“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 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. (John 15:1-5 ESV)
Most of my life I’ve read John 15 and have thought of it in an individualistic manner. The picture that I’ve always had in my mind when reading this chapter is me and Jesus and how I need to keep praying and reading the bible. The reality though is that John 15 is much deeper than just a call for us as individuals to be in relationship to Him!
The context of John 15 is that it is a corporate invitation, and not simply a conversation with an individual. He’s talking to many people, not just one and the culture that he was talking to was a communal culture, not an individualistic one. When they heard Jesus saying these words they weren’t just thinking of it in an individual manner but also in a communal manner. When Jesus was speaking to them, they weren’t just wondering how this affected each of them but also they were thinking how it affected ALL of them.
He said, “I am the vine and you (plural) are the branches (more than one).” You can read more about this here.
Abiding in Jesus is a corporate invitation for all of us to stay connected to Jesus and to each other. The call to abide in Him cannot be separated from the call to live in oneness with those in the Body of Christ.
In order to stay connected to the Vine, we must be connected to its branches as well. Many times I have viewed this picture as Jesus being the vine and myself being my own branch. In the context of this scripture, He is inviting them collectively to stay connected to Him. This requires each individual to commit to stay connected to Jesus and to other branches that may be integral to their connection with him.
Another common example that is used is the picture of us being the body of Christ and Him being the head of that body. If we are removed from the head, that is Christ, we cannot live. Also, if we disconnect from other parts of the body we cannot live. If the arm disconnects from the shoulder then the arm will die. If the lungs disconnect from the heart they will die. If a foot disconnects from the leg then the foot will die. (See 1 Cor 12)
Abiding in Christ looks like staying in intimate connection with Christ himself and with our fellow branches. We must get rid of our western, individualistic lense, and begin to understand that the invitation to abide is not only for us alone but for us (the body of Christ) as a whole. Holy Spirit wants us to see John15 as an invitation to remain connected to Jesus and others who are connected to Jesus.
Another analogy is that of a fire and it’s embers. The fires flame represents God (See Hebrews 12:29). Embers and coals represent Christians living in community and oneness together. If you remove a coal from the flame it will burn out. It cannot survive without the flames consuming energy. Also, if you take a coal away from the other coals it will become cold and burn out. But, if you keep the coal in the fire and in a bed of hot coals it will stay burning and hot. Jesus wants us to remain in Him and closely connected to others who are passionate for Him so that we can stay on fire for Him!
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I grew up in Atlanta during the Civil Rights Movement. As a child, after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, I watched his funeral procession through the streets of downtown. And I remember the race riots that erupted all over the country as a result of his assassination.
Years later, I marched on the National Mall in support of King’s birthday becoming a national holiday. I was militant. My entire life from infancy to young adulthood was steeped in blackness. I attended all-black schools, lived in all-black neighborhoods and espoused all-black causes.
Many Americans, black and white, have a viewpoint just like I did. But after receiving a renewed heart as a born-again Christian, my attitude began to change. The hearts and minds of Americans have to be renewed in the area of race, just like my heart and mind were, if we are to achieve racial harmony in this country.
God called me to view my role in this world as a Christian first, not as a black person first. I still had a driving passion for the causes of my people. But it became apparent to me that my hunger and enthusiasm for God needed to precede my enthusiasm for my race. And that’s exactly what happened!
The cause of Christ became the controlling force in my life, instead of the causes promoting blackness – without any realization on my part, because it happened over time.
As Christians, our minds are not renewed overnight. We still bring garbage from our former lives to the other side of the cross. God had to deal with me; it was a process. When I got filled with the Spirit, I began to hunger for God. I gained an appreciation for other preachers and other musical artists outside my culture. My spiritual hunger and thirst for God was so great, it took me past my ethnic comfort zone so that I was willing to learn from other people outside my culture.
If you have yielded totally to God, you shouldn’t put up a wall when God wants to bring His truth to you through a culture or race that’s not your own.
Too often, though, that’s what happens within the Body of Christ. I call it the “get it syndrome.”
When I talk to black people, they say, “White folks don’t get it. Nor do they want to get it. They don’t know our history. They don’t know our culture. They don’t understand how the impact of slavery and the cruel, involuntary separation of our families have destroyed our ancestry. They don’t understand the effect that Jim Crow laws had on our social, political and financial well-being.”
When I talk to white people, they say, “I get it. Now, black folks need to get over it! Racism no longer exists. We elected a black man and put him in the highest position in the country! You had a black president in the White House! You no longer need any special treatment or consideration. Besides, we didn’t do anything to you. It was our forefathers who made all of the mistakes, not us. So, get over it!”
