SERVE-tember Sunday

If you visited our church a couple of weeks ago, you would have experienced a Sunday with a difference.  Instead of seeing people gathering to sing and listen to a sermon, you would have seen them scattering in two’s and three’s in cars, on bikes and on foot – some with food, some with shovels and spades and others with guitars.  Sound a little odd?  I guess it does, unless you understand the bigger picture.

We started out this year with the launch of our new mission: God’s grace, to us, for the world.  Let me break that down briefly.  God’s grace is the transforming power of God which comes by way of the gospel.  And it’s all about Jesus.  We make a big deal about that each and every week.  The to us part describes the community of people who the gospel creates – the church of God which is being built up through the ministry of the Word, mutual service and exercise of our spiritual gifts.  For the world describes the mission or task of the church.  This wonderful, saving grace is not to be hoarded, but shared with those who don’t know Jesus.

Most churches are strong on the first two.  But they tend to be weak with the third.  That is because by default all their energies are directed internally, to their own needs – so much so that they forget about the people who live around them.  These are the very ones God is concerned about!  And he wants us to share the good news with them.

So how do you mobilize a church of over 250 people to be more outward-focused?  Well that’s a mission in itself!  And there’s no magic bullet for it.  We are trialling a few new things here at Grace.  One of things we trialled was canning a morning service and sending everyone out to bless and serve our community.  This sounds great on paper but when you consider our age range – 80 years down to 8 weeks, we were going to have to be creative.  So, this is what we did:

  • We contacted the Tasman District Council to ask if we could send teams onto the cycle ways to pick up rubbish and pass out gift packages of water bottles and muesli bars to passing cyclists and walkers. They were amazed we’d do this and even supplied us with the rubbish bags
  • We ordered a bunch of high-viz vests with our church logo imprinted on the back for the work crews to wear
  • We bought a few hundred sausages for cooking on BBQ’s on the cycle way and local skatepark
  • We organized a muffin-making brigade to bake hundreds of home-made muffins
  • We ordered 500 colourful gospel tracts to go with the muffins and snack bags
  • We contacted the local Retirement homes and asked if we could bring in a team to sing to and bless the elderly
  • We also contacted the Nelson Hospital and Police Station and asked if we could come in to thank their workers for their contribution to the community
  • We mapped out streets in Richmond city to take gift packages to those who are working on Sunday (Gas stations, auto parts stores, liquor stores, motel staff etc)
  • We appointed a prayer team which would stay on base and pray for the entire operation and for door to be opened

When people arrived on Sunday morning they were directed to a board with sign-up sheets where they selected which area they wanted to serve in.  Then they met with their team to discuss a plan on how they would go about it.  After packaging up containers of muffins, tracks and snack packs, they headed off into the community.

The plan was simple: bless people!  Give a simple explanation of what we are doing (as well as why we are doing it) and give them some morning treats.  We didn’t know how the whole thing would go – whether it would fly or it would flunk.  And we didn’t know what conversations or opportunities might open up.  We simply put the whole thing to the Lord in prayer and asked HIM to do with it as He willed.

After we were done, we all met back at the church for lunch and to share some stories.  Here are a few snippets:

One small team visited a Campervan park close to our church.  When they approached one couple a woman asked, “Do you give away anything else than muffins – like prayer?” (I’m serious – that’s exactly what she said).  It had been a rough week for her.  Her husband has a heart condition and her son is going through a separation.  She had asked God to send her someone that day.  He did.  Rowena and Anisha were delighted to pray for her.

Rowena and Anisha retelling the Campervan park story with Francelle

Vern washing down the house

Ken, one of elders, took a small team to assist a woman in our community called Adelle.  During a visit with her doctor earlier that week, she shared how she was feeling overwhelmed – even her garden had gone to pieces.  Her doctor wrote down a phone number on a piece of paper and said, “If you want help with your garden, call this number.”  It was the number of our church.  Perfect timing!  Ken’s team made short work of it, washing down the outside of her house, pulling out some unwanted weeds, and giving her an instant vege garden.  They left with her beaming, and sending an awesome thank you message later that week.

Adelle getting her new vege garden

The staff at the hospital really appreciated the muffins and words of encouragement.  One of the nurses in A&E pulled out her wallet, thinking we were selling them.  How surprised she was to find out they were gifts!

I went with a couple of guys and hit the gas stations and auto parts stores.  We sure surprised a few people, often having to repeat ourselves because they didn’t believe they were hearing it the first time.  I think that goes to show how little people are appreciated in general – in whatever they do.

