Tag: preaching

Sermon: God’s Indictment, Instruction and Invitation

Last Sunday I preached from Isaiah 1:1, 10-20 NIV. Amazingly, the circumstances in Isaiah’s day in 742 BC were similar to those in 21st century America. Politicians disagreed on how best to provide security for the nation of Judah. Strategic alliances to combat national enemies such as Assyria, and even Israel, were formed and then dissolved. The nation’s economy was rigged in favor of the well-to-do, and the weakest in Judah’s society — widows and orphans — were being cheated and oppressed.

But, in the midst of political, economic, and spiritual turmoil, God has a word for his people. Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God condemns their religious practice because it was not consistent with their conduct. Or maybe their worship was consistent with their conduct because both were lacking in obedience to God and compassion toward others. Here’s the audio of the sermon:


Lenten Sermon: An Incurable Blindness

On the fourth Sunday in Lent this year, the lectionary reading from the New Testament was John 9:1-41, the story of the man born blind. Here’s the message I preached last Sunday:

A Great Day Sunday and Back To Work on Monday

We had a great day on Easter Sunday! Les Adams led the service, Don Reagan read scripture, Eleanor Haskins presented the children’s sermon, others prayed, Charlotte was amazing on the organ, and the choir outdid themselves on Resurrection Sunday. Thanks to our great lay leaders, all I had to do was preach — and I got to do that sitting down!

Seriously, it was great to be back, and folks graciously welcomed me home after a three week absence. No one was happier than Debbie and I were. To top it off, we had guests from our former church in Greensboro. Fran Moseley, the minister of music then, and Nancy Davis, our accompanist, and her husband, Jerry were welcomed guests at our service. Actually, some of our folks thought they were a pastor search committee, so they weren’t welcomed warmly at first until that issue was out of the way!

This week I have a follow-up appointment with the surgeon who did the biopsy, and hopefully I will start physical therapy. Debbie spent part of the morning on the phone with Medi-Share, a Christian medical bill sharing ministry that we have subscribed to since 2008. They were very helpful in clarifying everything, and advising us on physical therapy. To top it off, I was in the office a couple of hours this morning, until I got really tired. But, at least I got started. We hope to hear from the biopsy on Tuesday or Wednesday, and I’ll update you when we do. Until then, our faith is in the God who raised Jesus from the dead during this Easter season.

New Sermon Series, “The Wisdom of ….”

I’m starting a new sermon series this Sunday using texts taken from the Revised Common Lectionary readings for July and August.  As I read through each of these scripture selections, I picked up a theme of “wise living” from them.  Each text seemed to me to be pointing out the wisdom of one or more virtues or practices of God’s people.  Here are the titles I’ve given each week’s sermon:

  • July 4 – The Wisdom of Humility, 2 Kings 5:1-14
  • July 11 – The Wisdom of Obedience, Deut 30:9-14
  • July 18 – The Wisdom of Compassion, Amos 8:1-12
  • July 25 – The Wisdom of Justice, Genesis 18:20-32
  • Aug 1 – The Wisdom of Mercy, Hosea 11:1-11
  • Aug 8 – The Wisdom of Repentance, Isaiah 1:1, 10-20
  • Aug 15 – The Wisdom of Faith, Hebrews 11:29-12:2
  • Aug 22 – The Wisdom of Reverence, Hebrews 12:18-29

I may be on vacation on August 1, but I included the August 1 title and text to complete the series.  Are any of you doing a summer series, and if so, what are you preaching on?

Sermon: Telling The Good News

Here’s the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow titled, Telling The Good News. I’ve got a terrible cold or allergies or something, so I hope your day is better than mine appears, if I don’t improve!

Telling the Good News
Luke 24:44-53

44He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things. 49I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

50When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

The Descension

Did you see the CNN story this week about the guy in China who was threatening to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge?  A Chinese man, named Chen Fuchao, was despondent over a 2-million yuan (about $294,000) debt that he had incurred over a failed building project.  He climbed up on the Haizhu bridge, threatening to jump.  Apparently this bridge is quite attractive to jumpers because since April, 11 people have thrown themselves off the bridge.

