Today is All Saints’ Sunday; last week was Reformation Sunday—both have much to say about what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ.
Today we remember a dozen people who have gone from this world to the next in the past year—half of them in just the last few weeks. People whose lives, certainly from an earthly viewpoint, were vastly different.
The one thing they all have in common is that in the end, all that mattered is what they did about Jesus. the only thing that we can take with us into eternity is our relationship with Jesus Christ. And because in one sense, our relationship with Jesus is a very private one, it can be difficult for us to know for sure what kind of relationship someone else has with Jesus—even, sometimes, when we’re very close to that person.
It should not be so. This is one of the areas where the church today needs reformation.
I remember a conversation I had with the daughter of one of the people we’re remembering this morning. We were sitting at the bedside of their dying parent, a parent who was no longer able to communicate with us. The daughter was deeply distressed because she said that she wasn’t sure that her parent was saved. She wasn’t sure that her parent would be with Jesus in eternity.
When I know that someone is nearing the end of their life, I always talk to them about their relationship with Jesus. I want to be certain that they’re right with Him before they leave this world—because nothing is more important. And because I’d had this conversation with this dying individual, because actually I’d had many conversations with this individual over the years, I was able to reassure this woman that I was quite certain that their parent would be going home to Jesus.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is not the way Jesus intended it to be. And yet I’ve encountered this over and over again. Because apparently for many years, the church either taught, or at least allowed people to believe, that faith is a private matter between us and God and we don’t need to share it with anyone else.
For at least a generation, and probably longer, people in this country, even people who attended church regularly, were allowed to think that as long as they believed in Jesus, that’s all that mattered.
Over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about these chapters in John’s gospel that show us the last hours of Jesus’ life on this earth. He’s giving His final instructions to His disciples. He began His public ministry by calling these twelve men to follow Him and He’s spent more time teaching them than He spent doing anything else. These men are the beginning of the new community that Jesus came to form. A community of men, some of whom are related to each other, some of whom are polar opposites of each other in every way imaginable. He calls Matthew the tax collector, who would have been hated by the others. He calls Simon the zealot—the zealots were consumed with a desire to overturn the Roman Empire. He calls fishermen who probably just want to do their job and earn enough money to support their families.
He calls them to follow Him—and they do. The one thing they have in common is their relationship with Jesus, their willingness to follow Him.
He’s not calling a group of individuals to learn from Him and then go off and do their own thing—He beginning a new creation. A new creation that’s not just another religion. A new creation that is a living organism—the Church. The Body of Christ.
And here He’s using the image of a vine with branches. Branches that He calls to bear fruit. This is NOT a message about our individual and personal relationship with the Lord, as it is often taken. Jesus isn’t saying, you’re one of the branches, now go and bear fruit.
He’s saying, “You’re all branches and you’re all connected to Me, and therefore to one another as well.”
He says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” Paul will later use the analogy of the human body to illustrate this point—because we can all easily understand that not a single part of our body can operate independently of the other parts. If I cut off my arm or my leg, or my finger, that part is no longer of any good to anyone. It’s dead.
Jesus is taking the image of the vine that throughout Jewish history has been used as a symbol for the nation of Israel and He’s applying it to Himself. He says, “I am the true vine,” meaning that Israel had failed to bear fruit. Earlier in chapter 8 of John’s gospel, we saw Jesus break with the temple and then we saw Him begin in chapter 9 to form a new people—a people united by their belief in Jesus.
God is doing something new—He’s is replacing Israel as the people of God with Jesus and His disciples, the vine and its branches. This isn’t a rejection of Judaism, but rather its fulfillment in its Messiah. The identification of a people of God with a particular nation is now replaced with a particular man who incorporates into Himself the new people of God composed of Jews and non-Jews. Of people from every tribe and race and tongue and nation.
A people not determined by geographical boundaries, but by relationship with Jesus Christ, Son of God.
It’s important to recognize that in our gospel passage, Jesus isn’t contrasting the old community to the new community. He’s not saying, “Well, the old community didn’t bear fruit, so now the new community will take over and be very fruitful.”
He’s focused on the new community—it’s now been established and it must bear fruit. The new community, like the old one, is established for the purpose of bearing fruit.
But…what is the fruit? What is the fruit that we supposed to bear? When we look at the rest of Jesus’ words in this section, it’s pretty clear that the fruit Jesus is talking about is the possession of eternal life itself, and especially the chief characteristics of that life, knowledge of God and love—love for God and love for one another.
The image of fruit is all about union with God.
This is another area where we need reformation. Because many of us seem to think that bearing fruit is about getting a lot done. That if we’re a really busy church, if we have lots of things going on, we’re bearing fruit.
Or even if we’re a really busy individual, if we’re doing a lot of good things, then we’re bearing fruit.
This brings us to our passage from Revelation, which is revelation that the apostle John received from Jesus after Jesus had ascended into heaven. We’re all probably familiar with Jesus words, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me” (Revelation 3:20).
