Stay Connected to the True Vine
5th Sunday of Easter – April 29, 2018
”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. 3You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 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. 6If 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. 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.” (John 15:1-8)
There’s a new social anxiety that is all the rage. It’s called the “fear of missing out.” And this anxiety is exactly what it is described to be. A person puts down his phone. He picks up a book, and one minute later looks at his phone, wondering what happened in those 60 seconds. Did he miss something? What is everybody talking about? What is everybody doing? Whether he knows it or not, he’s afraid of missing out.
I suppose we all are afraid of missing out, to a certain extent. We watch the news so that we know what’s going on. We read the paper to stay connected to our community “goings-on.” Email helps us stay connected to others digitally. Websites like Facebook let us look at what others are doing. And all of this can be found on your phone at any moment. But hopefully you aren’t at this moment.
We live in an age where we are super-connected. We can feel as though we are always “in the know.” And we don’t have to feel afraid that we are missing out – because how could we when we are so connected?
But is this a good thing? Almost every study says, “No, it isn’t.” One study revealed that parents have become so connected to their phones that they are missing living in the real world with their own children. Other studies have revealed that people become so used to connecting over their phones that they struggle to actually communicate in person!
And then their was this another amazing study: researchers brought two people into a room to talk with each other at a table. When it was just the two people, the conversations went well. But when the researchers placed a phone on the table, the conversations were shorter and less involved. And they figured out why. The presence of a phone reminded the people that they might be missing out on something else.
With all that in mind, many people are making a push to become less connected. They dispense of their phones. They shut off the tv. They stay away from the news for a while. It all leads to more independence. And, believe it or not, they become more connected to people in real life.
This morning Jesus wants to talk with you about how connected you are. He isn’t talking about watching the news from morning until night. He isn’t going to bring up anything that has to do with a screen. Instead, Jesus is going to remind you, and me, of the most important connection we can ever have. And wouldn’t you know it, this connection will all start with him.
In the defining verse of our Gospel reading, Jesus said to his followers, “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.” You know what a vine looks like. It curls its way up other plants and across the yard. And you know what it looks like when a part of that vine is severed. “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.”
Every gardener knows that if you cut a part of the vine, the rest of that vine slowly withers and dies. Now, Jesus isn’t just sharing good gardening tips for us this spring. He is telling you something about yourself. You are that branch and he is that vine. And just as he said, “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.”
But here’s the problem – we just talked about all the problems with over-connecting ourselves. We live in a world of super-connection. And there are times when we want to become completely disconnected. We want to be our own person!
The devil knows that, too. As he always does, the devil flips everything upside down. He tries to get us completely connected to the things of this world. He makes us worry that we’re missing out on what’s happening in the news, or among our friends, or in our own town. And in the meantime, he tries to convince us to disconnect from Christ.
And how has that battle been going? Do you spend more time connecting on Facebook than you do connection to God in his Word? Do you connect to the world by watching tv more than you connect to Christ through prayer? Where are our strongest connections? If we’re being honest, we’ve been connected to our world far more than we have been connected to our Savior.
But look at the true vine again. He came down to our super-connected, self-absorbed world but he never gave himself into that worldly mindset. Jesus took time to connect with people that no one else wanted to connect with. He always focused on his mission. And in the end, on the cross, Jesus allowed himself to be cut off from everyone, including his Father in heaven. And he did all that to connect you to himself.
Jesus died on the tree of the cross in order to put you in his garden. Now listen to your place in God’s garden. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He 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.” Do you see all the cutting that God is doing? The fruitless branches are cut off because they are severing their connection with God. But the fruitful branches are cut as well. They are being pruned so that they can be even more fruitful.
I don’t have to tell you how painful that pruning can be. But it has to be done. The difficulties of disconnecting yourself from the worldly temptations can hurt. Trimming away our sinful desires doesn’t always feel nice. But the Lord does it out of love. And through it all he makes his connection with you even stronger. He will enable you to pray, and to pray according to his will.
There are a lot of ways a person stays connected. Most of them come through your phone and your computer and your tv. Take time to disconnect from all that stuff. Take time to reconnect with the true vine. Because really, that is the only connection that matters eternally. And then you will be able to connect others to Christ by sharing his Word…in person…with real people. You can tell them what Jesus reminded you of today. “Remain in me,” Jesus says, “And I will remain in you.” Amen.
