Everything is spiritual

Our scripture reading tells the story of the coming of the Holy Spirit. It occurs on the first day of the Jewish festival of Shavuot. It’s a harvest festival that also celebrates the giving of the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament, the basic teaching of Judaism.

Shavuot is also known as Pentecost because it comes on the 50th day after the first day of Passover. Christians celebrate Pentecost 50 days after Easter. So, for Jews this year, Pentecost was May 16. For Christians, it’s today.

I’m not going to elaborate on it much more than that this morning. Instead, over today and next Sunday, I want to explore some dimensions of what it means for us to even talk about the Holy Spirit’s presence with us and within us.

I want to begin this morning with a simple exercise. I would like you to do whatever you need to do to concentrate. You may close your eyes, look down at your hands, look up at the ceiling, do whatever you need to do to clear your mind for some heavy duty thinking. Now I want you to think a purely spiritual thought.

By purely spiritual, I mean that it has no physical or material connection. This thought may not refer to any person, place or thing, past, present or future. It must be purely spiritual. Understand? I will give you 30 seconds. In that time, think one purely spiritual thought. Begin now.

Time is up, thank you. Now I have a question, though I ask you not to answer it verbally or with a gesture. Were you able to think a purely spiritual thought? If you think you did, I want to suggest that either your thought was not purely spiritual but actually included some material aspect, or you are perhaps the first person ever to have had such a thought. So if you think you did, you’d better write it down now before you forget it and it’s lost to history.

Fact is, you cannot think a purely spiritual thought. It is not possible for embodied creatures such as ourselves to think such a thought.

Not that we don’t try. We commonly make this crazy distinction between what is physical and what is spiritual. My point is that there is no difference. Everything is spiritual. Nothing is purely material, without a spiritual component. Nothing is purely spiritual, without a physical component. Everything is spiritual.

Rob Bell has an hourlong presentation by that title. It’s very different from what you are about to hear. I did not steal the title from him, and I doubt that he stole it from me, though I’ve talked about it occasionally for more than 20 years.

Various dictionaries define it various ways, but in general they all describe “spiritual” as something that is incorporeal – that is, it has no corpus, no body, no physical existence. By its very definition, the spiritual is not the physical.

This strict duality divides not only the spiritual and the physical but other realms as well. It begins as spirit versus matter. It becomes sacred versus secular. Then it’s religion versus science. And so it goes. When you split things apart this way, putting the spiritual in one box and the physical in another, bad things inevitably happen.

Pioneering psychotherapist Carl Jung once said that most psychoses he saw were spiritually based. Some people today sneer when they hear stories of Jesus casting out demons from people. They say: “We know better today. It’s all psychology.” No, it’s not. Mind and spirit and body are linked in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

A few years ago, Gus Speth, a Yale University forestry expert, said: “I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Global warming isn’t just a physical problem. It’s also a spiritual problem. The two realms interact because, in fact, they are a single realm. Because everything is spiritual. All our problems today – social and political and cultural and environmental and economic – at base, they’re all spiritual problems.

We want to separate the realms because we want to keep God out of certain areas. We want to keep questions of right and wrong out of certain areas. We want to do things our own way, God be damned.

Let’s take a closer look at the sacred versus secular divide. The idea is that some things are spiritual and sacred. These things belong to God. Everything else is physical and secular. God doesn’t care much for them. Didn’t Jesus say, “Give to God what belongs to God and to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”?

So if God gets the spiritual part and Caesar gets the material part, how does that work out? What’s included in the spiritual? Praying, going to church, reading your Bible, maybe working at the Food Pantry and in other ministries. What percentage of your time is that? Five percent, maybe 10 percent tops?

That means Caesar’s got all the rest. Working, sleeping, eating – all that stuff you do every day just to get by – that’s all material, isn’t it? That’s all physical. That’s all secular. You don’t need God for that, do you? And God can just keep God’s nose out of those things.

