“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.

The beauty of grapes …

What do you consider to be the most important spiritual principle? Certainly there are countless great answers. Surely there are many acceptable and reasonable answers to the question. So here is mine:
One of the blessings of living in California is seeing the beautiful vineyards in a region of the globe renown for producing some of the world’s best grapes. It is breathtaking to see row after row of vines lifted up on stakes hanging with heavy clusters of grapes as far as the eye can see. An image that is easily associated with Jesus’ teaching in John 15 where He declared that He is the true vine and His disciples are the branches. The whole imagery of grapes lifted up watered and pruned to produce fruit, more fruit and much fruit is familiar to people in this part of the world as it was to Jesus’ original audience.

The Master explained that the key to bearing fruit was the believer’s connection to Christ. Jesus repeats the word abide [meno] almost ten times in ten verses to emphasize the cause and effect relationship between bearing fruit and dwelling with Christ. To abide means to remain or dwell with. To continue the agrarian imagery we can see that abide means to be connected to – like grapes to a vine, and a believer to Christ.

Selma, California a region in the fertile central valley of the state is recognized as the world’s largest producer of raisins. You can drive for miles in awe seeing row after row of large clusters of grapes lying on the ground upon brown paper drying in the California sun. It is an impressive and a sobering site because the only difference between a grape and a raisin is the connection to the vine and the passage of time.

In the context of John 15 Jesus’ theme was fruit bearing rather than salvation. So, I’m not suggesting that any true believer can lose their salvation. What I am suggesting is that someone who is intimately connected with Christ manifests the beauty of grapes in all their fruit bearing glory. And Christians who are distant from Christ start to appear more like raisins in their spiritual lives. So how can you as a follower of Christ and a Christian leader remain close or intimate with Christ? I’d like to suggest three ways to remain connected that have been essential to my spiritual life:

1. Connecting to Christ through the Word of God,
2. Connecting to Christ through prayer, and
3. Connecting to Christ through the awareness of your story intersecting with the author and finisher’s work.

What does connecting with Christ through the Word of God mean? As followers of Christ we know intuitively the importance of the Bible as God’s revelation. Also, we have discovered that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God [Matt. 4:4]. So disciples seek to regularly read the Bible. Perhaps you have a plan to read a certain number of chapters a day or week, or perhaps a certain amount of time for bible reading. As leaders who teach the Bible you also spend presumably significant time studying the Bible to prepare to teach. These times of Bible reading are opportunities for connecting with Christ. Each of us has ideally had the experience of sensing God speak to us through His word. You’ve sensed that a particular verse or passage of Scripture was God speaking to you in a unique way that was intimate and wonderful – the epiphany moments.

I remember early in my ministry experience when I read John 15 and came to verse 5, “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” I felt so convicted. It felt like God was speaking in a still small inner voice to me that I was trying to do ministry in my strength and that my intellect or disciplines could not produce any good apart from Christ. I felt humbled as I sensed God speak, but wonderfully encouraged that God was speaking and it was intimate, powerful, and I knew I was connected even as I was corrected. Then I sensed the Lord gently encourage me with the promise that is also contained in verse 5, that if I was connected to Him I would bear much fruit. Again there was the awareness of the reality of the risen Christ and the peace comfort and assurance of our connection and His desire to bless me. This experience was merely one of countless that would be enjoyed and cultivated through the years.

Connecting through the Word can be likened to a marriage relationship. My wife and I enjoy many meals together and time together when we discuss the events of the day, life, our plans, and perhaps our feelings. Generally there is an overall sense that we are connected in relationship and that I want to hear from her and share with her. Sometimes they can be somewhat superficial and sometimes amazingly vulnerable and intimate.

This is how I view my regular Bible reading times. In addition, we have regularly scheduled date days or nights where we spend significant time together. In the midst of those opportunities there have also been wonderful memories and times of intimate connection. In my marriage I thank God for the comfort in our relationship and the general awareness that we are connected. But I also long for those special times where the sense of connection and intimacy is greater. Those are the epiphany moments I’m seeking to experience with Christ through His word. Sometimes they come in the course of routine reading and sometimes they are cultivated as I carve out significant time to hear from God through His word. But whenever they happen they are treasured.

What does connecting with Christ through prayer mean? Have you ever had one of those experiences where you are praying and feel especially connected to Christ? Sometimes our prayers don’t seem too connected or inspired. I assume we’ve all prayed for God’s blessing over a meal without a great sense of connection.

I was recently reading the account of Paul’s voyage to Rome and the terrible storm [Acts 27]. At verse 29 we read, “They dropped four anchors from the stern, and prayed for day to come.”  Who are the “they” referred to in the verse? Presumably the Egyptian sailors or Roman soldiers on board the ship. So presumably the Egyptian and Romans are pagans praying to pagan gods. They pray for “day to come.” In essence it is a prayer to stop the storm or to survive the storm. Certainly Christians should pray like this to the true and living God. We should cry out to God in our desperation and make our requests known to Him. However as followers of Christ our prayers can reveal a deeper sense of connection to God.

For example my wife suffers from lupus. It is appropriate and good for me to pray and ask God to heal her and to cure the lupus. But when I’m feeling connected to Christ [or want to feel connected] my prayers may sound like this, “Lord what do you want me to learn from this? How are you using this to teach me to be more compassionate or empathetic? Lord how are you using this to make me a better husband or dad? Jesus will you please remind Karen that you are using this for your glory and her ultimate good. Please show her that you love her and that she is not being punished.” When prayers are intimate and/or intense there is often a wonderful sense of connection to Christ.

What does connecting to Christ through the awareness of your story intersecting with the author and finisher’s work mean? Sometimes we make the connection of the intersection of our life story and the author and finisher of faith – Jesus [Heb.12:2]. While riding my bike on the Pacific Coast Highway [PCH] I was hit by a car. The car was likely going over 50 mph and I wasn’t wearing a helmet. I suffered an elbow fracture and plenty of abrasions and lacerations. Remarkably I walked away and six weeks later was essentially fully healed. Following the accident I had the awareness that God had spared my life because He was going to keep using my life to represent Him and advance his kingdom. There was a sense of connection as I saw God’s story and my story intersect. Throughout each day in countless ways there are opportunities to see the intersection of God’s story and your life. When you discover the intersection there is often a greater sense of connection to Christ.

I’ve discovered that when I seek to be connected to Christ and pursue these familiar places of connection to Him that I tend to feel more like a beautiful cluster of grapes rather than a spiritual raisin. So for me the most important spiritual principle is to be connected to Christ.