Well, we call this the end of term service, because many of you will be going away over the summer, and some leaving for good. And the end of term is a time for looking back – that’s what school reports are for. Eg, one on Winston Churchill, the future Prime Minister, said: ‘He has no ambition... He has such good abilities, but these are made useless by negligence.’ One on John Lennon, of the Beatles, said: ‘He is certainly on the road to failure.’ And the poet and novelist Robert Graves got this final report: ‘Well, goodbye, Graves, and remember: your best friend is the wastepaper basket.’
But the end of term is also a time for looking forward – to the spiritual opportunities and challenges of the coming months – first of all, for those of us going away for the summer. You may not have the same Christian support where you’re going to be. And you may be worried you’ll get back to Newcastle in September having gone nowhere, spiritually. Then, there are those leaving for good sometime in the coming months. And you may be worried you won’t find a church anything like this to belong to; or won’t cope with being a Christian in a new job and a new place. But then most of us aren’t going anywhere – except maybe for a holiday – and may not be worried at all about how we do spiritually in the next few months. But that’s the most dangerous position of all. Because just being here, in church, even in a small group, won’t mean we automatically grow in our relationship with Jesus – any more than being married means you automatically grow in your relationship with your husband or wife. There’s nothing automatic about our relationship with Jesus.
So whether we’re away over the summer, leaving for good, or staying, we’re going to look at a classic Bible passages about our relationship with Jesus and our responsibility to stay close to him. So would you turn to John’s Gospel, chapter 15. This is the conversation between the Lord Jesus and his disciples the night before he died for us on the cross and then rose from the dead three days later. And partly, he’s preparing them for when he’ll no longer be physically with them – when they’ll be in the situation we’re in: of having to relate to a Jesus we can’t see. And this passage is about that. But partly, he’s also preparing them for the mission he’s giving them of making him known to others. Which is our mission, too.
And this passage is about that.
I’ve got three points – three things the Lord Jesus wants us to remember:
Firstly, REMEMBER YOUR PURPOSE (vv1-2)
Look down to v1, where Jesus says:
1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. (vv1-2)
So Jesus says, ‘I am the true vine.’ And he’s picking up an Old Testament (OT) picture of God’s people, Israel – where they’re likened to a vine, planted by God (eg, Psalm 80). And you only plant things like vines for a purpose – to get fruit. So, Tess and I planted two apple trees four years back. In year one we got one apple; in year two we got six; year three we got 45; last year we got 185. If they carry on exponentially like that, by 2050, the Earth will be covered to a depth of 1.2 metres in James Grieves’s.
And God planted Israel to bear the fruit of lives lived for him in obedience, and lips speaking for him in witness, so that others might come to know him – as Isaiah said, so ‘the earth will be full of the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.’ (Isaiah 11.9). Well, the OT is the story of how Israel failed to live up to that purpose. And it’s against that background that Jesus says, ‘I am the true vine.’ Ie, ‘You’ve had the failed vine. I am the true vine – the only real source of lives that really bear the fruit my Father is looking for.’ And if you look down to v5, he says to anyone trusting in him:
I am the vine; you are the branches.
And if you are a branch, his purpose is that you bear the fruit of a life lived for him in obedience, and of lips speaking for him in witness.
So how does that apply if you’re away over the summer? Well, you may be going home to be the only Christian in your family. And maybe you’d rather be here, with Christian housemates and other Christian friends on tap. But you need to remember your purpose. The biggest reason we’re here – and haven’t been taken straight to heaven – is that mission to make Jesus known to others. And going home to be the only Christian in your family is actually a great opportunity for that – above all, as you just try to live a consistent Christian life in front of them, but also as you take the chance to talk about your faith if they ask. And you may be living much closer to God’s purposes as you struggle to do that these next three months, than you have been in the Christian bubble here for the last nine.
Another application is that you may be thinking the summer’s your own, for doing your own thing. But like all our time, it’s actually God’s gift to us for his purposes. So if you can – and I know there are constraints – do commit yourself to helping on a summer Christian camp or the Holiday Club here, or whatever. It’s not too late to fix something up – do talk to one of us if you need help with that.
Then to those of us leaving for good, the application is to get our priorities right. Because your purpose above all in life is not to go and be a dentist in Dagenham or a businessman in Beijing, or whatever. Your purpose above all is to go and bear the fruit of a life lived for Jesus in obedience, and of lips speaking for him in witness. And to do that, you need to belong to a good church. So when you’re job-hunting and house-hunting, can I urge you to put this question first: is there a good church near here that I can belong to, and reach out from? (And if you want help finding a church elsewhere, please fill in a Good Church Guide form – on the Welcome Desk.)
