This article is quite unlike the ones that have been posted of late. It does not concern issues out there in the public sphere; nor is it a rigorous analysis of the topic in question. Instead, it represents a couple of insights that I gleaned from Scripture last weekend, and as such, this post will undoubtedly exhibit a more informal character.
Both insights I gleaned whilst reading the Gospel according to John. I have been studying this book for some time, and have been repeatedly struck by its remarkable theological density. However, during the course of studying Chapter 15, two particular points – both of which are essential elements of a vibrant Christian life – leapt off the page and hit me squarely between the eyes. However, before I delve into those truths, I should set the scene. The fifteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is largely about two things: the love that ought to exist within the fellowship of believers; and the inevitability of hatred and hostility that will meet believers as they seek to minister to the world. What’s more, it comes in the midst of a very private and intimate gathering between Jesus and his disciples, and everything he says in this passage is for them. He begins by likening his relationship with them to a vine and its branches (v.1). He then proceeds to counsel his disciples to remain in him in order to bear fruit (v.4), before commanding them to follow his commands – chief of which is the command to love one another (vv. 9-12, 17). Finally, he warns them of the inevitability of opposition to the message they carry and embody – a message that saw Jesus himself persecuted and despised, but only so that they would be prepared. Within what I have just written lies the two truths that have given me pause for thought and have led me to reflect on my walk as a disciple of Christ.
The first truth relates to the metaphor Jesus uses at the commencement of the chapter. His use of the “vine-branches” image (with God as the gardener) is an apt description of the deep interconnectedness of the church: those who are united to Christ receive their power from him, and it is necessary to remain in him (ie. endure in union with him) in order to, as he put it, “bear fruit”. That much is true, and I (usually) have no trouble abiding by, and celebrating, this great image. Paul’s image of the body (1 Corinthians 12:12-31), which is a complementary way of understanding the interrelationship between Christ and believers, also comes to mind. We are many, but together – joined with Christ and held together by the Spirit – we are one. Putting aside any temptation to break out into song at this point (remember the cheesy ballad, “We are one, but we are many”?), both images convey the deep intimacy that exists between Christ and his church, transcending time, space, geography, culture and language. It is a mystical union that brings us into the closest of relationships. So far so good. But what I failed to appreciate (even if I did formally recognize) was that the image John presents to us – that of the vine and the branches – not only implies intimacy or connectedness between Christ and believers; it also implies intimacy and connectedness between believers themselves. A branch is automatically connected to all the other branches of the vine if it is connected to the vine itself. Similarly, a part of the body – the foot, say – is implicitly connected to all the other parts by virtue of the fact that it is a member of the body.
And so it is with us. Not so profound, you might say. That may well be true, but how many of us live in such a way that betrays our own purported spiritual independence? This is significant, since I have detected such a tendency in myself, and that is why Jesus’ words struck me so deeply. For too long, I have attempted to grow spiritually – to bear fruit, you might say – without the aid of the body. Sure, I have been a part of the body. I am a faithful member of a local church. I have taken part in all kinds of ministry there over the years. But I have never truly allowed myself to be fully and freely shaped by that community; to be sharpened by other disciples, as iron sharpens iron. I have always kept a distance, believing myself to be of such spiritual stature that I could get on in life without the enriching aid of a vibrant spiritual community. But recent events have taught me otherwise, and the frustrating inconsistency of my spiritual walk of late has slowly brought me round to the idea that the body of Christ – his church – is a necessary context within which authentic Christian spirituality may flourish.
