The True Vine

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:1,5)

 Jesus’ parable can best be understood when you think about the staple crop in a familiar locality: For example, sugarcane in Busoga, tea in Kabarole, sorghum in Kigezi, and bananas in Bushenyi. There are crops which carry a big importance because of the far reaching benefits. Owners of large gardens of these crops sell the produce and get money for all their needs – including medical, school fees, food, clothing, tax, and building or renting houses. Vines were such important crops in Israel, as the source of grapes for wine and sugar. Throughout the Old Testament, wine is regarded as a necessity of life and in no way as a mere luxury. It was a necessary part of even the simplest meal, and was drunk by all classes and all ages, even by the very young. This is mainly due to the climatic conditions which make fresh water scarce in the longer season of the year.

The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia presents the context of Vines: The land of Israel appears to have been a vine-growing country from the earliest historic times. The countless wine presses found in and around centers of early civilization witness to this. It is probable that the grape was largely cultivated as a source of sugar. The whole Old Testament witnesses to how greatly Palestine depended upon the vine and its products. Men rejoiced in wine also as one of God’s best gifts (Jdg 9:13; Psa 104:15). The land promised to the children of Israel was one of “vines and fig trees and pomegranates” (Deut 8:8). Jacob’s blessing on Judah had much reference to the suitability of his special part of the land to the vine (Gen 49:11). The failure of the wine-crop or its destruction by foreigners was a terrible calamity; on the other hand, abundance of wine was a special token of God’s blessing. “May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness— an abundance of grain and new wine” (Gen 27:28).

When Jesus Christ says, ‘I am the true Vine’, the Jew must understand him well. And when he adds, ‘apart from me you can do nothing’, the Jew remembers how indispensable the vine at home is. Our Lord here introduces himself as the only quencher of our spiritual thirst, the only source of spiritual energy-giving sugar, the true source of God’s blessing. This true vine cannot fail, and cannot be destroyed by enemies. No one can expel you from the presence of this true vine – He is with us everywhere we go. The only way to be barren in God’s Kingdom – the only way NOT to bear fruit is being OUT of the vine. And that’s also the only way to be eternally thirsty! Now, what is your excuse for not bearing fruit? Jesus’ invitation still stands for all: “Remain in me, as I also remain in you.”

 

 

 

The Good Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also… and there shall be one flock.” (John 10:11,16)

 Christ is risen! He is risen indeed; Hallelujah!

There could be no better season to remember ‘the Good Shepherd’ discourse than Eastertide: on Good Friday, he literally laid down his life for the sheep! The innocent man was loaded with insults, was whipped and spat on, was betrayed and crucified in broad day light and displayed for public shame – paying the ultimate price in the place of the guilty sheep. Apostle John uniquely quotes seven ‘I am’ statements of Jesus Christ which do not appear in the synoptic gospels:

I am the bread of life… never go hungry (6:35)

I am the light of the world… never walk in darkness (8:12)

I am the gate for the sheep… through me they will be saved (10:7)

I am the good shepherd… I know my sheep (10:11,14)

I am the resurrection and the life… live and never die (11:25-26)

I am the way and the truth and the life… come to the Father (14:6)

I am the true vine… apart from me you can do nothing (15:1,4)

Each of the seven is pregnant with a reviving message; but in the center of the list is the statement that evokes memories of Psalm 23 and breathes peace to every sheep that comes to full awareness that her caretaker is the good Shepherd.

I read a sad quote about earthly shepherds: ‘The sheep lives all its life worrying about the wolf, only to be eaten by the shepherd!’ In the restaurant he calls it lamb, and really enjoys his meal. This is a poignant illustration, but should not make you guilty of eating what God has provided and declared clean. On a more serious note, Ezekiel, in a hot message warning both political/civil and spiritual leaders, accuses princes and officials of tearing their prey – they devour people to make unjust gain (Ezek 22:24-29). Officials in today’s governments and organizations have come to spotlight severally being accused similarly. We are not short of examples of bad shepherds who feed on the very sheep they should be protecting.

Our Lord Jesus Christ is the Good Shepherd. He never eats his sheep. He left His Father’s throne above, so free so infinite his grace; emptied himself, and bled for Adam’s helpless race. He is interested in you; to learn His voice, listen and follow Him, that you may find good pasture and be nourished today, and tomorrow reign with Him in life eternal. The extent of his love reaches the Jews, the Samaritans, the Gentiles, the rich, the poor, the Christians, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Chinese, the straight and the skew – whatever label. As you listen to his voice and follow, He will teach you and transform you to be the good sheep; your roll is only to come to Him. He is indeed the Good Shepherd.

