The Graceful Life Pt. 1
An article in The Wall Street Journal asks a great question, “Why work out when you can just buy the clothes and look like you did?” How many of us own clothes that are technically exercise clothes that we never wear to exercise? The article explores a growing trend in the athletic apparel market – people are buying sports clothing without actually practicing the sport. The article notes “the U.S. athletic apparel market will increase by nearly 50 percent to more than $100 billion at retail by 2020, driven in large part by consumers snapping up stretchy tees and leggings that will never see the fluorescent lights of a gym.”
For instance, sales of yoga apparel increased by 45 percent but yoga participation grew by less than five percent. The trend isn’t limited to yoga. Outdoor and camping retailers have debuted new lines of hiking boots and flannel shirts for people who probably have no intention of actually hiking and camping. Retailers are also rolling out jogging pants and preppy, $90 men’s running shorts for men who may never jog. The article quoted one buyer of athletic apparel who likes to wear yoga pants around town but who seldom has time to work out. She said, “When you put on your workout apparel, you think, ‘Huh, maybe I should think about working out today.’”[i]
We’ve all done it. We buy the yoga pants but never go to a yoga class. We wear really expensive Under Armor gear but never work out. We want to look the part of a fit, healthy, athletic individual. We just don’t want to make the real sacrifice in our diets, and with the sweat and ensuing pain of a good workout. We do the same thing in the church. We want to look the part of a follower of Christ. But we aren’t all that into actually following Jesus. Especially if he starts messing with views and things that we hold dear.
I think the shift happened sometime early in the early part of the 20th Century when, during revivals and evangelistic meetings, people were invited to “invite Christ into their lives.” Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. In fact, it’s a biblical image. In 2 Corinthians 13:5 Paul writes “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you? – unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” And in Ephesians 3:17 he writes “so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith …”
But by far the more common image in the Bible is of us dwelling in Christ, more than Christ dwelling in us. I love this quote by Russell Moore: “For too long, we’ve called unbelievers to ‘invite Jesus into your life.’ Jesus doesn’t want to be in your life. Your life’s a wreck. Jesus calls you into his life. And his life isn’t boring or purposeless or static. It’s wild and exhilarating and unpredictable.[ii]
You see, when I focus on inviting Jesus into my life, he becomes another part of my life – something or someone added to the rest of my life that makes my life better and just might be a source of strength during a difficult time. But when I view myself as being swept into Christ’s life, he stops being an add-on to my life and becomes the source of my life. And that is the image Jesus paints in John 15. READ TEXT.
Jesus sets before us the key to a life of discipleship, a life of following Jesus, and the image he uses is that of a lush grapevine and its branches. I am THE TRUE VINE, and my father is the vinedresser. It doesn’t seem like it to us, but that’s quite a statement. It’s a revolutionary statement, actually. Of all of the national and religious symbols used by the Jews throughout history, the vine was perhaps the most significant. It was stamped on their coins. The image of the vine was at the core of their psyche and their identity as a nation. Throughout the Old Testament, the nation of Israel had been depicted as a vineyard lovingly planted and tended by God. It was a powerful symbol, similar to our own “Stars and Stripes,” or a soaring eagle, or the Statue of Liberty, and it was deeply imbedded in their national history.
One commentator tells us that “In the temple at Jerusalem, above and round the gate, seventy cubits high (that’s roughly 115 feet!), which led from the porch to the holy place, a richly carved vine was extended as a border and decoration. The branches, tendrils and leaves were of finest gold; the stalks of the bunches were of the length of the human form, and the bunches hanging upon them were of costly jewels. Herod first placed it there; rich and patriotic Jews from time to time added to it, one contributed a new grape, another a leaf, and a third even a bunch of grapes … this vine must have had an uncommon importance and a sacred meaning in the eyes of the Jews. With what majestic splendor must it likewise have appeared in the evening, when it was illuminated by tapers.”
It was an image that reminded them that they had been planted by God and were under his loving care and guidance. In saying, “I am the TRUE VINE,” Jesus was saying “I am the source of life and fruitfulness. I am the fulfillment of our deepest identity as a nation. This is an image of Christ as the source of life, and those who place their trust in him alone are connected to him, for the sap that runs through the vine runs through its branches as well. God the Father walks along the vine, lovingly pruning its branches and tending to his vineyard so that it will bear fruit and bring him glory.
The concept of bearing fruit runs throughout this passage. We are to be connected to the vine IN ORDER TO BEAR FRUIT. Now, a lot of us think that means we’re supposed to be helping people come to know Christ, that the fruit we are supposed to bear are lives won for Christ, and that is certainly legitimate. But that isn’t necessarily what Jesus is talking about here. In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, the prophet used the image of Israel as a vineyard when he said, “Let me sing for my beloved my love song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and he looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. (Is 5:1-2).” God was saying “I lovingly planted you as a vineyard. I worked so hard on that vineyard. I tended you tenderly, carefully, and with love. But when I look for a crop, all I find is bad fruit.
So what was the fruit God was looking for? Isaiah went on to say, “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry! (Is 5:7)” He was looking for a fruit of justice and righteousness. He was looking for fruit INSIDE his children. This is more about the “being” of a disciple of Christ than the “doing.” When Paul named some fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control, he focused on internal fruit. Peter did the same thing when he listed faith, virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. God wants to bring out his fruit IN us, and as he does that he will bring about fruit THROUGH us.
