Sermon Delivered by David Hughes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, NC, on May 10, 2009.
Let’s be honest. Baptist preachers don’t make a habit of discussing fine wine in church, or anywhere else for that matter! Given our historic stands against alcohol, we Baptists are not supposed to know much about what makes a wine fine. So it’s a little bit awkward for me to take on this subject. And I hope you understand my sermon title today is not even a subtle endorsement of the use of alcohol.
That said, even the most die-hard teetotalers have to admit that Jesus seems very comfortable around the wines of the ancient Mediterranean world. His first miracle, recorded in the second chapter of John’s gospel, involves turning water into wine at a wedding reception. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus compares the gospel he preaches to sparkling new wine that cannot be contained in the old wineskins of Judaism. And, in John 15, Jesus once again turns to wine and the vines that produce it to describe what it means to live the Christian life to the full.
Most people who know anything about wine know that the finest wines are traditionally associated with France. After all, the regions of France known as Champagne, Bordeaux, Chardonnay, and Burgundy produce the grapes that provide some of the finest wines in the world. Of course, Americans who live in the Napa Valley of California lay claim to producing some pretty good wine. Indeed, our very own Yadkin Valley of North Carolina now has some bragging rights when it comes to wine production.
But here’s the thing: regardless of the location, fine wine is always produced by a fine vineyard. Inferior vineyards always produce inferior wines, while only fine vineyards produce fine wines. This wisdom sounds simple enough for a second grader to understand, but you’d be surprised spiritually speaking, how many supposedly wise Christians miss the point.
Actually, writers of the Old Testament employ the metaphor of the vineyard long before Jesus. For example, the prophet Isaiah, speaking on God’s behalf, compares the people of Israel to a vineyard planted and tended by God. God did everything he could to make the vineyard of Israel the finest in the world. He dug up a fertile hillside, cleared it of stones, and planted the choicest of vines. Then he looked for a crop of good grapes, but (the vineyard) only yielded bad fruit (Isaiah 5:2). In other words, the disobedient Israelites grew not like healthy vines but ugly weeds, and the end result was rotten, sour grapes.
So, said the prophets, God the vineyard keeper resorted to pruning away the decayed vines of Israel, sending Israel into a devastating time of exile. Meanwhile, these same prophets predicted that God would eventually replant a new vine to replace the old, and that new vine would become the Messiah, the Son of God, the True Vine that would embody Israel at its best.
In time, God planted that vine in Bethlehem, and his name was Jesus. Jesus grew in stature, and in favor with God and man. He became that long-predicted True Vine of Israel. And in John 15, Jesus lays claim to being the finest vine ever grown on the face of the earth, a vine that produces the finest wine, the new wine of salvation.
I am the true vine, says Jesus, and my Father is the gardener.
The Winemaker, the Grand Gardener has not changed. God is still in charge of this operation from start to finish. He plants the vines and prunes the branches. But this time, the vine is his own son, Jesus. And God is hoping that those branches grafted into the vine of Jesus ”his followers ”will product the finest fruit imaginable, the fruit of the Spirit and the fruit of righteousness.
But there is a catch to making this fine fruit and wine. The catch is this ”the followers of Jesus must remain vitally connected to Jesus at all times, just like branches to a vine. Without that connection, the only thing Christ-followers will produce is a bunch of scrawny vines, shriveled leaves, and stunted, sour grapes.
What’s interesting is how easily people confuse flawed wine with fine wine. The Jews of the Old Testament thought abundant life could be had by wandering away from the Garden of Eden into the Den of Iniquity. They thought happiness came by doing what they wanted to do, not what God wanted them to do. They thought they were drinking the finest wine, but in reality they were just drinking spiked punch that led to an endless hangover.
On the other hand, the zealous scribes and Pharisees created commandments galore that governed every impulse known to man. They thought endless rules, regulations, and rituals would produce the finest wine. All they got for their efforts was stale, leftover grape juice.
Jesus wanted to be sure his followers would not make the same mistakes. So, not once, not twice, but ten different times in ten different ways Jesus says in John 15, Remain in me. Abide in me.
If I had to pick a key, summary verse of John 15, it would be verse 5. John 15:5 packs a lot of wine into one barrel. It is one of the seminal verses of the New Testament, and one of the seminal truths of the Christian life. Jesus says, I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.
My sense is this verse makes us uncomfortable for two reasons. First, it sounds awfully mystical to us. What, exactly, does it mean to remain in Jesus or abide in Jesus? Maybe the monks and mystics know what that means, but normal, run-of-the-mill Christians like us can’t be expected to understand this, much less do it.
But let me remind you that the people Jesus was addressing were not starry-eyed mystics, either. They were blue-collar fishermen and formerly greedy tax collectors and ordinary men and women who worked hard for a living. If they could grasp what Jesus was saying, so can we.
But an even bigger problem is that last phrase ”apart from me you can do nothing. The truth is, this word from Jesus just flies all over us. We’re products of a culture that believes we should decide what to do, plan and control how we do it, and then get it done. And that includes, by the way, our spiritual growth.