See what we’ve done? We have effectively removed God from the world. We have evicted God from our daily lives. And we wonder why the world is so screwed up.

People who work in the church – pastors and priests and nuns and the like – they all have spiritual vocations. They work for God, as it were. Everybody else works in the secular world. They work for Caesar. They work by different rules. They can cheat and get away with it because God’s not looking, right?

But what if you’re an accountant or a truck driver or a farmer or whatever, and you want to follow Christ in your everyday life? Forget about it. Your everyday life is secular. You’d better leave God out of it, or you might lose your job.

Need I tell you that all of this nonsense is unbiblical and unchristian?

It is true that God and the world are separate. We do not believe in pantheism, the notion that God and the world are somehow one. But we do believe that God cares very much for what happens in the world and God is active in working for God’s will in the world. When we pray, we bridge the spiritual and the physical. We ask God not only for spiritual blessings but for physical blessings as well – health, well-being, a new car, winning the lottery.

Do you have a concordance at home? A concordance is a book or a computer program that that allows you to search for how words are used in the Bible. If you have a concordance, look up the word “spiritual” in the Old Testament. You should not find a single use of the word because Hebrew lacks a word for spiritual. Hebrew has no word for spiritual because the way the ancient Hebrews saw things, everything is spiritual.

Turn to the New Testament, and you’ll find many uses of the word spiritual in the writings of Saint Paul. That’s because for Paul just about everything is spiritual. When Paul uses the word, he means “animated by God’s Spirit” or “inspired by God’s Spirit.”

A moment ago I said you “should not find” a single use of the word “spiritual” in the Old Testament. But in a couple of translations, you will find the word used, improperly, to translate a word that would be better translated as “animated” or “inspired.”

What does the word “inspire” mean? It means to take in, or breathe in, and be animated by the Spirit. In fact, all human and animal life is animated by the breath of God. Everything that breathes is inspired by God.

Fundamentalists often defend their erroneous doctrine of verbal inspiration by citing 2 Timothy 3:16. It says, “All scripture is inspired,” or “All scripture is God-breathed.” Big deal. According to scripture, all living creatures are inspired; all living creatures are God-breathed. In this regard (and probably only in this regard), scripture enjoys no distinction from a cat or a dog. God moves and breathes in all living creatures.

Genesis 2:7 says that when God breathed life into the first human, he became a living being, or a living soul. We often misunderstand the word “soul.” It is not an incorporeal thing to be distinguished from our material bodies. It’s not something that is eternal that escapes and lives on when your body dies. In biblical usage, your soul is the whole you, body and spirit, material and spiritual.

The idea that spirit and body can be distinguished and separated comes from the Greek philosopher Plato. The idea is not biblical. Your soul is you – all of you, body, mind and spirit. When we Christians speak of resurrection, we mean that you will be raised in a new form of soul. In 1 Corinthians chapter 15, Paul calls this “a spiritual body.” Try imagining that, if you can. Whatever it is, in some ways it must be similar to the body Jesus has after his Resurrection.

It all comes back to and is tied up with not only the Resurrection of Jesus but the very incarnation of Jesus. God becomes incarnated in Jesus. That is, God takes on a body in Jesus. That may be the ultimate proof that everything is spiritual. In Jesus, human and divine are bridged. In some way we cannot understand, human and divine become one.

In the garden before he is arrested, Jesus prays that his followers may become one just as he and his Father are one, “I in them and you in me” so that the world will know that Jesus is of God and we are of Jesus (John 17: 22-23).

In short, we are to become the new incarnation of Jesus. Here’s how Teresa of Avila put it 400 years ago.

Christ has no body but yours,

No hands, no feet on earth but yours,

Yours are the eyes with which he looks

Compassion on this world,

Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,

Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.

Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,

Yours are the eyes, you are his body.

Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

We cannot see the way Christ sees or touch the way Christ touches unless Christ lives in us. And how does Christ live in us? Through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, our Advocate, our Comforter, our Counselor, our Helper.