On this particular day, Mr. Chen had tied up traffic for 5-hours and it was more than Mr. Lian Jianghsheng could stand.  At 66-years-of-age, Mr. Lian approached police and offered to negotiate with Mr. Chen.  The police declined his offer, but Mr. Lian burst through the police line and climbed up on the bridge where Mr. Chen was poised.

Photographs show Mr. Lian greeting Mr. Chen with a handshake. But then, Mr. Lian threw Mr. Chen off the bridge.  Fortunately, a partially-inflated emergency landing cushion was positioned below — one wonders why it wasn’t completely inflated — and Mr. Chen hit the cushion, doing damage to his spine and elbow.  He is recovering in the hospital.

Mr. Lian then saluted the crowd from the bridge and climbed back down, only to be taken into custody by police.

CNN reported Mr. Lian said, “I pushed him off because jumpers like Chen are very selfish. Their action violates a lot of public interest,” Lian told Xinhua. “They do not really dare to kill themselves. Instead, they just want to raise the relevant government authorities’ attention to their appeals.”

I assume Mr. Lian will not be receiving the Humanitarian of the Year Award this year.

Or, did you hear this story about a woman in Taiwan — why are both of these stories about Chinese? — who was so distraught over her husband’s unfaithfulness that she contemplated both suicide and murder.  She decided on suicide, and flung herself without looking out an open window of her apartment several stories above the sidewalk.

Amazingly, she landed on her husband, killing him instantly.  She sustained only minor injuries.  Authorities could not prosecute her because her husband was killed accidentally.

So, two stories of people descending rather dramatically, which are both amusing, but understandable.  But what we have here in the gospel of Luke is an amazing story unlike any we’ve ever heard before.

Ascension Sunday

This is Ascension Sunday in the calendar of the Christian Year.  We have almost come to the end of the story of God at work in this world, again.  We started last November, after Thanksgiving, with Advent — looking for the coming of the Messiah.

We moved through the four Sundays of Advent into Christmastide with the celebration of Jesus’ birth and incarnation on the Feast of Christmas.

Then, Epiphany — the appearing — came along.  Then, Lent.  Then Easter.  And we have been in Eastertide since then.

But today is Ascension Sunday, the pivotal Sunday between the season of Easter and the appearances of Christ after the resurrection, and Pentecost.  Pentecost is next Sunday and marks the birthday of the church with the coming of the Holy Spirit to indwell and empower the apostles.

Jesus has now been risen some 40-days — isn’t it amazing how often the number 40 appears in Scripture?  This is the same amount of time that Jesus spent in the desert at the beginning of his ministry.  It’s also the same amount of time Rick Warren suggested to go through his book, The Purpose-Driven Life, but he actually takes the 40-day idea from scripture, too.

But now Jesus is about to leave the disciples.  They thought they had lost him at the crucifixion, but then came the resurrection.  So now, they must be a little confused.

“Is Jesus really leaving us, again?” they must have asked one another.  Jesus must have sensed their puzzlement because here in these last moments with the disciples, he takes them quickly through a crash course in theology.

It’s In The Book

The first thing he says to them in this last meeting is —

“This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Of course, at this point there is no New Testament.  The only scripture the disciples or Jesus knew was the Hebrew Scripture, which we call the Old Testament.  So here’s a major point Jesus wants to leave his disciples thinking about —

Scripture tells the story of God’s Messiah.

Jesus said, “Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms.”

Which tells us two things:

  1. The Old Testament has a lot to say about the Messiah; and,
  2. It all came true in Jesus.

Remember the story of the transfiguration of Jesus?  Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up on the mountain.  There they see Jesus glowing like the sun, and he is joined by Moses and Elijah.  Moses represents the Law, the Torah, the Law of God.  Elijah represents the prophets.  Curiously, both of these men did not die like almost everybody else.  Moses dies at the end of Genesis and the scripture tells us that God buried Moses, and that no one knows where his grave is to this day.  Elijah was taken up into heaven in a fiery chariot.