Keep Close to Your Good Shepherd
Good Shepherd Sunday – April 22, 2018
“Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. 31So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears. 32Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.” (Acts 20:28-32)
“Roche limit” is a scientific term. It determines how close a planet can come to another object before it is ripped apart, or pulled apart by that object’s gravity. The Roche limit for Earth is about 10,000 miles. Out of context that might not mean anything to you. But if an object with the same mass as Earth travels closer than that mark, then both bodies would tear apart. In the case of large stars and black holes the situation gets worse. The planet would simply be devoured.
The Roche limit is the scientific answer to an everyday question. You have probably asked it before: “How close is too close?” How immersed can I become in a book that glorifies drugs and murder? How long can I watch a revealing movie before I feel the need to turn off the tv? How much gossip can I listen to before my conscience finally stops me? What is my spiritual Roche limit?
It is a difficult question because the answer always seems to be changing. In fact, it often seems to be changing for the worse. If I had to guess, I would bet that your spiritual Roche limits were not always this close.
Perhaps you used to close the book sooner. A movie with shady content had been a non-starter. Gossip rarely piqued your interest. Those limits have since changed. In fact, those limits seem to be constantly changing.
Your sinful nature constantly tests your limits. It entices you closer and closer to those dangerous objects until soon you find yourself right at the limit. One more inch and you cross over the threshold. Your mantle shifts. Your self-contained gravity gives way. Your core rips apart. At that point the devil cries “Victory!” And you are lost.
The Apostle Paul gets that same warning across this morning. He doesn’t use the scientific term “Roche limit.” Instead, he uses a far more practical and relatable example. “Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers.” Watch yourself, as a sheep in the flock of your Good Shepherd, Jesus. Paul brings up that warning for good reason. There were enemies from without: “I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock.” And there were enemies within: “Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.”
And that’s what happened. Paul’s words in Acts 20 were, in essence, his farewell speech to the leaders of the church in Ephesus. He tells them, “Be on your guard!” And Paul said those things because he understood sinful nature. He knew that as sheep, we are constantly pushing the limits. We are often tempted to wander further and further from our Lord. To go back to that scientific term, our spiritual Roche limit gets closer and closer to the dangerous objects of this world. And eventually, if left unchecked, it leads to oblivion.
The enemies threatening the Ephesian believers continue to threaten us today. Paul described “savage wolves” as the type of people who would rip apart a congregation. Ephesus had their fair share of those.
Paul himself had seen unbelievers riot against the Christians in Ephesus, capture some, and persecute others. It happened before, and it would happen again.
But the greater danger was within. Some within the church at Ephesus had become “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” They had “turned to meaningless talk.” They wanted “to be teachers of the law, but they [didn’t] know what they were talking about.” Well-meaning Christians had added rules to God’s Word. “They forbid people to marry and order them to abstain from certain foods.”
Believers in Ephesus had reached their spiritual Roche limit. Many had wandered from the faith. They were ripped apart. And if it could happen in Ephesus, where Paul had preached, where Timothy was pastor – it could happen anywhere.
Limits define us. As imperfect humans, we measure what we cannot do. We are judged by what we can accomplish and what we cannot accomplish. And that has been true of every human except for one. Jesus, our limitless God, came to live among us as a limited human. Every time the devil tried to push Jesus to a spiritual Roche limit, Jesus answered back with the words of Scripture.
Limitless, perfect and divine, Jesus allowed his limits to be pushed by his enemies. Some of those enemies came from without. The Pharisees, the Jewish leaders and King Herod all acted against Jesus to capture and kill him. But some of those enemies turned out to be from within. Judas was the wolf in sheep’s clothing who betrayed his Lord. Peter also denied knowing Jesus.
It all led to Jesus’ flock of sheep scattering. The Good Shepherd was apprehended. And in order to save his sheep, your limitless God took your limitless punishment upon himself on the cross. To make you his sheep, Christ “bought [you] with his own blood.”