 

 

 

 

 

Examples and Warnings

“Now these things occurred as examples to keep us from setting our hearts on evil things as they did. These things happened to them as examples and were written down as warnings for us.” (1Cor 10:6, 11)

 Christ is risen! He is risen indeed; Hallelujah!

Paul writes in musical style the text of 1Cor 10:1-13, with a repeating refrain or chorus at verse 6 and verse 11 – this refrain is all about ‘examples and warnings’. Although he draws important lessons from various particular events, this refrain gives us the purpose of the Bible at large –we have examples both positive and negative, warnings to deter us from similar evil, and assurances to strengthen us in faith and in similar circumstances. Before we reflect on Paul’s message in the above text, consider the events of this Resurrection season:

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” (Matt 27:45-54).

At the cross, the blood that was shed in great pain brought healing to believers in a new covenant. The cross that was supposed to rain down immense shame on our Lord ended in highest splendor. The government authorities lost control and were instead were terrified and converted. The Centurion’s confession sounded like Simon Peter’s in Matt 16:16, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” The grave could not keep His body; the Jewish authorities were given a final blow and could not deny the Resurrection. Who now can fight against the Lord Jesus Christ? These events as recorded are examples and warnings for those who would be tempted to reject or persecute Him. Confess today – whether as believing Peter or as the caught up Captain – that Jesus Christ is Lord and the Son of God.

Now back to Paul: he warns against idolatry, against immorality and against grumbling – using examples and warning from his Bible then. The God who did not spare his redeemed will not spare any disobedient today. After delivering them miraculously from Egypt, baptizing them in the cloud and in the sea, feeding them with spiritual food and spiritual drink, God was not pleased with them because of sin – and all the adults died in the desert and did not make it to the Promised Land except two. The heat of God’s anger against His people caught in idolatry and fornication at different occasions caused the immediate execution of 3,000 and 23,000 respectively. Murmuring and grumbling were similarly punished.

Paul’s message is that those are examples and warnings, that we may shun the deadly vices and honor God in a life of faithful obedience. Today, not just for fear of consequences, but more in love, responding to the immense love Jesus Christ loved us with, all the way to the cross.

 

 

New Life in Jesus Christ: Remember

“And he died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised. 

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2Cor 5:15-17)

 Christ is risen! He is risen indeed; Hallelujah!

The Day of Resurrection is here: the feast to celebrate the victory of Jesus Christ over the grave. Christians actually celebrate this every Sunday, but this Easter Day is special as a feast to remember the very events around the revolution that the Feast of Passover experienced when it was surrounded by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We have had a whole week to remember: Remember how He entered Jerusalem amidst shouts of ‘Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord’ – being received as King; remember his cursing of the fig tree and lessons about faith; remember his cleansing of the temple and powerful teachings; remember the woman that anointed him with very expensive perfume on Holy Tuesday evening; remember the emotional last supper; remember the prayer night in Gethsemane; then the arrest, trial and crucifixion! And finally, the burial – remember!

It was a journey from bright glory to darkest gloom; the disciples were all disappointed and discouraged; their hopes dashed to the ground. Paul and many other preachers later interpret the Scriptures, and give meaning to this mishap: “he died for all, … for their sake died”. It was a death that brought new life to many people. It was like renewal, regeneration, revival, renaissance, or rejuvenation – but in a much greater sense. These words describe processes for which we have numerous examples here on earth: A grain of maize falls to the earth and dies, and much more maize comes out only four months later; but as for the lesson from the bees’ sexual suicide during the queen’s one and only nuptial flight, more thought should be applied.

Do the male bees know that they will die after mating with the queen? In the case of mating, he is sacrificing himself for a new generation. But does the male chosen by the queen for mating have the power to decline? If yes, then what becomes of him? So why don’t they just flee?

To answer this question, someone points to the fact that mating is the entire point of the drone’s existence and he is motivated by biological imperative, not conscious thought as we know it, so while he does have the power to decline, it’s not in his interest to do so. The bees that are ‘born’ from the fertilized eggs that result later after the suicidal mating – surprisingly, those bees may are aware of the sacrifice by the drone!