Now, as we look at this passage, ONE WORD jumps off the page at us. In fact, it is used 10 times in these 11 verses: ABIDE. Jesus said:
ABIDE in me
The branch cannot bear fruit unless is ABIDES in the vine
Neither can you, unless you ABIDE in me
Whoever ABIDES in me and I in him will bear much fruit
If anyone does not ABIDE in me he is thrown away
If you ABIDE in me and my words ABIDE in you, ask whatever
you wish and it will be done for you
ABIDE in my love
keep my commandments you will ABIDE in my love
I have kept my Father’s commandments and ABIDE in his love
Clearly the the life of discipleship begins with ABIDING in Christ. St. Paul used a similar concept when he talked about our new life IN CHRIST, but John opted for a more active verb: ABIDE. How do we ABIDE in Christ? The word abide means to remain or stay in the same place over a period of time. But the point isn’t that we remain stagnate in our walks with Christ. The point is that we actively choose to remain connected to Christ.
Look at verse 5. Truth is, we can accomplish many things without Christ. We can earn a good living. We can raise a good family. We can do good things and give to charities. We can teach Sunday school classes. We can even build and fill churches without Christ. Pastor and author Francis Chan said, “Let’s be honest: If you combine a charismatic speaker, a talented worship band, and some hip, creative events, people will attend your church. Yet this does not mean that the Holy Spirit of God is actively working and moving in the lives of the people who are coming. It simply means that you have created a space that is appealing enough to draw people in for an hour or two on Sunday.” We can accomplish many things without Christ. But we CANNOT grow to maturity in Christ, and we CANNOT live lives marked by the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in us.
Now, we all ABIDE somewhere. Some of us abide in our jobs. When life gets tough we choose to get busy at work, maybe to avoid conflict at home, to avoid taking the steps toward a healthier relationship, or to keep our minds busy. Some of us abide in anxiety, or cynicism, or deep anger as a way of coping with life. The question is, where am I abiding? Where do you abide? Our abiding place is the place to which we default. It is often the internal place where we are most comfortable.
One of my all-time favorite authors is John Eldridge. Several years ago now, John wrote a book with a good friend, Brent Curtis, who has since passed away. In that book, The Sacred Romance, Brent wrote, “If I’m not abiding in Jesus, then where is it that I abide? I once asked myself. I began to notice that when I was tired or anxious, there were certain sentences I would say in my head that led me to a familiar place. The journey to this place would often start with me walking around disturbed, feeling as if there was something deep inside that I needed to put into words but couldn’t quite capture. I felt the “something” as anxiety, loneliness, and a need for connection with someone. If no connection came, I would start to say things like, “Life really stinks. Why is it always so hard? It’s never going to change.” If no one noticed I was struggling or asked me what was wrong, I found my sentences shifting to a more cynical level: “Who cares? Life is a joke.” Surprisingly, by the time I was saying those last sentences, I was feeling better. The anxiety was greatly diminished. My comforter, my abiding place, was cynicism and rebellion.
From this abiding place, I would feel free to use some soul cocaine, watching a violent video with maybe a little sexual titillation thrown in, having more alcohol with a meal than I might normally drink, things that would allow me to feel better for a little while. I had always thought of these things as just bad habits. I began to see they were much more; they were spiritual abiding places that were my comforters and friends in a very spiritual way.
The final light went on one evening when I read John 15:7 in The Message. Peterson translates Jesus’ words on abiding this way: “If you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon.” Jesus was saying in answer to my question, “I have made my home in you, Brent. But you still have other comforters you go to. You must learn to make your home in me.”
So how do we do that? How do we abide in Christ? Jesus tells us that if we have placed our trust in him, he has made his home in us. Look at V. 3 and then down at V. 7. Christ abides in us through his Word. Does the Word of God abide in you? Do you read, study, and meditate on the Word of God? Am I doing things to enable the Word of God to sink deeply into my heart?
And Jesus gives us the model for abiding in Christ. Look at v. 10. He ISN’T saying “I will love you IF you keep my commandments.” What he IS saying is that as we abide in him, as his word begins to dwell in our hearts, HIS character, the fruit of HIS Spirit, begins to emerge in us. Our lives will be marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, goodness, and self-control. Obedience, following Christ’s commands, is the mark of abiding in Christ. As the sap from the vine nourishes and strengthens the branches, so Christ’s power and life flows into us. When the branch is connected to the vine, and is pruned by the gardener, it WILL produce fruit.
Often we assume it is our responsibility to produce fruit, that it is our responsibility to become Christ-like, to mature in faith. But it isn’t. That’s God’s job. Jesus wants us to focus not on fruitfulness, but on abiding in Christ, because when we abide in Christ, the fruit will come. The result of our abiding in Christ, the result of his power, through the Holy Spirit, at work in our lives, is fruitfulness. My life in Christ will be marked by vitality. As I abide in Christ and his word abides in me, my thoughts begin to become God’s thoughts, and my life begins to look more and more like the life of Christ in me. My actions, both internally and externally, come more and more to reflect the life of Christ in me, never perfectly, but more and more.
Too many of us spend our time desperately trying to become more loving, or patient, or joy-filled, or self-controlled, only to constantly find ourselves falling short. Jesus reminds us that our job is to abide in him. To abide in his love. To allow his word to dwell within us. And when we do that, his Holy Spirit will go to work. God will gently and lovingly prune, and we will begin to become fruitful in the kingdom of God. But it takes time. We each have a choice. We can choose to keep trying to go it on our own, doing our best to live a good life, giving lip-service to Jesus but never acknowledging or drawing on his power. Or we can abide in Christ, and allow his life-giving Spirit to empower and transform us from the inside out.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to just look the part of a good follower of Jesus. I want to actually follow Jesus. Let us pray.
[i] Sara Germano, “Yoga Poseurs: Athletic Gear Soars, Outpacing Sport Itself,” The Wall Street Journal (8-20-14)
[ii] Russell Moore, “A Purpose Driven Cosmos,” Christianity Today (February 2012)