A couple of weeks ago I had to go to a Council of Synod meeting in Brisbane. I had allowed plenty of time and the car has been running well. Not long since a service. I got out to the highway and began to be carried along by the 110 kph traffic when I noticed the temperature guage rising. Making decisions at 110 kph when a car is running well isn't always easy. After all, there was only one thing wrong - the temperature was up. Everything else was fine. I had passed the turnoff to the Piston 'n Broke and was doing some fast calculation - yes, I had better look for the first cross-over and turn back. The coolant is essential for the engine!
Our lawnmower was playing up. No, it wasn't just me! And, of course, our wet weather has been ideal for grass and difficult for mowers in the best of condition. Then one day it began showing other symptoms, almost human symptoms really - it would cut out under load. That happened at the end of a difficult mow. Hopefully, it is just overheated. But no! Those were the symptoms on starting next time. Whatever was the matter? Two things turned up. The fuel filter was almost blocked. The ignition coil was loose. The fuel and electric spark are both essential for the engine!
We lived in Stanthorpe for six years. The manse we lived in for four of those years had an Isabella grape vine growing on the fence. Not the choicest of grapes, but a vigorous grower. It hadn't been pruned for years. The weather was warming and I decided it was time to clean it up. There was nothing for it but a savage prune. For days afterwards sap kept oozing out where the branches had been cut off. It is possible to take those prunings and strike them in some damp sand. Given the right conditions they will start sending out roots and shoots - they still have the life of the vine in them. But, left on the ground, they will wither and die. They are good for nothing. They will get raked up and destroyed.
So an engine needs fuel and an electric spark. The branches of the grape vine need sap - the life of the vine - if they are going to do anything. And the Christian needs Christ. Our relationship to Christ is essential for the Christian life. The Christian life is not like the branch that has received the life-giving sap and now lies on the ground. The Christian life is like the branch that has had some pruning but is still part of the vine.
The Christian life focusses on - draws its meaning and strength from - Jesus Christ. Not just from his life, words and actions in the days of his flesh, but from the life of the risen Christ, no longer under the limitations of physical human existence, the life of the risen Christ channelled to us through the Holy Spirit. To live the Christian life we must grasp both our utter weakness apart from him and the unlimited resources he makes available to us.
Jesus is very definite about it - "I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever remains in men, and I in him, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me" (v.5). How much does Jesus say we can do without him? Nothing!
In the previous chapter, Jesus states quite strongly, "I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me" (14.6). Peter told the Jewish council, "Salvation is to be found through [Jesus] alone; in all the world there is no one else whom God has given who can save us" (Acts 4.12).
But the Christian life is not something that happened to us "once" with its final installment "someday" and a long struggle in between. It is an exciting adventure in which our continuing relationship to Christ is the key. Whether we are thinking of the "fruit" in terms of a changed life or of Christian witness and service, the point is the same - "you can do nothing without me."
Wait a moment! Something within us wants to protest about that! There are many things we can do apart from faith. What about the good and generous things that are done by people who aren't Christians? Shouldn't there be commendation for things like that? Of course there should! And yet - Jesus is saying quite clearly that the things of final and absolute worth are impossible apart from him.
Our failure to grasp our utter weakness apart from Christ is tragic for our lives as individual Christians and as a Church. We miss the possibilities that God has places within us. Our Christian lives become stunted caricatures.
As a Church our programmes may become quite crammed and yet - if our Church life does not focus in on Christ, all our "doing" achieves nothing.
We could, of course, take the grape-vine prunings to prepare a pleasing dried still-life art-work. Done well, it might attract the attention and admiration of the public. Even the art critics might be impressed. You might even sell it to some admiring buyer, but don't expect any fruit from it! Separated from the vine it can do nothing! And in the Christian life, separated from Christ himself, we cannot do anything really.
Thankfully, that is only part of the picture, for Jesus goes on to day, "If you remain in me and my words remain in you, then you will ask for anything you wish, and you shall have it" (v.7). Listen to how Paul writes of his own experience, "I have the strength to face all conditions by the power that Christ gives us" (Phil.4.13).
What are the conditions you face - at home, at school, at work ? What sort of conditions did Paul face? In the previous verse he tells us, "I know what it is to be in need and what it is to have more than enough. I have learnt this secret, so that anywhere, at any time, I am content, whether I am full or hungry, whether I have too much or too little." So it sounds as if Paul didn't assume that Jesus meant that we are never going to have it tough! Instead, whatever happens, I have the strength from Christ to face it.
It is important to recognise our essential limitations. If we don't we tend to muddle along on our own resources and think we are doing something great! But sometimes, confronted by our own weakness, we come to a dead halt and remain there. We say, "I can't do anything!", and we just give up - failing to tap into the resources that are available to us.
To "remain" in Christ is to trust him with all our lives, to allow him to be the Source and Meaning of our lives, and to maintain a vital, living connection with him. If we remain in him in this way, it should follow that his words will remain in us, that his purposes become the consuming desire of our lives and that we choose his will for our lives.
If this is how it is, then we have an amazing promise, " you will ask for anything you wish and you shall have it." That assumes, of course, remaining united to Christ and having his words remaining in you.
In his first letter John puts it this way, "We have courage in God's presence, because we are sure that he heard us if we ask him for anything that is according to his will. He hears us whenever we ask him; and since we know this is true, we also know tht he gives us what we ask from him" (1 Jn.5.14-15).
It is an amazing contrast, isn't it? Without me, you can do nothing. Remain united to me and whatever you ask will be given.
Come to him. Trust him. Love him. Listen to him. Share your life with him. Be open to him. Receive what he waits to give. Be ready to obey and to give. Bear much fruit.
For sinners the Saviour came. To the poor in spirit the Kingdom belongs. To the weak the mighty power of God is available.
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