When you know that Jesus died that you may live, you will not take life for granted. You have been bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ; your life now is not your own; you belong to the one who paid your dangerous debt with his own life. You are a new creation – imperishable in Jesus’ Name. The journey ended in brightest hope: Remember and rejoice that Jesus Christ rose from the dead to seal his purchase with living hope and a promise for an eternal home.

 

Jerusalem and The Narrow Door

“Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to.

‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” (Luke 13:24, 35)

 The Jewish cemetery on the slopes of the Mount of Olives is a good place to start today’s reflection on Jerusalem and The Narrow Door. The cemetery is located close to the Old City, its chief merit being that it lies just across the Kidron Valley from the Temple Mount. According to Jewish tradition, it is here that the Resurrection of the Dead will begin once the Messiah appears on the Mount of Olives and head toward the Temple Mount. That is why the cemetery has a large number of tombs – estimated to be over 100,000 tombs or even more than double that number. So, Jerusalem may be considered to be the door into Heaven, since the Messiah will proceed from here with the resurrected folk to reign forever.

This Jerusalem is the beautiful city that received Jesus Christ, coming as king yet riding on a young donkey, in the dramatic Triumphal Entry event that we commemorate every Palm Sunday. Shortly after this, Jesus lamented over the city in words similar to those in today’s key text: ‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing’ (Luke 13:24). What a paradox: The city that is supposed to be the gate of heaven instead rejects, tortures and kills God’s messengers!

The gate to heaven cannot be just a physical city – not even Jerusalem. The Lord sees differently: talk about the identity of those who will fail to enter heaven; they describe themselves as qualified – ‘we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets’; yet Jesus will ignore those descriptions (which may actually be true) and use His description to disqualify them – ‘you evildoers’ (Luke 13:25-27). What does it mean then, to ‘enter through the narrow door’? It is not about hanging out in fellowship and hearing Christian talk in your town; it is not about walking to the gate and knocking and pleading at the last hour. It is a daily ‘make every effort’ business; it is turning away from evil and doing good, and walking in righteousness every day until the Lord comes. And the principal good is to believe in Jesus Christ the Son of God and the Redeemer of mankind. He said, ‘I am the gate for the sheep’ (John 10:7).

The paradox of the city of Jerusalem should teach us something: She received ‘the king’ Jesus on such a Sunday and crucified him five days later – another prophet rejected, tortured and killed! The heaven-gate city is guilty of closing out the Saviour and his people. The good things that seem to lead us home may be such a disappointment. Remember the principal good thing – to embrace Jesus Christ the real gate.

 

 

 

Only one thing is required

“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41-42)

 It may seem an obvious lesson, but we need the reminder; the lesson from Jesus’ interaction with two sisters when he visited them (Luke 10:38-42) in a certain village, which we learn in John’s gospel to have been Bethany, about 3km from Jerusalem. One was busy preparing the elements of material entertainment – eats and drinks in particular, while the other sat to listen attentively to the teachings of the Rabbi. It is good manners to entertain guests, and I believe both Martha and Mary knew it well. We all differ in our levels of generosity, and perhaps the story shows us the more generous Martha who both welcomed the Lord and ‘was distracted with much serving’; yet the context shows that there was something more important than the obvious entertainment needs and tasks.

The above story reminds me of the time disciples brought food to hungry Jesus, found him talking with a Samaritan woman at the well in Sychar, but he refused the food! They urged him, but instead he informed them of his ‘new food’ that they did not know about: ‘My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work’ (John 4:31-34). These are good things to remember during this official fasting season – the holy Lent: a special time for deeper and more careful self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. In Adam Clarke’s commentary on the Martha and Mary passage above, he inserts the quotation: ‘Many dishes, many diseases’!

Truly there is time when feasting and its attendant preparations are a distraction from more serious and needful business. It is more of a paradox when you are busy preparing eats for a small fellowship you are hosting, or a visiting Church leader, or a visiting high ranking dignitary. But if Jesus Christ did not defend the generous woman who was busy preparing for him and the apostles, will he defend you? For you it may not be serving welfare; it may be your important coursework or discussion, your business analysis or supervision, your caring for relatives or friends…  No distracting occupation or task will be excuse enough to neglect the ‘one thing that is necessary’ – to pay attention to the Lord’s teaching. Choose and commit yourself to sit attentively like Mary, read and meditate on God’s Word; listen also to the Holy Spirit in the still small voice during your attentive moments.

