Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The True Vine!



OUR STUDY for the Fifth Sunday in Easter comes to us from the Gospel According to Saint John. The text for the day reminds us of words spoken by Jesus during the evening of the Last Supper. Within that gathering Jesus used a story example... an allegory. To explain his identity, our Lord said…
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
 You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.
 I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.
 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. (John 15:1-8)

On Being True
Our gospel writer recalled for his church that Jesus used an image of the vineyard to inform his disciples concerning his authority. Using self-description, our Lord said “I am the True Vine”.  Those disciples familiar with Hebrew scripture found that their minds could easily remember that the symbol of the vine had historically represented Israel. As example, we cite…

Restore us, O God of hosts;
let thy face shine, that we may be saved!
Thou didst bring a vine out of Egypt;
thou didst drive out the nations and plant it.
Thou didst clear the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
The mountains were covered with its shade,
the mighty cedars with its branches;
it sent out its branches to the sea,
and its shoots to the River. (Psalm 80:7-11)

That same historical theme was also echoed many times in the writings of the prophets. Therefore, any person immersed in the faith of Israel could note a subtle shift as Jesus spoke. You see, originally the vineyard keeper, the vinedresser. . . was God the Father. Israel was the vine. Thus by saying that he was the True Vine, our Lord made a very bold claim.
 However we note that earlier scriptures reveal that “Israel”, means “man who wrestles with God”. Israel was the name initially given to one particular man and not an entire nation. The nation inherited the name as descendants of that one man. From words in Genesis, we find…

And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Genesis 32:27-28)

 Jesus, the Son of Man, then as an individual man born of Mary, claimed that he is the "True Vine." This meant that no longer was that title fit for the nation of Israel.
 How so we may ask? The answer is found in that historically, Jesus stood as a direct descendant from Jacob. As Israel had strayed again and again and destroyed the vineyard of God, our Creator did what had been planned from the beginning of all things. The Father sent his Son to be the True Vine. In observing the task of vineyard restoration, however, Jesus was and yet is revealed to the world as equivalent to God the Father. Jesus said truly that it was no longer Israel as a corporate nation before God... that is the vine, but it is he that is appointed as God’s faithful and true servant.


 Since our blessed writer had already established in the opening Prolog section of this gospel, that Jesus was the Word, and the Word was God. John had already set the stage that Jesus had come into the world to accomplish that task which Israel in sin could not do. However, John stated that Jesus told his disciples that they were already cleansed and would be pruned. Consequently from the True Vine which is Christ Jesus our Lord, the disciples were grafted and cultivated to become leaders of the Church. They learned and taught that the Church is to bear fruit (In the Greek - karpos). As his disciples, we today are therefore all grafted with them to provide the Word of God as fruit, so that our Creator's graceful abundance grows. This was, and yet is... the primary purpose of those who labor in Christ.


 However, take care here! Persons or churches that are unfruitful in exhibiting the life of Christ will wither and die. These are burned up in the flow of history. John laid out this stark message before his hard-pressed Christian community. Within the infant church of his day existed those faithful believers who were better off moving through the world without apostate interference. The withered ones falling away possessed a spirit that wilted beneath the heat of growing persecution. In the author’s day, therefore, those unfruitful branches represented lightly-rooted believers who had fallen away due to pressure from the synagogue and Roman authorities. Today this translates to us within our own era, for there are still those amid our ranks who fail to firmly state the primacy of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
 In certainty then, the gospel states clearly that the life of any believer is meant to glorify our loving and creative God. Just as in the time of the gospel writer, the Holy Spirit is sent to us by the Father and the Son to establish the Church. As the Church working in the modern world through baptized and active Christians, we are to use faith and love given by the Spirit to do mission and ministry. This must occur in order to work fruitfully against demons of ignorance, tribalism, racism, principalities and competitive powers.


