In one of his books, Brennan Manning tells this story from a Catholic priest in the Bahamas:
A two-storey house caught fire. The family – father, mother, several children – were on their way out when the smallest boy became terrified and ran back upstairs. Seconds later he appeared at a smoke-filled window. His father, outside, shouted at him: “Jump, son, jump! I’ll catch you.” The boy cried, “But, Daddy, I can’t see you.” “I know,” his father called, “I know. But I can see you.”
I wonder whether Covenant Sunday is a day when some of us Methodists are afraid of jumping. Afraid of jumping into our Father’s hands. We are afraid of the solemn covenant promises. Making those promises is like jumping out of a window, and fearing what will happen.
I have long been convinced that a way to approach the renewal of our covenant with God is to appreciate first the nature of the God into whose arms we jump. That, like the father in Brennan Manning’s story, he says to us, “I can see you”, and stretches out sure, strong arms to catch us and to keep us safe when we jump.
How are we going to do that? I want to take our Gospel reading. It is challenging and quite open about the fact that being a disciple of Jesus is not always an easy or comfortable experience. But at the same time, I believe we also find in the passage the Father who can see us, and whose arms are outstretched to catch us.
Firstly, Jesus talks about pruning. Whenever this passage comes up, I am fond of observing that I am no gardener. The only value of a garden centre is if it has a good café with decent coffee and cakes. Gardens hold little pleasure for me, hard as that may be for some of you to understand. But then you may not appreciate my love of cricket and computing! Debbie keeps the manse garden tidy, thankfully.
But for all my lack of interest in gardening, I do know that pruning is something that looks unpleasant. I have seen the implements, and they look like instruments of torture. If Jesus uses an image of pruning for the Father’s work in our lives, then that sounds painful to me. The removal of unfruitful branches and the cutting back of others – no, I don’t fancy being first in the queue for that. It’s like the little boy’s fears as his father calls him to jump from the window – he thinks he will break bones.
However, in a detail we easily miss in English, Jesus says any pruning the Father does is not for the first time. He says,
You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (Verse 3)
‘Cleansed’ sounds all right, doesn’t it? A nice, refreshing bath or shower? Except that in the Greek, ‘cleansed’ comes from the same source as ‘pruned’. Jesus effectively says that his word has already pruned us.
That’s what the Gospel does. It prunes us. We know that the call to follow Jesus involves not only faith but also repentance, where we change our minds about the way we lead our lives, where we perform a u-turn in order to go his way. That repentance is a pruning. Certain things go from our lives. The Gospel message of Jesus cuts them away.
So when Jesus tells his disciples here that the Father will continue the pruning process, he is telling us something about the ongoing nature of Christian discipleship. He does not call us to an act of repentance when we come to faith. Rather, he calls us to a life of repentance. Our salvation is more than forgiveness. To sign up to Jesus’ project is to enlist in a process of transformation. To be a disciple is like the road sign, ‘Danger: men at work’, except that in our case it reads, ‘Danger: God at work.’ Or, as the t-shirt puts it, ‘Please be patient with me: God hasn’t finished with me yet.’
To reinforce it further, the apostle Paul had a positive take on this process of transformation. He told the Philippians,
I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ. (Philippians 1:6)
Or, as the worship song puts it,
Jesus, You are changing me
By Your Spirit You’re making me like You
Jesus, You’re transforming me
That Your loveliness may be seen in all I do
You are the potter and I am the clay
Help me to be willing to let You have Your way
Jesus, You are changing me
As I let You reign supreme within my heart
So, to mix metaphors, is the ‘pruning’ worth the ‘leap’ out of the building? Marilyn Baker, the author of those song words, says ‘yes’. She says that Jesus is changing her so ‘that your loveliness may be seen in all I do’.
And that is similar to what Jesus says here, when he says that the Father prunes us so that we ‘bear more fruit’ (verse 2). Is it not our longing to be more ‘fruitful’ in the life of faith? If so, we have to recognise that God will want to cut certain things away from our lives. Some will be obvious sins. Others will be good things that we have idolised. Others might be good, but not God’s best for us. The call to repentance is not a diatribe from a severe God who wants to paint a grey coating of misery on our lives. It is, as Paul tells the Romans, his ‘kindness’ that leads to repentance. It is because he has good plans for us in his kingdom purposes.
