Thought for the Month (February 2015)

Dear Friends,

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. ….. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. " (John 15).

Celebrating the Methodist Covenant service at the beginning of this year and preaching on Jesus' statement about being the true vine, I was struck once again by the fact that, where Jesus unites, our denominational boundaries so often divide. Take this joke by EMO Philips, frequently voted the all-time favourite religious joke:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, "Don't do it!"
He said, "Nobody loves me."
I said, "God loves you. Do you believe in God?"
He said, "Yes."
I said, "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"
He said, "A Christian."
I said, "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"
He said, "Protestant."
I said, "Me, too! What franchise?"
He said, "Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."
I said, "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"
He said, "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."
I said, "Die, heretic!" And I pushed him over.

It may be exaggerated but we smile because we can all see truth within it!

Jesus pictures himself as a vine and invites us to think of ourselves as branches, fruitful in our connection to Jesus and his love. Instead, we take pride in our own local branches and, at worst, damn the other branches to the rubbish heap and bonfire even though they are connected to the life-giving and sustaining vine just as we are.

It is so easy to do because as denominational Christians we define ourselves through the history, doctrinal beliefs and traditions of our denomination and, within that, of our local congregation. These are incredibly valuable to us. They are a significant part of our spiritual DNA. But we forget, at our peril, that the greater part of that DNA comes from who we are in Jesus. We are his followers; Christ-ians; individual parts of his universal body. Denominationalism will always threaten to divide. Jesus always seeks to unite.

This is the glorious challenge that every church faces. How do we keep hold of all that is to be treasured within our heritage whilst bringing that into a meaningful relationship of unity with other believers? If what we bring threatens to separate us from others then is it really that valuable after all?

It is a particular challenge for Vale Royal Methodist Church and Tunbridge Wells URC as we seek to worship together from Easter onward. Each of us has our own precious heritage and identity and we must strive to keep hold of all within that which is good and uplifting. We must not lose the treasures within that identity. At the same time, though, we work to create a new identity. We need to work out what it means to become one body, Jesus' body, worshipping him together and making him real within the local community and wider world. It will be exciting but it may not always be easy. Pray for us, as you pray for your own church too, that in moving beyond the narrow branches of our own denominations, we may find the love and the joy and the fruitfulness that Jesus promises in unity with him.

With Jesus’ love

Rev. Steve Mann (Minister, Vale Royal Methodist Church)

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Tunbridge Wells United Reformed Church