Some believers insist on seeing certain physical manifestations of the Spirit: speaking in tongues or speaking in other languages, as the apostles did on that first Pentecost. Others think of the nine gifts of the Spirit, or Fruit of the Spirit, as described in Galatians chapter 5. The change in us and the effect on us don’t have to be showy. They does have to be powerful and real.

A spiritual life is a life lived in Christ. It’s a life inspired by the Spirit, animated by the Spirit, made alive by the Spirit. A spiritual life is one in which the realms of spiritual and physical are not separated but are lived as one, as we are one with Christ and one with our Heavenly Father. No aspect of our lives is excluded. Everything is spiritual, and as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:32, everything is for God’s glory. I think that is a perfectly marvelous idea! That’s why everything is spiritual. Because everything is from and for God’s glory!


This message was delivered May 23, 2021 at Egerton United Methodist Church in Edgerton, Kansas.

Friends in Christ

On Ascension Sunday, we celebrate Christ’s transition from earth to heaven. It’s an event that’s hard to imagine and maybe even harder to describe or illustrate.

I’m going to show you the earliest pictorial representation of it that we know about. It comes from the Rabbula Gospels, an illuminated version of the gospels created in Syria in the year 586.

It shows Jesus ascending to heaven, surrounded by angels who sing his praises and offer him crowns of glory. As he ascends, Jesus raises a hand in blessing. It almost looks as if he’s saying goodbye. In fact, he’s saying hello in a new way.

Every time I think of this story, I think of the Paul McCartney song recorded by the Beatles in 1967, “You say goodbye but I say hello.” The disciples think they are saying goodbye to Jesus. It is true that they are seeing the last of him in the bodily form that they have grown to love and revere. But he won’t be gone long.

“I will not leave you orphaned,” he has told them. “I am coming to you” (John 14:18). We’ll hear more about that next week, when we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

Today, on this last Sunday of the Easter season, I want to wrap up this worship series that I’ve called “Living the Resurrection.” It’s about learning to live in light of the Resurrection. We’ve hardly looked at everything we could learn, but this sets us off in the right direction.

We began with the story of Thomas. He is famous for initially doubting that Jesus was raised from the dead. But when he saw the risen Jesus face to face, he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”

It is no sin to doubt. Doubt is the door to faith. If you can’t doubt something, you don’t need faith to believe it. If you’re not skeptical, then you live in a fantasy world called certainty. As Paul the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 5:7, “We live by faith, not by sight” (NIV). We live by faith, not by certainty. If you live by certainty, you live in an alternate universe that isn’t real. Certainty is the real enemy of faith.

That’s partly because even sight does not necessarily lead to faith. Sometimes we see and will still do not believe. Sometimes – maybe most of the time – we have to believe something before we are capable of seeing it. We have to trust something or someone as real before we can even recognize their existence.

To see the truth of the Resurrection and learn to live in light of it, we have to make the Resurrection of Jesus the lens through which we see the world. We need to put on Easter lenses and see with Easter vision. Our vision has to be transformed by our own personal experience of the risen Christ.

Our transformation also means learning to listen and to respond to his voice. Listening is more than hearing. Hearing is about perceiving a noise. Listening means paying attention to what a particular noise is trying to tell you.

Like sheep who are lost without their shepherd, we respond to the voice of the Good Shepherd. We learn to recognize that voice through training and experience. The more we mature as Christ followers, the more God’s voice outside us becomes our own inner voice, so that eventually the shepherd leads us from within rather than from without.

All along the way, we have to abide in Christ, to stay connected with him the way a branch is connected to the grapevine. Christ is the True Vine and we are the branches. We get all our nourishment from the vine. Separated from the vine, we can produce nothing. Separated from the vine, we wither and die.

But connected to the vine, we not only flourish personally but more importantly we bear fruit. We share our faith with others, in tangible as well as intangible ways, and in both ways helping to create other disciples.