But guess what Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking about.  Jesus’ impending death.  I think the King James version says “his demise” but that means Jesus’ death.  That death by hanging on a tree, which was a cursed thing in the Hebrew culture.

So, the first thing that Jesus reminds his disciples right before he leaves them is — Scripture tells my story.

Jesus Opens Their Minds

Then Luke tells us, 45Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures.

This was exactly the same thing he had done with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus.  He helped them understand what Scripture said about the Messiah, and why all of those prophecies and descriptions were about him, Jesus.

You remember the story of these two disciples, recorded by Luke only a few verses before our text today.  The two of them, Cleopas was the name of one, were walking away from Jerusalem to Emmaus.  They were downcast, discouraged, and as they walked a stranger joins them and asks why they look so sad.

Their reply is “are you the only one around here who hasn’t heard the story of Jesus?  they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. 20The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; 21but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. 22In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning 23but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. 24Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

Then Jesus gently chides them for their unbelief, and begins to explain the story of the Messiah to them.  As they walk and listen, they come to the home where they are staying.  Jesus acts as if he is going on down the road, but they invite him in for dinner.  It is as he breaks the bread and blesses it that they recognize him, and then he is gone from their presence.

They asked each other — “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

So, Jesus helps them, and us, understand the scripture that talks about the messiah, and that he is that promised savior.

Not Everybody Understands Scripture Like Jesus Taught Us

So, what does that have to do with us today?  I’ve just finished reading an interesting book, Jesus, Interrupted, by Bart Ehrman.  Dr. Ehrman teaches at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.  He teaches religious studies.  And, he used to be just like us — a Bible-believing follower of Jesus.  He loved the Bible so much that he wanted to teach Bible.

So, he went to Moody Bible College, and Wheaton College, both academic powerhouses for conservative, Bible-believing young people to receive training for ministry.  But, then Ehrman went on to Princeton Seminary where he encountered a very different view of the Bible.

Rather than embracing the Bible as the Word of God, or a guide for Christian living, Princeton introduced Bart Ehrman to a scholarly approach to scripture called “higher criticism.”  Higher criticism is an approach to understanding scripture that looks at the cultural, linguistic, stylistic, and historic clues found in the ancient manuscripts.

Of course, there are no original manuscripts of any book of the Bible, much less the whole Bible itself, but higher criticism dissects the form and content of what we call sacred scripture looking for its origins and its flaws.

When he came out of Princeton, Ehrman was no longer a Bible-believing, conservative Christian.  He was an agnostic — someone who doesn’t know if God exists or not.  Ehrman says the he became a “happy agnostic,” not because of his biblical studies, but because of the problem of evil and suffering in the world.  He can’t figure out how a good God can allow bad things to happen.  That is a topic for another time, but that’s his story.

In his latest book, Jesus, Interrupted, Ehrman says — are you ready? — the following:

  • Most of the New Testament books are forgeries;
  • Few of the sayings of Jesus are things Jesus actually said;
  • The three different gospels contradict themselves, so one or more are in error;
  • The disciples couldn’t have written the New Testament because they were ignorant fishermen, or ignorant tax collectors, or ignorant whatevers.

And, that’s only part of what he says.  You should read the entire book and read all the technical stuff he throws out.

“Why did you read a book like that?” you might ask.  Well, I wanted to see what he had to say.  I wanted to see what the competition was all about.  I read it for the same reason I read John Allen Paulos’ book, Irreligion, a couple of years ago.  Those of us who believe need to know what those who do not believe are thinking.

Now, I am not equipped academically to take on a guy like Dr. Bart Ehrman.  He knows stuff I will never know, and that’s as it should be.  He’s a specialist in his field and apparently a well-respected academic. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t answer some of his objections, and disagree with this final conclusion that the Bible is a totally human book, full of errors and contradictions.

