Much of the modern debate on how one obtains spiritual growth or how one finds oneself has led to the modern heresy of thinking of faith in individualistic terms as opposed to community. We must remember that to follow Jesus Christ is a call to be a part of the Body of Christ.
Peter challenged us in his letter saying, "Once you were no people but now you are God's people." We have the image at Pentecost of the disciples standing with Peter as he preached. And today's Gospel brings us a powerful image of the vine and the branches. The branches can only exist or bear fruit if they are connected through the vine. G.K. Chesterton wrote, "A man can no more possess a private religion than he can possess a private sun or moon."
In being centered on self, too many times we no longer draw from the vine to produce but seek ways to be comforted. The danger is instead of looking how we can be a part of the body, how we can bear fruit, we look for what fills my needs, the danger of seeing the church as existing for its members instead of its members existing to serve the world. We think too much like consumers, putting self first.
The church is not a theme park. We must confront the danger of rating everything in terms of entertainment value. The measure of worship is not What did I enjoy? or even What did I experience? but What was I inspired to seek and do? The measure of stewardship is not What did I receive for my gift or time? but rather What did I do for others?-even the least of these my sisters and brothers.
Did you ever hear of the sign in West Texas that boasts "Horses for Everyone"? In small print it reads, "For skinny people we have skinny horses, for fat people we have fat horses, for disabled people we have disabled horses, for people who have never ridden horses, we have horses that have never been ridden." The risk is in losing our source of power and peace from Christ by trying to make everything fit the individual.
The true measure of church is not market share. A recent article in the local newspaper here in Atlanta about megachurches spoke of trying to fit the Gospel to fit the culture around us. One example was to build a church building that looked more like an office building than a sanctuary to make the newcomer more comfortable in coming to church. While we have to find ways to challenge the non-churchgoer to come to church, I do not believe that it is by changing the demands and expectations of the Gospel. There is danger of living by the philosophy of giving the customer what they want. Jesus in our Gospel challenges us, "Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself until it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me."
When the church loses the vision to make disciples for Jesus Christ, we stop bearing the fruit of the vine and turn inward and cease to be the church God is calling for us to be. Dwight L. Moody once said, "Most people talk of cream but live on skim milk." Be honest. We sing about what a friend we have in Jesus but live as if we're friendless. We sing about leaning on the everlasting arms but feel we are about to fall apart. We sing about being with him in the garden but live as if we're alone. If we really believe Jesus is with us and us with him, we can pass through the valley, face up to our enemies and feel secure. We can live this way because we know we're a part of his body and his people. We can live this way because he abides in us. His promise that we might abide in him and he in us assures us that we do not have to be alone.
A young father was struggling the day of his wife's funeral, trying to put his son to bed. Both were numb with sorrow. The little boy asked, "Daddy, where is Mommy?" He tried to answer the question, but the little boy kept asking, "Where is Mommy? When is she coming back?" After a lot of attempts to satisfy his son, the father picked up the little boy and put him in his own bed. Finally, the little boy reached out his hand through the darkness and placed it on his father's face, asking, "Daddy, is your face toward me?" Given assurance, he said, "If your face is toward me, I think I can go to sleep." The father lay beside the young son and prayed, "O God, the way is dark and I do not see my way through right now, but if your face is toward me, somehow I think I can make it."
That is what it means to know that we can abide in him and he in us. This awareness transforms the very fellowship of the church. With his power as the vine, we the branches are joined together. We are one in his love.
William Barclay, the Scottish Bible scholar, wrote, "Love is the binding power which holds the whole Christian body together. The tendency of any body of people is sooner or later to fly apart; and love is the one bond that will hold them together in unbreakable fellowship."
When we know that we're not alone, what does this mean for how we live? For one thing, to believe we're a part of the ministry of Jesus and live in his love gives each of us a new way of living. What seemed impossible with our own limited strength and vision is now possible through his mercy and grace and the love and care of those joined with us in the body of Christ.