We do it all in imitation of Christ’s love for us and for his heavenly Father. “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me,” he tells us. So now he commands: “Love one another the way I loved you” (15:9, 12).

The love Jesus is talking about is a sacrificial love. It means dying to self, setting aside for the sake of another your own priorities, your own comfort, your own safety. There is no greater love than to give your life for your friends, Jesus says (John 15:13).

Referring to himself, he meant that literally. Referring to us, most likely he means what I call “everyday heroism” – those smaller day-to-day sacrifices of self that each of us can make that add up to a life of selflessness and service in the name of Jesus.

Some of us seem to be better at it than others. Some actually seem to come by it almost naturally. Maybe they were raised that way, and it stuck. Others of us have to fight our own self-centered inclinations every step of the way, and again and again we are surprised by how good it feels when we put others before ourselves.

In an era corrupted by Trumpism, some people seem to think that “Looking out for Number One” is the national motto. Others want to keep Jesus first. They follow that JOY motto: “Jesus, others and you.” That’s where real joy resides, putting Jesus first, others second and yourself third. I’ve always preferred to personalize it as “Jesus, others and me,” but JOM is a lousy acronym. JOY works much better.

When he spoke of his greater love, Jesus told his disciples that he no longer considered them disciples; now he considered them friends. I think that is just about the highest compliment he could ever pay them. Who wouldn’t want to be friends with Jesus?

I have mixed feelings about that hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” I love the title, but I think the music is sappy and the lyrics are anemic; they just don’t go far enough. “Got a problem?” the song says. “Take it to the Lord in prayer.” I certainly have no problem with making our requests known to God. I do it all the time, as your pastor and as an individual.

But 166 years ago, when the lyrics were written, I wonder how many people understood prayer as conversation with a friend. Truly, I wonder how many people today understand prayer as conversation with a friend.

But that’s what it is. Or at least that’s what it should be. It is, first of all, a conversation: it works two ways. Sometimes you talk and sometimes you listen. Talking is easier than listening, of course. Secondly, prayer is conversation with a friend. That means you don’t have to get all puffed up with self-importance and use big words and fancy phrases. It does mean that you speak honestly and plainly. It also means that you listen carefully for what your friend has to say in response, even if that response is not what you want to hear.

Quakers call one another “friends” and form a Society of Friends. Originally, and for most Quakers still today, that means “friends in Christ.” Christian friendship has a special bond. We are friends not only in the human sense but friends also in a heavenly sense. We are friends “in Christ.” We are friends bound together by the love of Christ for us and for the world.

“In Christ,” we are able to pray to Abba, our Father in heaven, the way Jesus prayed to his Father in heaven. We have received a spirit of adoption as God’s children, Paul says. As adopted sons and daughters of God, we have received Christ’s own Spirit in our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6).

Swiss theologian Karl Barth says that Jesus is the self-giving of God, and that Jesus in turn gives his life back to God. Jesus asks us to give ourselves back to God through our self-giving love for others. Just as he died for us, he asks us to die to self in the giving away of self.

We give more of ourselves as we are more closely conformed to the image of Christ – as we more fully “put on Christ,” as Paul says in Romans 13:14. As I outlined two weeks ago, it’s a slow process of lengthening in some areas, learning to extend ourselves, as it were; and pruning in other areas, cutting back our tendencies to serve self first and others later, if at all.

The end product, which we won’t likely see in our earthly lifetime but hope to see eventually, is no longer just me, but Christ who lives in me. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

We’re not just nice people, as some outsiders may think. We’re friends of Christ who are being remade in Christ’s image and someday will look just like him – certainly not in a physical sense but in a spiritual sense that encompasses all that we are, both physical and spiritual.

“We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 says (CEB). John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, comments: “This is the sum of all religion, the genuine model of Christianity.”

God loved us first by creating us, by giving us this wonderful world so full of delights. God continued to love us by becoming one with us in Jesus, living for us and dying for us, being raised to new life for us and ascending to the heavenly throne of grace for us.