Let me just address one point:  Ehrman says the disciples were ignorant fisherman, which Peter, Andrew, James and John were.  We have books in the New Testament purportedly written by Peter and John.  And, we have a Gospel, the earliest one, written by a protege of Peter’s named Mark.  Ehrman says that ignorant fishermen could not have learned the literary Greek of their day, and then penned these masterful letters and gospels.

What Ehrman fails to tell his readers is that many people employed a person called an amanuensis, basically a stenographer, who recorded their thoughts in clear and correct Greek for business and correspondence.   We know Paul employed an amanuensis because at one point, Paul says, I’m writing this with my own hand, indicating that the previous lines were written by his secretary, his amanuensis, as he dictated.  But, that’s one of Ehrman’s major points.

But, when it comes to Ehrman’s comparing of one manuscript fragment to another, I must admit I am lost.  Debbie and I had the opportunity to see the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit when it came to Raleigh several months ago, and we did not see a single complete scroll.  All we saw were about a half-dozen fragments about the size of a quarter to a half-dollar.  That’s it.  Manuscript study is like working a giant jigsaw puzzle with no box cover for guidance.

So, the Dead Sea Scrolls have been under study since 1948, and not even a fraction of the scholarship is complete.  So, while I can’t dispute Ehrman’s argument about scrolls, manuscripts, and fragments, I take great confidence in this —

The books of the Bible which we consider sacred are the same ones considered sacred from about the second century A.D. and after.  The entire New Testament canon of books was not even finished until almost the end of the first century, so beginning a little more than 70-years after Christ, the early church fathers were listing the same books we call our Bible today.

Actually, Bart Ehrman admits this in a sort of grudging way.  He refers to a document discovered in Italy in the 8th century by L. A. Muratori, known as the Muratorian Canon.  This document is a poor Latin translation from a Greek document believed to be from the 2nd century which lists all 22 of the 27 books of the New Testament.  It probably listed more, but the top of the document was torn off, and it began by calling the Gospel of Luke “the third Gospel.”  Which it still is.  The list does include some books we no longer consider “canonical” or belonging to sacred scripture, but that wasn’t unusual either.  The main point is that by the second century, at least 22 of the current 27 New Testament books were already considered sacred scripture by the early church.

While I am not afraid of scholastic inquiry into the origins, form, language, or history of the Bible, the point of Scripture is to tell God’s story.  If in the second century the earliest church leaders considered the accounts we have to be reliable, and holy, then I can accept that, despite the approach of science that takes a completely different view of sacred texts.

Let me state this simply:  We do still need Jesus to open our minds to understand that the Bible tells his story.

It’s Our Story to Tell, Too

But, Jesus doesn’t just leave the disciples with this new spiritual insight.  He tells them “You are witnesses of these things.”

Now it’s their turn to tell the story.  They saw it, they lived it, they heard it, they experienced it.  They are witnesses.  But Jesus makes them one final, but very important promise — wait for the power from on high.

While at The Cove two weeks ago, we heard the professor of preaching from Samford’s Beeson Divinity School — Dr. Robert Smith.  Dr. Smith preached about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and said some memorable things.  Dr. Smith is African-American, and he pointed out that the Ethiopian eunuch — a servant of the Queen of Ethiopia — was riding, while the apostle Philip was walking.  He also pointed out that the Ethiopian could read, but he needed someone to help him understand the scroll he was reading.  In my white, American perspective,  those were two points I had missed.  But, he also said some interesting things about the church.

One of the things he talked about, and he covered a lot of ground, was the need for the power of the Holy Spirit.  He said, “If every reference to the Holy Spirit were removed from the Bible, we would still try to do church.”

In addressing the increasing pattern of churches giving to missions rather than engaging in missions, he said, “There are some things that aren’t going to happen just because you can write a big check.”

