15 Jesus said, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also 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. 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. John 15:1-8
A long weekend in autumn is such a wonderful gift, and so it was last Monday morning that I found myself cycling through the vineyards of the Southern Vales. How beautiful were row upon row of harvested vines starting to turn yellow. I wanted to stop and try and take it all in, to be lost in the moment and in the beauty all around me.
As we rode along, I found myself talking with my riding companion about getting away from it all, thinking forward some fifteen years until retirement. Or even right now. What would it be like to live among the vines, to watch them die off in the autumn, then see the skilful men and women shiver in the winter drizzle, pruning the vines; to see the vines bud, and knows this is the first sign that spring has arrived. Then, as the weather hots up, watch the green turn to brown, except for the vines, whose leaves are lush and branches heavy with blackcurrant coloured fruit. And of course, to enjoy the odd fruit of the vine. To rest, and renew, to find peace, and enjoy the fullness of life. Dreaming of a future that is everything that now isn’t.
“I am the vine, and you are the branches,” Jesus says to us today. Now there’s an image to savour, and one is particularly apt for us who live in the wine state. God’s people are like rows upon rows of healthy vines, branches drawing life from the vine, roots sunk deep into the ground, carefully tended and pruned and watered, and bearing good fruit. Jesus shares this picture with his disciples as he prepares them for his impending death, only hours away now. This word places his sacrifice in its context, and it teaches the disciples who they are through him.
Jesus begins, “I am the True Vine, and my Father is the vigneron.” In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were called God's vineyard. In Isaiah 5 we read, “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones and planted it with choice vines; he built a watchtower in the midst of it and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” These grapes were unsuitable for making wine, and too bitter to eat. God’s people had failed to fulfil the purpose or which he had planted them. They didn’t bear the fruit of worship, nor did they witness to the nations around them. They had fallen into worship of other gods, had rejected God's law and treated their poor and the foreigners among them with disdain.
Jesus, however, is the true vine, the genuine article. His life of perfect worship and obedience is the way that God’s people should have lived. We see the way he healed the sick and fed the hungry, the way he held power over the natural world. But we see his obedience most fully in his death on the cross. He lived as God’s covenant people could not, or indeed, any people, and through his death and resurrection he opened the way to a new and fruitful life.
Jesus says, ‘'I am the vine, you are the branches.” We have become shoots of Christ, the true vine through our baptism. What began with God continues with God. A branch cannot manufacture its own life, but must draw sustenance from the vine, which has sunk its roots down deep into the soil. Jesus is the true vine, who sources his life from his heavenly Father. He is intimately connected to his Father though his relationship as his dearly beloved Son. As branches in him, we draw on the fullness of divine life, forgiveness, and blessing. All of which can only happen through connection with Jesus.
“Remain in me,” Jesus says, four times in our reading:
• Remain in me and will remain in you.
• You cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me.
• Those who remain in me and in in them will bear much fruit.
• If you remain in me and words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you.
Remain in me, Dwell in me. Stick with me. Abide in me. This is a concept we find hard to grasp in a world that majors in change and action. Life gets busier each year. Our present age glorifies changes and lauds innovation. If you’re standing still, you’re going backwards. The new is always preferable to the old. It’s no wonder that we find that we simply can’t keep up with the sheer volume of change, and yet we bravely try, because we’re scared that once we lose contact, we will never be able to reconnect.
The American theologian Andrew Root says that we live in a fast present. He notes that whereas typewriters used to last ten years, now laptops have a life of around 3 years. The present is compressed time. We can do more, and more quickly. But in the process, we have left behind centuries’ old ways of looking at the world. Servant love has been subsumed by individual fulfilment. Relationships last as long as I’m feeling something, or they allow me to be my authentic self. Humility is out, and marketing one’s life and achievement on social media is in. Freedom to be whoever I want to be is the highest good. I am the supreme authority. And because we can do so much, we feel that we must.