Firmly Attached!
To do all these tasks well, however, we need to keep our grafted connection with Jesus secure by constantly studying his Word. Remember! It is Jesus alone who was crucified for our sake. It is Jesus who yet lives as Resurrected from the dead. Our ethic then is to seriously study scripture and decide as the Church what action love should take in our modern world.
 The field for growth is not uncontested. For example, within modern society many contend that the church of Christ should stand merely equal to, or separate from other worldly powers. In their arguments, these forces attempt to satanically deceive and discourage us.
 We might ask, "How is this done?" I say to you that this occurs subtly using gradual and elusive degeneration! Let me cite for example, that in the U.S. we citizens allow subtle and devious degeneration and misinterpretation of our founding governmental documents. This malady negates the intent of the original Constitutional signatories concerning the freedom of religion. The Christian church is now perceived as forced by law to be separate from the state, subject to the state while having no direct, authoritative basis for input into the workings of our secular government. This legislative distortion has wormed its way firmly into American society. The subterfuge thus enabled the binding the Christian church amid tendrils of deceit.
 Consequently, the path of the Church is subverted. In this way, evil powers work freely to bury the primacy established by Jesus. Through such blatant ignorance, prejudice tirades against God. The Commandments go unanswered. It is little wonder that we in this nation suffer gross disintegration of the family unit and an increasing breakdown of civil law. Our churches thus dwindle in both influence and population, often described as antiquated sideshows in contemporary society.


 However, the church of Christ working in the Holy Spirit shall not be silenced in the public square. Though we yet have unfruitful, withered Christians who willingly and passively accept many travesties that exist contrary to scriptural command, these too shall be cast out. The restorative Spirit shall uproot these wandering tendrils of ignorance, casting them into great heretical bonfires of their own making. Recall that Jesus said, “…apart from me you can do nothing.” We of the Christian church shall yet experience strain under the power of sin. Therefore we must collectively and prayerfully remain attached to the good news of Jesus Christ. We must first stand before God and give account. We must realize our shortcomings and confess our sinful failure to bloom and grow. Receiving forgiveness then only because of our being rooted in the grace given by God through Christ, we become reminded that we are privileged to abide in him. This restful essence shall guide us forward to receive the true administration of the Sacraments which were given to us for our forgiveness and empowerment.


 Know this! As persons who have been mercifully grafted to the True Vine, we today need to go out into the unbelieving world as witnesses. Strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit, we may express the bounty of God's everlasting love. Let us therefore be crushed in the wine press of the Almighty… proclaiming sweetly to all that Jesus… and only Jesus… is the True Vine. So it is written by John, and so it shall be forevermore.


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May the Blessings of Almighty God Be Upon You and Yours!




Saturday, April 18, 2015

Shepherds Lead...



FOR THE Fourth Sunday in Easter, we read from the Gospel According to Saint John. Within this text we of the Church flashback to the time when Jesus spoke openly to an audience in the temple, using familiar symbols for his hearers. Coming to us, therefore, is the Word of God as understood by first century followers of Jesus. Our Lord said to them…

I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hireling and not a shepherd, whose own the sheep are not, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees; and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hireling and cares nothing for the sheep.
 I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.
 For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father.”  (John 10:11-18)

Ancient Memories…
Our author John described a scene that occurred in the temple during the Feast of Tabernacles. That annual feast celebrated how Israel remembered God’s guidance of the nation. Historically, God brought his people through wilderness wanderings, out from their bondage in Egypt. He had raised them up above others to be his own people. But, even before the dust had settled... the people began a wobbly path between sin and allegiance. So, it was surely fitting that during this festival, Jesus spoke to those gathered in the temple. He cited the prophecies concerning his own ministry that had begun among a still wobbly nation. Our Lord’s talk recalled for them…

Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. 
                                                                                    (Isaiah 40:10-11)

  Jesus said that for the people the speaker in this prophetic text is God, the Eternal One, who is the one set apart from all else. We may rightly understand that both the hearers of the message in the temple… and John’s first readers... would readily think of Israel’s religious leaders as mere hirelings. Therefore amid their waiting for Messianic deliverance, Jesus’ radical commitment to the future of the infant community of Christians was welcome to waiting ears.

