For some of you it’s the end of university term. And you don’t have to be back for three months. For others with a placement or time abroad coming up, you won’t be back for a year. And for others, it’s the end of university and you face the limbo of being back home, waiting for a job to start or looking for a job to do.
And away from the resources you have here in Newcastle – of Christian friends and church and CU – it’s easy to be all over the place, spiritually, and to look back and think, ‘What a wasted time.’
But that’s not just a pitfall for the end-of-termers here; it’s a pitfall for all Christians.
There’s a churchyard near my parents with a grave-stone that reads:
In memory of
Captain James Harvey
Died 23rd April 1786
Tragically shot and killed by the
accidental discharge of his pistol
while in the hands of his valet
And the Bible text underneath...
‘Well done, good and faithful servant’
How no-one saw the incongruity of that I don’t know.
But they’re Jesus’ words to someone who’s used their life well for him. And can you think of anything better to hear when you finally meet him face to face?
By contrast I know of one Christian who wrote this at the end of his life:
Although I trust I am saved by the Lord, I fear that I have done little of what I could have done to serve him, and that my epitaph will be, ‘Saved soul, wasted life.’
And I take it: none of us here wants that epitaph written over the coming week of our lives, let alone the coming summer or year or lifetime.
Which is why I want to look at what Jesus has to say about being spiritually fruitful – about living the ‘Well done!’ kind of life, rather than the ‘Wasted!’ kind.
So would you turn in the Bibles to John 15. So where are we in John 15? It’s the record of Jesus talking with his apostles on the night before he died on the cross. And he’s talking about how they’re to relate to him once he’s no longer physically here – but has died, risen and returned to heaven. And he uses this picture of the vine.
So look down to John chapter 15, v1. Jesus says:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.” (v1)
And he lifted that picture from the Old Testament (OT), where God said his people Israel were like a vine he’d planted with the aim of getting some fruit in the form of people trusting and obeying him. But the OT is the story of how, by and large, that fruit never came. I.e., the vine failed. It couldn’t produce the goods because it couldn’t change people.
And here in John 15 Jesus is saying, ‘I’m about to do what’s needed to produce the goods. I’m about to die for your sins and then rise from the dead so that I can come into your life. And with my forgiveness to set you free from the past and my Spirit to give you the will to live for me, you will begin to produce the goods.
That’s what he means when he says, ‘I am the true vine.’
So what does the Lord Jesus say to help us be spiritually fruitful?
Well first of all he says:
1. Remember your purpose (vv1-2)
Look down to v1 again. Jesus says:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes [or literally that says ‘cleans’] so that it will be even more fruitful.” (vv1-2)
So God the gardener wants fruit. And that’s the only reason you plant things like vines. So eg, Tess and I planted two apple trees a few years back. In year one we got one apple; in year two we got six; in year three we got 45; and in year four we got 185. And I’ve done the maths: if they carry on exponentially like that, by 2060, the Earth will be covered to a depth of 1.2 meters in James Grieves’s.
But what fruit is this on about? Well in verses 1-8 Jesus uses this picture of the vine. And then in verses 9-17 he explains what it stands for. And he mentions two kinds of fruit. So look down to v12, where the Lord Jesus says:
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (vv12-13)
So one kind of fruit he wants to see in us is Christ-like love: laying down our lives to serve others and do them good.
Then look on to v15, where the Lord Jesus says:
I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit —fruit that will last. (vv15-16)
And in the rest of chapter 15 and into 16 and 17, Jesus explains that the ‘business’ is the business of spreading the gospel and building up the church – and that’s the other kind of fruit he wants us to bear.
So God’s purpose for you, if you’re a Christian, is that you lay down your life to love others and that you work for the spread of the gospel and the building up of the church.
So if you’re going home over the summer or for longer, that’s your purpose. So don’t put your Christian life on hold until you’re back – or, for the rest of us, until church commitments begin to pick up again in September. Live for those purposes. Take, eg, laying down your life to love others.
It’s so easy to go home and revert to your worst teenage patterns of behaviour – resenting your loss of independence, resenting your parents and siblings for impinging on you.
Well, set yourself instead to lay down your life for them. So don’t just be keen to do the washing up on the Christian camp you help on – as if laying down your life is just something to switch on for special events. Be keen to do it every day at home. Offer to be chauffeur for your younger siblings so your parents don’t have to do it all. Fit back in: play what they want to play, watch what they want to watch, be interested in their interests. Lay down your life.