God continues to love us by residing within us by the Holy Spirit, working to change us from a pale human glory to a robust divine glory, leading us to live the right way, leading us to love the way Jesus loves, the way God loves, the way we first were loved and are being trained to love in return.

There is more to living in the light of the Resurrection than what we have said in the last six weeks, but we have learned a few things.

We have learned to seek the depth of true faith that resides just beyond our doubt. We have learned to see the world through the lens of Christ our Savior. We have learned to listen for the distinctive voice of our Good Shepherd. We have learned to stay connected with the True Vine. And we have learned that these things are all part of what it means to be friends with Christ and to be friends in Christ.

Friends, this is a new day. The Resurrection of Christ makes all things possible for those who trust in him. May we joyfully explore the possibilities in days to come.


This message was delivered May 16, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church.

No greater love

One of the few good things to come out of the pandemic is a wider definition of heroism. I don’t spend more than a few minutes a week on Facebook anymore, but I used to waste a lot of time paging through it, and I was alarmed by a trend that I saw.

It seemed like every ninth or tenth post was a photo of a man in military garb carrying a semi-automatic rifle and a caption that said, “This is what a real American hero looks like.”

Occasionally the soldier would be replaced by a police officer, always male, his sidearm prominently displayed. Rarely a firefighter would show up, but firefighters don’t carry guns, so they apparently ranked low in the Facebook hero department.

I always wondered, “What about other first responders? What about medics and corpsmen and chaplains, who also serve on the front lines, and doctors and nurses, who are just off the front lines? What about military families who wait at home for word of their loved ones? Isn’t their service heroic?

“What about the single mom who works three low-paying jobs to keep her family fed and clothed? What about the teachers who buy their own school supplies because schools can’t afford to provide them? What about old folks who struggle to live their last days in dignity, abandoned by family and friends in dingy nursing homes? Aren’t these people heroes, too?”

Then came the pandemic, and with it came stories of doctors and nurses working under impossible conditions to treat covid patients while risking exposure themselves. Suddenly, they, too, were recognized as heroes. They were giving themselves for others, sometimes giving all of themselves. People began to line up outside hospitals to cheer them and send them care packages and other signs of regard.

Even today there’s a nursing facility near me that has a sign out front that says, “Heroes work here.” And they do. Heroes also toil, largely unrecognized, in nearby homes and apartments. Once a year, on Mother’s Day, we pause to recognize some of them.

Today is the day we celebrate our moms and the love we’ve enjoyed receiving from them and from other special women in our lives – grandmas, aunts, next-door neighbors.

Sometimes we make the mistake of saying that God’s love for us is like Mom’s love for us. But the opposite is what’s true. At its best, Mom’s love for us is like God’s love for us. “We love because God first loved us,” 1 John 4:19 says (CEB). God’s love always comes first. But someone had to convey that love to us. Someone had to teach us how to love, by showing us how to love. For many of us, maybe most of us, that was Mom.

Not every Mother’s Day card is adorned with flowers and frills, but we tend to over-sentimentalize our love for Mom. Often what we love most about her has little to do with sentimentality. We love her not just because she smelled nice and we enjoyed her warm and soft hugs.

We love her also because she was the one who pried us out of bed every morning, force-fed us breakfast and shoved us out the door in time for school. She was there when we skinned our knees, and when we fell down in other ways, too.

Her fury was a frightful thing, but we knew it was kindled only because we had failed so totally to be the best we could be. And we had no louder cheerleader than her when we jumped back into the fray. Whether we won or lost, she would do whatever she needed to do to turn our defeats into victories and our victories into moments we would always remember.

Yes, what Moms do, or what other special women in our lives do, is mirror for us the love of God.

Friends, this is another in our series of messages about Living the Resurrection. It’s the second to last, to be exact. We pick up today where we left off last Sunday, as Jesus is speaking to his disciples right after the Last Supper.

