I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
– Jesus, John 15:5 (ESV)
21-year-old Owen Wright is the #2 surfer in the ASP Wold Title Race right now. He’s following 39-year-old Kelly Slater, the 10 time world champ, current reigning champ, and also the oldest and youngest person ever to win the ASP World Title. In fact, Kelly won his first world title when Owen was 2 years old. How crazy is that? Anyway, Owen Wright said that he distinctly remembers chasing down Kelly Slater for an autograph when he was just a grommet. That same kid is now battling his childhood hero for the world title. What strikes me about this is the fact that at some point Owen had to come out from behind Kelly’s shadow. You can’t idolize or feed off your hero and stand on your own feet.
I think sometimes we have our own personal Kelly’s. We have people we look up to, people who inspire us. There’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But they can’t be what drives us. It’s easy to look up to people in the church, and rather than finding inspiration from them to follow Jesus, we follow them. They become our champions somehow. They can quote passages of scripture, they have amazing gifts of prophecy, they have all kinds of great advice. When battles come, we call on them to fight the giants for us. We ask them to draw from their knowledge and experiences to help us make the right decision. I think in the right context these things are ok, but God intended all of us to be able to stand on our own feet. We seem to think that because this guy’s a “Kelly Slater,” we can’t compare to what they’re doing and we should defer to them so we don’t make a mess of things. I can catch waves, but can I dazzle them like Kelly does? Probably not I think.
Sitting in the Catbird Seat means coming into things with a different perspective. If we really are seated with Jesus, as Ephesians says we are, then we don’t need to defer to the superstars all the time. I don’t think Jesus wants us to live our lives in anyone’s shadow. He may lead us to submit to others, but he gives us the same position as anyone else: seated with him. If we believe this, then there’s no limit to what we can do. In John 15, Jesus describes himself as the vine and us as the branches. We can’t idolize the other branches, we can’t even really draw our strength from them. Without the vine, they too will wither and die. Grafting into the life of the vine is what’s important.
I think in the western church we have a problem of leaving things up to the heavy hitters, the important guys, the big shots. Nourishment comes from branches, but not the nourishment that we need. If we suck too much life from another branch, not only will we not get the nourishment we need, but the branch we are leeching from will suffer. Branches can’t bear the burden of giving life, purpose and identity, but the vine can. God doesn’t seat us with the superheroes of the faith, he seats us with his son. Anyone who’s a superhero for God knows that the source of their strength is from God, not from anything special about them.
This is becoming less and less frequent, but at times I hear people complaining that their particular church or service doesn’t “feed” them well enough. I’m not sure that a church (institution) was ever supposed to feed them. It’s my understanding that the followers of Christ are the church, and as such have an obligation to self-feed. They have an obligation to sit with Christ, to abide with him, to tap into the life of the vine on their own. You see, we wish we were the competition-level surfers, but we only surf for a couple of hours once a week. Competition-level surfers spend countless hours in the water. Listen to an interview with Kelly Slater some day, he’s absolutely obsessed with surfing. I would venture to say that most guys on the ASP World Tour are obsessed with surfing. They make time to surf almost every day.
Deep down, many of us want to do the things described in the Acts of the Apostles, but we don’t really believe we can. It’s all wishful thinking. Going to church and a small group won’t do it, we need to be about those things in our personal life.
When I get up for work at 0500 I get upset because I’m missing sleep. Why is it that I can wake up at 0415 to drive for 45 minutes to surf in the morning and be stoked? Yet when I set my alarm to wake up at 0700 to pray, I usually roll over and ignore it. It’s a source of frustration for me. I think that a lot of the shortcomings I face in my journey of faith stem from misplaced affections. When it comes down to it, I often get more out of other things than I do from Jesus… at least it feels like it. I see instant tangible results from those other things. Spending time with Jesus is really easy, but then again, so hard. And all we have to do is sit with him. If only I found myself obsessed with Jesus as the pros are obsessed with surfing.
Perhaps the difference between Jesus and surfing has to do with the fact that I am free to surf, but with Jesus sometimes I feel as if I ought to spend time with him, and therefore it’s unnatural. But living in the shadow of other Christians, always following their lead, never thinking for myself or taking the initiative isn’t any more legitimate. It’s a cover for my own weak affections for Christ. It shows that I don’t want something badly enough to go after it myself, that I want someone to hold my hand through it. Let Jesus hold it.
I don’t want needy religion. If I am seated with Jesus, then whether I’m the runt of the litter or the only one left, I am able to hang with the superstars because those who are seated with him are superstars. This is hard to believe, but I think that as we abide in Jesus we will see him bring forth the fruit we so desperately want to see in our lives. As people connected to the vine, we no longer look to our champions to lead us into battle, but we begin to walk with Jesus and ourselves are entrusted to stand for him.