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Reality Check: Service

     What does God want me to do for Him?  Good question....


Most of us are creatures who have been trained well to do whatever is expected of us.  We earn allowances and privileges from our parents for good behavior. We make good grades by doing all our homework and studying hard.  We get raises and promotions for dependable work.  We gain the respect of our spouses and children for doing what is expected of us in the home.   As a result, we have come to believe that our "worth" is based on how well we do what is expected of us.


                Is it any wonder that many of us carry that line of thinking into the Christian life and find ourselves caught in the trap of endless activity in ministry?  "Surely", we think, "I'll earn lots of points with God if I just do good things and as many of them as I can possibly do."  You see, we desperately want to do what is expected of us, but our basic problem is that we often have a misunderstanding about what is expected of us.


This is not a new problem that God is facing in the performance-based society of today.  Back during the New Testament days when Jesus walked on this earth, He faced similar problems with His disciples.  They thought that their service for God would require their own abilities and efforts.  But God had a better way of service in mind and Jesus constantly taught them that method as He traveled with them.


                You see, the Bible is full of paradoxes.  You gain your life by losing it.  You live by dying.  You become the greatest by being the least.  And Jesus wanted to teach the disciples (and us) one more paradoxical principle.  You serve by resting and relaxing.


We Serve By Resting


                "31.  And He said to them, "Come aside by yourselves to a deserted place and rest a while."  For there were many coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat.  32.  So they departed to a deserted place in the boat by themselves."

Mark 6:31-32 (NKJV)         


You can read the entire account of this event in the sixth chapter of Mark, but let me summarize it for you briefly.  The disciples had been following Jesus around the countryside.  They had witnessed His incredible miracles and had heard His dynamic teaching.  They were tired and hungry.  The crowds had been so relentlessly demanding that they had not even had time to eat.  So Jesus invited them to come away with Him to a quiet place to get some rest.


                They got in a boat and traveled to what they thought would be a solitary place, but the crowds of needy people recognized them, ran ahead of them, and were waiting for them when they arrived.  Of course, Jesus was not going to turn away the crowds.  So once again the disciples realized they were not going to be resting, as Jesus had promised.


                Now, what's wrong with this picture?  Remember that Jesus only acted in response to God's leadership. Didn't God already know that the crowd was going to be waiting for them at the place Jesus chose for the disciples to get some rest?  Of course, He knew.  So, why did God lead Jesus to invite them to this place to rest if He knew that they were going to be serving a large, hungry crowd when they got there and that there would be no logical way they could rest in the process of ministering to the masses?


I have heard numerous sermons based on this passage of Scripture and the lesson of those sermons have overwhelmingly been that we should "draw away" to solitary places from time to time for "rest".  And we should, but that's for our physical rest.  That's a good lesson for life, but I don't believe that is all that Jesus was teaching the disciples in this particular passage.  If that lesson had been His objective, then He would have taken them somewhere that the crowd couldn't find them so that they could actually get some physical rest. 


In this particular situation, His primary goal was not to show them how to rest in "solitude."  His goal in this lesson was to show them how to rest in "service."  He was about to begin teaching them how they could be at rest and serve at the same time.  And the lesson is just as important for us to learn today as it was for them then.


The crowd was hungry.  The disciples suggested that the people be sent to the surrounding villages to buy something to eat.  But Jesus told His disciples, "You feed them." 


Now remember, right before their astonished eyes, Jesus had already calmed a storm, healed the sick, and even raised the dead.  But for some reason the disciples still thought that coming up with enough food to feed this crowd of thousands was going to be a problem.  They told Jesus that it would take eight month's salary to buy that much food.  It was an impossible demand on their abilities.  Don't you think Jesus knew their limitations?  Of course, He did.  That's why He told them to do it.  Jesus instructed them to gather up any food that was in the crowd and they came up with a measly five chunks of bread and a couple of fish. 


Then Jesus told them to have the people sit down on the grass.  So, they divided the people into groups to be served a picnic supper, even though they didn't have a clue as to how it could be done.  The amazed disciples then watched as Jesus asked for God's blessing on the meal and began to divide up the loaves and fishes.  Jesus handed the portions to them and they distributed it to the people.  All five thousand people were fed and were satisfied with the food.  After the meal, the disciples picked up twelve baskets of leftovers.  Jesus had so abundantly provided that they had more left over after the meal than they had when they started. 


It was the hands of the disciples that Jesus had used to gather the original supply of fishes and loaves.  It was their hands that Jesus used to feed the people.  It was their hands that Jesus used to gather up the leftovers.  But Jesus did it.  He fed the people.  He just did it "through" the disciples.  He had told them to "do" it, but He knew when He gave them the command that He would actually be the One doing it through them. 