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me,” he tells them (John 15:9). So now he gives this command: “Love one another the way I loved you” (15:12).

See how that works? The Father loves the Son, and the Son loves us and tells us to love one another the same way.

The disciples can’t know yet how much he loves them, though they soon will learn. “This is the very best way to love,” he continues. “Put your life on the line for your friends.” (15:13)

That’s how the Message version words it. We may be more accustomed to hearing something like this: “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (NIV).

It’s his friends he is speaking to now, not those who follow him as his disciples. Their relationship has changed. He says: “You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father” (15:14-15).

The best way to love, Jesus tells us, is to love sacrificially. That means putting your life on the line for your friends – or in more traditional terms, laying down your life for your friends.

It may come to that, literally, and you may be recognized as a hero because of it. A friend of mine has a son who was a corpsman, a medic, in the Marines before he went to college. My friend says he was never prouder of his son than the day there was a live shooter on campus and while everyone else was running away from the sound of gunfire, his son ran toward it, the way he was trained to do, and he ministered to the wounded as well as he could, putting himself in harm’s way while doing so.

That’s the greater love Jesus is talking about. It’s sacrificial love, dying to self, setting aside for the sake of another your priorities or your comfort or your safety. Yes, that is the best way to love and to live.

Most of the time for most of us, it won’t be on a field of carnage, and it won’t be an act that is often recognized as heroic. No, it will be in quiet and familiar places, in the normal moments of our daily lives. It will be something we may have done a thousand times already but by doing it one more time, for someone else, when we don’t have to, in a way that inconveniences us – by acting in this way, we make this act heroic.

What makes it heroic is not the pain or inconvenience it causes us but rather the good that passes to someone else because we are willing to suffer the pain and inconvenience. That’s how the greater love of Jesus changes the world.

We are willing to go one step more, one step beyond the expected, one step beyond what we think we are capable of making – and that step has a cascade effect. It snowballs, as it were. It keeps having a greater effect than any one step can normally be expected to have.

One step changes the world because it changes another person. If that person takes a similar step, soon hundreds, even thousands, of others are affected. All because one person decided to make a phone call, just to say hello to a friend. Or send a card. Or drop by with a plate of brownies. Just one little step.

We all know, though, just how hard it can be to take that little step. Maybe I’ll sleep five minutes more before waking the kids. Maybe, instead of making that phone call tonight, I’ll just watch a little more TV. Maybe … maybe … maybe. Understand, I’m not berating you. I’m talking about me. If there were a procrastinator’s club, I might run for president, if I had the energy, which I don’t. Surely someone else will do it.

Jesus calls us friends. Do you understand what a big deal that is? Some years ago, one of my daughters was going through confirmation at the church we were part of then. For Confirmation Sunday, the confirmands were asked to write a statement about what they had learned, about what Jesus meant to them.

Several of them wrote long paragraphs full of the kind of theological profundity only 12-year-olds and doctoral candidates are capable of. By contrast, my daughter’s statement was short and simple. She wrote: “I learned that Jesus is my friend.”

I was momentarily shocked. That’s all? Jesus is your friend? That’s all you learned? Sometime later, Jesus got me alone for a moment, and he said, “Look, dummy, she got it right. I’m your friend, too, when you let me be.”

Jesus says we are his friends when we do what he commands us to do. And what does he say about that? He says: “This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you” (15:12).

We do our darnedest to complicate that. We want to make it undoable so we can throw up our hands in mock despair and say, “I knew it would be too hard.”

It is hard. But it is not undoable. God loved us first by creating us, by giving us this wonderful world so full of delights. God continued to love us by becoming one with us in Jesus, living for us and dying for us and being raised to new life for us. God continues to love us by residing in us by the Holy Spirit, leading us to live the right way, leading us to love.

“Love one another the way I loved you,” Jesus says. Sort of the way Mom did, or maybe still does. It’s the best way to love. It’s the best way to live.

If you can, give your Mom a big hug today. If you can’t, give somebody a hug for her. You’ll both be better for it.