Consequently, an invisible gulf exists between the races. This gulf represents misunderstandings by both parties. In order to bridge that gulf, members of both races must listen with spiritual ears to truly empathize with each other.
Many social and political advances have been made since I was a child, but one thing remains the same: the country I live in now is as racially charged as the country I grew up in. Despite the social improvements and legal advances, a greater change must take place in the hearts of Americans, black and white.
Just like I was, many Americans are at a crossroads today where their race collides with their faith. They want to really know how to walk as a Christian while not losing their racial identity. I discovered the answer to that question when I realized that God was calling me to view myself as a Christian first, not as a black person first.
It was just another simple exercise to open up the next session of the marriage retreat. The speaker invited us to close our eyes and imagine our Father in Heaven. He told us to open our ears and listen to what the Father might want to say to us. I closed my eyes, entering into the realm of holy imagination, and walked straight into the throne room. I walked confidently, expectantly, like a daughter coming into her daddy’s office knowing he will drop everything to receive her. I looked up into the face of my Father and saw His warm, accepting eyes looking straight at me. But with a shock, I saw that He was richly and beautifully black-skinned. My confident stride forward halted, fading into shuffling hesitation. My security evaporated into tentative uncertainty. Would I still be received? Did I belong? Did He still want me even though I wasn’t the same color as him? I shyly looked up at Him and I heard Him warmly, richly say, “Welcome to my family.”
The essence of the Gospel is about finding home. We are wired to long for it. We crave it deeply in our spirits, groaning beyond words. True home is eternity with our Father. But it is more than that. True home is eternity with our family. We are the bruised and battered, sin-riddled, and wounded but each sealed with precious blood. Each of us, dumbfounded and awe-struck, find mercy, acceptance, and welcome from a tender Shepherd who went to unfathomable depths to rescue us from ourselves, for Himself. This family transcends all racial lines, every cultural preference we didn’t even know we had, our pasts, and our family histories. It doesn’t matter what your dad did. You are welcomed to the table. It doesn’t matter if you’re living paycheck to paycheck. You bring value far beyond what you could ever earn or produce. This is the gospel: belonging in the family of God.
The place where we in Americanized Christianity have gone wrong is in thinking that we can only belong when people look like us, believe like us, and act like us. We cluster in our collective huddles around our pet theologies and doctrines. We say we are open to the broader family of the faith, but how many of us are breaking bread with fellow Christians who fall on the other side of the political spectrum? How many of us are finding rich connection with fellow brothers and sisters on the other side of the tracks? How many of us are “welcoming the stranger” into our homes and our hearts?
As Christianity has rapidly expanded the last decades, it has touched and is beginning to reach every nation and people group. A report by Pew Research center from 2010 noted: “Christians are geographically widespread – so far-flung, in fact, that no single continent or region can indisputably claim to be the center of global Christianity.” Christianity no longer has a geographic center of leadership or a prominent racial majority. This is a truth that we need to understand. There is no center of global Christianity. God’s work is burning through Asia. It is running through the Middle East. A song is coming up out of Africa. The Americas are hearing of the suffering of so many brethren for the sake of the Gospel in other nations and are starting to realize how much further we have to go. Christ’s work and His family are stretching across the globe. There is no center. Given these truths, my gentle suggestion is this: let’s get ourselves out of it.
Lord, deliver me from self-centered Christianity, where the preferences of my culture and my particular theological viewpoints are the filter by which I view all other faith expressions. Where my skin color suddenly becomes the color of my God. Show me I am part of something much bigger than myself. Remind me daily that I am nothing more than the stranger who has found a home. As I have been welcomed, let me welcome others into the rich, gracious, diverse family of God and into the cross that unites us. It’s time to get out of the center and to turn our eyes towards the Man who is the center of it all.
Two weeks ago, I had the honor of attending the Nigerian blessing service of my friends’ newborn daughter. Though we were gathered in a fluorescent-lit, tiny building on the outskirts of Atlanta, I felt like I was in another country. As the Yoruba hymns rang out, I did my best in my white, bumbling way to sway with the rhythms of the drums. I was uncomfortable and self-conscious. I felt awkward and alone. However, as the sweet baby was publicly valued, honored, welcomed, and blessed, the Holiness of God filled the sanctuary. I saw the face of my Father in the people gathered. I heard His echo of love as we welcomed the baby into the community. The cultural disparities and our individual differences faded away as the Presence of God sweetly united us. I forgot about being uncomfortable. I forgot about having bad rhythm. In that moment, as a community, we entered into the Presence of Christ, who is and always will be the true center of our faith. Sitting there, in the presence of God together, we tasted the home that is to still to come, the home that awaits us.
