In July 1969 Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became the first people to walk on the moon. Buzz Aldrin marked the occasion by taking Communion and he read from John 15:5 ‘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.’
Today is the second Sunday of Epiphany. Epiphany means a sudden or striking realisation or revelation. The realisation for Buzz Aldrin, as he explained a year after the mission, was that taking Communion on the moon symbolised the thought that God was revealing himself there too as humanity reached out into the universe. And he chose to read these words from John 15 to indicate that, as humanity probed into space, they were in fact acting in Christ. Aldrin was a committed Christian before he went to the moon. Two others felt the tug of faith on their return from the space mission. Jim Irwin, for example, of Apollo 15 felt the presence of God during his 67 hours on the moon surface. ‘Before the flight,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t really a religious man. I believed in God but I really had nothing to share. When I came back from the moon I felt so strongly that I had something that I wanted to share with others that I established High Flight in order to tell everyone everywhere that God is alive not only on earth but also on the moon.’ And he went on to say, ‘the hours I spent on the moon were the most thrilling of my life not because I was there but because I could feel the presence of God.’ Because of the profound experience of God on the moon Irwin wanted help lift humanity to the highest flight in life.
Because of Jesus and as we are ‘in Christ,’ we are lifted to the highest flight in life. Not literally travelling in space or walking in the moon but as Christ lives his life in and through us by his Spirit; Ephesians 2:6-7: ‘God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.’ Tony Horshall, in his book Rhythms of Grace: Finding intimacy with God in a busy life, suggests that ‘Christians, above all, should be concerned to make their lives count, to live ‘on purpose.’ Eugene Peterson in his book Running with the Horses opens with the line, ‘the puzzle is why so many people live so badly, not so wickedly, but so inanely.’ The Apostle Peter in his first letter wrote of that which he is most grateful to God for, ‘to be saved from an empty and wasted way of life’ (1 Peter 1:18). As Eugene Peterson’s translation, The Message, puts it ‘your life is a journey you must travel with a deep consciousness of God. It cost God plenty to get you out of that dead-end, empty headed life you grew up in.’ Jesus made it clear God wants our lives to bear fruit for him. As Christians, we are to live fruitful lives.
Last week Jim expounded our Motto text for this year – Genesis 49:22 about Joseph being ‘a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring, whose branches climb over the wall.’ He applied it to us all; we are to be a fruitful vine, near a spring, whose branches climb over the wall. Such a fruitful vine is one that is strong, well-rooted, vigorous and healthy stock. We are to bear fruit for God; the fruit of a changed life; the fruit of a Christlike character; and the fruit of others won for Jesus. This week is the follow up to last Sunday (Part 2), as we look at possibly one of the best known parables of Jesus about the vine and its branches from John 15.
Vine imagery is used a lot in Scripture. Not only were there vines all over Israel that needed a lot of care and attention and looking after them was a common means of livelihood, but it was also the national symbol of Israel. But Jesus applied the metaphor of vine and branches to himself. Jesus is the vine. Not Israel. He alone is the source of divine life. God the Father is the gardener or vine-dresser who tends the vine. The branches of the vine are Jesus’ followers, true disciples, as we are grafted into Christ, the vine itself. Jesus’ aim of this parable is to explain the purpose of Christian living and shows us how we can the Christian life successfully.
The role of the vine-keeper is vitally important because the whole purpose of a vine is to produce grapes. The only thing fit for a vine that bears no fruit is to lob it off and burn the unproductive branches. Our loving heavenly Father cuts away at the things that make us unfruitful – sin, self-centred living, dogged independence and disobedience – trimming us back so we grow stronger and spiritually healthy for greater fruitfulness. We need to submit to his pruning. Sometimes things (even people?) have to be cut out of our lives if they are damaging us and it can feel painful at times. But as Charles Elliot put it ‘a spirituality that refuses to acknowledge the winter of the heart, the great sorrowfulness of human experience, is not only refusing to take seriously the life that people actually lead: it is in danger encouraging too much leaf and too little fruit.’ The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Philippi: ‘whatever was to my prophet I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish but I may gain Christ and be found in him (Philippians 3:7,8).
If we are going to live a fruitful life, we need to remain in him (John 15:4,5). It is only as we abide, dwell, make our home in Jesus and he makes his home in us that we can live a fruitful life. There is a lot in John 15 that gives us the ‘how’ of remaining in Christ – nurturing our personal relationship with Jesus, obeying his commands, walking in love, submission and obedience. This is about personal discipleship; about applying ourselves intentionally, ‘on purpose’ to growing closer to Christ and deepening our connection to God. The key step in this process of nurturing the spiritual life is receptivity; putting ourselves in a posture of openness to the movement of the Spirit; deliberately deciding to say “yes” to God; cooperating with the Holy Spirit in developing those patterns of life that help us become what God would have us become; not settling for less than God’s best but truly living life to the full for God.
Are we flying high for God? Are we doing our utmost and highest for Christ? Or are we settling for mediocrity? To remain in Christ is not about us working harder. Bearing fruit is to be done naturally, patiently, organically as we spend quality time with Jesus, in prayer, in bible study sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit, centring our lives on him, giving him our full attention. Like the branches of a vine allowing the sap of divine life to flow in and through us. We need to ‘exercise the discipline of stopping,’ by being still in his presence, in silence and solitude. As Robert Murray McCheyne asserted, ‘what a [person] on is their knees before God that [they] are and nothing else.’
‘If you were to ask a branch on a grapevine, ‘how do you grow such luscious fruit?’ The branch would probably reply, ‘I don’t know. I don’t grow any of it; I just bear it. Cut me off from this vine and I will wither away and become useless.’ Without the vine, the branch can do nothing. Without Jesus at the very centre of our lives, we can do nothing of any real and eternal worth or bear fruit that will last.