So, this is our story to tell.  We are witnesses.  Maybe we are not witnesses of the same events that the apostles witnesses, but we are witnesses of the same experience they had.  The experience of Jesus opening our minds to understand scripture.  To understand that when Jesus said,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that meant Jesus.

When Jesus said,
That whosoever believes in him shall not perish, but have eternal life,
that means us.

It was then, and only then, that Jesus ascended into heaven.  Scripture tells his story; the disciples witnessed his story; we have experienced his story.  Now we need that power from on high, the Holy Spirit, to equip, empower, and embolden us to tell the story.

And, how did they tell it?  The same way Jesus did — they healed people, they loved people, they made friends for God, they preached the good news, they lived the gospel, they bore hardship, suffered opposition, endured persecution, but still they told the story that had changed their lives.  That’s what we are to do now.  We are witnesses, too.  We are telling the good news by the way we live, the values we hold, the difference we make in the lives of others.

From The Cove: ‘An Exegetical Escort’

image329I’m at The Cove in Asheville, North Carolina for the next three days.  This is the first Billy Graham School of Evangelism for 2009, and I’ll lead “Keys to Thriving in the Smaller Church” tomorrow afternoon.  But tonight we feasted on the preaching of Reverend Dr. Robert Smith, Professor of Christian Preaching at Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Alabama.

His text was Acts 8:26-39, the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Here are some particularly delightful quotes:

“The exegetical escort — the preacher — escorts the hearer by the inspired Word of God, into the presence of Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the purpose of transformation.”

“The game is not played in the huddle.”

“It took persecution (of the church) to get them to a particular place.”

“To be a Christian then meant more than raising your hands.”

“Christ was not, in terms of Calvary, Plan B.  He was Plan A.”

“God writes the Bible backwards.  Revelation is about what happened, Genesis is about how it happened.”

When Moses and Elijah come to the Mount of Transfiguration, they did so because “they knew they were in heaven on credit.”

“God does not have an inexhaustible vocabulary. Once God has said ‘Jesus,’ He can’t say anything more.”

The Samaritans were of the “canine community — mongrels.”

“If every reference to the Holy Spirit was taken out of the Bible, we would still try to operate the church.  But there are some moves that will not happen in the church just because you write a big check.”

“It’s not what you have, it’s whose hands you put it into.” (referring to the loaves and fish)

“Don’t despise the small things.”

“God is the only one who knows how to multiply by dividing.  And he knows how to promote by demoting.”

“Prepare carefully but preach freely.”

“God is waiting on the church to declare its ignorance.”

“The best theologian I ever sat under was my Mama.  She can’t pronounce the word ‘omnipresent’ to this day, but she just says, ‘God is so big that everywhere He moves, He bumps into Himself.”

Regarding racial reconciliation: “If we can’t sit together (like Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch in the chariot) then we can’t go down into the water together.”

“We are cleansed by the Word and clothed by the righteousness of God.”

“When you start in the Bible, you have to go to Jesus.”

So, you can see we were in for a treat.  The 300 preachers and spouses here were standing, applauding, amen-ing, and shouting by the time Dr. Smith was finished.  You had to be there.  I’m glad I was.  More tomorrow.

Sermon: A Lesson from the Vineyard

This is the sermon I’m preaching tomorrow, Sunday, May 10, 2009, on Mother’s Day.  I hope your day is a wonderful one as you gather with your church family.

A Lesson from the Vineyard

John 15:1-8
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. 3You are already clean (pruned)* 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 15:2: The Greek for “to prune” also means “to clean.”

Pruning for New Growth

We’re in that season of the year when some plants in the garden get pruned back so that they will produce new growth and blossoms. Crepe myrtles come to mind. We have several in our yard, and not long ago Debbie went about with her red loppers, whacking off branches. She reminded me that crepe myrtles bloom on new growth, and new growth comes when you prune the branches some.

Butterfly bushes get the same treatment, only more so. Debbie cut those almost to the ground, leaving only about 4-5 inches of the old plant. But, sure enough, new growth is coming up from the base of the plant. We’ve had most of these butterfly bushes long enough to know that they will get to be pretty large, and the bees and butterflies really do like the blooms they will produce.

