Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Plants Are Asking: "Why I Am I Here?"

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener."

A while ago in Sunday School, we covered this passage. Ty asked me to lead a group of three: Chad, Serena, and Jessica.

Chad and Serena are two stereotypical children of fundamental, conservative, Christian parents. Jessica, on the other hand, may not even be a Christian. She's a friend of Chad's and has attended church maybe three or four times before.

So we start in on John 15, starting from verse 1: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener."

Ty had given us a list of questions to go over, but I only glanced at them. I don't like when a person dictates a conversation when they're not even a part of it.

"What do we know?" I asked the three of them.

They looked at me with blank faces. I tried again. "Who's speaking?"

"Jesus," Serena confidently stated. It's one of those "Sunday School answers" that almost never goes wrong.

"Right," I responded. "And who is he talking to?"

More blank faces. To be fair, they didn't have Bibles, so this one was a little tougher.

"He's talking to his disciples," I decided to help. "His best friends. His followers."

Another question: "So what is Jesus doing here?" Blank faces. I tried to help a little bit: "It's a literary device... when you compare two unlike things without using the words 'like' or 'as.'"

Jessica stepped up. "A metaphor."

"Good," I replied. "And what is Jesus comparing?" I read them the first part of the passage again: "I am the true vine." Blank faces. I was beginning to wonder whether they legitimately didn't know, or if they just didn't care.

I decided to move things along a little bit. "Jesus is comparing himself to a vine. What is a vine a part of?"

This wasn't really a Bible question, so it surprised me a little when Chad guessed a tree (which to be fair is close). Serena suggested a plant.

"Close," I said. "A particular fruit grows on vines though..."

"Grapes." It was Jessica. I'm starting to like her.

"Good. Grapes grow on vines." I drew a picture of a tree and identified the trunk. I told them that the vine was kind of like the trunk of a tree. It's the sturdy part that everything else grows out of. In this case, it's the sturdy part that branches would grow out of, and grapes would grow out of those branches.

"... and my Father is the gardener." We were moving slow, but that's okay. We were beginning to make some progress. "What is this?" I asked, this time expecting to see blank faces.

I was surprised to hear "Metaphor," but I wasn't surprised it was Jessica. I'm really starting to like her.

I recapped: "So Jesus is talking to his disciples. He says that he is like a vine or a tree trunk. And God is like a gardener. What does a gardener do?"

"Takes care of the plants." I think it was Serena this time. Good thing... There's more to the answer, but I let it go for the time being.

"Good." Moving forward...

"He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." We're only at verse 2, but I decided that we would stay here until we understood what was happening.

The questions start getting tougher.

"What is the purpose of a plant?" Blank faces were a guarantee this time. I knew it. But this was a tough question.

"What do plants do?"

Serena said slowly and questioningly, "Grow?"

"Yes," I said. "You're really close..."

I realized that that was as good as it was going to get.

"Plants bear fruit. Their purpose is to provide food."

Their faces sort of relax. The answer's not too complicated as they probably thought it would be.

I continued. "Let's keep going with these metaphors. If Jesus is the vine, and God is the gardener, then what are we?" I realized that we hadn't gotten very far in the passage so I skipped forward to verse 5: "I am the vine; you are the branches."

"We are the branches, right?" I asked. "So then what do we do? What is our job?"

Jessica answered, "To bear fruit?"

Somebody was with me. "So what does that mean?"

I never would have expected Jessica to even have a clue with this one, so I turned to Chad and Serena: "What does it mean to bear fruit? You guys hear this phrase all the time in church. What does it mean?"

Chad laughed, embarrassed that he didn't know. Serena was embarrassed too, but I asked again. She offered, "To preach the Gospel." This was a better answer than she thought.

"That's a really good answer," I told her. "So what's the Gospel?"

Blank faces.

"You don't know what the Gospel is?"

Chad tried to answer: "That Jesus died for our sins." The best example of a Sunday school answer that I could have dreamed of. But this time, it wasn't completely right.

"That's a piece of it, I guess," I responded. "But there's a lot more to it than that."

Time was running out. I decided to try and go over what we did know.

"The gardener's job is to help plants fulfill their purpose. In this case, the gardener, cuts off branches that don't grow grapes. And he makes sure that the branches that are growing grapes are getting water and sunlight. Now let's apply this to our situation here in the real world. God is supposed to then help us fulfill our purpose. So what does that mean?"

Jessica understood enough. "He's supposed to help us bear fruit."

She was so close. "And that means..."

"He's supposed to help us preach the Gospel."

She nailed it.

What's so interesting about this passage is that Chad and Serena were missing the real point of the passage. They've been trained to answer with shallow responses that miss the real point. They've minimized the Gospel to "Jesus died for my sins." And that misses so much of the point.

Now, I'm not trying to criticize Chad and Serena in any way. However, I would point the finger at the church. Specifically though, parents. Parents need to help their children grow in their faith so that they can have more to say than a fifth grader who just finished a week of VBS. But I would also say that when you're a sophomore in high school, you need to do something yourself and study so that your faith has some legitimacy.

Jessica, on the other hand, was getting it. And she doesn't have a boatload of these Sunday School answers packed away in her brain to fake her faith with. I think Christians today need to let go of their presuppositions that they've gotten so comfortable with in the past, and they need to step up and learn, study, ask questions, and answer questions.

Nothing pleases an atheist more than to see Christians answer questions with words that they themselves don't really understand.


WES ELLIS said...

Sounds like you had a tough time in that small group... it won't be the last time. What you said at the end is right, it's not all their fault (and you should probably consider the fact that they probably knew the answers but weren't engaging) they're not used to being taken seriously intellectually. They are used to being spoon fed the answers and being taught that you shouldn't really ask big questions. The fact is, students are perfectly smart enough to handle big questions... and so is God. Students should be challenged to bring their questions before God and actually engage the text of scripture honestly and rigorously.

Robin Dugall is doing his Thesis on this...

Mark said...

You're probably right. I think that was definitely part of the issue. But I do think some of it also was simple ignorance. But that sort of personality I certainly wouldn't put past those two - and you know what I mean!