And because our lives are so full, the irony is that we end up alienated from other people, with little time to go deep into the lives of others. We are so invested in the future, and working hard to make our dreams happen, that the present is flat. Root gives an example that resonates with me: “This constant need to experience reach…alienates us from ourselves (and those we are supposed to be having dinner with). My head is in my phone, disconnecting me from the life in front of me, from the less rushed conversations at my dinner table. The thrill of reach keeps me rushing and refreshing my feed, accelerating the pace of my life, and alienating me from the life I’m living.” We are less in the now, always two steps ahead. But the real problem is that no one really knows what the good life is, because the goal posts are continually shifting. Life is wide, but it’s also shallow.
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.” The good life, the best life, is life in Christ. And that life is sustained not by our own efforts but by our connection with him. We are not little vines, but branches, and he is the vine. We source our life, and our core identity from the one vine. And we are fruitful because we are in him.
Not only does John use the word remain in this chapter, but throughout his gospel. In chapter 1, John the Baptist reflects that when Jesus was baptised, he “saw the Spirit come down from heaven and remain on him.” The Holy Spirit strengthens and supports Jesus in his life of obedient service. This same Holy Spirit indwells us and facilitates the relationship between God and us.
In John chapter 6, Jesus tells us that he us the Bread of Life. He is the sustenance that we desperately need. In words that shocked some of his disciples, he says, “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.” The Lord’s Supper fills us with the very life of Jesus, his body and blood in the bread and the wine that we receive as his gift. Through Jesus, his forgiveness, life, and peace dwell in us.
In John 8, Jesus also says to those who wish to follow him, “If you remain in my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” The teaching Jesus speaks of is the good news that is attested to in the gospels, promised in the Old Testament, and reflected upon in the letters of the New Testament.
Remaining, resting, sticking with, dwelling in, is not something we find easy. It’s slow work. It takes time, and constancy. It’s the exact opposite of what our world teaches us we need: personal freedom, self-expression, authenticity, following our own path, living our dream.
Chad Bird is a Lutheran theologian in the United states. He writes, “We can follow the liturgical calendar of the world where do, do, do is the Creed. Hurry, hurry, hurry is the chant. That allows little time for rest and meditation. Built into the church’s calendar is the ebb and flow of feast, fast and reflection.”
By being here today, we are making a statement about who we are, and what our life is all about. What may seem to our task-focused, future orientated, self-obsessed world to be a royal waste of time is the way that we best remain in Christ. We do what God’s people have done for centuries. We spend time slowly, dwelling in the word, listening to Jesus and his teaching, receiving Jesus through his body and blood, being pruned and cleansed by the word that makes us fruitful and through which we bear the fruit of love. As vines together in the Lord’s vineyard, we bear fruit in a community of love and care. Producing the wine of love that “gladdens human hearts” and shares the good news with an overbusy, alienated and fractured world.
“Remain in me and I will remain in you” Jesus says. Our life comes from him, and the fruit of love is borne through him. Amen.
7 I became a servant of this gospel by the gift of God’s grace given me through the working of his power. 8Although I am less than the least of all the Lord’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the boundless riches of Christ, 9 and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. 10His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, 11 according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. 12 In him and through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence… As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 3:7-12; 4:1-6
I wonder if you know what the letters in this picture stand for. The letters BHAG stand for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. This is a term that comes from the strategic planning process. You may have come across in your work life, if your workplace decided to review its vision and mission and discern the next steps for growing as an enterprise.
Some strategic planning gurus claim that a successful plan needs a stretch goal, something that inspires the organization to risk something of themselves, to try harder than they have ever before. This is the Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal- “a long-term, 10 to 25-year goal, guided by your company’s core values and purpose…a challenge that is so audacious, outside-thebox, and hairy that it might feel as if you’d never achieve it. We’re talking about a ‘put a man on the moon’ level goal here.” If you’ve ever watched the movie, Apollo 13, you’ll know how complex that was. By this point you might be starting to develop an allergic reaction to talk of goals and strategy, especially in the life of the church. As helpful as they can be, we sometimes wonder what they can actually achieve.