Oh how God wants us to understand the truth He was teaching the disciples that day.  Serving Him is simply a matter of letting Him serve using our hands.   We don't have enough bread to feed a hungry world "for" God.  But He does.  We don't have enough energy to meet all the needs we see around us.  But God does.  We don't have enough wisdom to provide counsel to the confused and hurting.  But God does.  We don't have enough materials to build shelters for all the homeless.  But God does.  We don't have enough money to print Bibles to send around the world or to send missionaries to remote countries.  But God does and God wants to do all this and more through us, just as He fed the thousands using the hands of the disciples.


We rest in Christ and He works through us.  That is the way we are to serve.  Rest, which is the ultimate result of our believing that Jesus can and will do it, is what is expected of us.  But Christians often find that to be the hardest thing to "do" because we associate service with activity.  Our perception must change.  Let's continue looking at God's method for service.


We Serve By Relaxing


"1.  I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.  2.  Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit, He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit, He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  3.  You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.  4.  Abide in Me, and I in you.  As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you, unless you abide in Me.  5.  I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me, and I in him, he bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.  6.  If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.  7.  If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.  8.  By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, so you will be My disciples." 

John 15:1-8 (NKJV)



                John recorded the word picture Jesus painted as He described the means by which we are empowered for service in the Kingdom of God.  In an earlier lesson, we looked at this verse briefly, but let's look at it again in detail to find what Jesus taught about our service.  We will not be looking at the verses in this passage in numerical order, but instead in the order in which they apply to our lesson.


The Parts


                Verse 1:  There can be no question in anyone's mind about the symbolism of each part of the picture Jesus painted.  He stated His own role first.  He is the true vine.  Every other vine you have ever seen is a picture of Jesus because He is the true vine.  The responsibility of the vine is to provide everything the branch needs to survive, thrive, and bear fruit.


                Next, He stated that His Father is the vinedresser.  God is the gardener.  The gardener is responsible for the nurture of the vine.  He prunes it, waters it, feeds it, and makes sure it gets the right amount of sun.  He is also responsible to "train" the vine in the way that it is to grow.  He sometimes chooses to route the growth of a branch in a completely new direction.  Remember that the gardener alone gets the glory for the fruit borne by the branch, therefore he has the right to decide how it will grow.


                Verse 5:  We are the branches.  A branch's sole activity is to bear the fruit that the vine produces.  A branch does not provide for itself nor produce for itself.  That will become more and more evident as we study the lesson of the vine.


                Verse 4:  When studying this passage of Scripture for the first time, I strongly felt that the greatest significance in the lesson of the vine was the bonding process of the vine with the branch.  As God began to reveal the meaning of this passage to me, I knew that sense of significance was correct.  The beauty of comparing the picture of the vine to the realities of life in Christ is found in focusing on the interaction of the vine and the branch to each other. 


I consulted many books about horticulture to discover how a vine and a branch are connected.  This is what I learned and learning it has set me free.  I am not going to describe this to you in the correct horticultural terms.  I'm going to explain it to you simplistically, the way I understand it.  In a living plant, the vine has "shoots" that go down into the branch and through those shoots the vine funnels everything the branch needs to be healthy and productive.  But the great revelation that changed my thinking came when I also read that the branch has shoots that go up into the vine and with them the branch clings to the vine.  It dawned on me so suddenly that it caught my breath.  The vine is in the branch and the branch is in the vine.  The vine and the branch are a perfect picture of how I am in Christ and Christ is in me.


                The branch is in the vine.  Likewise, I am in Christ.  The only way I can become a branch is to be in the vine.  No branch was ever formed from anything but a vine.  To become a believer, I must be placed in Christ.  But for my growth, and for my fruit-bearing, Christ is in me.  The vine is in the branch.  Jesus provides everything I will ever need to live the Christian life.  In fact, He lives it through me.  The vine is a constant source of provision for the branch.  The provision of Jesus will never be depleted. 


The Process


Have you ever passed a fruit tree and seen the branches grunting and straining with all its power to squeeze out the fruit?  Of course you haven't.  Standing and watching a branch bear fruit would be about as exciting as watching paint dry.  It is an extremely peaceful process.  The branch is still and quiet.  The fruit just naturally emerges as long as the branch is healthy and connected to the vine.  Bearing the fruit of Christ should be just as effortless and natural in our own lives.  And when God's prescribed process is working correctly, it will be.  


In John 15, Jesus uses the process of fruit bearing as an illustration for our lives of service and He calls the process "abiding."    It's important to study the process of abiding because if it's not working properly, fruit bearing ceases.  But, when I "abide" in the vine and the vine "abides" in me, then I will do more than just bear fruit.  I'll bear MUCH fruit.  I'll see an overwhelming harvest in my life!!!