We don’t have a grape vine yet. I have some grape plants that Carson gave me, and they’re doing fine, but we don’t have them situated yet. The blackberries are doing well, but that’s another story.

The Gardener and The True Vine

But, back to the grape vine. I imagine Jesus and his disciples were walking by a vineyard one day and he pointed over the wall of the vineyard at the rows and rows of grape vines with their branches snaking along wooden fences. Perhaps the grapes were already forming in clusters on the branches, and Jesus could point to the fruit that the vines were producing.

As he did so, he said, “I’m the true vine and the Father is the gardener.”

Now, this illustration had special significance because a giant gold grape vine with clusters of grapes adorned the front of the Holy Place on the Temple in Jerusalem. According to Josephus, famous historian of the Jews, the grape clusters were as tall as a man, which probably came from the Old Testament account of the bounty of the Promised Land. When the 12 spies, which included Joshua and Caleb, went to check out the promised land before the Israelites were to enter it, they brought back stories of a land flowing with milk and honey. As an example of the bounty of that land, they brought back a grape vine with a cluster of grapes so large that it had to be suspended between two men to be carried back.

So, when Jesus says, “I’m the true vine” he is conjuring up images of the Temple, the promised land, and of the nation itself. Some scholars believe that Jesus was saying, “I’m the true Israel.” That’s too deep for us to explore today, but my point is his statement was loaded with meaning that his disciples instantly understood.

And, he said, “My Father is the gardener.” They understood that as well, for even though they were not farmers, they lived in an agrarian society. Olive groves, fig trees, fields of grain, and vineyards were mainstays of the agricultural system in Jesus’ day. The disciples understood well that vineyards required tending, and that tending included cultivating and pruning.

But Jesus goes further, “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” Those that bear fruit get pruned expertly so they will bear more. The point Jesus is making, and will make again in the following verses is — branches are supposed to bear fruit. That’s what a grape vine does.

If there is no fruit, the problem is not with the vine, for Jesus is the vine. And, the problem is not with the gardener because God is the gardener. If the branch is not bearing fruit, it’s because the branch is not properly connected to the vine. Healthy branches produce fruit; unhealthy branches don’t, and get cut off.

So, Jesus says, “Remain in me” — meaning “stay connected to me.” That staying connected to Jesus, abiding in Jesus as the King James puts it, is so that the lifegiving love of Christ can flow through him to us. And when it does, we produce fruit.

The problem is that the Gospel of John is such a mystical book, such a spiritual gospel, that we tend to spiritualize everything John says. Rather than give us an account of Jesus’ birth, John gives us a reimagined opening with shadows of the book of Genesis —

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

Pretty mystical stuff. Much more so than shepherds abiding in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. And, John writes of the life of Jesus like this throughout his gospel account. So, when we come to this business of the vine and the branches, we get all mystical.

“What does it mean to abide in Christ?” we ask. “What is the fruit we are to produce?” “How do we know when we’re abiding properly?”

These are all good questions, and our answer comes just a few verses down.

Interpret Scripture with Scripture

In seminary, one of the ways we were taught to interpret scripture, especially difficult or puzzling passages, was to let scripture interpret itself. So, let’s look around and see if we can find any clues that might help us with all this vine and branches stuff.

Sure enough, we do. Just a few verses down from this passage, Jesus seems to re-state what he has just said. Perhaps the disciples had really funny looks on their faces, like “we don’t have any idea what he’s talking about.” They often did that, it seems. And, so Jesus restates in very plain language what he has just told them in the illustration drawn from the vineyard. Look at verses 9-17:

9″As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. 10If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love. 11I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete. 12My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. 13Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command. 15I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. 16You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last. Then the Father will give you whatever you ask in my name. 17This is my command: Love each other.