You may remember in 2019 that the St John’s community gathered together to discern what we believed God was calling us to do in light of our identity as God’s chosen people. We responded to what we heard God say by refining and recommitting to our Vision and Mission Statements. We’ve developed ministry teams as a way of bringing passionate people together so that we can “celebrate in worship, grow in faith, care for people, and tell others about Jesus.” And over the next weeks we will be focusing on the hopes that the Mission Team has for St John’s.
Behind our vision and mission lies God’s Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. I find it beautifully summarised in this book, Manna and Mercy, by the American theologian, Daniel Erlander. He humbly submits that his book is “A Brief History of God's Unfolding Promise to Mend the Entire Universe.” This is God’s goal. And the church is the means through which he intends to do this.
Another management expert says that a BHAG “should scare you a little and excite you a lot.” I think these words ring true when we talk about the mission of the church. Truth be told, there is often more fear than there is excitement. And that’s understandable if we view the church as a human organisation that relies on its wisdom and lives on its wits. Then the question is, “Are there enough smart people in the room? Do we have powerful leaders with insight and capacity?” And the answer if, of course, no. And that’s OK, because this is not our goal to achieve in our strength. We are not a start-up, the creation of a visionary entrepreneur. We are not a publicly listed company, beholden to our shareholders, selling a product that appeals to people’s needs. We are the people of God. What a remarkable title that is. Just hear what Paul has to say to us, and about us:
“God chose us before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight…In Jesus we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us…he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ…to bring unity to all things in heaven and earth under Christ.”
This is God’s goal. And we are part of this, God’s call, God’s grace at work in us. The heart of it is that out of his rich mercy, “God made us alive with Christ, even when we were dead in our transgressions-it is by grace that you have been saved.” But that is only the half of it. Our lives have been completely transformed, reoriented by Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Now we are filled with God’s own life, through the Holy Spirit who lives in us. “We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus, to do good works, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.”
I arrive at the beginning of a strategic planning process nervous about what to expect and wondering what I personally can contribute. But when I read Paul’s majestic letter, my fear is transformed into excitement about what God has called you and I, and his whole church into. “Through the gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members of one body, and sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.” The very existence of the church is a key plank in God’s grand plan.
But wait, there’s more: “God’s intent was that now, through the church, the multisplendoured wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realm, according to his eternal purpose, that he accomplished in Jesus Christ our Lord.” God has planned nothing less than the remaking of the total universe. That’s the biggest, hairiest, most audacious goal ever. And God will succeed. Of that there is no doubt. He has done the hard yards through the work of his Son, Jesus Christ. The resurrection means that we have a living Lord who has conquered death, is alive in his kingdom, his world, and in us.
How many times do we wonder if we are up to the task? We tend to think of the church as small and insignificant, and we question whether we wield any real power or influence in our community and the wider culture, let alone globally, and certainly not cosmically. Yet as the Message translation makes clear: “through Christians like yourselves gathered in churches, this extraordinary plan of God is becoming known.”
The good news is that God is in charge of bringing his plan to completion. Paul begins the second part of his letter to the Ephesians with this appeal, “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.” Paul feels no shame in addressing God’s people from prison. Some may have wondered how successful God’s mission would be if one of God’s key messengers was in captivity. Yet Paul sees no issue here. He’s following in the footsteps of his crucified and risen Lord.
This is the cross-shaped life into which we have been called. God has done the calling, the choosing. It’s all his work, in grace. Living a life worthy of the call is not a qualification but an outcome of the grace of God that is at work in us. We have been so incredibly blessed by God. Our perspective on what constitutes a good life has been profoundly transformed As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 4 through what God has done in us. Jesus has redefined power and how it is to be used-to serve. “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Don’t big note yourself; big note God. Give glory to him. See other people not as competitors in the game of life, but fellow pilgrims on the road, and people who you are called to love.
