Week One: Shift Your Relationship with God
The Bible clearly calls followers of Jesus to a lifelong journey of being transformed into the image of Christ. This week we examine this calling and the challenges of shifting our relationship with God.
Please feel free to adapt these lessons for your congregation’s context.
Sermon Notes by Rajkumar Boaz Johnson
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”
Students come into my office with so many questions. Four crucial questions I often hear are: 1) Who is God? 2) Who am I? 3) How may I understand evil in the world? Why does church leadership do awful things? 4) How may I keep myself from doing these awful things?
It has become clear to me that the church needs a shift in our understanding of God and of the church in order to address these questions. Our shift text this week pushes us to do just that.
In western society we portray various ideas of God the Father. There is the image of a stern and aloof father, or the father who mollycoddles his children, or even an abusive father. With much anguish I listen to students express these kinds of portrayals of God the Father, and of fatherhood.
Similarly, I also hear students express rather sad images of the church. These include depictions of very strict churches that expect young people to live one specific kind of life, with no room for other options; or churches that do not care about what kind of life their people live, even when they are given positions of responsibility in the church; or of church leaders who are abusive of young people.
Our text this week asks us to radically change these prevalent ideas of God and the church. First, it makes clear that God the Father is a low caste Gardener, who belongs to the most unjustly treated segment of society. Second, the church is an organic vine, which can be the church only as it is organically linked to the Good Vine. Third, the vine produces gracious fruit. And finally, the low caste Gardener Father keeps pruning the branches, so they will organically and effortlessly produce good fruit.
Quite a shift—this is a radically different picture of God the Father and the church.
I want to underline four central aspects of this discourse.
Jesus described himself as the everlasting I AM
John 15 begins with some of the most crucial words Jesus uttered, as he reveals himself to the people of his time.
This statement forms the crescendo to the great I AM statements that form the contours of the Book of John: “I am the bread of life” (6:35, 48); “I am the bread that comes down from heaven” (6:41); “I am the light of the world (8:12); “Before Abraham was born, I am” (8:58); “I am the gate for the sheep” (10:7, 9); “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11, 14); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25); “I am the way and the truth and the life” (14:6).
In using this phrase to describe himself, Jesus makes clear to the people that he is none other than the God, the everlasting I AM who revealed himself to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to Moses on Mount Sinai (Genesis 17:1; 26:24; 31:13; Exodus 3:14).
That would have been a shocking statement to the original hearers. No one can claim to be the everlasting I AM. Either it was the worst heresy, deserving of death, or else it was true. In using this statement, Jesus was also making clear that he would prove his divinity by doing the same miracles that God had done among the patriarchs of old—signs and miracles they had not seen for a long, long time.
It was a shift in their understanding of the identity of this person they were encountering. He was not merely a human being who emerged from an outcast city called Nazareth. This was the God of the prophets.
This thought introduced a mental, emotional, and theological dissonance to Jesus’s original hearers. Indeed, the same thing happened whenever Jesus was introduced to society throughout history. And it remains the same today.
Jesus portrayed himself as the vine
In ancient religions divine kings and people of high castes used two trees—the fig tree and the vine—to declare themselves as gods. In these cultures, the divine kings and high caste men raped low caste boys and girls under the fig and vine trees so they could assert their divinity to society. We see evidence of these practices in Sumerian and Egyptian mythology. Genesis 3 offers a biblical reflection of this horrible, ancient religious practice. When Adam and Eve ate the fruit, they were seeking to become gods. The phrase “deceived or beguiled me,” literally means “used me as a Temple prostitute.”
But Jesus is redeeming and transforming this image of God’s good creation, which was desecrated by the religions of the world. He calls himself the Good Vine. The fruit of this vine becomes a source of life to people rather than a source of violence and death.
This was a major transformational shift for Jesus’s audience. Today the call of the church is to make similar kinds of transformational shifts. God’s good creation has been used as tools of much desecration and injustice. Yet the church is called to transform these into God’s good and life-giving entities.
Jesus transforms the definition of God
Jesus says, “My Father is the gardener” (John 15:1). The word “gardener” used to describe God the Father was also used to describe low caste and outcast people in ancient religions.