This message was delivered May 9, 2021, at Edgerton United Methodist Church, from John 15:9-15.

“Abide in me”

In the gospel story we’re about to read, Jesus talks about growing grapes. I can tell you that just about everything I know about growing grapes comes from this story.

Many years ago, I did a children’s message about it. For “show and tell,” I brought some grapevine that I’d cut from the wildly overgrown grape arbor in our back yard. The grapes were there when we moved to the property. We didn’t know how to care for them, so we let them grow pretty much willy-nilly as food for the birds.

As people were leaving that morning, I was approached by a lady farmer who never hesitated to share her thoughts. She was a true saint but she had a sharp tongue. She shook her head and said, “You sure don’t know much about growing grapes.”

Happily, the story Jesus tells pretty much explains itself, so we don’t need to know much about growing grapes in order to understand it. In John’s gospel, this is part of a long speech that Jesus makes to his disciples right after the Last Supper. It comes just as they are leaving the Upper Room on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane. So this is important stuff that Jesus wants to make sure he shares with his friends.

Here are his words, in John 15:1-8, from the Message version by Eugene Peterson:

I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.

Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.

I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant.

Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire.

But 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. This is how my Father shows who he is – when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.

In previous messages in this series about Living the Resurrection, we’ve talked about seeing and touching and listening to the risen Jesus. Today our focus is on abiding with him.

This message is titled “Abide in Me” because in most translations of the passage we just read, the word “abide” appears seven times in eight verses. Rather than repeat the word “abide” seven times, the Message version uses several synonyms. That’s apt because the Greek word for “abide,” meno, has many associated meanings: indwell, remain, persevere – or, as we might say today, hang in there.

In the Message version, Jesus tells us to live in him, make our home in him and be joined with him. He’s talking about such an intimate connection that if the connection is broken, we will wither away and die the way a branch of grapevine withers away and dies if it becomes disconnected from the vine.

We are branches, and the vine is our lifeline. We get all our nourishment from the vine. Separated from it, we can produce nothing. Separated from it, we die.

A less organic way of expressing this in today’s terms might be to compare it to electrical wiring. If we’re not plugged in, not much is going to happen. Furnace, refrigerator, hair dryer, TV, computer, you name it, it’s gotta have juice, and if you’re not plugged into a source of power, you are powerless.

Fine and dandy. We can understand that well enough. But what’s this stuff about pruning? That’s when you take those garden shears, right, and you whack, whack, whack and cut back the rosebush or the spirea bush or whatever it is. Or maybe you use the hand clippers and go snip, snip, snip.

Whatever you use, when you’re done, what’s left may not look pretty. It may look like you’ve killed it. But if you’ve done it well, that bush will green up and grow like crazy and produce a bumper crop of blossoms.

That’s what you want, of course, and that’s why you cut it back. It needed pruning, the way some prairie grasses need burning in the spring. You’re helping a natural process, even if it seems unnatural at the time.

Pruning is necessary for all of us. Remember Bo Jackson? He played baseball for the Royals at the same time he played football for the Raiders. As incredible an athlete as he was, even he struggled to excel in more than one sport.

Over our lifetimes, we all have to learn to narrow our interests so we can focus our energies more effectively on what we do best. Pruning is necessary not only to remove deadwood but also to enhance growth and promote fruitfulness.

To explore this process more closely, I want to change the metaphor from grape growing to house construction and work with a quotation attributed to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright. It seems like every blogger and columnist and opinionator in the world has mentioned this quote in the last few weeks.

I don’t know why it’s suddenly popping up everywhere, unless it was just made up, the way a lot of things are these days. Possibly it’s like a lot of quotes attributed to famous people. They might have agreed with it, but likely they didn’t say it. As Abraham Lincoln has been quoted as saying, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet.

Wright is said to have given these four cautions to prospective clients before they signed on the dotted line. Though building a house is a one-time deal and abiding with Christ is a long-term proposition, I think you’ll see how Wright’s counsel applies.