Now today, your Good Shepherd has a serious warning for you. Keep close to your Good Shepherd. And Paul reminds us why that is so very important: “I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”
So where does that put your spiritual Roche limit? How close to sin is too close? How far can you wander as a sheep from your Good Shepherd’s fold? Today your Lord is clear – Don’t find out! Don’t secretly slip into sin, because that sin takes you closer and closer to destruction. Take a lesson from the world’s wisest man, Solomon, who once advised: “Do not set foot on the path of the wicked or walk in the way of evildoers. Avoid it, do not travel on it; turn from it and go on your way.”
Go where worlds of sin don’t collide. Go where eternal oblivion cannot follow. Follow the path of righteousness your Savior Jesus, your Good Shepherd, leads you on. It is a road with only one, beautiful, perfect ending. And it is Christ, who will help you to flee from sin and strife, to his glorious eternal life. Amen.
The Great Escape of Faith
3rd Sunday of Easter – April 15, 2018
It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them. 2He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword. 3When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also. This happened during the Feast of Unleavened Bread. 4After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. 5So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him. 6The night before Herod was to bring him to trial, Peter was sleeping between two soldiers, bound with two chains, and sentries stood guard at the entrance. 7Suddenly an angel of the Lord appeared and a light shone in the cell. He struck Peter on the side and woke him up. “Quick, get up!” he said, and the chains fell off Peter’s wrists.
8Then the angel said to him, “Put on your clothes and sandals.” And Peter did so. “Wrap your cloak around you and follow me,” the angel told him. 9Peter followed him out of the prison, but he had no idea that what the angel was doing was really happening; he thought he was seeing a vision. 10They passed the first and second guards and came to the iron gate leading to the city. It opened for them by itself, and they went through it. When they had walked the length of one street, suddenly the angel left him. 11Then Peter came to himself and said, “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches and from everything the Jewish people were anticipating.”
12When this had dawned on him, he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant girl named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”
15”You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”
16But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the brothers about this,” he said, and then he left for another place. 18In the morning, there was no small commotion among the soldiers as to what had become of Peter. 19After Herod had a thorough search made for him and did not find him, he cross-examined the guards and ordered that they be executed. (Acts 12:1-19)
The final verse of Paul Dunbar’s poem, Sympathy, has become so famous that it has taken on a life of its own. In the verses of his poem, Dunbar describes a bird in a cage. You’ve probably seen one before. An exotic, majestic-looking animal talks or sings in its cage without a care in the world. But in his metaphor-filled poem, Dunbar answers a question we never asked: Why does the caged bird sing?
“I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,”
So what is it? Why does a caged bird sing? In the final verses of his poem, Dunbar answers:
“But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings!”
Maybe you have heard that poem before. It is filled with metaphor. The poem, of course, isn’t just talking about a bird in a cage singing of freedom. Dunbar used the poem to illustrate slavery and racism at a time when few wanted to talk about those issues.
But there have been many people locked away like caged birds over the ages. We see one in the book of Acts this morning. And the songs these Christian prisoners have sung while behind those bars have been nothing short of beautiful.
Dark days had come to the Early Christian Church. It certainly didn’t take very long. Jesus had risen. Forty days later he had ascended into heaven. Ten days after that the disciples preached on Pentecost. Thousands came to faith. The gospel message was spreading far and wide. It seemed nothing could stop the spread of the kingdom of God.
Then the devil struck back. “It was about this time that King Herod arrested some who belonged to the church, intending to persecute them.” These arrests didn’t end with persecution, however. “He had James, the brother of John, put to death with the sword.”
James, one of the twelve disciples, one of the three men in Jesus’ inner circle, had been put to death! The news shook the community of believers.
The Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus loved it. “When he saw that this pleased the Jews, he proceeded to seize Peter also.” Would he be killed, too? In these trying times of persecution know one knew for certain.
But King Herod had a plan to make an example of Peter. He was, after all, a sort of leader for the Christians. If he could get rid of Peter, then perhaps this Christian faith would cease to exist. That is why we read that “Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover.”
In the meantime, “he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each.” It seems like overkill, doesn’t it? How many people does a king need to keep a fisherman under guard? Peter was already behind bars. Now he has 16 men guarding him, too? Herod didn’t want there to be any possibility of Peter escaping. I suppose, in a way, Peter was Herod’s prized catch – like a bird in a cage.