 We note that Jesus began the telling with the words “I am…” (in the Greek stated as, “ego ami”). These words were not only a statement of his authority to teach in the temple, but recalled for the audience that God spoke through the prophets. They had acclaimed that God is the great creator whose name is “I AM THAT I AM”. Thus Jesus’ words challenged those standing within the sound of his voice. He caused them to consider that he was sent by the heavenly Father, and he communicated constantly with our Creator. Thus we find the text brings us full circle.
 Jesus, who is sent by God as Shepherd, tells u that he is the “Good Shepherd”. Thus Jesus is the person described by Isaiah. We also read another Hebrew prophet who described God’s role as divine Shepherd…

“For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when some of his sheep have been scattered abroad, so will I seek out my sheep; and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 
                                                                                      (Ezekiel 34:11-12)

 Consequently, we find that Jesus’ words in the temple challenged the hierarchy of powerful authorities. Some revolted in being called hirelings who have abandoned the sheep. Therefore a power struggle and its subsequent conflict led eventually to our Lord’s crucifixion.
 Note that in our reading, Jesus said that not only were the people of Israel who believed in him, his sheep… but those who believed who were not Jews were his as well. This came as very good news for persons on the sidelines of the Jewish faith in John’s day. Consider what this lesson meant as read before the Christian people in the time of the writer. I believe that blessed John, by the power of the Holy Spirit, included this text for a central reason. The church was growing in spite of human power struggles. First take into account that great tension existed for the early Christians.


 You see, at the time of John’s writing, the authorities were clamping down on Jewish “Christians”. They worshiped under growing persecution. The Jewish synagogues across the Roman Empire felt they were losing control. Jews had been subject to the piercing lance of Roman oversight, and felt great danger because the new Christian sect challenged both Roman law and Jewish Law. This drew more unwanted attention to the Jews. Tensions arose.
 Certainly, Jewish Christians tried to remain in the synagogue. Like in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry the hireling shepherds fought the gospel proclamation. They were consistent to what had occurred when Jesus spoke in the temple. To prove so, I offer…

So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council, and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on thus, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.”  (John 11:47-49)

 Rabbi Gamaliel, a leader of the Jews in that later era, in like manner issued “Eighteen Benedictions”. These condemned the followers of Christ. Seemingly done to fight Christian influence and keep the Romans at bay, the action was self-seeking. They thought to cast the Christians out of their midst and let the hounds of the Roman Empire feed exclusively upon the followers of Christ. The Jews who were Christian were thus used as scapegoats. But mercifully, we find that Jesus is a miraculous Shepherd. Our Lord has a way of turning sinful goats into sheltered sheep through baptism and the power of his Word. That fact is one which neither Gamaliel nor Caesar could negate.

Moving Forward!
Just as Gamaliel’s had published the “Eighteen Benedictions”, so too people of the true Christian faith are being cast out now. Christians are often berated in the progressive press of the modern world. We stand shunned and persecuted all around the world. But do not be deceived! Though John said that “the Jews” were the cause back then, do not persecute them or see them as exclusive adversaries to the gospel message. Know that all other religious expressions fall short. And, contrary to the modern Jewish people, others are physically hostile even unto acts of terrorism.

 You see, the difficulty the early church presented was in telling that Jesus, as the “Good Shepherd” was, is and ever shall be God. This introduced the “scandal of particularity”. That phrase describes the divine foolishness the modern world does not want to hear. So even now, many contemporary leaders would place Christianity among the plethora of other religions. Somehow they believe that if they lump us all together we shall be easy to control.
 However, we know by the power of the Holy Spirit revealed in scripture, that Jesus is “wholly” and “exclusively” God. Thus as the Good Shepherd he retrieved those who are known as his own, and yet looks for the lost. Finding the lost, he secures us by the power of the Holy Spirit, and no one can remove us from his love. As for the others, try as they might… they cannot and never will get to heaven on account of their doings, violence and observances.
 Because of this particularity, therefore, the Christian church and its faithful shall be continually attacked. The news highlights the lengths to which some radical groups will go to cast our Lord out… even in this so-called “modern” world. We need remember, brothers and sisters in Christ, to be modern does not necessarily mean “tolerant” nor “accepting”. Remember blessed lambs! The evil that casts you out because you are Christian is the same demonic spirit that also cast out Christians in John’s day.
 Realize by the power of the Holy Spirit the flock came through gross persecutions before. As well, though your witness may not fall easily upon hardened hearts, continue to proclaim the gospel. Therefore I ask that we pray not just for ourselves. We need pray and witness the more for those who have not yet heard and have not yet believed. Let us gather, pray, and ask forgiveness and seek empowerment for the sake of Christ Jesus, who died so that we might live and serve. It is Jesus who rose again, and now sits at the right hand of the Father. Boldly speak this good news in the marketplace, workplace and the public square. By doing so we participate in the hope of God for all.

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