Monday, August 20, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Potential to Productivity

(A sermon based on John 15:1-17)

[Note: this is the first sermon in a six-part series entitled “A Vision for the Church.” Subsequent sermons will be “Moving Beyond Duty to Desire,” “Moving Beyond Presence to Participation,” “Moving Beyond Maintenance to Ministry,” “Moving Beyond Escapism to Expectation,” and “Moving Beyond Security to Sacrifice.”]

I want us to talk for a few weeks about having a vision for the church. Today we will talk about moving beyond potential to productivity.

Potential is both a promising and a frustrating reality. It is good to realize that we are not yet all that we can be and that we have within us what it takes to move forward in being God’s church. But it is frustrating to realize that we are not making all of the progress that we can and that we continue to let things stand in the way of our being all that God intends for us to be.

So it is important to lay out some very important truths here at the beginning. In John 15, Jesus says that he is the vine, that those who follow him are the branches, and that God the Father is the vinedresser. That means that Jesus Christ is the source for everything that the branches produce. He provides all of the necessary nutrients that we who are the branches need to produce the fruit that we should produce. God the Father prunes us so that we can produce even better fruit.

What potential a church has, then! We have a vital and intrinsic connection with Jesus Christ himself. Our Father in heaven lovingly and honestly tends to us so that we can do a good job of bearing his kind of fruit. This church and every Christian who shares in its ministry have the potential to do great things for God. But we must ask ourselves the important question: are we living up to our potential? Are we moving beyond our potential to productivity?

To answer that question, let’s ask some questions about our expected “produce.”

What is our produce to be?

We could talk here about growth in unity as the body of Christ. We could talk about growth in ministry. We could talk about growth in what Paul calls the “fruits of the spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Let us concentrate, though, on the necessary basics discussed by Jesus in our text.

Our produce is to be obedience. Jesus said that “we have already been cleansed by the word” that he has spoken (v. 3). Only by being obedient to his word can we be what he wants us to be. He is Lord; we are servants whom he treats as friends (vv. 14-15). He has blessed us with the power to live by sharing with us the words of his Father. We respond as friends when we obey him. We are to be obedient to all of his words, not just those that we like or agree with. Our obedience is to be radical obedience.

Our produce is to be love. The most important way in which we are obedient to his words is in our love for one another: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (vv. 12-13). To keep his commandments is to abide in his love (v. 10). Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with everything we are, with the second being to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus commanded us that our primary fruit would be love for one another. That love is to be the kind that gives self up totally for our brothers and sisters. It is the kind that causes us to love and to stick with each other even when we fail each other and let one another down. Are we producing love?

What are the qualities of our produce?

What will the fruit produced by the church be like?

It endures beyond the moment. Jesus said that he chose his disciples “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (v. 16). The fruit of the church has staying power. It is not here today and gone tomorrow; it is of eternal significance.

It extends beyond the minimum requirements. Our goal is not just to bear fruit; it is to bear “much fruit” (v. 8). We are not to be interested in just meeting the minimum requirements, just, as the old saying goes, to get into heaven by the skin of our teeth. We want to do the Father’s will and his will is that we be as productive as we can be. When are we obedient enough? Never! When are we loving enough? Never! We are being appropriately productive only as we become ever more productive.

It exhibits the way of the Father. Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit…” (v. 8). When we go beyond meeting the minimum requirements by producing the fruit of obedience and love we bring glory to the Father. This is true in the same sense that the life and ministry of Jesus brought glory to the Father. Jesus glorified his Father by obediently emptying himself and by showing love with everything he was and had. That’s how we glorify God, too.

It establishes our discipleship. There is more to v. 8: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and become my disciples.” Our discipleship and our fruit-bearing are inseparably intertwined. As we bear abundant obedience and love our discipleship becomes clear. Do you want the world to know you are a Christian? Then exhibit obedience and love. Do we want the world to know that we are a Church and not something less? Then we must exhibit obedience and love.

From what does our produce emerge?

As Christians and as a church we produce obedience and love that extend beyond the moment, that extend beyond the minimum requirements, that exhibit the way of the Father, and that establish our discipleship. But here is a very important fact that we must not forget: we cannot make such produce come about; it must come from beyond us. So from where does it come?

From Christ’s commission. “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit…” (v. 16). Obedience leads to obedience. We bear fruit because Christ has told us to bear fruit. He is the Lord of our lives. When we have a Lord, his words are non-negotiable. He has sent us out to bear fruit. But this does not bring us to the heart of the matter.

From the Father’s power. The final clause of v. 16 says, “so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” The idea is not that we have an unlimited charge account with God so that we can get whatever our human hearts desire. The idea is rather that as we are doing the will of the Father and obeying the commands of the Son and bearing the fruit that comes with being a disciple, the Father will, in response to our prayers, give us the power to bear even more fruit. Obedience and prayer act as a kind of fertilizer and enable us to produce better. But this still does not bring us to the heart of the matter.

From our abiding in Christ. This brings us to the heart of the matter: Christ is the vine and we are the branches. That reality gives us all of the potential that we need or will ever have. He is the source of our life. He can live without us but we cannot live without him. Let the words of Jesus speak for themselves:
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (vv. 4-5).
It is only, then, in abiding or remaining in Christ that we can bear much fruit and so be his disciples.

Without abiding in Christ, we are nothing; we are counterfeit, we are dying, and we can never bear the produce that we are bear. But abiding in Christ, we are something; we are genuine, we are alive, and we are productive.

Our calling is to obey our Lord and to love with his love. Are we doing it? Are we abiding in Christ so that we can move beyond potential to productivity? Are we abiding in him so that we can move beyond what we could be doing to what we are in fact doing?

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