Jason blessing a Sunday morning worker at a local dairy

The folks at the retirement homes were really touched by those who went to sing and give small bouquets of flowers to the ladies.  Tears ran down cheeks as worship songs were sung and words of blessing were given.

Note: not everyone had a wonderful “God” moment and nor did many get into deep spiritual conversations.  But some did.  And that was our expectation.  We were simply vessels in God’s hands.  We depended on him to use us as he saw fit.  Some doors opened; some didn’t.  But everyone we encountered was blessed, in some way or another.

Would we do it again?  Absolutely!  What we sacrificed by losing a Sunday service (which was small) we gained in forging teamwork and a missionary spirit.  The faint-hearted were strengthened, unity was built, and people were hugely encouraged.  And those who stayed away that morning – well, they just missed out on seeing God at work – big time.

I’ll leave you with a video clip that shows some of the highlights of the morning (thanks William for your hard work on this):







This past week we had a special visitor stay with us.  Her name is Lyn Riley.  We first met Lyn a little over two years ago in Huntington hospital  where our son Mark was recuperating from his motorcycle accident.  The Air 5 helicopter crew who rescued Mark asked Lyn to come and check on how he was doing.  We formed a special bond with her from that day onward.

Lyn is one of those larger-than-life people who lives life to the full.  EVERYTHING matters and so does EVERYONE.  If you are low on the enthusiasm chart, just spend some time with Lyn.  She’ll give you a good top up!

Lyn’s official role is clinical care coordinator for the LA County Sheriff’s Department – Air 5 medivac program.  She is responsible for the continuing education and quality improvement programs for medics in the SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics), SEB (Special Enforcement Bureau) and ESD (Emergency Services Detail) teams.  The crew who picked Mark off the road belong to the ESD.  The crew is made up of two pilots, two paramedics and a crew chief.  Lyn personally trained the two paramedics (seen below) who tended to Mark’s injuries, stemming the bleeding and saving his life.

The Air 5 Crew (from Lft to Rght): Brice (Paramedic), Rod (Crew Chief), Tom and Clint (pilots) and Tracy (Paramedic)

Lyn would often come and visit Mark (and us) in the hospital ward.  She was never in a hurry and always had time for us.  Whatever we needed in the hospital, she would try and take care of it.  She was the one who organized the Air 5 crew to come and visit Mark and do a fly past of his window.  As they circled the building, the windows and instruments in the room all started shaking – which didn’t go down all that well with some of the staff.  I think it might have been the first and last time they tried that!  Before Mark flew back to NZ, she had them land on the roof and Mark was taken up there to meet them.  That’s the kind of person Lyn is.

Lyn and Mark with Air 5 crew lifting off at the Hospital heliport

We thought that it was pretty cool that after all this time Lyn would fly out from the States to come and see us.  She timed it for Mark’s birthday so that we could celebrate it together.  While she was here, Mark took her to see some of the sights in our region including the Nelson Lakes, Golden Bay and even some salmon fishing.

Mark, Britney (Mark’s girlfriend) and Lyn checking out some of the pics they took on their trip to Golden Bay

The day after Mark’s birthday, a special package turned up.  It was sent by Brice Stella, once of the paramedics who tended to Mark on the side of the road.  He has taken a special interest in Mark throughout his recovery.  Brice had one of the Air 5 flight jackets made for Mark, with his name embroidered on it.  It came with an official letter from the LA County Sheriff’s Office.  This is what it read:

Dear Mr. Somervell.

The men and women of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, Special Enforcement Bureau (SEB) have been following your recovery these past two years. Your tenacity and attitude has been an inspiration to all of us.

As you may know, the radio call sign of the SEB Emergency services Detail is 240R (240 Robert).  As the Captain of the Special Enforcement Bureau, I would like to assign you the honorary call sign of 240R-KW (240 Robert- Kiwi Warrior).  You are the only person we have ever given an SEB call sign.  We are proud to have you as one of us.

I wish you continued success and good health.  We all look forward to seeing you at SEB the next time you visit the U.S.



This means when Mark is in LA next time, he will become part of the Air 5 crew, with his own call sign (240R Robert- Kiwi Warrior).

Francelle and I continue to be amazed by the events that have unfolded since Mark’s accident.  We’ve also been amazed by the kind of people who have taken an avid interest him and his recovery.  That convinces us that God his hand on all this in special way and very likely there will be more surprises down the road we don’t yet know about.

We are very thankful for Lyn for all the love and kindness shown to our family and to Brice who has been a great encouragement to Mark (and us) throughout this journey. You are both special to us all.