What do you do in those moments? As the walls you have built come tumbling down and the bars of this world surround you? What emotions flood your senses as persecution ramps up in your life and in our country? What goes through your mind as you sit in the dark, thinking about the wrongs you have faced in your life?
In those moments the devil is all too happy to lend you his advice. “Lash out against those persecuting you – persecute them back!” he quips. Or perhaps he tells us to find our own way out. “Trust in yourself,” he prods, “because God has abandoned you.” And it might feel that way as you sit alone in the jail cell of your hardships. And that is when he hits us with his final temptation, when he says: “Sit down, be quiet and give up.”
Captured for doing nothing wrong, locked away in that physical cell, guarded by 16 guards, Peter did none of those things. He didn’t fight back. He didn’t blame God. And he certainly didn’t give up. Instead, the caged bird started to sing. “A plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings!”
Peter wasn’t the only one singing his prayers to heaven. “So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” Christian prayer looks to Christ. It remembers his wrongful capture. It looks to his cross, his suffering his death on our behalf. Christian prayer recounts Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. True Christian prayer humbly asks for Jesus help in the everyday struggles and conflicts and persecutions we face.
And those prayers, the songs of the caged-bird, Peter, were answered by his Lord. In the midst of the dark of night a bright light shone, filling the cell and chasing away the shadows. And angel of the Lord appeared. Peter’s chains miraculously fell off his wrists. “Quick, get up!” the angel commanded to a surprised Peter.
What followed was the easiest, most methodical prison break in history. The jail cell opened and they simply walked out past one set of guards, and then another. At last, the reached the massive iron gate that locked the entire prison away from the city. “It opened for them by itself, and they went through it.” Miraculously, Peter had flow the coop. And the bird that once was caged now sang a beautiful song of freedom: “Now I know without a doubt that the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod’s clutches.”
It is no different for you. You were a bird caged by your own sins. And because of those sins you deserved the punishment of hell. Then came your Savior, the Light of the world shining in the darkness. He came to take your place. He came to take your cross and your punishment and your death so that your cage would swing wide open. Christ set you free.
It doesn’t always feel like it, though. Like Peter, we still face persecution. The bars and walls of this world still close us in. The darkness still feels like it envelops us. You might still feel like the caged bird in this life. When you do, remember the prayers Peter and his fellow believers made. “A plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—I know why the caged bird sings!”
I know why you can sing, too. “Since I know God never fails me, In his voice I’ll rejoice When grim death assails me. Trusting in my Savior’s merit, Safe at last, Troubles past, I shall heav’n inherit.” Amen.
The “Insanity” of Faith
2nd Sunday of Easter – April 8, 2018
”So then, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the vision from heaven. 20First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds. 21That is why the Jews seized me in the temple courts and tried to kill me. 22But I have had God’s help to this very day, and so I stand here and testify to small and great alike. I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen— 23that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
24At this point Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. “You are out of your mind, Paul!” he shouted. “Your great learning is driving you insane.”
25”I am not insane, most excellent Festus,” Paul replied. “What I am saying is true and reasonable. 26The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner. 27King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
28Then Agrippa said to Paul, “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?”
29Paul replied, “Short time or long—I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.” (Acts 26:19-29)
Is there such a thing as a mad scientist? Are there people who are so intelligent that they become insane? If there was ever a person who fit that bill, it was Nikola Tesla. One hundred years ago, Tesla was considered the next great inventor and scientist. It seemed no could match his knowledge of electricity and magnetism. Edison may have perfected the lightbulb, Einstein may have been making amazing strides in mathematics, but many thought Nikola Tesla would surpass them all. And he just might have…if he only had stayed sane.
The more Tesla invented, the more aloof he became. He refused to shake hands with people. He drank only boiled water. When he ate at a restaurant he personally cleaned his dishes before he ate off of them. He walked between 8 and 10 miles per day. Every night he curled his toes one hundred times because he thought it stimulated his brain cells. He refused to sleep more than 4 hours a night.
