I don’t know if you’ve heard of the website ‘Friends Reunited’. It was set up to help friends who’ve lost touch. And it’s been a huge success - something like 16 million people have used it. Which shows how much we need the advice of the 18th century writer Dr Johnson. He once said, ‘A man... should keep his friendships in constant repair.’ And if you’re a believer in Jesus, that applies above all to your friendship with him. And that’s what I want to talk about tonight in this ‘End Of Term’ service – when many students among us will soon be leaving either for the summer or for good. And that can be a very testing time when it’s all too easy to drift away from the Lord Jesus. So, eg, each September, students returning for the new academic year say things like, ‘I’m so glad to be back at JPC. The summer’s been a real spiritual wilderness.’ But this applies equally to the rest of us, because you don’t have to go anywhere to drift from the Lord. It’s quite possible to come to church and belong to a small group and make all the right noises – and underneath be drifting badly. And if you’re not yet a believer – if you’re still just looking into Christianity - I hope this’ll give you more of a window onto what being a Christian is all about – namely, friendship with God - through his Son the Lord Jesus.
So would you turn in the Bibles to John 15? This is John’s record of the conversation that he and the other disciples had with the Lord Jesus the Thursday night before the Friday when he died on the cross. So up to this moment, these disciples had related to Jesus just like we relate to one another – they’d actually had God’s Son with them, in the flesh. So, eg, they couldn’t drift away from him like we can by neglecting his Word - because he spoke to them every day. They couldn’t leave him on the shelf like we can our Bibles. But all that was about to change. And they were going to have to get used to the situation we’re in, where we have to relate to Jesus without him physically with us. And to help us in that, the Lord Jesus uses the picture of a vine. And what it reminds us of is:
Firstly, OUR PURPOSE IN CHRIST (vv1-2)
Look again at v1, where Jesus says:
1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He 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.”
We’ve just planted some tomato plants in the garden. And we didn’t just do that for fun. As gardeners do, we planted them for a purpose – namely, that they bear fruit for us. And Jesus is picking up here on an Old Testament picture (see, eg, Psalm 80) of God’s people being like a vine. The picture is that in the middle of a world that doesn’t want to know God, God has ‘planted’ a people who do know him because he’s brought them back into friendship with him. And the Bible says that the ‘fruit’ he’s looking for from us, if we’re one of his people, is that we get to know him better, become more like him, and make him known to others. So if you’re a believer in Christ tonight - if you’re a branch in the vine – that is God’s purpose for your life.
So how does that apply to you if you’re heading off for the summer? Well, the point is that when you’re away from church and Christian friends here, it’s very easy to put your Christian life on hold. You can almost just be waiting for next September, thinking, ‘I’ll get back into going for it as a Christian then.’ You can almost go into spiritual hibernation. But that isn’t the Lord’s purpose for your summer. The Lord’s purpose for your summer is exactly the same as the Lord’s purpose for your term-time: namely, that you get to know him better, become more like him, and make him known.
So if you’re heading off soon, will you make that your purpose this summer? So, will you make sure you don’t leave without some Bible reading notes and enough Christian books, to help you get to know him better? And if you need to find a church back home or at a work-placement, will you fill in a Good Church Guide request on the Welcome Desk tonight? As well as making sure you have the JPC website address so that, failing all else, you can get the sermons here? And will you get up every day and say, ‘I am here – at home, with my family, in my holiday-job – to get to know the Lord better, become more like him and make him known’?