Sheila Cassidy in Audacity to Believe tells of being arrested in Chile on trumped up charges after treating a wounded revolutionary. She was arrested and held without trial, held in a detention camp. She was finally found guilty of a minor infraction but still held. She was given by a doctor a copy of the New Testament. Leafing through it, she came to that passage in Romans where Paul asks, "Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword? No. In all of these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Sheila writes, "Incredibly, in the midst of fear and loneliness, I was filled with joy, for I knew without any vestige of doubt that God was with me, and that nothing they could do would change that."
Martin Luther King Jr. in The Strength to Love tells of a particular tension packed week that included arrest and threats on his life. He spoke at a mass meeting which at the end of the meeting a woman came to him in front of the church and said, "Something is wrong with you. You didn't talk strong tonight." "Oh, nothing is wrong," replied King. "Now, you can't fool me. I done told you. We are with you all the way. And even if we ain't with you, God's gonna take care of you."
King writes that through many hard times that followed those words-that very thought that God's gonna take care of you-kept coming back to him and giving him power to endure. The challenge is to give that power to ourselves-to bear the fruit that our Gospel spoke of. For Christ calls us for a purpose. The invitation to abide is not self-serving. It is not to be free of the world but to be free to be in the world. It is not to be rewarded, but to be able to contribute. To truly believe in Christ calls for us to bear fruit. It is then that we get past the idea of control and are able to share. It is then we begin to realize what it means to abide in his presence.
Scott Peck, writing in The Different Drum, tells a story called "The Rabbi's Gift." A monastery had fallen on hard times. There were only five monks left. In desperation, the Abbot went to a neighboring rabbi for advice. The rabbi said, "I have no advice to give you really. The only thing I can tell is that one of you could well be the Messiah." The abbot brought this thought back, but he said he really didn't know what to make of it. In the months that followed, they pondered the thought. Without realizing, they began to treat each other differently. There was a new sense of love and respect. Others were attracted to their order. The monastery took on new life. It makes a difference in our relationship with others who follow Christ when we see that he abides in them as within us.
You might ask, "Did I hear that verse right? I will get whatever I wish?" Yes, if you abide in him. It will radically change who you are and what you wish for. Our faith is based on the depth of his love, the promise of his presence, the knowledge we're not alone. Not only not alone in the sense that we have each other but, more importantly, that each of us and all of us abide in him. Thus, we can give to the world with great strength as we draw from his power and presence.
Our value is in being a part of the vine that is the body of Christ. The wood of the branch is useless. Ezekiel pointed out that one cannot even make a tent peg out of it. The fire it would create is of no value. The branch is useless unless it bears fruit.
Be honest. We all long for a sense of belonging, a place. And to find that place to belong is particularly hard in a transient culture such as we live in. Most of us moved to where we are from somewhere else, and if we went home, we would discover that much of it has moved too. To be a part of the church becomes the place where we can be rooted, where we can feel a part.
The giant sequoia tree can measure hundreds of feet in height and 10 or more feet in girth and thousands of years in age, yet sequoias have very shallow root systems. The way they withstand the winds and stress of so many years is they intertwine their roots with others, thus drawing their strength from each other. The challenge is to practice what we preach.
Sharon Welsh in her book on community said, "The failure of Christianity is not a failure of intellectual understanding but a failure to establish in place its vision of human community. This we do when we abide in him and he in us. We must be open to his guidance.
William Eassum in Dancing with Dinosaurs points out that to abide in Christ, the church must be willing to be cut and pruned by Christ. Sometimes a congregation's most painful moments are, in the long run, times when it is driven closest to God. Eassum quotes Leif Anderson, who studies churches in transition: "Adversity is often the window of opportunity for change. Few people or organizations want to change when there is prosperity and peace. Major changes are often precipitated by necessity."
When we abide in Christ, we find the strength of community. On this day that America celebrates Mother's Day, let us remember how Luther called the home the small church, for it is in the home that we first learn of the need to be a part of something more than self. We learn of love by the love we're given. We celebrate this fact today. We celebrate that God intended for us to live in the caring community of family.
We are called to the faith to be a part of a larger community, a family created by those who abide in Christ. Joined together by our shared love for him, challenged together to bear fruit for that love in the world, we are connected together in and through him.
Let us pray.
O God, we thank you for those who gave us life this day, and we pray that you shall help us return that gift by the way we live and love as you have loved us. Amen.