Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes

If you have recently gone past St John’s Church in Hook you may have seen that they have trimmed their trees and hedges. You will notice that their beautiful Weeping Willow tree has been drastically cut back to a bare trunk with just 4 or 5 thick, stumpy branches. All the beautiful willowy fronds that hung down to head height have gone; the tree looks lifeless and denuded. This process is called pollarding and I understand it is vital for the longer term health of certain species of tree. In some cases it can extend their life for many years compared to a tree that is allowed to grow untended in any way. In quite a short space of time the tree outside St John’s will grow back more vigorous than before.

In John 15, Jesus drew his disciple’s attention to the careful work of a vinedresser who prunes the vine tree to maximise its fruitfulness. Fruitless branches are taken away and burned, but branches that bear fruit are pruned so that they become more fruitful. It is this latter observation that drew my attention.

Jesus is teaching us that healthy churches and healthy individual followers of Jesus can expect to experience pruning in order that they remain healthy and bear fruit. He does not tell us explicitly what pruning looks like in spiritual terms, however the pruning imagery indicates that, in the short term at least, the process can appear quite savage and brutal. This suggests to me that any life experience that causes us pain has the potential to be a part of our spiritual pruning for fruitfulness. Sometimes when we are faced with adversity we imagine that it is in some way punishment for sin in our life. That is to forget how Jesus deals with our sin – he offers us forgiveness which in turn prompts us to cut away the sin in our lives. The pruning that Jesus does by contrast is in response to fruitfulness to ensure our ongoing spiritual health. In other words, pruning is a sign of the vinedresser’s approval rather than his displeasure.

What does it mean to bear much fruit? Jesus does not make that clear in this passage. Elsewhere in the New Testament however we see two kinds of kingdom fruitfulness: the fruitfulness of Christ-like character and the fruitfulness of new believers joining the church. Both of these are fruit that are eternal. Difficult seasons in our lives can cause us to retreat and feel sorry for ourselves. A better response is to expect that we become more like Christ and to anticipate opportunities to share his love with others.

This blog post featured in the May 2013 edition of Lifelines

Money, Money, Money

Have you ever wondered would you do if you inherited a £1 million from some long lost relative or gained it from some other windfall? It does not seem to matter how much money people have, we always seem to want more. Older readers will remember lines from classic songs such as ‘Money, money, money. Must be funny. In a rich man’s world’ or ‘Money makes the world go around’ that express the world’s expectation that having more money will solve their problems. The stark truth however is that money does not make people happy and this sometimes leads people to state that ‘money is the root of all evil’.

Whilst that phrase is found in the Bible it is actually a misquotation! What Paul actually wrote was: ‘For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.’ 1 Timothy 6:10 (ESV)

As people who are daring to live by the Word and the Spirit, our goal is to allow the Bible to shape our thinking on every area of our life, including our finances. You may have heard the story of an airplane that was in difficulty and the pilot announced that they were about to crash land. One person called out “Should we do something religious?” only for someone else to reply “Let’s take up an offering!” If we limit our understanding of the Bible’s teaching on money to offerings, then we short-change ourselves.

The issue with money is not whether we are rich or poor, but rather whether we crave it. Paul says that craving for money has led some to wander away from their faith. Biblical teaching about money strikes right at the heart of our faith and our understanding of the gospel. It is not a side issue. Because it is such an important subject, Simon and I will be preaching a series that we are calling ‘Jesus on Money’, starting in the middle of January. As we do this, we will discover that Jesus pulls no punches as he challenges commonly held attitudes. Our prayer is that as we see what Jesus had to say about the subject, our hearts will be changed and instead of us serving money, we will learn to make money serve God’s kingdom.

This blog post featured in the January 2013 edition of Lifelines

Who is the message of the kingdom for?

That might seem a daft question, after all the answer is obvious – everyone! However, do we really believe that? Or do we have categories of people who we feel are beyond the gospel, people who are too hardened to respond to the grace of Christ? People we have given up on? What about people we might feel uncomfortable being with?

In Luke 14:12-24 Jesus told a parable to encourage us to believe that the gospel is for everyone who will hear it. He describes a great banquet, which a man throws for his invited guests. At the last minute the guests start making excuses and fail to turn up. The master is angry to be rejected in this way and sends his servants out into the streets to literally bring everyone they can find, the poor and crippled and blind and lame in to enjoy the feast which has been prepared. If his respectable friends won’t come, then he will fill the banquet with the outcasts of society.

I don’t think Jesus is saying we should give up on friends and family who have responded negatively to our efforts to share the good news of Jesus with them. Rather I think he is encouraging us to widen our circle and reach out to people who we might not naturally reach out to. The gospel is not only for people like us, or for people who like us, or even (dare I say it?) only people we like. The gospel really is for everyone! Will you rise to the challenge and pray for opportunities to share God’s love with anyone who will receive it? Are you willing to step out of your comfort zone for the love of Jesus?

This blog post featured in the November 2012 edition of Lifelines