TO LISTEN ONLINE
Jesus said, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word I’ve spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.
So here’s the question I’d like to wrestle with this morning. How does spiritual growth happen? And of course the sister question – how does it not happen?
And here’s the paradox that makes talking about this so hard. Spiritual growth is not something we do, and yet there is something we must do! “My father is the vine grower!” It’s God’s work. “Unless you abide in me you will not grow.” It’s our work. That’s the paradox of spiritual formation. It is first and foremost God’s work! It’s our work.
And so first, spiritual growth isn’t something we make happen. And this is important for us to hear because most of us, when we decide to make a change, only have one plan – we roll up our sleeves and we try really, really hard. The only problem is that our willpower is actually pretty impotent. And I know that runs counter to what we’ve been told – “you can do anything you set your mind to!” But Christian Gospel would say that actually that’s not true. In the long run, trying harder to be like Jesus is a pretty poor strategy. Right? Because – we’ll either fail and feel shame, and upon feeling shame use something unhealthy to medicate our shame. Or worse, we’ll succeed, and feel pride, and eventually come to look down on people that don’t quite have it all together like we do. But either way, we’ve spiritually regressed. Because – before Jesus ever asks us to get out there and do what he did, Jesus asks us to submit to the Father’s pruning so that we can acquire His heart. Remember, the Pharisees were on a mission to change everyone. And they were unbearable.
And so spiritual growth isn’t primarily something we do. There is a big difference between bearing fruit and being productive. As Henry Nouwen once put it,
“In our contemporary society, with its emphasis on accomplishment and success, we often live as if being productive is the same as being fruitful. Productivity gives us a certain notoriety and helps take away our fear of being useless. But if we want to live as followers of Jesus, we must come to know that products, successes, and results often belong more to the house of fear than the house of love.” (Lifesigns, 48-49)
What Nouwen actually says here is revolutionary. He says our need to achieve and produce – whether in the world or in the spiritual life – more often than not comes not from a place of love, but a place of fear. You see I think our big problem is that we’re terrified that we have no value and so we try and produce it. We make the grades, we volunteer, we excel, we serve. Like the story of Babel in Genesis 11, we build not a tower but an image, and we take that into the world. And we say subconsciously what they did. “Let us make a name for ourselves.” After all, if we don’t make a name for ourselves – by being a good person or by making more money or by always being the funny one or perhaps getting a shinier – what will give us value? I’m reminded of the story of Martha and Mary in Luke chapter 10. Martha stays busy! She’s really productive serving Jesus, while Mary just sits adoringly at Jesus’ feet. And it’s Mary, according to Jesus, that chose the better part, which makes us wonder who Martha was really serving in the first place.
Spiritual growth isn’t something we do, and yet, we all know we have a part to play. And so where do we begin?
Well, I think first we need to hear, and keep returning, to what Jesus says in verse 3 – “you have already been cleansed.” The first thing that’s got to go is the idea that we’ve got something to prove, or that God will meet us halfway, but that we’ve got to do the rest. Babel is about making a name for ourselves. Baptism is about receiving a new name through grace. In fact, twice in the Bible God cries out, “it is finished!” The first is in creation, on the 7th day, and the second is from the cross. The point is that both creation and redemption belong to God and as far as the Bible is concerned they’re finished! Has the drama of salvation fully been played out yet in our lives or in our world? NO. But as Paul says in Philippians, “he who began a good work in you” – that is, God – will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. It’s finished. You have already been cleansed.
And here’s why this matters. Jesus says God wants to prune us. Now, that’s a painful image. The point is we don’t escape the knife. This means that in order to grow we have to be willing to face those things inside of us that we’re ashamed of and bring them into the light. We need to confess those things to God. We need to confess those things to each other. And that’s scary, which means we need a firm understanding that we’ve already been cleansed. Our identity, our name, is not tied to what we do, but to what God in Christ has already done for us.
That’s step 1 – knowing we’ve got nothing to prove.
Second, Jesus says abide. 8 times in 8 verses Jesus uses this word to describe the part we play in our spiritual growth. And this is a word that means “actively seek to remain.” We are to actively seek to remain in Jesus.
And so there are two key ingredients I’d like to point out – “abiding 101.” The first is authentic community where vulnerability is the norm. I don’t mean just going to church. I mean having a group of people where we’re in the habit of taking off our masks to confess where we need to be pruned. And so a personal example, I’m a control freak because at a deep, deep level part of me doesn’t believe that God is competent. And on top of that, my fear of abandonment can make me a spineless people-pleaser. Oh yea, and I also have an anger problem. Now, I did not know these things about myself last year. God only knows what I’ll discover next, but, it’s the knowledge that I’ve already been cleansed that will give me the courage to look.
Because – the way of God is the way of weakness. There was nothing “productive” about the crucifixion. But it did bear fruit. You see only in becoming small and weak and vulnerable could God save us. And so surely, this must mean something for our life together. We must learn to be honest and authentic and vulnerable. We are all branches on the same vine. We only abide in community.
But second, I believe it’s impossible to abide in Jesus unless Scripture becomes the primary lens through which we view life. And for a lot of us I know this is intimidating. But Jesus is clear – the way we abide in him is to let His words abide in us. You see the only way to stop trying to make a name for ourselves is to keep return to that sacred book that is so eager to name us. According to Ephesians we’re God’s masterpiece. According to Jeremiah God knit us together in the womb. According to 1 John we’re God’s beloved children. According to Matthew we’re the light of the world. Now, I’m sure you already know those things. But do you know those things? We abide in Jesus to the extent that his words abide in us.
And as we abide the Father will do His work. Apparently when Michelangelo was asked how he carved his magnificent David, he apparently replied, “I looked inside the marble and just took away the bits that weren’t David.”
Each one of us is like a wonderful block of marble. Our job is to abide. God’s job is to chisel. We are the clay, Isaiah says and God is the potter.
And so as you go out into the world this week, here’s what I leave you with. Trust. Trust that you’ve already been cleansed and don’t have anything to prove. Trust Jesus enough to actively remain in Him, which at a minimum requires authentic community and a continual return to scripture. Trust that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Christ Jesus. In God’s mind the statue, His masterpiece, is finished.
I am the true vine, Jesus said, and my Father is the vine grower. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word I’ve spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you.