Here’s a video of Mark opening the package.  The memory card maxed out just when he went to read the letter!  It shows Lyn in her full bloom 🙂


Abraham – the friend of God

Abraham is the only person in the Old Testament who is called the friend of God[1].  The Lord used to speak to Moses as a man speaks to his friend (Exodus 33:11).  But Moses is never called God’s friend.  So what sets Abraham apart from the rest of God’s servants?

That’s what I wanted to find out.  The answer came from an unsuspecting text in the book of James.

“Wasn’t Abraham our father justified by works in offering Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was active together with his works, and by works, faith was made complete, and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, and he was called God’s friend.” (James 2:21–23, emphasis added)

James is giving an argument for the case that there is no such thing as a faith that is devoid of works.  True faith – if it is of the saving kind, produces something.  It causes somethingHe then gives the example of Abraham offering up Isaac, quoting Genesis 15:6.  And James adds, “and he was called God’s friend.”

 Now why did James insert that?  What does that have to do with anything?  It is not at all related to his argument about faith and works.

Or is it?

Let’s have a think about this. Where do we find Abraham offering up Isaac?  In Genesis chapter 22.  If you are unfamiliar with the story you might get a little lost so let fill you in.  God calls a man called Abraham from his country and makes a covenant with him and says to him, “Abraham, leave your home and go to the land that I show you.  I’m going to bless you, I’m going to make you a great nation and all the peoples of the world are going to be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:1-3).  And Abraham believed.  He took God at his Word.  And he obeyed.

Abraham’s faith is then tested in progressive stages.  Each time he is tested, his faith grows.  But now here comes the biggest test: God asks him to offer up his son Isaac.  You can imagine Abraham’s response: “What – you want me to offer up Isaac – my only son?  You want me to sacrifice him?”

Isaac is the son of promise.  That means Isaac is the only means by which the promises God made to Abraham (and by extension to us) can be fulfilled.  If Isaac dies without children, there is no hope for the rest of humanity because it is through Isaac that the Messiah would come.

But that’s not James’ focus.  Why was he called God’s friend?  Because of what his faith accomplished.  Because of what his faith proved.  God had already pronounced Abraham righteous by his faith (Genesis 15:6).  But now, under the severest test, how will that faith stand?  God is asking,

“Is your faith real Abraham? Do you really trust me?  Are you willing to obey me, even when it makes no sense?  Do you believe I will keep my word that Isaac is the one through whom the promises will come?” 

And Abraham says, “Yes God, I do”

Hebrews chapter 11 fills in the gaps for it says, “He considered God to be able even to raise someone from the dead.” (Hebrews 11:19).  And so there he is with knife upraised, his love for God driving him to surrender even that which is most precious to him; God intervenes and says, “Stop, you don’t have to.”  This is why, based on this supreme act of love and obedience, Abraham is called God’s friend.

Proving we are God’s friends

So what does all that have to do with us?  Much indeed!  For in John 15 Jesus said this to his disciples:

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” (John 15:14–15)

Just as Abraham proved his trust in God was real by obeying God’s command in the most difficult of tasks, namely sacrificing his only son (which, by the way, he didn’t have to do but God later would with his own son), so we too prove our trust in Jesus when obey his commands.

  • Jesus commands us to forgive those that sin against us.  Someone does something that hurts you; they sin against you.  You say, “Jesus, this person has wounded me and deeply hurt me.  I don’t want to forgive them.  But because you showed how much you love me by laying down your life for me, then I’ll do it Jesus – I will forgive.”
  •  The Bible commands us to abstain from sexual sin.  You are attracted to someone of the opposite sex (or for that matter, someone of the same sex).  Maybe you’re already in a relationship – one that might not be pleasing to God.  You’re doing stuff you know you shouldn’t.  If Jesus was telling you to stop, would you?  This is where it gets real doesn’t it?  This is when our faith gets tested.  So, what do you do?  You say, “Lord Jesus, I’m having difficulty here.  I’m finding this hard.  I have desires which I’m finding difficult to control.  But because you’re asking me to do this, I will.  Because you Jesus, mean more to me than anything.”
  •  Jesus commands you to take the good news to the lost.  You say, “I’m no good at that. I find that too hard.”  Well guess what?  I find it hard also.  But my response is, “Because of my love for you Jesus; because you’re my friend, and because you did the hard thing for me, the least I can do is do this for you.  I’ll go and I’ll tell people about you.”

 So let me ask you now in closing, would Jesus call you his friend?  Do you demonstrate self-sacrificial love toward others, not just those closest to you – not just your friends, but those different from you?  Does he see you obeying his commands – willingly, gladly out of love for him?  Does he see fruit in your life – things that give evidence that you truly do belong to him and his Spirit lives in you?