And that applies to all of us. Just like we shouldn’t compartmentalise our lives into term-time when I’m a Christian and holiday-time when that’s on hold, so we shouldn’t compartmentalise our lives, eg, into church- or home-time when I’m a Christian and work-place time when that’s on hold. Tomorrow morning, the Lord wants you in your workplace to get to know him better, to become more like him and to make him known. He wants you there so that your colleagues or classes or clients see and hear something of the Lord Jesus in you. And that can transform our attitude in a demoralising work-place where there isn’t much purpose – at least, purpose that your heart’s really in. Well, take the Lord’s purpose in to work with you. Go in tomorrow asking yourself, ‘How would the Lord Jesus live a day in my workplace and do the job and relate to the people?’ Because you’re not just there tomorrow to be a lawyer or businessman or nurse or whatever. You’re there to be a ‘branch’ of this world-wide ‘vine’ and as v8 says,
“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (v8)
So don’t just drift through the summer or tomorrow. Take God’s purpose consciously into it - make every day a day to get to know him better, become more like him, and make him known.
The second thing this picture of the vine reminds us of is:
Second, OUR STATUS IN CHRIST (v3)
Just look down at v4:
4 “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine...” (v4)
That word ‘remain’ comes ten times in these verses. And it simply means: don’t move; stay where you are. So where are you if your faith is in Christ? Well, look at v3:
3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (v3)
Now the Bible uses the word ‘clean’ to mean ‘acceptable to God’. And again it’s a gardener’s term. So, the instructions on our tomato seed packet tell us to ‘clean’ the plants of any diseased leaves – ie, cut them out. Because disease is unacceptable. So now look down at v2:
2 “He [ie, God the Father] 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.” (v2)
And footnote ‘a’ at the bottom of the page says, ‘The Greek for prunes also means cleans.’ Ie, they could have translated v2 ‘every branch that does bear fruit he cleans’ because it’s exactly the same word as v3.
So in v2, the Lord Jesus is saying that our lives need cleaning: just like our tomato plants need disease cutting out, we need sin cutting out. We need self-centredness and anger and destructive or untruthful speaking and materialism and ungratefulness (and... the list is endless) cutting out. And we each have plenty of sin still in us. And yet Jesus says to believers, v3:
3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (v3)
So how can you be ‘unclean’ and ‘already clean’ at the same time? Well, that’s why I headed this bit ‘Our status in Christ.’ Because we’ve got to understand the difference between our status and our behaviour. So, verse 2 is talking about my behaviour: it’s reminding me that even on the best day of my Christian life, let alone my worst, there’s still plenty of sin in me. Ie, every day, even though I’m trying to please the Lord, I sin. Whereas v3 is talking about my status - the status God has given me with him, despite my behaviour. So, v3:
3 You are already clean [ie, acceptable to God – not because of your behaviour, but:] because of the word I have spoken to you. (v3)
So just turn back to John 13 to see the ‘word’ he had just spoken to them. The Lord Jesus had just washed his disciples’ feet, as a kind of visual aid of what he was going to do for us the next day – when he would die on the cross. It was a picture of cleaning - of washing away the record of our sins by paying for our forgiveness on the cross. So look at John 13, v6:
6 [The Lord Jesus] came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"
7 Jesus replied, "You do not realize now what I am doing [ie, you won’t get the significance of this visual aid now], but later [ie, after I’ve died on the cross and risen again] you will understand."
8 "No," said Peter, "you shall never wash my feet."
Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." [Ie, the only basis for friendship with me is forgiveness.]
9 "Then, Lord," Simon Peter replied, "not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!"
10Jesus answered, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you." 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. [Ie, he knew there was one unbeliever in the room that night who would never accept his forgiveness - namely Judas Iscariot.] (John 13.6-11)
So now go back over to John 15, v3:
3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you [ie, about my death on the cross]. (v3)
So if you are trusting tonight that Jesus died to take your sins and the judgement they deserve, then in God’s sight ‘you are clean.’ So imagine I was wearing green tinted glasses. That would mean that in my sight you’d be all-green. You might be wearing a green dress with lots of white spots, but you’d look completely green. And if you’re in Christ, God looks at you through Jesus’ death, which took away all your sins, and he sees no spots on you at all. You look completely clean. And that is a status that never changes.