Is it worth submitting to God’s pruning? Is it worth saying ‘yes’ to that as we renew our solemn promises today? What do you think?
Secondly, Jesus calls us to abide in him as he does in us. ‘Abide in me as I abide in you,’ he says (verse 4). What is this about?
An abode is a dwelling place, a home, a residence. We sometimes say that homeless people are of ‘no fixed abode’. Jesus, however, abides in us. He has taken up residence in our lives. He has not come for a holiday, he has not come as part of a house-swap or to be a house-sitter. He has come to live in us.
So if we are called to abide in Jesus, we are called to live permanently with him. Not only permanently, but in close relationship. He draws near to us; we draw near to him. This mutual abiding is the spiritual version of living in each other’s pockets. That may sound wonderful to some people, and terrifying to others. What might it involve? I can’t cover everything, but here are a couple of areas.
Firstly, abiding in Christ means the disciplines of staying close to him. The most important thing in church life is not the property, it is not the finances or anything like that. The most critical aspect of Christian life is staying close to Jesus. Our property and finance can be in perfect order, but if we are not walking with Christ, we are wasting our time.
Therefore, if we are to heed the call to abide in Christ, we shall want to practise those disciplines which draw us close to his presence and his voice. So, yes, we renew our commitment to worship and fellowship, to personal prayer and Bible reading, to Holy Communion and fasting. All of these matter far more than the typical business preoccupations of many congregations.
But to say that we should renew our commitment to things like prayer and Bible study is to sound rather like I am asking us to make a New Year’s Resolution. And we know how easily we break those. If we just treat these things like that, we shall fail quickly and be discouraged.
I want to say, therefore, that the call to draw close to Jesus with spiritual disciplines is one we do out of response to his love for us. It is not something we do as an ‘ought’ or a ‘must’ or a ‘should’; it is something we do because Jesus has already drawn near to us, to abide in us. It is in gratitude for the love he extends to us.
Of course, we shall fail along the way. But instead of being discouraged that we have not reached the mark, we shall instead feel his abiding love in us that encourages us to get up again, dust ourselves down and keep on going. These things do not always come naturally. We can be like a toddler learning to walk. We fall down, but we get up again and have another go, because we are loved. On the way, I can offer you help with plans for Bible reading and approaches to prayer, but do not be afraid to try and fall down. Just get up and keep going again as you learn to draw closer to Christ.
The other thing I want to say about abiding in Christ is that being so close to him, we want to do what he says. That’s why Jesus links abiding in his love with keeping his commandments (verse 10). If you are close to someone, not only do you want to spend time with them (spiritual disciplines, in the case of our relationship with Jesus), you also want to please them. Abiding in Christ will mean a desire to obey him.
And that’s where the fear of jumping out of the building looms large again. What will he want me to do? What will I have to give up? What dark and strange place does he want to send me to?
But again, the promise is that if we jump, he will catch us. The promise, too, is that he will enable us to obey because he is with us. We are not dependent upon our own strength to do these things.
However, he kicks us off with a commandment that is simple to state, and highly important to take seriously:
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. (Verses 12-13)
So let’s get going with that one – loving one another. We can take some simple steps straightaway. We can say that we shall no longer treat someone else in the church like they are our servant, but as a valued child of God We can commit ourselves to stop assuming that someone’s motives are wrong and seek to believe the best about them. If we jumped into such a love for one another that disowned the backbiting, backstabbing and character assassination that is too often seen in our society, what kind of witness would that be? Remember what was said of the early Christians:
See how these Christians love one another.
Let’s forget every other distraction and concern for a season. Let’s be known as a community of love. What importance do all our other debates, business items and ideas have in comparison to Jesus’ call to love one another?
Go back to that young boy at the smoke-filled window. Hear the call of the father again. “Jump, son, jump. I’ll catch you.” Is today the day to jump – and find ourselves held in the arms of God? What if we were to risk letting him prune us in repentance? What if we were to risk getting closer to Christ in devotion and obedience, specifically in loving one another?
What if …
What if we jumped?