You may able to say without hesitation, “Yes, I know I am a friend of Jesus.  I don’t obey him perfectly, but I do obey.  I know he died for me on that cross.  His love for me has changed me.  So yes, I can say he is my friend.”

Perhaps you aren’t able to say that.  You’re not there yet.  Or you thought you were there, but after reading this, you know you’re not.  Your life does not give evidence that you are Jesus’ friend.  There are too many inconsistencies.

Do you want to change that?  You can.  But you’ve first got to come clean with him.  You need to get honest with him.  And you need to be willing to turn from things you know are wrong and allow him to come into your life as Saviour and King and change your heart so that you can do what is right.

Then you, like Abraham, could be called a friend of God.

[1] 2 Chronicles 20:7, Isaiah 41:8

The Friends of Jesus

During High School friends were very important to me.  I formed a tight friendship with five other guys.  We did everything together.  They were my family – my life.  Then we started going our separate ways.  Some left for jobs.  Others moved in with their girl-friends.  The tight five were a tight four, then three, then two and then only one.  One individual – after all those years, that I could still call my friend.

People can be fickle, can’t they.  They call you a friend.  They give you the impression that they value you – that you really matter to them.  But over time you find out that is not really the case.  You’re just a commodity.  You just happened to useful to them for a time, until a better option turns up.

Friendship with Jesus isn’t anything like that (thankfully!)  It is far deeper, more meaningful and more binding.  In John 15 Jesus says this:

“I do not call you servants anymore, because a servant doesn’t know what his master is doing. I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my Father.” (John 15:15)

I do not call you servants anymore…. I have called you my friends.  Those are the stunning statements that every believer in Jesus needs to hear.  The One who is Lord over the entire universe is calling his disciples, and by extension, all believers everywhere, HIS FRIENDS.  He gives to them intimate knowledge of his Father’s will – his plans and purposes behind what he does – things that mere servants would never have access to.

This is great news for all Jesus followers, if it wasn’t for the verses that precede this:

“No one has greater love than this: to lay down his life for his friends.  You are my friends IF you do whatever I command you” (John 15:13-14, emphasis added)

The problem is that little word “if.”  It’s a problem because it looks like Jesus is saying, “If you do what I command, then you will be my friend and the laying down of my life will count for you.”  Is that what Jesus means?  Do what Jesus commands and you qualify to be his friend and then his death on the cross will be true for you?  If that is what Jesus means, then I’m in trouble. Because I don’t do what he commands – at least consistently.  I don’t love my wife as I should, I don’t love my kids as I should, nor do I love the people in my church as I should.  I’m often anxious (when Jesus says I shouldn’t be) and I get angry and frustrated with people when they don’t do what I want and on and on it goes.  Clearly, I do not qualify to be Jesus’ friend.  So what are we going to do here?

What we need to understand is there is more than one kind of “if” in the bible.

  1. There is a kind of “if” or condition that is a CAUSE that precedes and brings about an effect.  Let me give you an example.  When I say, “If you come to come to my house tonight, then I will serve you coffee.”  My serving you coffee is dependent on you first coming to my house.  If you don’t come, I won’t serve you coffee.
  2. There is however, another kind of “if” or condition that is an EFFECT or RESULT that follows and confirms the cause.  I’ll give you an example of that: “If, as a result of reading this you understand this passage, then I have explained it to you clearly.”  So, your understanding of this text is the result of my clear explanation.

Now let’s apply this second meaning to our text.  If would read like this – “If you do what Jesus commands, then you confirm that you are his friend and the laying down of his life is true for you.  It has bought you; it has changed you.”  You say, “Well it has to be the second one.”  Why do you say that?  You say that because you know that is what the gospel teaches.  Being in a right relationship with God (or being Jesus’ friend) is not caused by my obedience (that would be heresy), but rather his laying down of his life reveals his love for me in such a way that it changes me so that I want to obey. And we could go to many other texts in the New Testament that would confirm this.

But we need to remember that the disciples didn’t have a New Testament.  All they had were these words of Jesus.  So, my question is: what do we find here in this text that might confirm the “if” clause in verse 14 – “you are my friends if you do what I command you,” has the second meaning and not the first.  Have a look at verse 9.