My heart was heavy – not with anxiety, but sobriety. I packed my car the night before and laid half-awake wondering what God might do. In just a few hours, two friends and I would sit with the executive leadership team of an incredible Church to wrestle through the treasures of reconciliation and the tragedies of racial division in our midst.
At 5:30 am, I gave up on the idea of sleep, got on my knees, and asked the Holy Spirit for a fresh understanding of His perspective on reconciliation.
This is what happened.
With a been-there, read-that pace, I read Psalm 133. Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers meet together in unity… for there the Lord has commanded His blessing, life forevermore.
I felt the Lord nudge me to reread it aloud, slowly.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell together in unity… for there the Lord has commanded His blessing, life forevermore.
Despite reading and reciting this passage many times, I never gave proper attention to what God actually said. He didn’t say, “it is good and pleasant when brothers meet together in unity.” He said, “dwell together in unity”.
Dwelling together and meeting together are NOT the same. The act of dwelling has elements of connection, vulnerability, longevity, and commitment that the act of meeting does not. Meetings have their purpose; however, the Body of Christ is more than a group of individuals who meet. Our dwelling place is the Kingdom and we are one big family – literally.
So, if God’s perfect will is that we (brothers in Christ), would dwell together in unity, why do we settle for meeting together instead? Because dwelling together feels like unnecessary work when we live in ignorance of its benefits. Communities that dwell together in pursuit of Kingdom reconciliation:
With such great benefits, you wonder why so few Christian communities live in pursuit of Kingdom reconciliation. I think the painful reality of divorce among Christians and the painful reality of cross-cultural division within the Body of Christ have some of the same root issues. We struggle to practice the basic block-and-tackles of the Gospel.
If I’m going to live in close relationship with ANYONE other than myself it will be because I intentionally pursue them, seek to understand, admit and acknowledge my failure, repent, forgive them in their failures, fight for their good, trust God for my own good, communicate when I’m hurt, give them space to communicate when they’re hurt, take my thoughts captive, intercede, do it when it doesn’t necessarily feel good, prioritize obeying God’s voice, enter into their suffering with them, enter into their celebration with them, hate their sin, love the glory that God has hidden in them, and consider their interest above my own. I’ll practice these blocks and tackles over and over and over again. That’s the only way marriages work, and it’s also the only way reconciliation works. It’s the only way brothers dwell together in unity. Apart from these tools, we can at best meet together for moments of warm feelings or at worst war against each other.
Our commitment to dwelling together will force us into a dependence on the Cross, the Word of God, and the power of His Holy Spirit in a profound way. It means we don’t ever get to stop growing, being humbled, saying we’re sorry, and learning. Dwelling together in unity will require that we grow comfortable being uncomfortable. (That in itself is a blessing in disguise because it’s really hard to bring and enjoy the Kingdom of God if we’re living as slaves to our own comfort. One might say it’s impossible – like serving two masters.)
So, how do we measure whether or not we’re actually connected and dwelling together?
In 1 Cor 12:25-26, Paul describes Kingdom connection saying, “that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer. If one member is honored, all rejoice together.” If our love for unity isn’t bearing the fruit of an increasing experience with the sufferings and triumphs of the “others”, then we are likely settling for a worldly standard of unity. If I am numb to the pains and joys that a part of my own body is facing, I have a connection issue and need a doctor.
Praise Jesus! He came for the sick, and we don’t have to remain in our state of apathy, willful ignorance, and division. We can repent and align ourselves with His example, and choose the path that is full of His blessing – life forevermore.
Divided to United
In preparation for a OneRace event, The United Prayer March, I struggled greatly to put my finger on what the Lord was saying to the church. Unity? Sure. Reconciliation? You got it! I was looking for more. I felt the Lord was saying and doing so much more.
You see, it was only a few months earlier that we were gathered for a Regional Prayer Gathering at Woodland Hills Church when I heard these words released, “As this church sits on Confederate Avenue, I ask Father that you would use this church to be a beacon of hope and a messenger of reconciliation. Release it, I pray, in Jesus’ name!” It would only be a few weeks later that Pastor Arthur Breland, a dear friend, and brother, would call and say, “The Atlanta City Council voted to change the name of the street from Confederate Ave. to United Ave.” We agreed in that moment, that this was a prophetic harbinger. It was a clear message to the church of Atlanta.