Abiding is often explained as "communicating with God."  But abiding is so much more than that.  Abiding is communion with God.   We learned in an earlier lesson that this communion is a divine union that has always been God's desire for us and it has always been God's only way to a life of service in His kingdom.  Everything that happens in our lives is to make us aware that we already have this oneness with God and to draw us to the reality of living in it.


Communion with God is our gift in Christ.  But we must accept the gift and use it.  We have a choice to make.  We can continue trying hard to live the Christian life in our own strength as if we don't know that the very life of Christ is in us and accessible by communion with Him.  Or we can live in the reality that we can do nothing without Christ, but that ALL things are possible through Him.  We can be constantly aware of His presence in our lives and live in divine union with Him. 


To experience the fullness of this communion, we must linger patiently, with no thought of hurrying away from a constant sense of and dependence on His presence.  It seems impossible, but our service in the Kingdom of God means that we must "relax" in our communion with God through Christ.  That's the essence of abiding.  If we are hasty, then we are not abiding.   And abiding is the only process that God has ordained for potential fruit bearing.  I abide in, rest in, and cling to Christ just as a branch does in a vine.  Through that abiding process, I realize my utter dependence on Him and that I am capable of absolutely nothing without Him (John 15:5).  Through that abiding process, Christ also nourishes me and gives me everything I need in order to be a healthy, thriving branch through which He can produce fruit.  And as a result of that constant abiding, I get to bear the fruit that He produces.  It's an abundant harvest, because He is active and I am receptive to His working through me.  In my "branch-life" I bear MUCH fruit. 


It has never been the responsibility of the branch to "produce" fruit.  As branches, we simply abide in the vine.  Whatever Jesus produces we bear, in and through our lives.  And the more we depend on the Vine (the life of Christ in us), the more we bear.  That's a promise from God's Word and it will never fail to be true in our lives.


The Produce


                There are two types of fruit that will always be evident in the lives of those who live in the truth of abiding in Christ.  They will exhibit the fruit of service.  The only acceptable method of serving God is by allowing Christ to serve through you. 


                ".Christ in you, the hope of glory."

Colossians 1:27b (NKJV)


                I once thought that verse meant that the only hope I have for glorifying God in the world today is for Christ to live through me.  That thinking is true, but it is also incomplete.  It means so much more.  I looked at that verse from God's perspective.  He has chosen to place His only hope for being glorified in the world today IN ME.  Jesus Christ comes into my world every day dressed up like me.  He ministers to my world through me.  He speaks through me.  He accomplishes things through me that I simply don't have the power to do.  He is the vine and He produces the fruit of His service through me.  It's not about what I can do.  It's all about what He can and will do in and through me.


                The other type of fruit that Christ produces through my life is the fruit of character. 


                "22.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23.  gentleness, self-control."

Galatians 5:22-23a (NKJV)


The fruit listed in that passage is singular.  It's not a group of different "fruits."  Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all facets of one fruit, the FRUIT of the Spirit.  We can love others with an unconditional love even when they are not easy to love because we abide in Christ and He IS unconditional love.  We can have joy even when our world is falling apart because we have communed with Jesus who IS joy.  Do you need peace in your life?  Then linger in the vine and the overwhelming peace that IS Christ will flow out of you.  Remember that God gives perfect peace to those whose mind is fixed on Him.  (Isaiah 26:3)  Even if it seems that a crisis will never end, the fruit of patience can be yours because Christ IS patient.  His kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control will emerge from your life as naturally as apples grow out of an apple tree.  The fruit that pops out of a branch is always the same nature as that of the vine.  It's impossible for anything else to happen if the branch is healthy and connected securely to the vine.   When we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us, and we depend on that connection solely, then we will bear an abundant harvest of fruit and it will be the fruit of the life of Christ growing out of us. 


The Impossibility of Serving God


                "24.  God, who made the world and everything in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands.  25.  Nor is He worshiped with men's hands, as though He needed anything, since He gives to all life, breath, and all things."

Acts 17:24-25 (NKJV)


                Most Christians want to do what is expected of them as Christians.  The problem is that we have been taught what the world and even what the traditional church expects, but sometimes we don't really know what God expects.  These verses are clear.  God is the creator of everything, including us.  He can accomplish everything He wants to be accomplished without our help.  The Greek word for "worshiped" used in verse 25 actually means "served."  God cannot be served by human hands.  He doesn't need to be.


            God has chosen to use our bodies to do His work in the world today because He wants us to experience the joy of being filled with Christ and allowing Him to do His work through us.  And He wants to reward us for what we allow Christ to do.  God has never expected or empowered us to work for Him.  He has instead filled us with the life of Christ and enabled us to serve by resting and relaxing in what Christ can and will do through us.


                We are the body of Christ in the world today.  Our hands can only serve God when they are empowered by the Spirit of Christ living in us.


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