The good news is that thieves – who steal our food sometimes – cannot steal the bread of life you have already received. The Word of God will eternally nourish and strengthen you, and give you growth that will enable fulfill God’s purpose for your life.

 

 

It costs everything to be Christ’s disciple

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.” (Luke 14:26)

 Read the above scripture again; and some people will wonder if Jesus really meant what he said! There is a prominent term in Economics: Opportunity Cost – this is “the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen”, according to the New Oxford American Dictionary; it is the trade-off or value of what you have to give up in order to choose something else. So, what is the opportunity cost of choosing Jesus Christ? Was that the question He tried to answer in the unpopular verse above? Let me encourage you in the same line with a few more biblical citations – you are required to: give up your people, give up your possessions, give up your privileges in order to be a true follower of Jesus Christ.

When Moses was of age, he gave up his privileges and foster people in the African palace where he had been brought up for 40 years, and chose to defend the people of God to whom he truly belonged. This even drove him into exile – further away from his people and possessions! That was his path to finally enter the service of Yahweh.

In the early Church, ‘those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need’ (Acts 4:35-37). In this vein, Barnabas ‘sold a field he owned and brought the money and put it at the apostles’ feet’. This giving up of possessions was great and God was happy; Ananias and his wife who were part of the same community were killed by God for lying that they had given up all yet they had retained some!

Paul said, ‘I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord…  I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ’ (Php 3:8). Indeed, he gave up his riches, his relatives, and also gave up his rights. He later explains to the Corinthians how he gave up the right to take a wife along on mission, and the right to earn allowances from his mission work – all so that he would not hinder the gospel of Christ (1Cor 9).

What is the craziest riskiest thing you have done in your pursuit of God? Fasting for three days and three nights? Losing the comfort of your family or familiar friend? Enduring the shame of peers who look down on your new-found faith? Yes, all that is possible. There is an ultra-high opportunity cost when you choose Jesus; it costs everything. My prayer is that you’ll be fully convinced; take the courage, release what you’re holding on to, lift up your hands and give up all; as your Master Jesus Christ must rank above your most loved people, your most treasured possessions and your comforting life privileges, and you will be His true disciple.

 

 

 

Alive Again

“Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:23-24)

 The famous parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15 presents two worldviews about the main character – the younger son, who went up the crest of affluence and lived large and luxuriously with foolishness, then sank into the valley of absolute poverty; while scrapping and scraping, wallowing in the mire of want and lack, he saw a ray of wisdom; the hunger and suffering beat the madness out of the young man’s head and he came to his God-given senses. He composed a humble confession that would move to compassion the heart of any father however tough or careless. Many sinners are just mad; they see a mirage and are convinced it is a reality; they have heard how stories of wild living have ended in pain and disappointment, but still go down that ‘easy’ road. From rock-bottom the young man now arose and set out on the narrow and hard path that few people find.

That was repentance – metanoeō (Greek): to think differently or afterwards, that is, reconsider. When he arrived, the two worldviews were revealed: the first is embodied in the elder brother who became angry and refused to welcome his ‘resurrected’ sibling. Distancing himself, he says, ‘this son of yours…’ and reminds the father of the young man’s many sins, while praising himself. This was his first act of disobedience, which revealed the opportunistic mindset harbored by the elder brother all along. Wasn’t this the reluctant mindset among the Jews? Jonah was angry when the people of Nineveh repented; the Jews complained when Jesus went for ministry at Zacchaeus’ house. All these and more were demonstrations of God reaching out to ‘a prodigal son’, and some ‘elder brother’ gets angry. We are warned against this selfish and opportunistic mindset when the Lord saves us by his grace.

What about their father? He is a good good father… He embodied the second and most important worldview. Twice he gives the reason for the celebration: the young man ‘was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ He told this to the servants who made ready for the party, and he told the same to his elder son – an emphasis that we should not miss by all means. It is the reason to celebrate! It is comforting that no matter how deep you feel you’ve fallen, no matter what the servants think, no matter what the elder brother says, the Father is determined to celebrate the return of a prodigal.

He is determined to save the Gentiles, the Samaritans, the ‘labeled sinners’, and He is determined to save you. Have you received the Lord Jesus Christ as your Saviour? Come join the party as more repent and return home. Are you still confused, disappointed, lost or even dead in sin? Just arise and start the journey to the Father; His arms are wide open to receive, forgive and embrace you back as a child – Alive Again!