The Church Must Intersect and Become One
In preparation for the march, it came to my attention that United Ave. intersects with Atlanta Ave., and the two become one. “Electric” is the only way to describe how it hit me. The words evaded me, until I stood in the historic neighborhood, at that very intersection. THE CHURCH MUST INTERSECT AND BECOME ONE. I heard it clear as day. The white church. The black church. The Hispanic church. The Asian church. The rich church. The poor church. The Baptist Church. The charismatic church. The Anglican Church. The Presbyterian Church. The right wing and the left. The Church must intersect, and she must become one.
Unprecedented & Glorious
Beloved, we are living in unprecedented times. Yes, there is great evil, division, and hardship. Yes, I acknowledge, the church has never been more segmented and separated than the present. Yes, I too acknowledge the apathy and sin of our past is playing out in present discourse. However, these are glorious times. Never in the history of the American church has the message of unity and oneness been so prevalent and present. There appears to be a great desire among church leaders to stand in solidarity. In these dark times, it is an opportunity for the Church to shine the brightest. It is in perilous times such as these that the radiant beauty of the bride of Christ could and should be seen. What’s the holdup?
A New Trajectory: Oneness
2 So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, 2 complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
For too long we’ve stood in our own corners, while Jesus beckons us onward to be one. We must commit to this idea of Oneness. Oneness is not sameness. Oneness is not assimilation. Oneness isn’t ignoring the past or subscribing to a political party. No! Oneness is so much more. Oneness is the commitment to contend together for unity among the brethren. It’s the quest to embody the relationship between the Father, Son, and Spirit. It’s this idea that we would cleave to one another in love with a deep commitment toward the future. Philippians 2:1-2 outlines the 4 key areas that we must strive to be one in:
I can’t stress enough that oneness isn’t a betrayal to oneself or respective culture. So often the expectation is that one party would leave behind their culture and join the other, never to visit or mention it again. Friends, that is flat out wrong! No, it is to operate with consideration, honor, and dignity for all parties involved. It is this idea espoused later in Philippians, that we should consider each other more highly than ourselves. We have a long, yet joyous journey ahead.
The Hard Work of Oneness
In my next post, I will seek to answer the question “How do we become one?” It’s a great idea to become one, but the way forward isn’t always so clear. In fact, I’ll preemptively say, there is a glorious death to self and preference involved for the believer that embraces the message of Oneness. The great news is, JESUS IS WORTHY!
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The Glory of Unity
Two days after OneRace Stone Mountain I found myself on a plane heading to Asia to speak at a conference for underground house church leaders. With my heart still bursting with joy over all that God did at that historic gathering, the Lord began to speak to me from a passage that I’d spent dozens of hours considering over the last year – John 17. It was as if He was saying, “You don’t really know what you think you know about My true desire for oneness among My people.” For the next several days while I was there in the Far East to teach leaders about the Gospel, it became clear that God had brought me there to teach me about the Gospel. He took me on a journey through the Scriptures, unpacking John 17 in a fresh way, expounding on truths that I hadn’t seen before. I want to share some of those insights here. Let’s look again at a portion of this powerful prayer from the Son of God.
John 17:20 “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; 21 that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. 22 And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: 23 I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.
Often times we think of Jesus’ prayer as a simple plea for unity among believers. However, when you consider the depth of His request, it’s evident that the unity He is interceding for is far greater than simple unity. “That they may be one just as We are one” is an appeal that can only be met by divine intervention. This is no shallow unity, he’s asking for a mystical joining on par with the oneness He shares with the Father.
Jesus never prayed that we would be united. He prayed that we would be one – a union that mirrors the union shared within the Godhead. He and the Father have always been one. Unity by definition is the joining together of independent parts. This is not nor never has been the state of the Godhead. Unity was not His request because unity does not go far enough for bride of Christ.
There is no human pact or agreement that can make individuals one in the way that Jesus envisioned. The oneness that He petitioned is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. This oneness is so important that He imparted His very glory upon us in order that we may attain it, “the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one.” No human effort or unity meetings can accomplish this, it can only be wrought by the glory of God.
To be honest, these insights surprised me changing my perceptions on where God is longing to bring the church. I hadn’t seen the depths of Jesus’ prayer before and as a result found myself deeply challenged by the Spirit of the Lord. Through OneRace we have started a journey that will culminate with Jesus’ bride experiencing the glory of God in oneness. While that’s exciting, the raw truth is that we still have a long way to go.
At the same time, I realize that the Lord authored this prayer in full faith, knowing that everything He requested of the Father would come to pass. I’m further encouraged knowing that this prayer was not only for that day but was directed in full faith for you and I today. I believe we will see Jesus’ prayer fulfilled in this generation. I believe we will experience the glory of unity that the Son of God dreamed about. I encourage you to freshly consider Jesus’ prayer of John 17 and believe with me for oneness to be manifest in the church in our day and time.