See this sinful sort of saintly band, the church, as your enduring family, brothers and sisters in the one Lord Jesus Christ. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” This peace a key gift of God in Christ.
We live in a world and at a time where there are so many fault lines, so many differences of opinion and life philosophies, that it’s hard to find something on which we can agree. Political parties often say that “disunity is death” Unity is hard to find, harder to maintain. The good new for us is that it is God who has done the uniting. “Jesus himself is our peace, who has made the two one…” What God has done through Jesus is displayed to the world in the way that the church lives and loves. Paul shares these seven ones are the heart of the church’s life, hope and future. There is:
- one body-the church, Jew or Gentiles, slave or free, male or female-one recreated humanity, with the one renewed status through Jesus.
- one Spirit-the Holy Spirit, the go-to-person of God, calling, gathering, enlivening and sanctifying us.
- one hope-an expectant orientation toward the future, confirmed in Jesus’ death and resurrection, the only true hope for the whole universe.
- One Lord-Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the servant of all people, who sacrificed his life to give us life; he is Lord, and not Caesar, or money, or a secular leader, or another ideology.
- one faith-this is a trust and confidence in the God’s whose love has been revealed to us through the apostles and prophets, in his word.
- one baptism-this is where God gets personal in our lives, once, for good, for ever lovingly committed to us.
- one God and Father-the originator of the universe, the source of life for all creation, the one worthy of all praise.
God’s mission starts with God’s gifts. God doesn’t ask of us what doesn’t first give us. He has given us his love through his Son, his permanent presence through his Holy Spirit. He has called us his people and he’s given us the privilege of letting people know that he loves them and is in the process of renewing the whole creation. Amen.
Some time after this, Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee (that is, the Sea of Tiberias), 2 and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing those who were ill. 3 Then Jesus went up on a mountainside and sat down with his disciples. 4 The Jewish Passover Festival was near. 5When Jesus looked up and saw a great crowd coming towards him, he said to Philip, ‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ 6He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do. 7 Philip answered him, ‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’ 8Another of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, spoke up, 9 ‘Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’ 10 Jesus said, ‘Make the people sit down.’ There was plenty of grass in that place, and they sat down (about five thousand men were there). 11 Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish. 12When they had all had enough to eat, he said to his disciples, ‘Gather the pieces that are left over. Let nothing be wasted.’ 13 So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten. 14After the people saw the sign Jesus performed, they began to say, ‘Surely this is the Prophet who is to come into the world.’ 15 Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:1-15
The year was 1930, the beginning of the great depression. In the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, there were over 4000 unemployed. A newspaper paper report in the Sun- Pictorial observed that: “'As there is not sufficient food to go around for relief distribution to the Brunswick unemployed today, 622 tickets bearing numbers and 200 hundred blanks will be drawn from a hat.” Those fortunate enough to get a ticket were than able to purchase some basic foodstuffs. Others went without. This was called sustenance, or more popularly 'susso'.
Perhaps there are one or two people in our community who are old enough to remember the great depression. Over 30% of the Australian workforce were unemployed. Many people were forced to live on the breadline. They had to line up for hours in the hope that they might get some food relief.
The announcement of this week’s lockdown taps into some of these primal fears. We rush the aisles of our local supermarket, even though rationally we know that there is enough to go around. To put the best construction of things, perhaps people don’t want to leave their homes under any circumstances for the next seven days. To do that safely, we need the staples: bread, milk, pasta, meat, veggies, and fruit, and of course, toilet paper. On the other hand, perhaps this points to a desire to maintain control over this current situation.