“As the Father has loved me, I have also loved you. Remain in my love.” (John 15:9)

As the Father has loved me, I have also loved youHave loved – what tense is that in?  That’s in the past tense.  And then Jesus says, “Remain in my love.”  You can’t remain in something unless you are already there.  Jesus loved them prior to any acts of obedience.  We see it also in verse 12:

“This is my command: Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12, emphasis added)

So we know now that the first “if” condition above cannot work.  Obeying Jesus cannot be the cause of our friendship with Jesus because Jesus tells us in verse 9 and verse 12 we are to love one another, “as I have loved you.”  Jesus is saying, “I loved you with a great love – I laid down my life for you, and this has produced a change in you so you want to obey my commands and this obedience confirms that you are in fact my friend.”

Do you see now how important that we read the bible carefully?  Do you see how important every single word is and what is meant by those words?  It can be the difference between a false gospel (salvation by my efforts) and the true gospel (salvation by God’s empowering grace).

I’m so glad my friendship with Jesus is not dependent on my obedience.  I’m so glad that he loved me before I ever loved him.  I’m so glad that this love drove him to lay down his life for me so that I could be forgiven of my sin and be reconciled to God.  Such love has affected me deeply – so deep in fact, that I am more than willing to offer my life in service and obedience to him.

Note: I am indebted to John Piper for helping me understand this more clearly.  While preparing to preach on this passage I came across his “Look by the Book” blackboard study on this text.  It was truly a revelation from heaven.  You can view the video here.

If you would like to hear the message I preached on this text, you can find it on the Grace Church sermon audio page here








Two weeks ago, I received a phone call while sitting in an airport waiting for a flight.  I recognized his voice immediately; it was my friend Carl.

“Hello there Peter, it’s Carl.”
“Hi there Carl, it’s good to hear from you”
“I have you on my list of many people to call.  There’s something I need to tell you and the news isn’t all that good.  I have only a short time to live.”
The news came like a bombshell.  “Carl,” I replied gently, “what happened?”

Carl unravelled the whole story.  Some melanoma growths appeared on his body a few years ago which were removed.  He went in for check-ups regularly after that, but unbeknownst to everyone, the melanoma was spreading.  They found it in his lymph nodes in his neck.  Carl was then operated on and a large number of those nodes were taken out.  That was eight weeks ago.

They sent Carl home to recuperate.  But Carl didn’t recuperate.  In fact, he got worse.

His wife Rina saw that something wasn’t right.  But when she tried telling the medical personal about this all she got was, “It’s just post-op depression.  He’ll come right.”  His condition deteriorated even more.  Finally, with some advice from some friends, she got their attention.  Carl was brought back in and a full scan was done.  A very aggressive form of cancer was growing in his liver and spleen.  It was terminal.

Life expectancy: approximately 3 weeks.

Carl had been a hard worker all his life.  He ate well and lived a healthy lifestyle.  He was looking forward to a new season in his life of slowing down and spending more time with his family.  One of his dreams was taking a river cruise with his wife in Europe.  They had even booked the trip.  Carl had also just received his gold card.  The first time he got to use it wasn’t for travel, but his operation.

But it gets even more difficult.  At the time of this news, his two sons were overseas along with their wives and young children – one working and living in Holland and the other on holiday in Canada.  They both had to be notified: “You need to get home.”

While Carl was telling me all this, my mind was reeling.  I knew this family well.  They were very close and all loved Jesus.  Still, this would rock them.  More importantly, how was Carl himself holding up?  Would his faith in God and hope in the gospel be strong enough to endure this?  Carl answered that in the next part of the conversation:

“Peter, I absolutely for sure, for sure know where I am going.  I am going to be with the Lord.  I am going home.  That’s not a concern.  My concern is for those I know who aren’t.  So while I still have a clear head and I can think straight, I’m calling them all one by one.”

Carl had phoned his mother and brother and sister in Holland.  For many years he had tried to tell them about Jesus and why he came, but they didn’t want to listen.  Now, things were different.  Carl was dying.  They were ready to listen.

Then Rina got on the phone.  She told me about all the visits they were having.  Carl is an engineer in a large company, so he has many co-workers who know him.  They have all made a special trip to come and see him.  As they come in, one by one, he has them sit down and then for 30-40 minutes, he shares with them how they can get to heaven.  No one argues.  No one gets up and walks out.  They all stay and listen.  “Peter,” she said, “I’ve never seen Carl like this.  He has always struggled with witnessing and finding the right words to talk about God.  But you should see him now!  I’m absolutely amazed.”

Something very special was happening here. This wasn’t a tragic tale about a friend who was dying.  God was at work.  Carl’s prayers were being answered.  He wanted to be a better witness for Jesus.  Now at last, he was – and in a more powerful way than he could ever have imagined.  Carl was using his cancer for the glory of God.  Through his slow and painful suffering, others were hearing the message of life.

