Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, October 21, 2018
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Comfortable Christianity

1 John 4:7-21 and John 15:1-8

 A couple months back, I went to the bishop’s overnight retreat for pastors in the Johnstown and Connellsville Districts at Camp Allegheny.  I ended up sitting at a table with a pastor I’ve known for more than a decade.  He told us a story about something that happened to him last December.  He was preaching a series for Advent that was rather challenging, and one day he got a letter in the mail from a church member.  She was upset about the sermons.  She said, “I come to church to be comforted!”  

 There’s an old preacher’s saw that goes like this:  “It’s the job of good preaching to comfort the afflicted, and to afflict the comfortable.”  I think that’s true.  Sometimes the message should be comforting, but often it should make us feel uncomfortable.  And I don’t just think that’s my opinion.  Jesus said, “The fruitless branches are cut off of the vine and thrown into the fire.”  I don’t think that leaves any room at all for a “comfortable” Christianity.  

 The image of God’s people as a vine or vineyard was familiar from the Old Testament.  Isaiah 5 is one place that image occurs.  It was well known in Jesus’ day.  The first century Jerusalem Temple was adorned with a great golden grapevine that represented Israel.  

 The thing about grapevines is they have to be pruned.  The fruitful branches have to be cut back.  That’s an image of discipleship.  The same word that means “to cut back” also means “to cleanse.”  And the fruitless branches have to be cut off completely.  They sap energy from the vine, they are a likely source of disease, and they are good for nothing.  They could only be burned as fuel.  

 Now this might seem harsh of God, but I don’t know that God even has to do much.  People whose lives are unfruitful tend to fall away from God on their own.  If you’re not actively living for God, if you’re not growing in your faith and knowledge through reading the Scriptures and studying with other Christians, if you’re not doing God’s will, if you’re not worshipping God regularly, I think the chances are very good that you’re not going to stick with God for very long.  That just seems to be the way it is!  

 But what is fruitful living?  What does it mean to live a fruitful life?  

 Well, right here in John 15, Jesus gives us some answers.  In verse 7, we see that having our prayers answered is a sign we’re being fruitful.  In verse 10, we see that

obedience to Christ’s commandments is fruitfulness.  In verse 11, we see that overflowing joy is fruitfulness.  And in verse 12, love for each other is fruitfulness.  

 Now we’ve talked about that word love a few times lately.  The word for love here is the Greek word AGAPE.  AGAPE might best be defined as self-denying benevolence.  It is denying one’s own desires or well-being for the sake of being a benefit to others.  AGAPE is not a gushy, romantic, emotional thing.  It’s a choice.  It is expressed in actions.  It is thinking more of others than you think of yourself.  

 If we want, we can go look at some other places in the New Testament that speak of fruitfulness.  Galatians 5 is a good choice.  Galatians 5 tells us about nine fruits of the Spirit.  They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  And love is placed in a prominent position.  It’s first.

 The very next verse in Galatians 5 says that those who belong to Christ have nailed the passions and desires of the sinful nature to the cross and crucified them.  So again, there is an emphasis on obedience and holy living.

 2 Peter 1:5-8 also speaks of a fruitful life.  It says that faith produces a life of moral excellence.  Moral excellence leads to a deeper knowledge of God.  That tells me that we know God not just intellectually, but also experientially.  As we live out the obedient life, we grow in our intimate knowledge of a holy God.  Knowing God leads to self-control, which leads to patient endurance.  Patient endurance is our willingness to endure insult or injury without retaliation.  Endurance leads to godliness, that is having a character like that of God.  And godliness leads to love of our brothers and sisters in Christ and finally to love of all people.  We know we are living a fruitful life when we have come to a place where we are willing to sacrifice not just of ourselves, not just for our own little group, but for anyone.  So again, as in John 15 and Galatians 5, love has a prominent place in the fruitful life here in 2nd Peter.  

 So now let’s go back to our first text from today, 1 John 4.  

 God is love.  We know love by how God has acted.  Now, as John reminds us, no one can see God.  But we have seen Jesus.  We know the character of God’s love through Jesus.  It is a love that denies self, even so far as to sacrifice self, to benefit others.  God’s love can be seen through Jesus, and it should be seen through those who belong to Jesus.  His love should be at work in us and through us.

 Our character shows our heritage.  If we act like God, if our character reflects him, if we live a life of moral excellence, godly character, joy, patience, and most especially love, then it shows that we are children of God.  

 But as we’ve been talking about lately, it is essential to this whole discussion that we understand what love is.  AGAPE is not emotional, not words, but a choice.  AGAPE is actions that express our willingness to deny ourselves to benefit others.  

 I’m afraid that many in the Church have redefined love.  I think many now view love as tolerance.  If we love someone, we tolerate everything they do.  We do not condemn anything as ungodly.  But that’s not an accurate reflection of God.

 God’s love is perfect.  But his holiness and his justice are perfect, too.  And God’s love does not tolerate our sins.  As 1 John 4:10 says, we see God’s love in what he did.  He sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins.  God’s love does not accept our sins; it takes them away.  

 It’s a lie to say that how we live makes no difference to our faith.  That is just another form of that comfortable Christianity that simply does not exist.  

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