It’s not a stretch to say that the people Jesus encounters in today’s gospel were in a desperate situation, one much worse than ours. As Jesus crossed to the far shore of the Sea of Galilee, “a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick.” Some of them would have been sick and hoping that Jesus would heal them. Most, if not all of them, would be poor, living day by day, not actually being sure of where the next meal might be coming from. This is the kind of fear that we don’t know, at least not in recent decades. But what fears or needs do you bring to Jesus today? I’m sure all of us are concerned about the pandemic, and how it won’t be over any time soon. Our anxiety may have increased as it has come much closer to home in the last days. We are frustrated at the slow rollout of vaccines, which will, in need, keep us safer. What do we learn today from Jesus?
First of all, we see Jesus change his plans to meet a need. He had intended to spend some private time with his disciples, bit the gathering crowd put an end to that. Perhaps we might say, to use a buzzword, Jesus pivoted to face the situation in front of him. He begins by drawing in the disciples. He asks Philip: “‘Where shall we buy bread for these people to eat?’ He asked this only to test him, for he already had in mind what he was going to do.” Philip was clearly a realist: “‘It would take more than half a year’s wages to buy enough bread for each one to have a bite!’” I wonder what Jesus thought of his answer. Shouldn’t he had said, “Lord, I believe that you can deal with this, even if I don’t know how.”
Andrew seems a little more hopeful: “Here is a boy with five small barley loaves and two small fish, but how far will they go among so many?’” It seems inconsequential, but perhaps this little, like the little faith that Jesus calls for, will be enough for Jesus to work with.
So Jesus does get to work. He gets the disciples to order people to sit down. “Jesus then took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed to those who were seated as much as they wanted. He did the same with the fish.” Jesus then orders the disciples to collect all the leftovers. Who could have believed that there would be more than enough? “So they gathered them and filled twelve baskets with the pieces of the five barley loaves left over by those who had eaten.”
This reminds us of how God provided for his people’s needs when they were going through the desert on their exodus journey. God. God said, “At twilight you will eat meat, and in the morning you will be filled with bread. Then you will know that I am the Lord your God.”’ This manna would be their staple food for the journey.
It’s no wonder that those witnessed what happened that day got excited about the possibilities of putting Jesus in charge of the whole show. Jesus, however, resisted the temptation for power and glory. It’s not that he didn’t care for people; feeding 5000 of them shows that he certainly cared for their physical needs. That’s why Jesus taught us to pray: “Give us today our daily bread.” But of course, the very next petition alerts us to our even more desperate need: “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
This was the much more that Jesus speaks about in the rest of John chapter 6. Our deepest need is for a relationship with the one who created us. God wants to feed people spiritually, not just satisfy their physical needs. Jesus’ feeding of the 5000 prefigures his offering of his life for the sake of the spiritual health of all people. “For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world…I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”
None of us will go hungry over the next seven days. Our food supply chain is working well, supermarket shelves are restocked overnight, and we can go shopping for our basic needs. But the pandemic as a whole, as well as our most recent lockdown, has uncovered a whole lot of deeper hungers. The future is very uncertain at most levels, from the personal to the global. Some of you have spoken to me about the sense that perhaps we have lived through the best years, and that the next decades will be much more fraught, and that’s not what any of us would have hoped for, especially for our children.
COVID-19 has uncovered some deep-seated insecurities, and my experience has been that people have been more willing to talk about some of the bigger life questions. We are all concerned and there is a heightened level of concern, even anxiety. What might happen if we got sick? What about our financial future? So many questions, ones that really matter for all people. And the good news is that we believe in a God who answers these deep needs and provides us with eternal security. We know a Saviour whose words and actions show, beyond doubt, that God cares for us, physically and spiritually, body and soul.
Jesus says later in John 6: “No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father, and I will raise him up on the last day…Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.” The image Jesus uses here is of fish being dragged into a net, caught up in its sweep as the boat glides through the water. Without the prior action of God, we can't know Jesus, we can't believe his audacious claims. Luther, in preaching on this text, comments, “People may forever do as they will, they can never enter heaven unless God takes the first step with his Word, which offers them divine grace and enlightens their hearts, so as to get upon the right way.”