So, here the language is plain and straightforward:

* Remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love.
* How do we remain in Jesus love? By obeying his commands.
* What is his command? Love one another as Jesus loved the disciples.
* What does that love look like? It looks like Jesus willing to die for his friends.
* Who are Jesus’ friends? They were and we are.
* What has he chosen us to do? Bear fruit.

So, we’re right back to the vine, branches, and fruit, only this time in plain language.

What Does This Mean To Us?

Okay, so far, so good. But the big question is “How do we do this?” As you can imagine, lots of folks have taken a turn at explaining what all this abiding, loving, and bearing fruit that lasts means.

Some have suggested that “remaining in Jesus” means to believe the right doctrine. Of course, those are usually the folks who think they have the only right doctrine, and there is no shortage of those people. Which then brings us to the question, “Which doctrine is the right doctrine?” and here’s where things get really complicated.

I finished reading two interesting books this week. The Lost History of Christianity by Phillip Jenkins; and, The Jesus Sutras by Martin Palmer. In The Lost History of Christianity Phillip Jenkins expounds on the very colorful history of the Christian church of the East, meaning Syria, Iraq, Iran, India, Africa, and even Japan and China.

To make a long story very short, apparently as the church in Rome with the help of the Roman empire, took charge of Christianity, many eastern Christians churches decided to go their own way. Rome declared most of them heretics at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, and so the Eastern churches, who traced their lineages back to Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, and Thomas who travelled to India decided to operate on their own.

The amazing thing was that these Eastern churches were larger, had more bishops and priests, more churches, and more adherents than the Western Church.

In The Jesus Sutras, Martin Palmer tells the story of these same Eastern churches sending a formal delegation led by Bishop Aleben of Syria who was accompanied by 24 priests. This delegation traveled the ancient Silk Road, the eastern trading route connecting China to the Middle East. I grew up hearing the story of Hudson Taylor who founded the China Inland Mission in the mid-1800s. But Bishop Aleben and his monks reached what was then the capital of China in 635 AD, 1200 years before Hudson Taylor set sail for China.

Amazingly, the emperor of China, Taizong, embraced Christianity, which he called the “Religion of Light” and decreed that churches should be built. He also decreed that the Chinese should also turn to the One Spirit, their name for God, and leave behind the pantheon of lesser gods of Chinese culture. Christianity thrived in China for almost 200 years, and a stone monument was erected in 781 AD commemorating the coming of Aleben and the Religion of Light to China. Martin Palmer also discovered the first Christian monastery built by Aleben and his monks, and work continues at that site near Xian, China.

My point in all of this is that there are lots of doctrines that have divided the Christian church over the centuries. Some of the adherents were actually named heretics by the Western Church — Bishop Aleben was one of them, from the Nestorian church of Syria. But, they worshipped God, believed in Jesus, celebrated communion, gathered for worship, and baptized converts to the faith just like we do. And, some of these “heretical” groups were actually more faithful, more evangelistic, and larger than the so-called orthodox groups of their day.

So, it’s not in following one doctrine or another that we abide in Jesus. It’s by loving others as Jesus loves us.

What Did Jesus Do?

You would think that loving others would also be a simple concept to grasp, but here too we have problems. In its checkered history, the church has more than once been guilty of expressing its love at the point of a sword or gun. “We love you so much we’re going to kill you if you don’t convert.” Happened much more frequently than you might think. So to understand what “loving others” really looks like, we have to ask, “What did Jesus do?”

Fortunately, Jesus gave us lots of examples of loving others. He announced his ministry by saying —

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Jesus’ ministry was to be focused on the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, the oppressed, and his intention was to declare a year of Jubilee — that’s what the Lord’s favor means. In the year of Jubilee, which came every 50 years, all property went back to the original tribe or family which owned it, all debts were cancelled, and everyone started off with a clean slate. Unfortunately, the nation of Israel quickly figured how to get around the year of Jubilee and it’s intent, but that doesn’t stop Jesus from declaring his intention to reinstate it.