So have a look at these two graphs:
The line across stands for time. And the top graph shows my status. So, I myself didn’t trust in Jesus until age 16, so for the first 16 years of my life my status was ‘unclean’ - not accepted by God. Age 16, I trusted in Jesus and ever since then my status has been ‘already clean’ – accepted. By contrast, the bottom graph shows my behaviour. From God’s point of view it was a flat line for 16 years – because although you might have thought I was a reasonably nice person, I did nothing consciously for him. But then he brought me back into friendship with him. And I wish I could say I’d been perfect since then – ie, that the ‘Behaviour’ graph looked like the ‘Status’ graph. But only Jesus could live that 100% perfect line. And even though there’s been what Gordon Brown would call an ‘underlying trend’ of change in my behaviour, it’s been a story of ups of obedience and downs of sin. And the thing to get is this: what happens when I sin? Do I fall off the ‘Accepted’ line? No. My status never changes.
Now, why labour that? Well, imagine it’s now July and you’re back at home, and you’ve not been getting on well with your parents and little sister – in fact, all your good resolutions to be a better Christian there lie in tatters. And you haven’t bothered to find a church and you haven’t read your Bible for a week. And one day you think, ‘This has got to change.’ And you sit down with your Bible and Satan whispers in your mind, ‘Do you really think you can come to God and that he’s going to accept you and listen to you after your behaviour so far this holiday?’ And the point is: what are you going to say? You see, if Satan can successfully drive that wedge of failure and guilt between us and the Lord, then we’ll just stay away from the Lord even more and fail him even more and stay away from him even more and... so on, in an ever-downward spiral. And whether you’re a student away over the summer or a regular staying around, Satan is trying to drive that wedge all the time. So what are you going to say to him?
I suggest one word – the word the Lord Jesus called him in John 8: ‘Liar.’ Because the truth is, if you’re a believer, ‘You are already clean’ (v3). Whereas Satan always wants us to believe that we’ve fallen off that ‘Status’ line – that sin has split our friendship with God. But the truth is sin can’t split it; it can only spoil it – which is why we need to clear the air regularly in our prayers by confessing to the Lord that we are sinful and have sinned and asking again that he would apply the forgiveness he paid for at the cross to us. And the truth is: throughout that whole cycle of failing and confessing and getting up and carrying on again, our status never changes. So, by July, you may have been careless about church and neglected your Bible and rowed with your parents and reduced your little sister to tears. But when you sit down saying this has got to change and Satan whispers in your mind, the Lord Jesus is saying, ‘You are already clean. Nothing’s changed. I still accept you. I will never give up on you.’
That’s our status in Christ. And the key to keeping going as a Christian is simply to keep believing that in the face of all our failure – to keep trusting that his love for you doesn’t change. It’s as simple, and hard, as that.
The final thing this picture of the vine remind us of is:
Third, OUR RESPONSIBILITY IN CHRIST (v4f)
Look again at v4:
4 “Remain 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.”
Now you don’t need to say that to a literal branch, because it has no choice. Whereas we do. So the Lord Jesus does need to tell us, ‘Remain in me.’ And maybe the best way to get at what that means is to think what the opposite would be. Eg, I knew someone at university who professed faith in Jesus. He got involved in the Christian Union and church and made all the right noises. And then he met this girl – I’ll call her Catherine (not her real name). And she wasn’t a believer and gradually over the next six months we saw less of him in CU and church and finally he moved in with her. One Christian friend went round to ask him gently how that squared with his profession of faith. And he simply said, ‘Catherine is my god now.’