That’s what we have experienced in Jesus. He came down to us. Became one of us. Meets our need for a meaningful present and a hopeful future. He doesn’t wait until we are worthy. He spends his life on the cross for our sake. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.” Jesus' offers up his body as the perfect sacrifice for the sin of the world. In his body, he obeys the law of God and satisfies its demands on our behalf.
This is the spiritual breadline on which we live, sustained by the “bread of life.” Unlike the 'susso' about which I spoke earlier, we need have no doubts about receiving food to eat. Nor is this a restrictive diet. We who are spiritually hungry come in faith, through God's gracious initiative, to feed on the living bread. We do so through the witness of the word, and in the intimacy of a shared meal with brothers and sisters, feasting on Jesus' body and blood through bread and wine.
Living on this breadline fills us for an energetic and active life of faith. As Luther puts it, 'From that moment on (the moment of faith) he loves his neighbour and helps him as his brother; he rescues him, he gives to him, loans to him and does nothing for him but that which he would desire his neighbour to do for himself.'
We, God’s people, have the calling to love our neighbour over this time, especially these days of lockdown, checking in with them, seeing what we can do to ensure they are physically cared for. But many people in our community are spiritually hungry. In normal times they’ve been good at covering it up. But this pandemic has pulled the rug from under people’s feet. We can also care spiritually. Praying for one another, for friends and neighbours, is a good start. Praying, too, for an opportunity to speak of Jesus, the Bread of Life. The greatest act of love in which we can engage is lead the spiritually hungry to the place where they can be fed. Someone once described evangelism as “One beggar telling another beggar where to find food.” Jesus says, 'I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.' Amen.
Here are some questions that you might like to discuss in your household. 1. What fears do you bring into this lockdown? What do you hear from other people? 2. Have you found greater opportunities to speak about spiritual matters since COVID-19 began? 3. How does feeding on Jesus, the Bread of Life, help you through this strange time?
[Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made the two groups (Jews and Gentiles) one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility. Ephesians 2:14
The subject I disliked the most in Secondary School was English. And I thought the worst part of English was poetry. And my biggest gripe was trying to make sense of many of the poems, and to see in them all the wonderful things our teacher saw. One of the poems I found hard to follow was one by Robert Frost called ‘Mending Wall’. And that confusion began with the very first line, ‘something there is that doesn’t love a wall’. Couldn’t that be made simpler and far more clear?
Yet despite my complaints about this first line, that’s exactly what comes to mind whenever I read this verse. Only I’ve got a more simplified version: There is someone who doesn’t love a wall. That’s what Paul is saying here. And he says that someone is Jesus.
Jesus is the great wall destroyer. In the OT we hear about another Jesus — only he was known by the Hebrew version of Jesus, which was Joshua. He is well known for being in charge when the walls of the city of Jericho came tumbling down. Well, what Jesus does is even greater than that. He breaks down the walls, the divisions, between us as persons.
Walls between people are pretty common. As humans we are very similar in our physical, mental, and emotional makeup. Yet we have always allowed walls to separate and divide us from each other. Particularly those of nationality and politics, religion and colour, prejudice and rivalry, guilt and shame. And some of those walls are high and strong.
Why on earth do we build these barriers?
Well, let’s go back to a time — way back — when there were no walls. One person is wandering around his unfenced back yard and notices all the gardening tools and hunting arrows and spears leaning against his neighbour’s house. The more he thinks about it, the more worried he becomes – and threatened and insecure. All those tools and hunting equipment could be used as weapons, against himself. So, he puts up a wall to protect himself and his family. When the neighbour sees this barrier go up, he wonders what may be going on behind it. He thinks he might be in danger from whatever it is that has to be hidden away behind a wall.
So he builds a wall, too, for his security and safety. And people who had been friends became enemies. That’s how walls work, isn’t it?
