Sermon for May 9, 2021

Video Transcript

Speaking Of Life 3024 | The Divine Irony Greg Williams No other writer in the New Testament uses metaphors of combat and conquering more than the gentle Apostle John. Notice this passage: For whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?  I John 5:4-5 (NRSV) After reading about the conquests you can almost hear a chorus from the rock band Queen singing - “We are the champions, no time for losers, because we are the champions of the world.”  These kinds of words—conquer, overcome—hit our modern ears in a strange way when applied to Jesus. Normally, the words love, forgiveness, and gentleness come to mind when we think of him. We think of Jesus as the great comforter and healer, and redeemer, before we think of him as a conquering King.   Add to that, in the modern dialogue, the trend is toward celebrating all worldviews and faiths as if they are all equally valid and equally coherent. But the Christian calling is different—Jesus isn’t one savior among many, he isn’t just another dish at the smorgasbord of philosophy and religion. He is king! He is conqueror! And he is the supreme revelation of God.   And while he is the supreme example of love, he is also the source and end of logic, wisdom, and philosophy. The universe without him doesn’t exist, Paul said when he reminded us that Jesus is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:17)  As Christians, we hold that there is one answer for the human condition and one response to the ultimate question: Jesus. The same Jesus who conquered the world by love.   In a world where strength and ruthlessness seemed to be what got you ahead, Jesus came to change the equation. The great irony of Christ was that he conquered by surrendering; he was declared king through forgiveness.   And he has conquered all--and that’s why we are committed to the exclusive truth of the gospel and we accept the challenge of how to convey this truth with grace and love to those outside of conscious faith.   The fact is that all roads don’t lead to Rome and all world views are not different ways up the same mountain. The center of reality is not a round table, it’s a heavenly throne room where Father, Son and Spirit eternally dwell, and one day all crowns will be laid at the feet of Jesus.  Queen almost had it right - “We are the champions, but only because Jesus is the Real Champion!”  I’m Greg Williams, Speaking of Life.     

Psalm 98:1-9 · Acts 10:44-48 · 1 John 5:1-6 · John 15:9-17

The theme for this week is the loving authority of Jesus. The call to worship Psalm describes the cosmic authority of the Lord over every creature and all the earth. Acts 10 shows us the universal authority of Jesus, bringing Jews and Gentiles together as the movement started. 1 John 5 tells us about how Jesus “conquered the world” through love, demolishing the old structures of power and authority. In John 15, which we use for the message, Jesus makes the radical choice to graft himself into the human story forever, using his authority to take on a position of helplessness in death.

The Radical Choice of Jesus

John 15:9-17 ESV

Have you ever grown something yourself? A garden or a houseplant? You get your potting soil; you get a special pot picked out with just the right colors. Or you work on that square in the backyard in the hot sun. You put the seeds in, and you wait.

Add an anecdote here about gardening or planting or have a discussion with your congregation. Remember, the funnier stories the better—the Styrofoam cup with the seed in kindergarten, the time you accidentally dug up grandpa’s rose garden, etc.

Somehow, between water, sunshine, fertilizer, and the power of life, a shoot breaks through the ground one morning. Soon enough, that small shoot grows branches and leaves and eventually becomes a full-fledged plant.

Even the most experienced farmer will tell you there’s an X factor here—there’s always a bit of doubt that maybe the seeds won’t sprout this year. There’s always a small catch of breath when, once again, the brilliant green breaks through plain old soil.

It’s this X factor, this connection, that Jesus describes in John 15. Let’s read the passage:

Read John 15:9-17

Just prior to this passage, Jesus introduced himself as the “true vine” and his followers as his branches who will bear fruit. That connection is an indecipherable mix that experienced Christians rely on. We know it is Christ’s power in and through us, and yet we present ourselves every day and take up our cross. In short, we “abide.”

Just as the plant’s metabolism works somehow to make dirt, sunlight and rainwater into corn, so God works with us to bring forth fruit, sometimes more than we could ever imagine. A small, drab-colored seed goes into the ground and becomes a glorious tree. So God works through the small, drab-colored group of people he calls the church to bear fruit in the world.

In this passage and right before it, Jesus uses two important words to describe us, and that’s what we’ll look at today.

Jesus calls us:

  • Branches
  • Friends

Branches

 I am the vine; you are the branches. (John 15:5 ESV)

When looking at John 15, you have to pay close attention to the details of the wording. First, this is one of the powerful “I AM” statements of Jesus, along with I am the good shepherd, I am the way, the truth, the life, and several others.

The vine was an important symbol of Israel, used throughout the Old Testament to describe God’s blessing through them to the world. In the brief Jewish independence after Christ, 68-70 AD, Jewish coins were minted with a picture of a vine on them. This was imagery deep within the Jewish consciousness.

So for Jesus to say “I am the vine” was phrasing rich in symbolism. Jesus was saying, as he did in so many other places, that he was the true Israel-in-person and that God’s purposes for Israel found their completion in him.

Chapters 14-17 of John, called the “farewell discourse” of Jesus, is his last prolonged dialogue before his death. Here he reveals more theology verbally than anywhere else—most of the time he reveals it by action and miracle. But here he is essentially giving us all a peak at the blueprints, a nose behind the curtain, a glimpse of the map.

So he calls himself the vine and us the branches, and he uses a certain word over and over again: abide.

He uses this word 11 times in this chapter in John. It’s a word that means to stay, to not become separate, to be held, kept continually. As one theologian said it, “not the holding of a position but an allowing oneself to be held.”