That’s an eg of what it means not to remain in Jesus. It means moving away from friendship with him because you think you’ve found something better – in this case, a love he thought was better. Sadly, he swapped a friend who died for him on the cross and would love him eternally for a girl he stayed with for a year. And the danger of doing something like that is pictured in vv5-6. Jesus says:
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.” (vv5-6)
Ie, there are those, v6, who profess faith in Jesus, but then move permanently away from him - sometimes ending up completely outside the church like that guy; sometimes ending up in so-called ‘liberal’ churches – which basically deny parts of the Bible to soften God’s demands. Now, you may have seen that happen to people you know. And it begs the question, ‘Can a Christian fall away?’ Well, elsewhere the Bible says that genuine believers will never fall away, because God who gave them faith in the first place will sustain it (see, eg, John 10.27-30, Philippians 1.6, Jude 24). But if you’re asking that question about yourself tonight, the answer you need is: ‘Don’t. Don’t fall away. Remain in Jesus and talk to a fellow-believer about whatever struggle is making you feel like giving up as a Christian.’ And if you’re asking that question about someone else tonight, the answer you need is: ‘Pray for them. Pray that they don’t. And help them remain in Jesus - as far as you can.’
That’s what remaining in Christ doesn’t mean. So what does it mean? Well, look at v9. The Lord Jesus says:
9 “As the Father has loved me [ie, eternally, unchangingly], so have I loved you [so he’s saying his death on the cross brings a believer into a relationship with him where he loves them as eternally and unchangingly as his Father loves him. And that’s because his death has removed every reason why he would not love us or stop loving us. And he carries on:]. Now remain in my love. (v9)
So remaining in Jesus means remaining in his love. And that means two things.
On the one hand, it means appreciating his love. That’s why I laboured our status in Christ. Because it’s when we most appreciate his love for us that we’re most motivated to live for him and least in danger of drifting. So we need to keep ourselves reminded of his love - which is why v7 puts together remaining in Jesus and his word remaining in us. Look at v7:
7 “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” (v7)
I know the application, ‘Read your Bible’ can get a bit wearing. But I make no apology for it here. Because we’re each responsible for seeing that God’s Word, which points us again and again to the love of the Lord Jesus, remains in us (cf 1 John 2.24). Hence my questions earlier about Bible reading notes and Christian books and Foundations and so on. But even then, your Bible reading notes can be taking you through something like the law, and may not prompt you to think about the cross for a week. So can I say: we need to find our own ways of remembering and dwelling on the cross, and the love and forgiveness of the Lord that it reveals. So, eg, whatever else I’m reading, I’ll often spend time in my personal Bible reading and prayer pondering a verse or promise about God’s love – like some of the verses we’ve looked at tonight. Because I don’t want to go a day without remembering that Jesus died for me. Because forgetting is fatal to my motivation to live for him.
So learn to appreciate his love for you. And on the other hand, remaining in his love means reciprocating his love. Look at v10:
10 “If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father's commands and remain in his love.” (v10)
Now that can’t mean, ‘If you obey my commands you will continue to earn my love’. Because we didn’t earn it in the first place. He’s not talking about earning or deserving his love. He’s talking about reciprocating it as we should - rather than ever treating it lightly, as if it’s a small thing that he went through hell for us on the cross. And he’s saying we reciprocate his love and show how much we value it by trying to obey him. So our obedience – that daily business of trying to please him and resist temptation – is not earning his love; it’s showing what we think of his love. And that’s the link between appreciating and reciprocating: the more I appreciate his love for me, the more I’ll reciprocate it in obedience. The more I reciprocate his love for me in obedience, the more I show I appreciate it.
So let’s end with the Lord Jesus’ own motivation for taking all this to heart and acting on it. Verse 11:
11 “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (v11)
If we put our Christian lives on hold for a day – let alone the summer – if we neglect the Lord’s Word and prayer, and the encouragement of his people, and our appreciation of his love grows cool and our love for him in response does the same... then the bottom line is that we’ll be miserable. Because there’s no joy in drifting and being half-hearted – being in that miserable state of trying to love Jesus and sin and therefore being unable to enjoy either. And if you’re a believer, you don’t want to look back on tomorrow - let alone the whole summer – and find that’s what you’ve been doing. And nor do I. So let’s take to heart what the Lord has been saying to us tonight: “Remain in me. Remain in my love. Remain in me.”