Most of us are familiar with John 15—it is particularly central to my life and to the life of the local church that I pastor, The Orchard UMC. It is from Jesus’ command there, “to go and bear fruit” that we take our name, vision and mission.
Most of us are familiar with the flow: Jesus begins with an eight-verse reminder to abide in him, for apart from him we can do nothing. Then there is a nine-verse reminder that we are loved and we should love one another as we have been loved. It is out of the overflow of these two relationships—with Jesus and with one another—that fruit is borne. The fifteenth chapter finishes up with a ten-verse revelation that this message and we who are the messengers will not be well received by the world—Jesus says, it hated him and it will hate us—but he sends us anyway.
Lost on me for most of my life is the eighth verse. It gets lost primarily because it follows the seven verses about abiding in Jesus and appears before the verses about love and so, thus wedged in, it gets read, but read over.
John 15:8 says, “By this my Father receives great glory, that you bear much fruit.”
My education in that verse came at a place called the Greater Soul Deliverance Apostolic Tabernacle and Revival Center. During my Doctor of Ministry program I was assigned to do an ethnography of a congregation unlike any I had ever been a part of. So my study partner and I opened the phone book and choose the Greater Soul Deliverance Apostolic Tabernacle and Revival Center. I could tell many stories, but I will tell just this one; we went there for Wednesday night prayer meeting and when we entered there were people kneeling in front of the pews and using the seats as rests for their elbows and they were all praying out loud at the same time. They were calling loudly on the name of Jesus to do a mighty work in whatever circumstance they were bringing to him. Initially disconcerted a little bit, I finally walked down the aisle, found a pew and knelt down and began to pray.
This was about the time when I knew I was returning to Mississippi to plant a new congregation and in prayer I presented my “plan” for this new work to God. I had in my mind and had set as my goal that we would reach 500 people in the first five years of this new church and I thought God would be impressed by such a lofty goal. It was almost as if I sat down across the desk from God and slid my offer sheet across to him then leaned back and said, “what do you think about that?” Then, as audibly as I have ever heard the voice of God, he said, “Is that all?” God continued, “Is that all it is going to be about? What you can do? How many you can count? Or, could I do something so amazing that when people see it they give me glory instead of you?” John 15:8 says, “by this my FATHER receives great glory, that you bear much fruit.” God was saying that he wanted to do something so amazing that it was obvious that he was at work!
This is the story that God has been writing for the last 18 years at The Orchard, and I believe it is the story that God wants to write in every place and in every church. I believe God wants to do something so amazing in our places that people say, “That must be God.”
The real danger whenever a group of leaders gather is that we strategize, theorize, philosophize and idealize—and those are all good and wonderful things, but only as we aim all of those efforts toward being faithful (not at being successful). We cannot get caught in working for the redemption of the United Methodist Church when our Lord and Savior came not for the redemption of one denomination but for the redemption of humankind. We cannot get caught working for the advancement of the church, when Jesus was only concerned about the advancement of the Kingdom. Those things are not necessarily opposed to one another, but the first thing must come first and the second thing must come second.
One of the things that we say to each other around The Orchard is, “If we will do what is right for the Kingdom of Christ, it will always be what is right for the church.” But we don’t want to get caught working that equation the other way because the result is very different. Every time we get these things backwards it is a pursuit of our glory over God’s glory, and if we are not careful it becomes our work for God instead of God’s work that we join him in…which is the only soil for faithfulness.