In recent weeks I have spoken about connecting points, those topics, or points of connection, that have led me from one message to the next. As I was at church camp last week, that is an obvious connecting point for me. Along with serving as co-director of the week I was also the keynote speaker (we call it keynote because the word sermon would probably scare the campers. What? We have to listen to a sermon? Every day?). One of my messages to the campers was about connecting, so obviously, that idea has lodged in my mind.
This morning, then, I want to speak about the topic of connecting, and in doing so I will sum up the three connecting points, the same three that I offered to the campers last week in one of my messages to them – connecting to God, connecting to the church, and connecting with one another.
Our Scripture text is John 15:5-17 –
5 “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.
6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.
7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
9 “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love.
10 If you keep my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
11 I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete.
12 My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.
13 Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
15 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.
16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
17 This is my command: Love each other.
1. Connecting to God.
In verse 5 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. Jesus uses the analogy of a branch and a vine to make the point of how important it is that we connect with God. There are, of course, many ways in which we can connect with God. We connect through worship, through prayer, and Bible study. We also connect through church camp, next week we will help kids connect through Vacation Bible School, and we are working to establish the Stephen Ministry, which also helps to connect people to God. All of these we call spiritual practices. We speak of the manner in which doctors practice medicine, and, in a similar way, we practice our faith. When we practice our faith it connects us to God.
All of us, I believe, have a God impulse within us, and it is important that we nurture that impulse. To nurture that impulse we need to explore as many different spiritual practices as possible, in order to strengthen our connection with God.
2. Connecting to church.
One of the connecting points important in our lives is that of connecting to the church, the body of Christ. We live in a time when many people speak of themselves as spiritual but not religious. To some extent, I can understand this impulse. Some people are hesitant to associate themselves with some of the more negative aspects of the institutional church. Being honest, most of us have seen some of this, unfortunately. It remains, however, an important point that a connection to the church is important. I was not a very good athlete when I was younger and only played organized sports a few times. Imagine if I had told the coach of any of those teams that I would only show up for games, while skipping practices (in the name of enjoying sports but not wanting to be a team player, or whatever would be the athletic equivalent of spiritual but not religious). No coach, of course, would accept this, because they would recognize the importance of being connecting to a team as well as to a sport.
I have spoken of my home church on a number of occasions and spoken to you of some of the people there who had a profound impact upon my life, but there are others I will mention today. Cliff Gunion was one of my Sunday School teachers in high school. We had a small class and I’m sure he thought we didn’t listen to much of what he had to say, but we did. I wish I would have told him so when I had the opportunity. Harold Flohouse was always a friendly greeter when you walked up the steps to our sanctuary (because the church is only one block from the Ohio River the sanctuary is on the second floor of the building. The same vinyl covering is still on the steps that was there when I was a child, and the steps still creak in the same places. It was very difficult to sneak in late because of the loud creaking in the steps). Phyllis Dalton, who still attends the church, is the mother of Steve, one of my best friends from childhood, and his wedding was the first one I ever officiated. Steve was a drummer, and he and I would set up our instruments in their basement and make a terrible racket. I can remember his mom suggesting, one summer day, that we should set up our equipment in their back yard. We thought she wanted to share the music with the entire neighborhood. Looking back, I understand now that she wanted it out of their basement and was happy to inflict it upon the neighborhood to give herself a break! When I had the opportunity to visit my home church while on sabbatical last year it was nice to visit with Mrs. Dalton. I was born into that church. I was baptized there. That church sent me to camp. My dad’s funeral was in that church. It is simply not possible for me to express how important that church has been to my life and how much it contributed to connecting me to God.
Businesses use many different technologies today to connect people to their services. But Facebook, Linkedin, and other social media sites pale in comparison to the connections created by the church. Two millennia have connected billions of people to God and to his church.
Jesus selected twelve to be his closest followers, and in doing so demonstrated that he considered of utmost important that we are to be connected to something beyond ourselves, and being connected to the church is one of the most foundational aspects of being a follower of Jesus. I’m not saying it is impossible to worship or to be a follower of Jesus outside of the church. In one sense, it is true that one does not have to attend church in order to be a follower of Jesus. That being said, a strong and healthy connection to a church can be a tremendous boost to our faith. For one reason, we are able to partake of the collective wisdom of the church’s two millennia of existence. When Jesus spoke these words to the disciples I’m sure they understood them to some extent, but we have the wisdom and insight of two thousand years to help us understand them on a deeper level. As I told the kids at camp last week, you know a lot, but you don’t know everything. We need others to instruct us and to advise us because we don’t know everything. Last year, on sabbatical, it was amazing to sit in some of the churches in Europe that are centuries old, and to think about all the wisdom they have to offer.
3. Connecting to others.
The root of the word religion is religio, which means to bind together. Unfortunately, some use religion to tear people apart, and we must work to reclaim the meaning of the word religion from those who seek to use it in such destructive ways.
In verse 12 Jesus says, my command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. The irony of that statement is that you cannot command people to love one another, and I’m sure the disciples understood the irony of Jesus’ words. What Jesus was communicating to them is this – love for others, even one’s enemies, will be a natural outgrowth of who we are as his followers. Love does not have to be commanded because we will love others because that is what Jesus did.
While at camp it’s hard to keep up with what is happening in the world. Cell coverage is very tenuous but we do have wifi, but very little time to read the news. I did, however, receive the news report about yet another tragic shooting in our country. My temptation was to say this morning that, as a country, I fear we are tearing ourselves apart at the seams. Thinking a bit more, however, made me take a more positive point of view. Yes, we have many struggles and, yes, the pervasive violence is very troubling. But I refuse to believe that we have become so disconnected that cannot turn towards each other and move to a greater sense of humanity and unity.
Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends, Jesus said. We need more love and less hate. We need greater, not lesser, connectivity to one another. Stay connected. Stay connected to God. Stay connected to the church. And stay connected to one another.