I’m just back from a luncheon at my alma mater. That’s an odd title, don’t you think? Alma mater? We use it for the school from which we graduated. But it means “old mother”! I’m sure there is a fascinating historical story as to where that name came from. Some connection to an institution of higher learning that someone just fell in love with. “She made me who I am today!” There was probably a statement like that somewhere. And there is truth to that. I am who I am because of the university I attended all those years ago.
But then, my alma mater isn’t the only shaper of my life. I have, it must be said, a number of old mothers. Other institutions that have made me who I am. Not just institutions. Events, certainly, circumstances and choices made, decisions and actions whether considered or spur of the moment also are a part of the make up of the person I am. People, relationships, of course, those old mothers and fathers along the way who gave me advice, or good (or even bad) examples. Old mothers and young ones too, fathers and brothers, intimate soul friends and casual acquaintances who helped make me what I am and am becoming. It would be hard to name them all, hard to recall all those who touched me, informed me, taught me, loved me. Hard to tell who did what, where they connected and how long it has been since our lives had intersected. We weave in and out of people and places and times and are indeed a compilation of all of it, a conglomeration of influences, of roads taken and doors closed. It’s hard to describe it, the tapestry of our lives, the sustaining and life-giving vine from which we grow and produce the fruit that we sometimes, in our forgetfulness, take credit for ourselves. But a vine seems as good as any metaphor. At least that’s what Jesus thought, when He set about trying to describe life to His followers during that profoundly deep conversation He had tucked away in an upper room in the midst of a busy city on the night before all hell broke loose in the world.
John 15:4-5 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
That’s what He said about vines and about life – no, about Life – on that night. Well, He said more than that of course. A lot more about pruning and harvesting, about glory and commandments, about love and about joy. Lots more, but this will suffice for us today. We are starting a new preaching series at Southport this weekend. We’re taking a look at what we call our “discipleship path.” We know that it is the mission of the church to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. But how does one become a disciple? What route does one take? What are the markers along the path?
Our path includes these signs – Connect, Grow, Serve, Give and Go. Over the next few weeks we’ll be exploring each of these to help us understand what is involved in the process. One thing we’re clear about is that this isn’t a linear process. You don’t start with step one and then move to step two and so on. We find our contact points at different places and move through one and then another and sometimes back again. We don’t finish growing, for example, before we start serving, and we certainly won’t wait to give until we’ve traversed through three other stages. These are identifiers, markers on the road, not to see how far we’ve gone but to make sure we are still on the path.
Jesus wanted to be sure that we stayed on the path. Things were about to change. What they had gotten used to over the past few years of excitement and mind-blowing understandings, was all about the change yet again. The One they had come to rely on, to follow in wonder and fascination, like a mother hen with her chicks, like an alma mater, would now no longer be present in the flesh. They would learn, we are learning to navigate by the Spirit. It was hard enough to keep up with Him as He strode around turning the world upside down, redefining everything they thought they knew. But now they were going to have to walk by an inner light. By His teachings, by His Word, His example, by their shaky memories of Him, and by this thing called Spirit. They weren’t sure they were ready for it, to be honest. Just like we aren’t so sure ourselves. And, frankly, He wasn’t sure they were ready either. So, John says, He sat them down for an all night study session just before the final. And now, having worn them out with words and Word, He says abide.
Abide in Me, and I’ll abide in you. Actually, He said I’ll abide in all y’all. It was a plural you. Which means that not only was He saying stay with Me, He was saying stay together. You’ll need each other. You’ll need more help than you think you need. You can’t do this on your own. Abide in me as I abide in all y’all. One might have a assurance of connection that others need any given moment. Lean on each other, He says, as the Spirit guides and directs and informs and shapes. Be bound together. Keep one another on the path.
Connect on our discipleship path is about the recognition that we first of all need to abide in Him. Abide, what does that mean exactly? It’s not a word we use all that much these days. Someone shows up at your door and says, I’ve come to abide, we’re likely to think they’re a little goofy. Abide in Me. It is more than just hanging out, more than just spending time together. When Jesus asks us to abide in Him, he’s asking us to invest in Him, in His Word, in His teaching, in His life. He’s asking us to put our lives in His life. To trust in Him. To place our bets that His guide to life is the only one that works, the only one that brings us the joy we seek, the life we long for, the hope we can live by. Abide.
How will we know that we’re abiding? And not just fooling ourselves? Not just giving lip service or excuses or good intentions, but real honest to goodness abiding? The fruit, that’s how you know, you begin to bear fruit. So, what? We do stuff? Abiding in Jesus and we do stuff? Good stuff, we presume, helpful stuff, stuff that gets you noticed, gets recognized, volunteer of the year, that sort of thing. Right? Well, maybe, could be. But no, not really. It’s not really about the stuff you do, though that’s great, and we’ll talk about service more next week. But fruit bearing has more to do with impact than with effort. It has to do with ripples, with transformation. Ah, I see, you’re thinking. Ripples. Right. Transformation. OK, no, I don’t see at all.
The fruit that Jesus wants us to bear has to do with changed lives. We’ll know we are abiding in Him and He in us when lives begin to change around us. Starting with our own. And then ripple out to influence others around us, as we plant seeds and offer invitations. The reality is we may never see it. Life change takes time. But that’s the life to which we are called. To invest ourselves in changing lives.
I am grateful for all the alma maters in my life, who invested time and effort and energy in me. And I’m still in process! I sat on the lawn of next to Good Hall on the campus of the University of Indianapolis reflecting on how it has changed since I was student there. And realizing I had probably changed that much or more in the same time. I have to be honest, I wasn’t there for me, though. I was an add on, a plus one this time. La Donna, when she was a student at Indiana Central University (now UIndy) wrote a paper on the architectural history of Good Hall. She even recommended some work that needed to be done on the building. Well now not quite forty years later, they are working on the building. Restoring the past and planning for the future, they call it. And she was invited as a special guest because of the work she did. And I got to tag along and get lunch out of it.
Did she know back in 1980 the impact she was going to have on our alma mater? Maybe, I don’t know. She’s signed up for changing lives too. Trust me, I know this. Sometimes it takes a while.
It’s funny to be back in the neighborhood of that school. We had lots of conversations with various folks, and are looking for new and renewed connections to make there. Maybe to give back as those who have received. Or maybe to just abide for a while. Who knows what fruit might grow?