Abiding is an action and yet somehow something that happens to you. It’s holding on and letting go at the same time. It’s like the strange X-factor of the measly seed that somehow becomes a colossal sequoia tree.

Action words like this make us Protestants, especially in the evangelical tradition, a little nervous. Is Jesus talking about us “earning” God’s love? Somehow meriting his favor or blessing and staying in his good graces? Didn’t Jesus take care of that? Absolutely, consider this:

Our identity is set by Christ even before we become a Christian—we can’t change that fact; we can’t make God go back on his promise. It’s after this that we get down to the work of abiding, of allowing ourselves to be held.

To abide is to live in our destiny as Christ-followers. Our destiny isn’t just a far-off “I’ll fly away” reality for when we die, but it is the daily activity of “being held” by Christ. It is abiding in his strength and love as we go about life.

Think of a down-to-earth example: getting along with a difficult co-worker. It’s something we’ve all faced before. You’ve tried avoiding them—impossible. You’ve tried blowing off steam by gossiping about this person at happy hour—diminishing returns. You’ve tried confronting them—deaf ears.

And so you approach the situation with prayer. You approach it asking Jesus to let you see this person and these circumstances through his eyes, setting your mind to “abide” in the Lord who loves and pursues that person. You approach with forgiveness and the knowledge that the resources to “win” the situation are beyond your grasp.

Will this magically make this person less annoying? Probably not. Will he/she continue to eat the labeled yogurt in the shared fridge and get their work in past deadline? Probably. But the change will come to you. You’ll find yourself with more patience, more peace and more centeredness in this situation. You’ll find yourself seeing this situation, and more importantly this person, as Jesus does and always has.

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide. (John 15:16 ESV)

This is that work of bearing fruit. Maybe it’s not dramatic, but in a world of increasing negativity and dog-eat-dog cynicism, the small fruit of kindness can be like an oasis. Add up these small fruits over time and the harvest is rich.

You are not trying to please God by your works—you are joining him in his work.

Friends

You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15 ESV)

C.S. Lewis described philia, or friendship love:

Hence (if you will not misunderstand me) the exquisite arbitrariness and irresponsibility of this love. I have no duty to be anyone’s Friend and no man in the world has a duty to be mine. No claims, no shadow of necessity. Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself…. It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

This “exquisite irresponsibility” is unique to friendship in relationships. Children have a physical need for their parents and their parents a duty to them. Business partners have a relationship that helps them both make money. Lovers are united by physical attraction and procreation.

Friends, well, they’re just friends. They either meet as peers or there is a peer element to the relationship. There’s more choice involved in friendship than any other relationship.

The theme of friendship in the Gospel of John is very strong—all the way through to the end where Jesus asks Peter, “Do you philia me?” (21:17). John is fixated on friend love—philia, in the Greek. And we see that here.

Slavery or servanthood was a tragic part of daily life in the ancient world. These people had no knowledge of the master’s plans because they were machines used for a certain purpose; they are rarely informed why.

And here is Jesus informing his disciples in this long dialogue of how it all works. He’s showing them how he relates to the Father and how they now relate to him. He has called them friends.

He then expands the depth of this friendship with one of the most famous lines:

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13 ESV)

Look at the theme of friendship here. Laying your life down for your friends. You would lay your life down for your kids or for your spouse—that’s family. You’d lay your life down for your country—that’s patriotism. But laying down your life for your friends—for those who should be able to defend themselves and don’t “need” you in the physical sense—this is a choice that goes beyond social expectations. As Jesus said earlier:

For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. (John 10:17-18 ESV)

Jesus chooses to do this, to lay down his life for his friends. He lays down his life for those he doesn’t need, for those he’s not depending on in any way, for those who might not even recognize or appreciate what he has done.

This is his radical choice: to have branches grafted into him that will hurt him and drain him; to reach out to friends that may never reach back. To write himself into the chaotic patchwork of the human story.

And so he calls us branches…

What does it mean to abide? It means to fully embrace the identity you’ve been given in Christ. This means worshipping, meditating, and praying; it also means serving, obeying and being part of the kingdom breaking into the world.

The kids’ song “Read your Bible, pray every day, and you’ll grow-grow-grow!” isn’t too far off the mark!

And so he calls us friends…

Are you friends with Jesus? Sure, you love him, you obey him, you trust he’ll be standing there “when the roll is called up yonder.” But do you fellowship with him? Do you speak to him, as best we can in this life, face-to-face? Do you have an “unnecessary friendship” with Christ? He offers it freely.


Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for Speaking of Life

  • Do you think of Jesus as king? How does this reality of his identity give dimension to your understanding of the Lord?
  • In a pluralistic world that claims to celebrate all world views, how do we present the exclusive, “one-way” gospel with grace?

Questions for Sermon

  • Have you ever grown something yourself (flowers, garden, etc.)? What was the process like? Was there a certain mystery and satisfying moment when the buds finally showed?
  • What does it mean to abide in Christ? Did you resonate with the description that it’s like “allowing yourself to be held”?
  • Have you seen this connection of Christ’s power working through to bear fruit, like the vine and the branches in John 15?
  • Jesus calls us “friends” in verse 15. Do you think of Jesus as your friend? How does that give dimension to your relationship with him?

Quote to ponder:

“That is the great joy of being chosen: the discovery that others are chosen as well. In the house of God there are many mansions. There is a place for everyone—a unique, special place. Once we deeply trust that we ourselves are precious in God’s eyes, we are able to recognize the preciousness of others and their unique places in God’s heart.” ~~Henri Nouwen

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