Speaking Of Life 3023 | Plugged In Michelle Fleming The worst power outage in US history happened on August 14, 2003. It’s called the Northeast Blackout of 2003, and it affected 45 million people in eight states from Ohio to Connecticut. Though it lasted just a little over a day, much of the affected area was in the middle of a heatwave, which meant no air conditioning or fans. For people stuck in New York subways when the power went out, it took two hours to safely evacuate them. The same was true for people who were stranded mid-ride on roller coasters at amusement parks. Water service was also affected because the water pumps were electric. It's when we experience a power outage that we realize how much we rely on electricity to live and work, how much we need a strong connection to have a consistent flow. Otherwise, we experience what people in the Northeast Blackout faced: discomfort, delays, and loss. When we think about our connection with God, we might see some similarities. We need a strong connection with God to experience the reality of how deeply we are loved, and how that love--like electricity--flows through us to others. The apostle John writes in 1 John 4 that God is love and that the love we have for others comes from God. Here’s what else he says: Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; [but] if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us… We love because he first loved us. I John 4: 11-12, 19 (NRSV) His love--like electricity--flows from him, through us, and to others. It’s his love that we share with others. That’s why the connection to God is so important. John also talks about when that connection feels weak, or when we choose to prioritize other connections over our connection with God. That’s when fear creeps in, and we doubt God’s love for us: There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. I John 4:18 (NRSV) God loves us and doesn’t stop loving us. We experience blackouts when we doubt God’s love for us, we start to look for connections elsewhere, weakening our experience of our connection with him. When we don’t feel loved, we don’t have love to pass on to others. Just like the Northeast Blackout, there’s discomfort, delay, and loss. Power outages can happen due to weather events and human error. But our connection to God is never in jeopardy. Fear in our hearts can weaken our ability to let God’s love flow through us, but the connection will never let go. His lavish love is readily available to us, whenever we turn toward him. May you know and abide in the understanding that you are held and deeply loved by the Father, Son, and Spirit. I’m Michelle Fleming, Speaking of Life. For reference: https://www.cbsnews.com/news/biggest-blackout-in-us-history/
Psalm 22:25-31 · Acts 8:26-40 · 1 John 4:7-21 · John 15:1-8
The theme for this week is Connected to God, which emphasizes how we are already connected without doing anything based on our inclusion in Jesus Christ. The call to worship Psalm talks about our dependence on God and offers praise for God’s faithful presence. Acts 8 tells the story of Philip baptizing the eunuch, affirming his connection with God. John’s letter expands on the interrelated ideas of love and abiding connection. We draw our sermon from the Gospel of John, which helps us understand that the idea of abiding doesn’t require us to do something, but it does require us to live the abundant truth of who God says we are in Christ.
John 15:1-8 NRSV
Does anyone know what the Italian word “abbondanza” means? Can you guess? [Ask for guesses.] I see something like the word “dance” in it; what do you see?
Before you grab your phone and type it into Google Translate, it means “abundance” in Italian. Don’t you like how that word rolls off your tongue? Say it with me: abbondanza. Can you picture the lush vineyards in Italy (even if you’ve never been there)? Do you see a table laden with all kinds of grapes, cheese, wine, and delicious pasta dishes? That makes me think of the word “abundance.”
Jesus told his followers (and that includes us), that his goal for us is to bear fruit—today’s passage says, “bear more fruit.” I believe this ties in with an earlier statement Jesus made about us having an abundant life (John 10:10). Do you feel like you’re living an abundant life? I think we all go through difficult periods when we feel short on time, on money, on patience, on everything. If you are like me, you’re wondering, “Where is this abundant life where I am bearing more fruit? How do I get there?” Our sermon text John 15:1-8 has two big ideas—“bearing fruit” and “abiding,”—and these ideas can help us understand what Jesus meant when he said we could have life more abundantly. Let’s take a look:
Read John 15:1-8 NRSV
What can we observe about the text?
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (John 15:1-3 NRSV)
Jesus begins with a metaphor. The Father is the vineyard keeper, and Jesus is the vine. As we go on, there is some wordplay among the words for “prune” and “removes” in verse 2, and “cleansed” in verse 3. The root verb for both prune and remove is the same and is related to the word used for clean/cleansed. The idea of pruning/removing doesn’t mean God kicks anybody out. It means “making clean.” The same word used for “clean” appears in John 13:10-11 at the Last Supper, where Jesus says to the disciples that “not all of you are clean.” In verse 3, Jesus says that the disciples (and believers like us) are already cleansed, and the idea in verse 2 is that God the vineyard keeper continues cleansing us by his love with the goal of making us stronger and more fruitful.