Caution No. 1: This will take longer than you planned.

Some people think that all you have to do say “yes” to Jesus, and you are instantly transformed into the living image of Christ. I hope you have never toiled under this delusion. Being formed in the shape of Jesus takes a lifetime.

The Apostle Paul has a great way of describing it. He suggests that you “put on Christ,” the way you put on a new coat or other piece of clothing (Romans 13:14). Let’s say you buy a custom-made suit or dress. This is not something that fits right off the rack. It’s made to fit your unique dimensions. It’s tailored to fit your body.

When we put on Christ, the opposite happens. He is the perfect pattern, and we are tailored to fit his dimensions. That means we need to be trimmed here, let out there, shortened here, lengthened there. A whole lot of pruning, as it were, has to be done before we fit the pattern of Christ.

As Wright warns, this will take longer than you planned – a lot longer. It will, in fact, take a lifetime.

Wright’s second caution is one you probably have experienced with many home improvement projects. It will cost more than you figured. Likely it will cost a lot more than you figured. Count the cost before you start building, Jesus suggests (Luke 14:28), or you may run out of money and end up with only half a house.

Wright’s third caution: This will be messier than you ever imagined. Face it, you are not just a fixer-upper. You need more than a few boards replaced and some new paint. You need a total and complete makeover.

You’ve seen it many times on those house-flipping shows on TV. The contractor gets to rolling and things are going great and then – wham! Who put all that black mold in the walls? Home come nobody noticed that huge sewer leak before? What do you mean, we have to replace all the wiring? Oh, this is going to be messy!

If you think it’s not going to be messy with you, I suggest that you are falling way short in the self-awareness department. Of course, it’s going to be messy! You’re a mess! Fixing you is going to make an even bigger mess.

Finally, Wright’s fourth caution: It will take more patience, perseverance, and determination to get through it than you ever dreamed.

That’s where abiding comes in. Remember that abiding also means persevering, hanging in there, not giving up, whatever roadblocks you face, despite the cost of overcoming them. Also remember that you’re not in this alone. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says (John 15:4). Or, as the Message puts it: “Make your home in me just as I do in you.”

See how that works two ways? You make your home in Christ. You abide in him. Similarly, Christ makes his home in you. He abides in you. You are not just connected downstream – Christ’s blessings flowing to you. You also are connected upstream – your blessings flowing to Christ.

The nourishment you need as a human being who is a follower of Christ flows to you from Christ. This nourishment keeps you alive. If it is cut off, you will wither and die. But this is a two-way street. Branches are intimately connected to the vine. Branches are extensions of the vine. They are one organism.

You and Christ are not separate. You and Christ are one. What affects one of you affects the other. If you become separated from Christ, Christ also is separated from you. You will wither and die. Christ will not die, but Christ will be diminished. Christ will feel the loss of not being connected to you.

You want to remain connected not just for your own benefit and the benefit of Christ but also for the benefit of others. One point of growing, after all, is to reproduce. The point of being a branch on a grapevine is not just to look pretty but to produce grapes, to bear fruit. That is what we do when we are mature disciples. Witnessing to our faith to others, we help create other disciples.

So remember, this extreme makeover in Christ’s image is going to take time, it’s going to cost you, it’s going to be messy, it’s going to require endurance – and it’s totally going to be worth it!

Through it all, Christ will be with you. He will abide with you as you abide with him. He will live in you as you live in him. He assures you of his continued presence. He says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.11).

Living with us and within us is a joy for him, and he promises that it will be a joy for us. However long it takes, however costly our makeover is, however messy it is, however much patience it requires, it’s a joy to be a branch connected to the True Vine and growing stronger every day and producing fruit the way we are intended.

Abiding in Christ, living in Christ, and him in us – that’s the key to Living the Resurrection!


This message was delivered May 2, 2021 at Edgerton United Methodist Church, Edgerton, Kansas.