When the phone call ended, I sat there for a few moments in the airport staring through the windows outside.  This is what life is really about, I thought.  It’s about people.  It’s about relationships.  It’s about knowing for absolute sure whether or not we are going to heaven and helping others find their way there also.  Carl has a few weeks; others may have a few years.  Sooner or later, everyone’s time will be up.  Like someone said to me once: “We’re all sitting in the departure lounge.  It’s just a matter of what flight you’re on” (which was somewhat ironic considering where I was sitting at that time).  How is it that we all get so busy, we don’t have time to think about what matters most?

I was still in deep thought when an announcement came through the speakers.  “Last call for flight 8239 to Wellington. Passengers must board immediately.”  I grabbed my bag and water bottle.  I didn’t want to miss my flight.


When I arrived home, I booked a flight for the next week to Auckland so I could go and see Carl.  It seemed the fitting thing to do.  It was possible he wouldn’t make it until then, or his condition would deteriorate to the point I wouldn’t be able to talk with him.  Too bad, I thought.  I’m going to trust God and take the chance.

I’m so glad I did.  He was alert and very pleased to see me.  We had a beautiful time together, talking about many things – his family, his work colleagues, and the many conversation he’s been able to have with people.  Rina was there alongside of me, constantly adjusting his bed and pillows so he could be comfortable.  The pain levels were increasing, and so was the medication in order to cope with it.  We read some scripture together and prayed and then let him rest.  I stayed a while to talk with Rina and the other members of the family.  Many tears had been shed and many more would in the next few days.

Regardless of the strength of your faith, death is still death.  It’s distressing.  It’s painful.  The greater the love, the deeper the sense of loss.  But Jesus provides a comfort deep enough to match it.  He understands death.  He knows.  He was there.

After dinner, Carl asked if we could sing.  We stood around his bed and sung together – “I Know Whom I Have Believed.”  Here are some of the words:

I know not why God’s wondrous grace
To me He hath made known,
Nor why, unworthy, Christ in love
Redeemed me for His own.

But “I know Whom I have believed,
And am persuaded that He is able
To keep that which I’ve committed
Unto Him against that day.”

I know not how this saving faith
To me He did impart,
Nor how believing in His Word
Wrought peace within my heart.

I know not how the Spirit moves,
Convincing men of sin,
Revealing Jesus through the Word,
Creating faith in Him.

I know not when my Lord may come,
At night or noonday fair,
Nor if I walk the vale with Him,
Or meet Him in the air.

While we sung, Carl closed his eyes and listened.  He knew whom He believed.  He is the same One who imparted saving faith and brought peace to his heart.  He is the One who redeemed Carl for his own.  He was the One walking with Carl right then and there, through the vale of the shadow of death.

It suddenly dawned on me – in a very real sense Carl wasn’t going to Jesus.  Jesus was there with him (and with us all), in that very room.  Carl would soon see him.  His faith would become sight.  And then he will finally be, home.

A branch on the vine

John 15 is one of those chapters I come back to again and again.  Each time I read it something fresh and new appears that I hadn’t noticed before.  Most of us are familiar with the passage.  Jesus takes an example of everyday life: a vine with its branches, leaves and fruit and uses it to teach his disciples the importance of remaining or abiding in him.

I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not produce fruit he removes, and he prunes every branch that produces fruit so that it will produce more fruit. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I in you. Just as a branch is unable to produce fruit by itself unless it remains on the vine, neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without me.” (John 15:1–5, CSB)

We need to stay closely connected to Jesus.  That’s the point.  We need the life of Jesus, pulsating in and through us, just as the life of the vine pulsates through the branches, to enable us to bear fruit and be the people God intended us to be.  If we don’t, we will fail again and again.

The Christian life is not me doing my best for Jesus.  It is Jesus doing his best in and through me.  Apart from him I can do nothing.

So far so good.  I get that.  Then comes the next part.  The Father, says Jesus, is the gardener (or vinedresser).  His role is to prune the vine.  Notice however, which branches he prunes.  It’s not the barren ones.  It’s the ones that are producing fruit.

That was something I hadn’t really noticed before.  And it got me thinking… hard.  If I’m on the vine – if I truly belong to Jesus, then I’m going to be pruned – regularly.  And if I’m not pruned regularly, something is wrong.

So, let’s think about how this works.  I’m no expert in the area of viticulture, in fact, the joke in our house is I’m a real nog when it comes to anything to do with gardening.  I have two gardening instruments in my tool-shed, a chainsaw and a big pair of loppers and I’m dangerous whenever I get hold of either of them.  My wife tells people we make a great gardening team – I destroy things and she rebuilds.