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. (John 15:4 NRSV)
Jesus says to abide in him as he abides in us. Too often we interpret this as something we have to do, rather than thinking of it as something we are. We know that we are completely forgiven, loved, accepted, and included in the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relationship because of Jesus—the way he lived a life of love and complete connection to the Father even when humanity’s hate demanded that he die. And he did it, so that hate and death would be put to death once and for all. What if abiding in Jesus means living in who we are in God—completely forgiven, loved, accepted, and included? He abides in us, so there’s nothing we need to do to get him to abide in us more, other than abide in knowing that we are who he says we are. We live knowing that he is with us, and we are with him. This enables us to bear much fruit, this leads to a life that is abundant.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5 NRSV)
Here’s an “I am” statement. Jesus declares himself to be the vine; we are the branches of that vine. Apart from him, it says, we can’t do anything. Most of the time, I hear this interpreted as “without staying close to Jesus, we can’t produce any good fruit.” But have you considered this also means that there is no way we can escape our connection to him? Branches are connected to the vine. Apart from him, we would cease to exist. “In him we live and move and have our being” is how Paul described our relationship with Jesus, sharing a quote from a poet (see Acts 17:28). Jesus abides in us, and as we learn to live in the light of who God says we are, we experience that abundant abiding and fruit-bearing Jesus talked about.
Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:7 NRSV)
This verse can be problematic because it seems to contradict what we know to be true about God. God doesn’t throw anyone away. No one is a hopeless case. If we view God as a harsh judge, we might think that as vineyard gardener, he’s chopping off branches all the time. While most gardeners will know this is what vinedressers do every year, as part of their routine to get rid of unhealthy branches and shoots, we also know God’s will is that none should perish (1 Peter 3:9). So we realize this metaphor breaks down, as all metaphors do, when we talk about God’s work with people. His goal is the opposite of cutting us off to perish. What is the answer? To stay connected to the vine.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:7-8 NRSV)
As we rest in the truth of who we are, our prayers become different. They become more in tune with what God is doing in a particular situation. Jesus himself prayed in the garden, “yet not what I want but what you want” (Matt. 26:39, NRSV). As we get used to being confident of who we are in Christ, and that God loves us so much that he sent Christ to die for us even when we were his enemies, the way we live and pray aligns with that truth, and as this happens, we “bear much fruit.” Abundant life comes from embracing the truth of who we are in Jesus Christ.
- Recognize that we are inextricably connected to Jesus because of his death, resurrection, and ascension, and as a result, we are part of a dynamic relationship with the Father, Son, and Spirit. With Jesus as our vine and God the Father as our vineyard gardener, we never need to worry that “we aren’t growing enough.” This does not mean that we don’t care, but it means that we don’t worry. If we are fearful, then we do need to grow.
- Participate in abundance by resting in the truth of who we are in Jesus and then letting our actions come from that same truth. When we believe we are loved and valued for who we are, we treat others differently. We look for ways to collaborate and bless others, and we realize that every decision we make must spring from love, first and foremost.
Staying connected to the vine enables us to bear fruit—much fruit—leading us to that abundant life. It begins with knowing our identity—our birthright—when it comes to our relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The vineyard gardener and the vine himself are determined that we should grow into fullness, knowing the truth of who we are and living the abundant way of that truth.
Small Group Discussion Questions
- In the “Speaking of Life” video, it discusses how being without power leaves us unable to function in a number of ways, both spiritually and physically. We all go through periods of spiritual dryness where we feel as if God is far off, even while knowing the truth that God has never moved from our side. How have you rekindled the spark of re-engaging with God when you’ve gone through a low period?
- The sermon discussed the truth of who we are in Jesus. Let’s list some truths of who we are in Jesus. How do the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit view humanity?
- Many have viewed the word “abide” as something we must actively do, but the sermon redefines it as more of a lens through which we view ourselves and the world. If we look at the list of truths we made in the previous question, how do they inform the decisions we make? For example, if one of the truths of who we are in Jesus is that we’re valuable no matter what we can do, how does that truth inform the way we treat someone who is disabled?
- Thinking again about the list of truths we made to answer a previous question, how does embracing these truths influence the way we pray? For example, if one of our truths is that we are never outside the presence of God and that God is always with us, even when we don’t feel it, how does this truth inform our prayers when we feel alone or lonely?