Then Jesus goes about to the poor, the hungry, the sick, the children, the lame, the lepers, the tax collectors, the prostitutes, and all the other marginalized people of society in that day. He eats with them, goes to their homes, heals their diseases, feeds them, cleanses them, forgives them, restores them, and saves them.

Then, when someone asks him which commands are the greatest, he says, “Love God and love your neighbor.” Looking for a way out of that requirement, they ask, “Who is my neighbor?” At which point Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A Samaritan was the lowest form of life there was, according to the Jewish social norm of the first century. Samaritans didn’t worship in the right place, didn’t believe the right doctrine, and didn’t observe Jewish dietary laws. But Jesus says that the Good Samaritan acted like a neighbor.

It’s pretty clear from both what Jesus did and what he said that loving others means helping them, caring for them, being a neighbor to them. Oh, Jesus also had a little bit to say about helping people.

It’s interesting that there a lot of things that Jesus doesn’t tell us to do. For instance, Jesus doesn’t tell us to go to church. We gather on Sunday, the first day of the week, to commemorate his resurrection and to worship God, but not because Jesus told us to. Jesus doesn’t tell us to study the Bible, either. As a matter of fact, his followers couldn’t have studied the Bible if they wanted to because the scrolls were kept in the synagogue and not owned by individuals. But, we do study the Bible because it’s a good thing to do. So, you would think if we do good things that Jesus didn’t even tell us to do, we’d sure do the things he did tell us to do.

So, in Matthew 25 when Jesus says, “34”Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

And then concludes by saying, “37”Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

Jesus concludes by saying —

40″The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

That’s pretty clear — Jesus is telling us to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners. By implication, Jesus is saying, “Help those who need help.”

That is how we love others. That is how we abide in Christ. That is how we obey Jesus. It is very simple, very straightforward, but we miss it everyday, just like the Pharisee, and the priest, and the Levite who passed by the man who had fallen among thieves.

An Opportunity to Help Here in Chatham

Let me make this more real. Last week, Debbie and I met Mr. Melvin Hodnett. Mr. Hodnett came to our house to ask Debbie for some flowers, but I think that was not the real reason for his coming. During the conversation they had, Mr. Hodnett told Debbie that his house had burned, and he was trying to find some help to fix it. The next day, he came to the church and I met him and heard the same story. I told him I would come look at his house, but I asked if he had been to Community Action, and other social services agencies. He had, he said, but they couldn’t help him.

I made a few phone calls to inquire if he had sought help and the response. Sure enough, there are no programs to help people whose houses burn. Everybody is supposed to have insurance.

On Monday, Mr. Hodnett came to the church and I went with him to see his house. I had mentioned it to Sterling, and as Mr. Hodnett and I were pulling into his driveway, Sterling and Tommy Craddock, and Eugene Hodnett, Melvin’s cousin, were about to pull out.

The house was pretty badly damaged, almost everything inside is ruined. Furniture, clothes, books, decorations. All ruined. Most of it is lying in wet, soggy piles on the floor, right below where the ceiling and roof caught fire and burned.

But the worst part is that Mr. Hodnett is now living in the shed behind his house. He has no water, no electricity, no house, and no one will help him. But in the midst of all that he has planted two gardens.

Our deacons voted last Monday night to figure out how we can help Mr. Hodnett. It will cost less than $2,000 to repair the damage and get him back in his home. There are some details to work out, volunteers to line up, and lots of work ahead.

When I told Mr. Hodnett this week that we were going to try to help him, he said, “I’m raising some greens and if they do well, I’ll bring you some and maybe you can find someone who needs them.”

If we want to abide in Jesus, bear a lot of fruit, love others, and do what Jesus told us to do, then we can start with helpin Mr. Hodnett. He is certainly one of the least of these. Jesus said that when we helped others, it’s like we are helping him. So pretty soon, we get to put a roof on Jesus’ house located right here in Chatham.  Sometimes abiding in Christ means we don’t have to leave home.