OK, so I’m no gardener but I did some reading on this.  There are actually several stages when it comes to pruning a grapevine:

  • There is what’s called pinching – that’s when you remove the little tips at the end of the branch so it won’t grow too rapidly
  • Then there’s topping, when a foot or two of new growth is removed to prevent the loss of an entire shoot
  • Then there is thinning where you remove entire grape clusters so the rest of the branch can bear more fruit as well as better quality fruit
  • And then there is cutting away of suckers to give more nourishment to the whole plant

And all of this pruning doesn’t happen all at once, but in stages.  Now I’ve watched someone prune a grapevine we had once, and I tell you, I got a real shock.  It was brutal.  He didn’t just snip off a little leaf here and there.  He chopped off entire branches.  But he knew what he was doing.  He knew what was necessary in order for my plant to grow healthy, juicy fruit.

The same is true for the Christian life.  God knows what is best for us.  He knows what to cut away.  Sometimes God prunes because there is sin in our lives.  Sometimes there is a relationship that needs restoring that we have been ignoring.  Sometimes it might be because there is fruit in our lives, but God wants us to bear more.  So, he picks up the knife and he begins cutting.

Now I think I can speak personally here.  I don’t mind sharing something of God’s work in this area in my life.  The most recent “pruning” I have experienced would be my son’s motorcycle accident.  But that’s still going on.  I have no idea of what God wanted to accomplish with all that.  I know I have a lot more understanding of what it’s like for people to go through trauma or loss.  I don’t know what the Father is up to, but he does.

Sometimes it’s only by looking back, years afterwards that we see what he was doing – like my first year of marriage.  When Francelle and I got engaged, we were the postcard couple.  The day we announced it at church a bunch of our friends made this huge placard and held it up and hooted and whistled and made a huge scene.  How I passed any papers at Seminary that semester I have no idea; I walked around half the time in a daze.  We were both utterly smitten.  We got back from the honeymoon and the whole thing crashed.  It was like, this is not the same person I married?  Someone has done a dirty and made a swap.  I was expecting lovely evenings gazing at each other across the table and instead I got plates thrown at me.  NOBODY told me about that in the premarital counselling!

What we had there was two very determined, headstrong, independent people trying to forge out a new life together.  There was pride and stubbornness and pig-headedness (more on my side than hers) that needed to be named, exposed and repented of.  Fruits of love and patience and kindness needed to grow in its place.  

 Snip, snip, snip.  The Father was very carefully, wisely and lovingly tending to his vine.

Perhaps you are experiencing a season of pruning in your life right now.  It might be relational conflict like it was with me in my first year of marriage.  Or you’re experiencing financial difficulty – you’re finding it hard to make ends meet week to week.  Or you are having to watch someone you love suffer.  That is almost as hard as going through it yourself.  It doesn’t mean you’ve done anything wrong.  It doesn’t mean you’re being punished or that you’re not performing in your Christian life to the extent God wants you to.  You’re being pruned – that’s all.  You’re part of the vine and God’s vine gets regularly pruned.

During a very difficult season in my life I was handed a little hard-covered book called Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman.  Inspired by her experience as a missionary to Japan and China, it is filled with spiritual riches of God’s provision and purpose for our lives, particularly during seasons of suffering.

I’ll leave you with an excerpt from February 19:

A CHILD of God was dazed by the variety of afflictions which seemed to make her their target. Walking past a vineyard in the rich autumnal glow she noticed the untrimmed appearance and the luxuriant wealth of leaves on the vines, that the ground was given over to a tangle of weeds and grass, and that the whole place looked utterly uncared for; and as she pondered, the Heavenly Gardener whispered so precious a message that she would fain pass it on:

“My dear child, are you wondering at the sequence of trials in your life? Behold that vineyard and learn of it. The gardener ceases to prune, to trim, to harrow, or to pluck the ripe fruit only when he expects nothing more from the vine during that season. It is left to itself, because the season of fruit is past and further effort for the present would yield no profit. Comparative uselessness is the condition of freedom from suffering. Do you then wish me to cease pruning your life? Shall I leave you alone?”

The comforted heart cried, “No!”

It is the branch that bears the fruit,
That feels the knife,
To prune it for a larger growth,
A fuller life.

Though every budding twig be lopped,
And every grace
Of swaying tendril, springing leaf,
Be lost a space.