The image presented in John’s Gospel confirmed that; in order to bear fruit, one must remain in Jesus, but his love and his presence are made manifest in the lives of other believers, to whom one is also connected. Only then, when we take full stock of that truth, will a constantly vibrant and enlivening life of discipleship become a reality. That is something that I need to learn, living as I am with a kind of rugged individualism. The fact is, I cannot exist without the community of God, and nor was I ever meant to. I might think that it is a sign of spiritual maturity to strike out on one’s own without the ministry and support and spiritual nourishment of other Christians, but this passage has made me realize that I am simply engaging in a self-defeating exercise. Remaining in Christ and remaining in the body cannot be separated; to cut oneself from the latter is to (eventually, but inevitably) cut oneself off from the former. At that point, the failure of one’s efforts to maintain a spiritually vital life apart from the embodiment of God’s presence in his church becomes a fait accompli and no fruit will be forthcoming. I wouldn’t say that I’m in danger of that – far from it – but my spiritual growth demands the humble embrace of the ministry of others.
Paul’s image is also instructive, and it spoke to me as well. The picture of the body he uses is interesting, since in order for a particular member (again, we can use the foot) to function as it was meant to function, it needs to be connected to the body. A foot is not truly a foot if it has been severed from the body; conversely, it has be attached to the rest of the body – connected to tendons, ligaments, bone, etc. – in order to fulfil its function as an aid to walking. In a similar manner, I can only fulfil my function within the body of Christ – thereby becoming what I was created to be – when I live in deep interdependence with others. The presence of a spiritually stimulating environment, apart from the natural benefits I might accrue, brings me into contact with the embodied Christ. We are social animals, and have been created as such. Moreover, we – I – have been redeemed into a community, in which true identity is found. Any attempts to grow in isolation (and I should know, since I have been doing that for some time) constitute, as I have said, a self-defeating project.
The second truth that influenced me concerns Jesus’ later words about the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel. He counsels his followers to prepare themselves for such opposition, as he himself did (v.18). Not all will receive what they have to say, and they will face the prospect – sometimes constantly – of lethal hostility. All this is on account of the name of Jesus (v.21). That in itself is an important point, since those of us living in the west like to try and maintain some kind of civility, and to imagine that discussions and conversations are conducted with mutual respect and peaceful understanding. But this is hardly the case elsewhere, for Christians from many parts of the world face horrors that we scarcely give credence to – all for the sake of Christ. But what really impacted me was the fact that I was guilty of not taking this warning seriously enough. I kept it at arms length, implicitly confining it to the pages of an historical document whose cultural and chronological distance from my own situation had been exacerbated by my own tendency to reduce it to the object of theological and intellectual games. As I read this passage, I realized that Jesus was speaking to my own situation, and to the reality and inevitability of opposition to the gospel in my own environment. And it struck me that for some time, I had not always allowed the text of Scripture – God’s Word – to speak to me. This passage opened me up to the stark truth that I had kept a distance between myself and all of Scripture. Reading Jesus’ words about opposition and hostility to the gospel, whilst trying to avoid such a situation in my own life, suggested to me that my efforts to understand the Bible did not always mean that I was listening. I may have developed a true understanding of the meaning of the passages I read; but did I allow them to speak to me? Was I allowing the Creator and Redeemer God to transcend time and space, and bring forth the significance of his Word for me? Unfortunately, I could not always answer in the affirmative.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with studying the Bible in order to glean the theological meaning of the text. There is nothing wrong with expending intellectual energy discovering the intended meaning of a passage, its immediate and biblical context, and its theological and ethical implications. These are necessary elements of good, honest Bible study. But if it does not set one’s heart on fire; if it fails to actually speak to the one who is reading it; if it does not transform and shape and mould someone into the likeness of Christ, leading to faithful discipleship; then it has not truly been read or understood. This is something that had, for me at least, receded. Those words, spoken by Jesus and recorded by John, were not meant simply for the former’s immediate circle of followers, but for all Christians down through the ages. And those words – like all the words of Scripture – ought to carry with them a Spirit-filled power that crosses the chasm of time and culture to change us in our own situations (diverse as they are) today. That is something that I learned, and it is a lesson worth repeating.
These truths – the essential nature of the Christian community and the immediacy of the Word – may be known instinctively by some of you, and I celebrate that. I am a little slow to learn at times, I must admit. But it just goes to show that if you open your ears for just a moment, God will speak. You just have to make sure you’re actually listening.