 

 

“I will return and rebuild”

“God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted [the Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.” (Acts 15:8-9)

 God is determined to return and rebuild David’s fallen tent: This means restoring and re-establishing the kingdom that was mighty and strong, yet is now decimated and downtrodden by imperial Romans; God raised the Jews gradually until they attained super-power status under King David – a man after God’s own heart. This was the chosen nation – God’s first born, and the royal priesthood to bring many other nations to God, but they failed and fell! Rebellion against God brought this nation to collapse under the pressure of foreign Empires that God used as his punishing rod. But beyond the physical nation, Israel represented the Kingdom of God.

The figurative “rebuilding of David’s fallen tent” (Acts 15:16-17) is now God’s actualizing the greater meaning – no longer just a local empire in the Middle East, but the eternal Kingdom where God reigns. And the exciting news is about the building blocks: While the Jews selfishly took pride in being the chosen race, they missed God’s grand and ultimate plan that had everyone else in mind. They labeled everyone else as ‘gentile’; I am one of them, and so are you. It’s really exciting that Jesus Christ blew off the cap and sent for disciples from all nations, from the ends of the earth. The building blocks for the rebuilding include Jews and Gentiles, white and black, red and yellow, men and women, old and young – and from all nations; you are included!

When they went out in the power of the Holy Spirit to preach, the early Church was taken by surprise when Gentiles also came to the faith. The Holy Spirit did not wait for Peter to finish his sermon during his first mission to gentiles gathered at Cornelius’ house: ‘While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message’ (Acts 10:44). As more gentiles believed in other cities, a conflict arose as to whether they should be subjected to circumcision and the Law of Moses. Thanks to this conflict and the ensuing debate, the Jews were further reminded that it was God’s plan to bring them into the Kingdom of God. “He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith”. They are also acceptable building blocks.

What stops you from coming into the Kingdom of God? He has shown you love and accepted you; He has beaten down every hurdle and every enemy that would stand in your way. He will forgive your sin no matter how far you’ve fallen. There is endless pain and fire elsewhere. God is rebuilding – establishing an eternal Kingdom to which you should belong. Put your faith in Him today.

 

 

When Suffering brings Progress

 “But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.” (Acts 12:24)

 The lent season has begun, and you’ve been called upon to observe the same by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. Such discipline is not easy is actually physical suffering; but sometimes suffering brings progress, when cooperating with the Holy Spirit.

At the heart of the book of Acts we find heart-breaking episodes that could almost have heralded the death of what had started only months ago on the day of Pentecost. As the Church took off in the power of the Holy Spirit, it was met with tough persecution at the hands of both leading Jews and the ruling Roman imperialists. In Chapter 12, James is killed and Peter imprisoned; these were in Jesus’ inner circle and were indeed the pre-eminent apostles. Was it Herod’s method to ‘cut off the head’ and scatter the rest of the body? The early and untimely death of potent James will forever remain a puzzle to anyone who dares think about his journey with his Master; much more ministry was expected of him – far reaching missionary journeys and church plants, and powerful revolutionary testimonies, or perhaps even writing the ‘Gospel according to James’ as one who shared in closer fellowship. What do you think the other disciples thought when James was killed?

While they were still reeling in that loss, Peter was imprisoned! He was guarded by four squads of four soldiers each, and Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. It was another big fish! Peter’s miraculous escape did more harm than good: Herod’s anger flared, he put to death some soldiers; and what would he have done to Peter if he were to catch him again? Dismember him in public perhaps, or burn him in fire or crucify him? This was the tension in the Church, yet they did not lose heart. They prayed fervently. And the most important fact is that the Holy Spirit was vigilantly at work. God executed Herod and he was eaten by worms and died in his throne; this was not the end to the difficulties and suffering though.

That ‘the word of God continued to spread and flourish’ despite the persecutions and difficulties and suffering is testament of the invincibility of the Holy Spirit’s work. Nothing and no one can come against Him – not earthly rulers, not human weakness, not forces of darkness, not primitive cultures – absolutely nothing. Questions may linger about some painful seasons or incidents in your Christian walk; but when you keep attentive, led by the Holy Spirit, it will always bring progress and strength to you and to the Church. Apart from being saved, you need to give yourself as an agent of propagating the Word of God; in so labouring, all suffering brings progress. I pray that this Lent period brings you to a place of more reflection and surrender to God’s mission.