O thou whose life of joy seems reft,
Of beauty shorn;
Whose aspirations lie in dust,
All bruised and torn,

Rejoice, tho’ each desire, each dream,
Each hope of thine
Shall fall and fade; it is the hand
Of Love Divine

That holds the knife, that cuts and breaks
With tenderest touch,
That thou, whose life has borne some fruit
May’st now bear much.

—Annie Johnson Flint.[1]

[1] Cowman, L. B. (1925). Streams in the Desert (pp. 56–57). Los Angeles, CA: The Oriental Missionary Society.

Note: this post is based on a message I preached at our Church called “The True Vine.”  You can listen to it on our website here.

Post-haste: the Vatican

Pastoral ministry is never dull.  It’s full of surprises.  Just when you think you’ve seen it all, something happens where your only response is, “Well I’ll be…”  That was certainly the case with my friend Sue.  Sue grew up a Catholic and after a bad experience with the church, decided to steer clear of anything religious.  She turned up at Grace one day through a connection with a lady in our church.  After attending one of our Long Story Short courses (introducing people to the basics of the Christian faith), she decided to give her life to Jesus.  She was wonderfully saved.

Sue came up to me one day after the close of a service and said, “I’ve decided to write a letter to the Pope.”  I gave her a wry smile and said, “That’s a great idea.”  I honestly thought she was joking.  Sue read my facial expressions perfectly.  “I’m dead serious.  I going to write to him and ask for an explanation.  I want to know after all those years of attending mass, praying the rosary and all that stuff that I was never given a bible and never heard that we can be saved by grace.”  This was definitely not a joke.  Sue wanted an answer, and what better way to get it than go right to the top.  “Do it,” I said.  “If God has impressed this on your heart then you need to follow through.”

So she did.

Now Sue has a unique way of sharing the good news with people.  Instead of shoving booklets and tracts under people’s noses, she gift-wraps them.  She has done this with a number of her friends and some family members.  She planned to do the same with the Pope.  Before sending it she asked me to read the letter she wrote.  Here is some of the content:

Your Holiness,

 Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus. Ephesians 1:2

 I hope you can help.  My name is Sue, I am 68 yrs of age, I was born in London and have lived in New Zealand for nearly forty years. I was baptised at 53 days old, had my first confession, communion and confirmation at all the correct times. I was educated through Roman Catholic Schools and Church. Through school and church, I was taught the catechism and learnt about the Holy Trinity. As far as I remember we did not have Bile studies in school nor were encouraged to own or read the Bible. I have been unable to attend Mass or Church as I a married a divorced man.

Two years ago, I watch a lady teaching the Word of God on TV. I bought a Bible and it has opened my yes.

Sue then points out some of the discrepancies between what the Bible and the Roman Catholic Church teaches:

The RCC teaches that by going to Confession and attending Mass and Communion you are guaranteed a place in heaven.

The Bible teaches that we are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from ourselves; it is God’s gift (Ephesians 2:8–9).

The RCC encourages its followers to pray to Mary and the Saints.

The Bible teaches there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus (1 Timothy 2:5).

The RCC teaches Purgatory, and that we should pray for the souls in purgatory because they cannot get out without our prayers.

The Bible does not say anything about Purgatory anywhere.

Sue concludes,

As you can see, I need help.

 I pray each night for our world leaders, that they are doing the best for the people they serve, and more importantly they are doing God’s Will.

 God’s peace be with you

I wondered what the Cardinals might think after they read that one!  No doubt the Vatican receives hordes of letters each day and have a team of secretaries and administrators whose job is to sift through and file them accordingly.

Still, one never knows.  One never knows that a letter like this could be placed in the hands of someone “up the line” so to speak.  One never knows that it might pass under the eyes of some Cardinal.  And one never knows, that this Cardinal may mention a word about it to the Pope himself.

We see in the pages of Scriptures, all kinds of amazing things happening to God’s people when they step out in faith and act out of the convictions of their heart, to do something that they believe would be honouring to God.

Good on you Sue.  You go where angels dare to tread.  And it is that very daring spirit that we need in more of us in the church today.

Note:  According to Roman Catholic doctrine, St Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and the Pope is not only his lineal successor in that office, but also inherits in its fullness the unique commission given to him by Christ (Matthew 16:18 f. and John 21:17).  When the Pope speaks ex cathedra (literally, “from the chair”) he speaks with absolute infallibility and has authority even over the Scriptures.  Also based upon the claim of an unbroken chain of Roman bishops, Roman Catholics teach that the Roman Catholic Church is the true church, and that all churches that do not accept the primacy of the pope have broken away from them, the original and one true church.  Outside the RCC Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church. That teaching still remains today.