Then what about the fruit of spreading the gospel and building up the church? Let me say something about going back to a non-Christian home, as I did. You have to be very wise in how you go about pointing parents to the Lord – because in one sense, the dynamics are all wrong. Because they’re the parents; they’ve taught you, they’ve brought you up, not the other way round. So, start by praying for them regularly – and one thing I’ve prayed is that my parents would get to know Christians other than me, from whom it would be easier for them to hear the gospel.
Then, set yourself to love them. And the specific love for parents which the Bible calls us to is the fifth commandment:
“Honour your father and your mother.” (Exodus 20.12)
John Chapman, the Australian evangelist who did several missions with us, came from a non-Christian family. And he tells how, as a teenager, he would give the family a short evangelistic blast each breakfast time. And finally his father said,’ John, do you ever take your breakfast to church? ‘No.’ ‘Then don’t bring church to breakfast.’ And I remember John Chapman saying, ‘I wish someone had told me that the fifth commandment is the key to our witness to parents.’
Some parents are interested in your faith right away; others are not. In which case, erring on the side of saying less and living out your faith more is usually wisest.
What else to say on spreading the gospel and building up the church?
Well, try to be as intentional in that as you would be here. So meet up with old friends at home and look for opportunities to talk to them about your faith. Don’t put that on hold, just because there isn’t Christianity Explored to invite them to. Then, get along to a church near you – there are Good Church Guide forms on the Welcome Desk if you want us to suggest one – and ask if there’s any way you can serve there while you’re at home. And then keep in touch with your Christian friends from here. You should be phoning and e-mailing one another regularly to encourage one another. And why not plan to meet up with some of them at regular points so you don’t go more than 3 or 4 weeks without spending time with someone who’ll encourage you spiritually and whom you can encourage?
And then if you’re not helping on the JPC Holiday club, repent. And if you’ve resisted all our efforts to get you to help on camps and so on, then again: repent. And I say that for your sake. Because I always remember one student saying, ‘My Christian life away from here always sags like a washing line, so I put in as many props in the form of camps and holiday clubs as I possibly can.’
So remember your purpose.
The second thing the Lord Jesus says to help us be spiritually fruitful is this:
2. Believe you’re accepted (vv2-3)
Look down to v1 again:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes [literally ‘cleans’] so that it will be even more fruitful. (vv1-2)
So Jesus is saying: we can only bear fruit as a result of God cleaning us.
So think of the picture of gardening. If you want fruit from something, you have to prune it – to clean away a whole lot of buds and twigs and branches. And what that part of the picture stands for is the cleaning of forgiveness.
Just turn back to John 13 and v6. Jesus here is washing his disciples feet – not just because that needed doing before they settled down to the last supper, but as a visual aid of what he was going to do for them, next day on the cross. So look at John 13, v6:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
[I.e., ‘After I’ve died on the cross to wash away your sins, you’ll understand that what I’m doing now is a visual aid of what I’m going to do for you tomorrow.’]
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
[I.e., ‘Unless I wash you with forgiveness, you can have no relationship with me – you can’t be a branch in the vine.’]
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus 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.” For he knew who was going to betray him [that is, Judas], and that was why he said not every one was clean. (vv6-11)
So now turn back to John 15, v2:
“He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit [that’s talking about people like Judas – who appear to be following Jesus, but in the long run prove not to be], while every branch that does bear fruit he cleans [literally] so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. (vv2-3)
So at this point they haven’t understood that it’s Jesus’ death that will make them clean – that he will forgive their sins because he’s taken the punishment for those sins. But they have understood that Jesus has declared them forgiven and accepted – so, v3, Jesus says:
“You are already clean.” (v3)
And if you’re trusting in Jesus death for your forgiveness, the same can be said of you: you are already clean – permanently forgiven and accepted. Because: Jesus died for all your sins – not just all your past sins but all your future sins as well.
Which is why this time tomorrow he’ll still be saying, ‘You are clean.’ And why he’ll still be saying it this time next week and this time next year and for the rest of your life. Because being clean – forgiven and accepted by God – is a permanent status given to you, through Jesus’ death on the cross.
And believing that is the key to fruitfulness. For the simple reason that if you’re unsure where you stand with God, you won’t really want to live for him. Because it’s impossible to live for him if, deep down, you fear he’s against you. Whereas if you know he loves you despite your ongoing sinfulness – that makes you want to be fruitful.
Some of you, like me, will remember Ken Matthews waxing eloquent in his speech on his wedding, when he turned to Fiona his wife and said, ‘You know me better than anyone else for the idiot that I am, and yet you still love me. And every day that makes me want to be a better man.’ And believing in God’s perfectly unconditional love is what makes you want to be fruitful for him.