Today we may build different kinds of walls, but the effects are the same. I may see that another person has more money, or more friends, or has what I think are better abilities, or is more successful in life, than I am. And I may be tempted to build a wall between me and that person, to protect me from his popularity, or success – a wall of jealousy. Then that person, feeling my jealousy, will build his own wall in order to protect himself from me, and from my comments or actions of jealousy.
Or a person might hurt me, perhaps by saying something unkind, without even realising that what she said could be misunderstood. And I get angry and build a wall of indifference or hatred to protect myself from being hurt again. Or I build walls of ignorance and prejudice between me and other people because they have different beliefs or values or ways from mine.
There can be so many reasons for me, and for all of us, to build walls. And there are just as many reasons for me, and all of us, to justify keeping those walls there.
But Jesus came, and still comes, to take down those personal walls, to destroy them – all of them – wherever they are. He loves all people and wants to bring us all together.
And notice how he does this. He starts by taking down the walls I’ve built. We’d prefer him to start with the other fellow’s. That’s easier; it makes the other person take the first step in living without walls. But God doesn’t do that. He comes to me, to you, on our side, to deal with our walls.
He helps us see, and sometimes it takes some time to get through to us – he helps us see that we don’t need to be jealous, we don’t have to hate, we don’t have to be defensive, we don’t have to attack others, we don’t have to be afraid of people.
We’re free from all that because Jesus is our Saviour – our Saviour from sin, AND our Saviour from the need to be jealous, hateful, defensive, and afraid.
Since he forgives us and takes away all our guilt, we don’t have to protect ourselves from other people’s accusations. We don’t have to prove we’re in the right, we can even be in the wrong quite often. We don’t have to think we’re better than others, we can even think of others as being better than we are. That’s the results of having Jesus as our Saviour.
We don’t need to build walls to defend ourselves, because Jesus has defended us and always will. We don’t need to build walls as a means of getting back at others, because Jesus saves us from giving people what we think they deserve. And if his work as Saviour doesn’t extend into our daily life to deal with the walls we put up, then something has gone wrong – in us.
So Jesus defends us, not by destroying our enemy, or fixing up the other person, but by being our Saviour and removing our walls. Of course, he offers to do that for those who build walls against us, too. But they may want to keep their walls. And that doesn’t matter. That’s no justification for us to keep ours. We need not, we can’t, keep ours. We have Jesus to protect us; we don’t need walls – certainly not between us as fellow members of his church or as fellow citizens in our country. He’s pulled them down, and he forbids us to rebuild them.
Paul was amazed by the way Jesus brought people together. He does it by making us new persons, recreating us. He shatters the old selfish, fearful nature in us and replaces it with a new nature, a new being, which lives in love, in God’s love. And the walls come tumbling down whenever these re-created people face each other in love and trust.
Let’s put it this way. If you love Jesus and I love Jesus, we’ll find it hard to hate one another. It’s easy to hate if you believe another person is mean, vicious, cruel, lazy, and so on. But when we say, as we must, ‘that person loves Jesus just as I do’ — or more, ‘Jesus loves him or her just as Jesus loves me’ — then it becomes impossible to go on to say, ‘But I’m not going to show love to that person, I’m going to keep right away from him or her.’ Walls stand only as long as we can paint the other fellow as a villain, or as someone outside of God’s love. When the other person loves all that I hold dear, when my Saviour, who I hold dear, loves him or her, then the hand of fellowship is sure to follow.
But walls are stubborn things. They are really hard to get rid of. Nor is the shattering of walls a one-time thing, either. The old sins of hatred and prejudice, and all the rest, creep back, if we’re not on the alert, if we don’t confess them again and again. The new nature Jesus gives us is always at war with our old nature of sin.
So Jesus, the wall shatterer, is at work in our hearts constantly, helping us to search our hearts in order to have him remove, through his forgiveness, all those forces that want to put the walls up again.
Jesus doesn’t love a wall. He pulls them down — all the walls we put up. And he calls us to live without them. He gives us the power to live without them.