The word “eccentric” doesn’t do Tesla justice. By the end of his life, most people simply called him “insane.” His great learning, his incredible brilliance, had also led him to losing his mind. Science calls people like Tesla “tortured geniuses.”
That dangerous connection between great learning and insanity must be a pretty old one, because we hear the same connection made this morning. Except in the pages of the book of Acts it isn’t a mad scientist whose mind is on trial. It is the Church’s greatest missionary, the Apostle Paul.
It all started with a trip to Jerusalem. This was the last time Paul would travel to the great Jewish city. Paul went to the temple to worship. That’s when everything went south. “Some Jews from the province of Asia saw Paul at the temple. They stirred up the whole crowd and seized him.” These men had tried to stone Paul to death earlier in his ministry. Now was their chance to finish what they had started.
“The whole city was aroused, and the people came running from all directions. Seizing Paul, they dragged him from the temple, and immediately the gates were shut.” Jerusalem was in an uproar. When that happened people usually died. The Romans knew that as well as anyone. “While they were trying to kill him, news reached the commander of the Roman troops that the whole city of Jerusalem was in an uproar. He at once took some officers and soldiers and ran down to the crowd.”
Things were moving fast now. Jews were carrying Paul away to kill him on the temple grounds. Roman soldiers were rushing in to stop the madness. Blood was probably going to be shed. People were probably going to die. And there in the middle of the chaos was the Apostle Paul.
The sight of Roman soldiers didn’t stop the Jewish mob. The violence was so great Paul had to be carried into the Roman barracks by the soldiers. He was allowed to speak to the Roman officer, and then to the crowd. In the end he wasn’t killed that day. He was simply thrown in prison.
There sat the greatest missionary rotting in a jail cell for over two years. His trial would eventually take him before the Sanhedrin and two Roman governors. But this morning we see Paul take the stand in his own defense before King Agrippa and the Roman Governor, Festus. What Paul said at this point could either free him or get him killed.
What would you say? It’s hard to imagine. After all, we rarely find ourselves taking the stand for our faith in a life or death situation. We can thank the Lord for that. But even in every day opportunities to share the faith we have been confirmed in we slink away, fearing the worst reprisal. We often end up saying what others want to hear.
It would have been easy for Paul to say what the rulers wanted to hear. Freedom would be his if he simply hid away his faith. But as we have come to expect with Paul, he does just the opposite.
In his defense, Paul says, “I am saying nothing beyond what the prophets and Moses said would happen—that the Christ would suffer and, as the first to rise from the dead, would proclaim light to his own people and to the Gentiles.”
This had always been Paul’s missionary message. But in the eyes of the Romans, Paul was approaching a dangerous threshold. He was crossing over from intelligence to insanity. “Festus interrupted Paul’s defense. ‘You are out of your mind, Paul!’ he shouted. ‘Your great learning is driving you insane.’”
Of course, there were no “insanity pleas” in Paul’s day. And for his great learning, for his faith and knowledge of Jesus Christ, Paul was thrown into prison. Sometimes that knowledge of the truth of Christ physically imprisons believers in this world.
It was no different when Jesus, the Truth himself, stood before the Roman Governor. Unlike Paul, Jesus didn’t deserve to be on trial. He had done nothing wrong. Ever. And yet even in his death Jesus showed his perfect love by willingly dying for the sins of the entire world. Then, on Easter Sunday, Jesus, the Truth, showed himself to also be the Resurrection and the Life.
To say that God became one of us and died sounds ludicrous. To say that he rose again sounds just as “insane” to the world around us. So how can a believer respond when the world calls us by those names?
Here’s what Paul said, “‘I am not insane, most excellent Festus…What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner.’” Now comes the opportunity. Now Paul goes for it all. “King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets? I know you do.”
Indeed he did. But the King would not be swayed. “Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?” Chained and on trial, Paul must have looked like a lunatic. He certainly sounded like one.
Is this what we want? chains and prison? To be called “insane” by the rest of the world? Actually, yes. This is what Paul wants for you. “I pray God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am.” And what has God made you? He has made you a follower of your Savior, Jesus. He has made you talented and intelligent. You aren’t crazy. You aren’t insane. You are a child of God. You have the wisdom of salvation. Now share that wisdom boldly. Amen.