This verse is almost always quoted out of context, taken to mean that Jesus is standing at the door of our heart inviting us to open our hearts and let Him come in. But if you read it in context, as Jake did earlier, it’s impossible not to recognize that the door that Jesus is knocking at is the door to the church. He’s speaking to the church at Laodicea, a church that He condemns as being “neither not nor cold.”
They’re not lukewarm because they’re not doing anything. They’re lukewarm because they haven’t invited Jesus into their church. They think they’ve got everything all figured out—they don’t need Jesus. Jesus says, “For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Revelation 3:17).
It’s not about just getting things done. To be fruitful we need to have knowledge of God and we need to love one another. It’s all about relationship.
LCMC gathering “Small but mighty church.”
It’s good to know that we’re doing good things—but do we have the knowledge of God that we need to be certain that we’re doing the things God has planned for us to do?
Are we growing in the number of missions that we have? Or are growing in our knowledge of God? Are we growing in our love for one another?
What Jesus is telling His disciples in our gospel, what He’s telling John in Revelation, is that everything is about mission. Every single thing. Nothing is ever just about getting a job done. If you’re serving a funeral lunch, if you’re called to be an usher, if you’re teaching Sunday School, if you’re serving on the church council, God is always much more interested in how you’re growing in relationship with others, growing in love for others, than He is in how many items on the agenda you can check off. He’s much more interested in how whatever you’re doing helps you to know Him more than He is in anything else.
Because it’s only as we know Him more that we can bear fruit in the world.
Jesus, when He told His disciples to abide in Him and to bear fruit, knew that by the end of the next day, He would be, by His death on the cross, removed from the world. In His absence, He is sending His disciples into the world to carry on the task of spreading the gospel, of growing the kingdom of God. Not just to the local neighborhood—but to the very ends of the earth.
He’s saying that we have what the world needs—we have Jesus. And ultimately, He’s saying that the condition of the world in the years or centuries to come rests upon the people in the Christian church. Because ONLY those of us in the church have at our disposal the means to bring the world effectively under the rule of God. John 15:7 “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
We have all the power available to us in Christ. And we also have Christ’s kingdom fellowship to live in and to offer to the world—if we have the fruit of the knowledge of God and if we have His love for our fellow man.
But we have a big problem—the people of Christ have never lacked for available power to accomplish the task that Jesus has set before us. We have, however, failed to make disciples. Most often, I think, this is because we have decided that what Jesus has called us to do is impossible.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, the local church is the hope of the world. But the local church can only operate as Christ intended when we remain firmly connected to Him. When we abide in Him and allow Him to abide in us. And we can only learn to abide when we know His Word. His Word which is addressed to the community of His people far more often than it is address to us as individuals.
But we think: we don’t have to come together to pray, we can do it by ourselves. Coming to Bible study with others isn’t really important, we can do it on our own.
Look around at the world in which we’re living. A world where men and women are killing each other in a daily basis, sometimes over political positions.
A world where we have what people need to find the peace and security they’re looking for. And we’re too busy being connected by text message or social media to be connected to one another in the body of Christ, to busy to be connected to Jesus.
Too busy doing all the things that we think are so important—all the things that we think are more important than gathering with brothers and sisters in Christ to pray for the world, to grow in our knowledge of Christ that we might be better equipped to go and make disciples.
Jesus knew that it was only when we came to truly know Him that we would love him enough to make His mission a priority in our lives. He knew that as we come to realize His love for us, that love for others grows in us.
Jesus stands at the door of our church and knocks—because Jesus is always outside the church. Oh, He might be inside as well. But only if we’ve opened the door and invited Him in. It’s to the people in the church that Christ calls, and what He’s offering is a special fellowship that we can never have without Him. He’s inviting us to follow Him outside of the church, into the world, where we have not yet had the courage to follow Him fully.
Because only “outside” is great enough for Him.
When we answer His knock, when we invite Him in, He’ll come in, He’ll share with us, even though He will, in His greatness, find our church to be too small and confining.
It’s All Saints’ Sunday. Some of these saints who have gone before us have born much fruit, some not as much. But without them, without men and women throughout the generations who have gone before us, bearing fruit for Jesus, none of us would be here.
Do we want our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren to know Jesus? Do we want them to have the knowledge they need of Him to love Him enough to go and tell? Do we want to change our world?
It’s not as hard as you think.
What if each one of us were to think about one person in our field of influence this week—maybe one person that we don’t really like very much. A neighbor, a relative, a coworker. And what if we were to make a point of praying for this person, not just once a day but multiple times throughout the day. In addition, what if, every time they said or did something that irritated or angered us, we prayed. Prayed for them, that they might allow God to be at work in their lives—not you, God. Of course God might call you to be involved in His little rebuilding program. But ask God to be at work. And then what if we prayed for ourselves—that God might help us to see that person the way He sees them. That we might look at them and see a human being created in God’s image, loved by God—someone that God wants to be a part of His body.
And what if we began to view every task we do for the church, for mission, as not just a job to be done, but an opportunity to grow in relationship with other men and women and children?
Let us pray.