And those of us staying here, we also need to remember that this is our purpose, our mission. Because maybe we’ve lost our edge in that in a workplace or neighbourhood or cirlce of friends which we’ve been in for years.
That’s the first thing: remember your purpose.
Second, REMEMBER YOUR POSITION (vv3-6)
... by which I mean your position in Jesus. Look down again to v1:
1"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes [the word is literally ‘cleans’] so that it will be even more fruitful. (vv1-2)
So once we’re in the vine, God’s aim is to prune us – to cut out our sinfulness, so we become more like Jesus and point people to him better. So earlier this year, armed with a book called Pruning Basics and a pair of secateurs, I went out to prune our apple trees for the first time. And Tess stood there saying, ‘Are you sure you should be cutting that much off?’ And I stood there quoting Pruning Basics with all the confidence of an Alan Titchmarsh. And the trees stood there and, had they been able, would undoubtedly have been saying, ‘Ouch!’ at regular intervals. Because pruning (I take it) isn’t pleasant. But part of the Christian life is that God constantly makes us aware of our sin in order to change us.
That’s why after coming to Jesus, people often feel there’s more wrong with them than before – when in fact it’s that God is making you more aware of what was wrong in the first place. And that’s also why it’s not easy to read the Bible, or sit on the receiving end of it being faithfully taught. I mean, why will you and I find it easier this summer to watch Wimbledon or the World Cup, or read a best-seller on the beach, than to read our Bibles? Well, partly because of indiscipline or our failure to go to the Bible notes area straight after this service and get something to help us to. But primarily because Wimbledon, the World Cup and the best-seller won’t confront our sin and call on us to change – whereas the Bible will. So there’s truth in that old saying, ‘Either this book will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from this book.’
So our relationship with Jesus will inevitably make us more aware of our sin. Which is why we need to remember our position in him – or we’ll get bogged down in a sense of our failure. That’s a pitfall for all of us, but especially for those of us away over the summer, with less Christian support to pick us up again. Eg, imagine it’s now July: you’re back at home, you’ve not been getting on with your parents and little sister, the dog’s the only one pleased to see you because you’ve been kicking the cat on such a regular basis, you haven’t read your Bible for a week – in fact, all your resolutions about being a better Christian at home lie in tatters. And one day you think, ‘This has got to change.’ And you sit down with your Bible and Satan whispers in your ear, ‘Do you really think you can come to God after your behaviour so far?’ Well, what are you going to say? You see, if Satan can drive that wedge of a sense of our failure between us and the Lord, then we’ll stay away from the Lord and fail him even more – in a downward spiral.
Well, we need to say to ourselves what Jesus says in v3 about anyone trusting in him. Look down to v3:
You are already clean [same word as in v2, translated ‘prunes’] because of the word I have spoken to you.
So in v2, God is out to make us clean. But in v3, we’re already clean. How does that add up? Well, v2 is talking about our behaviour – which is always to some extent sinful and needs cleaning up more. Whereas v3 is talking about our position in Jesus, our status. And Jesus says:
You are already clean [that is, clean in my sight, accepted. Why? Because your behaviour’s good enough? No:] because of the word I have spoken to you [by which he means his promise of forgiveness of all our sins, through his death on the cross.]
So if you are trusting tonight that Jesus died to take on himself your sins and the judgement they deserve, then in God’s sight ‘you are clean.’ So, imagine I was wearing green tinted glasses. That would mean that in my sight you’d be all-green. You might be wearing a green dress or shirt covered with white spots, but to me you’d look completely green. And if you’re in Jesus, God looks at you through Jesus’ death, which took away all your sins, and sees no sinful spots on you at all. That’s your position in Jesus – ‘You are... clean.’ And that won’t change with the ups and downs of your behaviour as you try – and fail – to live for him.
And trusting that is the motivation to live for him – it’s the source of the fruit. And that’s what verses 4 and 5 are about – look on to vv4-5:
4Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
‘Remain in me.’ You don’t have to say that to a literal branch, because it has no choice in how it responds to its vine – it can’t move, can’t drift over the summer. Whereas we metaphorical branches do have a choice in how we respond to our vine. So what does Jesus mean by, ‘Remain in me’? Well, look on to v9, where he explains:
“As the Father has loved me [ie, eternally, unchangingly], so have I loved you [ie, his death brings those who trust in him into a relationship where he loves us eternally and unchangingly. Read on:]. Now remain in my love.
So remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love – and that means two things. On the one hand, it means appreciating his love. That’s why I’ve laboured our position in Jesus – because it’s when we most appreciate his love for us that we’re most motivated to live for him and least in danger of drifting or getting bogged down in a sense of our failure. And to appreciate his love, we’re going to need to read and hear about it in his Word – that’s our responsibility.
But on the other hand, remaining in his love also means reciprocating it. Look at v10, where Jesus goes on to say:
“If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.”
Now that can’t mean, ‘If you obey my commands you’ll continue to earn my love’ – because we didn’t earn it in the first place. He’s not talking about earning his love, but reciprocating it. And he’s saying we do that – we show him how much we appreciate his love – by trying to obey him. And to know how to do that – what pleases him – again, we’re going to need to read and hear his Word – that’s our responsibility.
So, remember your position in Jesus, because that is the root of the fruit. And if someone makes Christian noises for a while, but ultimately drifts away from Jesus, it may be that they were never in that position in the first place: that they were in church, but not in Jesus. Which is why Jesus says in v6:
If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
Ie, there are people who think of themselves as Christians, but who actually have no relationship with Jesus. And I’d be unfaithful to this part of God’s Word – and to you – if I didn’t say that, so that we can each ask ourselves, ‘Am I tonight actually trusting in Jesus and seeking to live for him? Or am I not yet in that position?’
So, remember your purpose; remember your position.
Third and lastly, REMEMBER TO PRAY (vv7-8)
Look lastly at verses 7 and 8. The Lord Jesus says to us:
7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8This is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples. (vv7-8)
‘Ask whatever you wish and it will be given you,’ is a dangerous promise, ripped out of context. Because it’s actually surrounded by hefty conditions. So look at the conditions in v7: ‘If you remain in me’ – ie, ‘If you are appreciating my love and wanting to reciprocate it in obedience – if that is shaping your outlook in life...’ Then, v7 again, ‘[And if] my words remain in you’ – ie, ‘If you are being shaped by reading and hearing my Word so that you want what I want..’ And then there’s a condition implied in v8, whre Jesus says, ‘This is to my Father's glory’ – which implies we’re to pray with the same concern - for God’s glory above all. If we’re fulfilling those conditions, says Jesus, well then, Ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.’
And one reason we don’t find praying easy is that, like reading the Bible, it confronts our sin – our me-centredness – and sets us the challenge of wanting what God wants. And because we’re so imperfectly in tune with God, we do pray off-target and see prayers apparently unanswered, and wonder whether it’s worth praying.
Well, yes it is: the bottom line is that we need to, because as we’ve seen: Jesus is the source of the fruit this passage speaks about – the fruit of a life lived in growing obedience to him, myself; and of more lives being given over to him as I point others to him. And if we’re praying for those two kinds of fruit – in ourselves, in others – we can be sure we’re praying for what God wants –and that we will see answers.
Let me give you one example of praying within the conditions of vv7-8. With one doctor friend, when he was a medical student, I’d often pray with him about exams. And he failed and had to re-sit a number along the way. So when it came to finals, I remember us sitting down to pray and him saying, ‘OK, what can we ask that we know for sure is what God wants?’ And he said, ‘We don’t know for sure he wants me to pass – he may want me to do another re-sit. But we do know that he wants me to live the next few weeks in a way that glorifies him. So I suggest we pray that I’m free from anxiety and from being so wrapped up in my exams that I stop looking out for friends. And I suggest we pray that if I fail and have to re-sit, I’ll stay joyful and keep trusting the Lord; and that if I pass, I’ll make it clear to everyone that I don’t think I could have done this course without the Lord’s help.’
Now we did also pray that he’d pass – if that was God’s will. And he did. But the point is: we prayed for what we knew for sure was God’s will: his own growing faith and obedience; and others being pointed to Jesus through him.
So remember to pray. If you’re away over the summer, don’t worry about going nowhere spiritually – still less, resign yourself to it. Instead, will you set yourself to pray every day for your faith and obedience to grow, and for opportunities to talk about the Lord?
If you’re leaving for good, don’t worry about finding a church to belong to; or about coping with being a Christian in a new job and a new place. Pray about those things – the Lord is well able to provide for you and keep you and use you in a new place even if it’s harder.
And those of us staying here, maybe we need to remember to pray more than anyone. Because the shake-up of being away over the summer, or of leaving for good, can only benefit a Christian if it leads him or her to rely more heavily on Jesus. Whereas we may be in danger of just relying on being here in JPC – which is not the same thing by a million miles, is it? Verse 5:
"I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.