
The spiritual reality of the gift of new life in Jesus Christ, the one who is the seed planted within our humanity germinated by the water of the indwelling Spirit, is one we embrace by faith. Our part in the whole process of fruit-bearing (and the Father is seeking such fruitfulness) is participating in Jesus Christ—trusting in his finished work, participating with him in what he is doing in us and in this world as we walk in the Spirit and not in our flesh. By faith in Christ, this is life in communion and union with the Triune God as the adopted children of the Father, now and forever held in his life and love.
If we were to reflect today on the living Word of God as the seed planted, watered by the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, what spiritual fruit would we see in our lives? How well are the roots of the living Word sunk into every part of our life and being? How well are we nurturing the spiritual growth which is occurring in our life? Is there anything which is choking the Word or distracting us from what he is trying to do? Be encouraged—the seed will grow, fruit will be born. But it’s good to ask ourselves each day, how well are we participating in the process?
Dear God, thank you for the Seed you have planted in our humanity, the new life which is ours in your Son Jesus Christ. Create in us the fertile ground by which we might grow fully into Christlikeness. Grant us the grace to turn away from all the things which distract us, choke our spiritual life, and inhibit our bearing of spiritual fruit. We thank you that you will finish what you have begun in us through Jesus our Lord and by your Spirit. Amen.
“That day Jesus went out of the house and was sitting by the sea. And large crowds gathered to Him, so He got into a boat and sat down, and the whole crowd was standing on the beach. And He spoke many things to them in parables, saying, ‘Behold, the sower went out to sow; and as he sowed, some seeds fell beside the road, and the birds came and ate them up. Others fell on the rocky places, where they did not have much soil; and immediately they sprang up, because they had no depth of soil. But when the sun had risen, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. Others fell among the thorns, and the thorns came up and choked them out. And others fell on the good soil and yielded a crop, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.’” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 NASB