Now to get personal, this is what I have done at times. I’ve treated my spiritual growth as one more project to add to my to-do list, one more thing I’ve got to figure out, manage, and accomplish. That’s because I’m a performance-driven person who prides myself on being able to get things done.
But here’s what I’ve learned the hard way ”every time I try to transform myself under my own power, I wind up with barely fermented, stale wine. And while I’m at it, let me add this corollary ”every time I’ve tried to lead a church to transform itself, I’ve wound up with the same sour grape juice, often spilled all over the floor.
The point Jesus is making is this ”we don’t transform ourselves. We make ourselves available to God in Jesus Christ so he can transform us. We are powerless to transform ourselves spiritually. (Say that with me.) We are powerless to transform ourselves spiritually.
There’s a reason most of us are terribly dissatisfied, or at least underwhelmed with our Christian lives. It’s because most of what we produce comes from our own effort, and it’s as potent as leftover grape juice. Likewise, we are mystified that our churches seem to be withering away, that people aren’t flocking to us to drink the fine wine of the gospel with us. Maybe that’s because what we offer is from ourselves, our programs, our committees, our curricula, our efforts, and it’s not the living water and new wine of the gospel. We branches of Jesus live autonomously, loosely connected to at best to each other and the Vine. And then we’re surprised that our lives and our congregations are not thriving with luscious fruit.
You can write it down ¦we cannot produce fine wine apart from that fine Vine.
So, what does it mean to remain in Jesus? One person has defined it this way. To remain in Christ means to organize our lives around him, to open our lives to him, to live under his influence, protection, and direction. It means to take Jesus seriously ”as a historical person, as our personal Savior, as our living, present Lord.
Here’s another shot at defining it ”remaining in Jesus means being rooted in Jesus so that our very identity, values, sense of well-being and power for living flow out of the presence and person of Christ.
How do we arrive at this intimate connection with Jesus? With the help of Robert Muholland, that’s what I want to address for the remainder of this sermon.
In his book, Invitation to a Journey: A Road Map for Spiritual Formation, Robert Muholland describes what he calls the classical Christian pilgrimage . Over two thousand years of Christian experience spiritually wise people have identified four stages of the Christian pilgrimage.
The first stage is called awakening . Awakening occurs when we are roused from sleepwalking through life by an encounter with the living God that causes us to also encounter our true selves. For example, when the Risen Christ encountered Paul on the Damascus Road, Paul was temporarily blinded. But through that encounter, he truly saw God and himself for the first time, and his life was never the same.
The journey to being connected with Jesus begins by waking up to his greatness, to our sin, and to his ability to save us from our sin.
The second stage is called purgation. This is the stage we’re prone to skip or at least skim over. But it is critical to becoming and remaining connected to Jesus. And Jesus says as much in John 15 when he commands us to purge or prune away the decaying, non-fruitbearing branches of our lives.
Purgation begins with pruning away what our spiritual fathers and mothers called gross sins. Paul’s list of these blatant sins that conflict with wholeness in Christ include sexual immorality, strife, anger, dissension, and yes, drunkenness. Most blatant sins are viewed as undesirable even by the secular world around us.
Then we are asked to prune away behaviors that may be acceptable to the world but contrary the will of God. These include some sexual behaviors approved by the world but contrary to God’s will. And they may also include behaviors that are fine in and of themselves and yet are stumbling blocks to the faith of others.
These more destructive behaviors are about as far as many of us go ”if we take our pruning that far. But the truth is, we’ve only just begun. Mulholland reminds us that we are also asked to invite God to examine our hearts and reveal to us unconscious sins and omissions of our lives. For example, I may have an unconscious need to control every situation I’m in. Until or unless I admit that need for control, and ask God to help me prune away that need, I will run into a brick wall when it comes to growing in my connection to Jesus.
Finally, Muholland says we are to purge away those deepest orientations inside us that make it hard to trust God. Despite our nice-sounding words about faith, we may act like what happens to us is up to us, not God. And until that fundamental lack of trust in God is addressed, we will be limited in how far we can go in remaining in Jesus, and bearing fruit for Jesus.
I’ve had to struggle at every level of this pruning and purging. I’m learning that for me pruning happens best when I get quiet and clear in God’s presence, lean into God’s love, and then confess in a journal what’s really going on in my life and soul. At first, I was scared to death to do this. But over time, I’ve learned that when I allow God to prune and purge away the dead stuff, then the vineyard of my soul has the opportunity to produce fine wine.
The final two stages of the Christian pilgrimage are illumination and union. Illumination begins when we see and feel Christ living inside us. It happens as we engage practices like meditating on the word and praying in the spirit. Practicing spiritual disciplines gives God time and space to operate in our lives, to do the work he needs to do, to replace dead branches with the fruit of the Spirit.
The final stage, is union. Union with Jesus means remaining, or abiding in Jesus in such a way that you are no longer clear where your identity stops and his identity starts. When you’re one with Christ you’re no longer worried sick about what people think about you and how you are going to perform. In fact, you are no longer worried sick about anything because you know in all things God is working for good.
Friends, in the last few years I’ve figured out I was living off stale wine of disconnected living from Jesus. Now that I’ve tasted the real stuff, I don’t intend to do that anymore, ever again.
How about you?