And the more you’re on your own as a Christian over the coming months, the more you’re going to need to preach that to yourself. E.g., imagine it’s now July: you’re back at home, you’ve not been getting on with your parents, the dog’s the only one pleased to see you because you’ve been kicking the cat on a regular basis; you’ve fallen for internet porn again; you haven’t read your Bible for a week – in fact, all your resolutions about being a better Christian at home lie in tatters. And one day you think, ‘This has got to change.’ And you sit down with your Bible and Satan whispers in your ear, ‘Do you really think you can come to God after behaving like that?’ What are you going to say? You see, if Satan can use our sense of failure as a wedge to drive between us and the Lord, then we’ll stay away from the Lord and fail him even more – in a downward spiral.
And to pick yourself up again you’ve got to learn to preach to yourself those three words, ‘You are clean.’ Your behaviour may have been all over the place. But your status hasn’t changed.
And one of the most basic skills you need for the Christian life is the ability to pick yourself up again whenever you’re freshly conscious of your sin. The second hardest part of that is coming to the Lord in prayer despite all your feelings that you have no right to – and confessing your sin, and asking him to forgive it on the grounds that he paid for it to be forgiven on the cross. And then the hardest part is simply trusting that you are forgiven and putting it behind you and accepting yet another fresh start.
So that’s the second thing the Lord Jesus says to help us be spiritually fruitful: believe you’re accepted.
And the third and final thing is:
3. Take your responsibility (vv4-8)
Look down to v4:
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.
“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 (vv4-5)
So Jesus says it’s our responsibility to remain in him. Which you don’t have to say to literal branches – because they don’t have a choice. But metaphorical branches like us do.
We’re responsible for relating to Jesus day by day – trying to obey him and depend on him. And that’s an individual responsibility. So God means us to belong to a church to get encouragement. But other Christians can’t do this remaining in Jesus for you – whether you’re here or away, it’s your individual responsibility.
So what does Jesus mean by ‘remain in me’? Well look down to v9, where he explains:
“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love. If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and reain in his love.” (vv9-10)
So by ‘remain in me’ Jesus means ‘remain in my love by responding to it with obedience.’
Which might sound like he’s saying, ‘If you obey me I’ll keep loving you – ie, my love is conditional on your obedience.’ But that goes against the whole gospel of grace. He’s not saying, ‘If you obey me I’ll keep loving you.’ I think he’s saying, ‘If you obey me, you’ll keep enjoying my love, enjoying relationship with me.’ And you only have to think of the alternative to understand that.
Just think of the times when you’ve been most disobedient, spiritually careless, succumbed to your habitual temptations. Did you keep enjoying a sense of the Lord’s love for you, or was your relationship with him clouded and spoiled by a sense of shame and guilt and hypocrisy? You know the answer.
But that’s not how the Lord wants it to be – so he’s saying ‘remain in my love by responding to it with obedience.’ And look at v11:
“I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.” (v11)
I.e., so that you’ll enjoy relationship with me, as unclouded as possible by sin.
So that’s what ‘remain in me’ means.
And to do it, we need to be reading our Bibles and praying. The Lord Jesus doesn’t say it in exactly those words, but look finally at v7:
“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.” (vv7-8)
So how are we going to be spiritually fruitful? By remaining in Jesus. By making sure his words remain in us. And by asking him to help us live out his words – which is always beyond us in our own strength.
And again, the more you’re on your own as a Christian over the coming months, the more you’re going to have to take responsibility for that.
So make sure you have some Bible reading notes with you. And decide a routine. Because the day I most frequently miss my personal Bible reading is my day off – because there’s no routine and I think I’ve got all the time in the world. And you’ll know that, ironically, it’s easier to read your Bible in exam week than in the holidays. So plan a routine. And make sure you also have some Christian books: I reckon you should be reading at least one a fortnight in a university holiday.
Now my daughters still often get bogged down feeding themselves so that at the end of the meal, Tess and I have to shovel it in for them. And if you get bogged down feeding yourself spiritually, then get someone else to shovel it in via the internet. Not as a substitute for church. But you could listen to a sermon a day for your quiet time. Visit good church websites you know; visit the Gospel Coalition website – which is a massive resource from churches worldwide. And so on.
So that’s what the Lord Jesus says to us in John 15 about being spiritually fruitful. Which is more of a challenge if you’re away from the fellowship here temporarily – or you’ve moved and not yet settled into a new one.
And of everything in this part of God’s Word, I want to leave you with just those three words in v3 ringing in your ears: you are clean. Forgiven. Accepted. Permanently.
Because if we hold onto that, we won’t get bogged down by our inevitable failure. We won’t give up because of a bad day or week or month. We’ll be able to put the past right up to the present moment behind us, and start out again.
And that is basically what the Christian life is all about.