In January 2015, I traveled to India, the country of my birth, with a group of CHIC students, where we encountered the reality that thousands of farmers commit suicide every year. Every six minutes in India a farmer girl is raped.
In ancient Near Eastern societies the situation was all too similar. Knowing that truth, Jesus intentionally described God as the Gardener. God is the God of the people on whom some of the worst kinds of injustices have been promulgated. Jesus, in contrast, makes clear that the God of the Bible is always the gardener. He is the God of the despised, rejected, and enslaved people.
Jesus offers the solution
Become a part of the vine, and let the low-caste Father God prune you.
Jesus says, let the low-caste Father God prune you (John 15:2). The Greek word Jesus uses here refers to in-depth catharsis, or cleansing. In the Old Testament, this is a missiological term (Exodus 23:24). We often read the Joshua narrative with the understanding that the people of Israel were supposed to be go into Canaan to destroy the people living there (e.g., Numbers 33:30-56). But in fact, the Hebrew words used in the Old Testament clearly communicate that the people of Israel were supposed to go into Canaan to cleanse, redeem, and possess the new community.
This is the mission of the low class Gardener Father God.
This is the mission of the church today.
When the people of God undergo this constant process of cleansing, while intrinsically becoming part of the vine, they establish an ongoing state of being of “remaining in Christ.” This is very different from a Western understanding of Christianity. In the West a Christian is usually judged by what one does. In the Bible and in the East, one is a Christian when one “remains, abides,” in Christ, the vine. When we enter into this existential state of being, we bear good fruit.
When this happens, the Christian community becomes a group of people to which everyone is drawn. They come to take shelter and find peace, just like the tree in Psalm 1. “That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” (v. 1).
This is essentially the meaning of Holy Communion. When a Christian partakes of communion, that person is partaking in the body and the blood of Christ. In doing so, we remain in Christ, and so bear Christian fruit. This is the secret of a transformational Shift community.
Adult Bible Study by Hauna Ondrey
“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.”
Jesus’s vivid image here, accompanied by his stark claim that connection to him is a prerequisite to fruitfulness, provides a fitting starting point for our six-week journey together.
This image of the vine grounds us firmly in Christ as the only sufficient source of our love, obedience, and fruitfulness. Apart from Christ we can do none of the things to which he calls his disciples in the verses that follow: bearing fruit (15:4–5), keeping his commands (15:10), and loving one another (15:12, 17).
As we pursue exactly these things in the weeks ahead—seeking together to grow in love for others and increasingly to glorify God through our actions—this text reminds us that all of these good ends are accomplished only in Christ; apart from him we pursue them in vain. This comes to us as both challenge and comfort.
This week’s study explores three themes that run through this rich passage of John’s gospel: 1) remaining in Christ, 2) through the Holy Spirit, 3) to the glory of the Father. In this we begin exactly where we should begin: with God.
Study: Life in Christ
In John 15, Jesus calls his disciples to “remain in” him just as he “remains in” them (John 15:4a). What does this mean? This language of mutual indwelling, of being “in,” occurs frequently in the Gospel of John. Most often, however, it is used not of the relationship between Jesus and his disciples (as here), but rather to describe Jesus’s relationship with his Father.
Throughout the fourth gospel, Jesus regularly emphasizes the unity of purpose shared between the Father and the Son. He insists that his work is the work of the Father (5:9; 6:38; 10:37–38) and his words are given to him from the Father (7:16; 8:28; 12:49; 14:10; 14:24; 17:7–8). Jesus’ purpose in doing the Father’s work and proclaiming the Father’s words is to glorify the Father (7:18; 8:50). To know the Son is to know the Father (8:19); to see the Son is to see the Father (12:45; 14:9).
This unity of purpose is grounded in a unity of being, indicated through the language of mutual indwelling—the language of “being in.” So Jesus says, “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (14:10, see too John 10:38). The gospel begins with the strong claim that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). In the tenth chapter Jesus declares plainly, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30).
When Jesus urges his disciples to remain in him (John 15:4, 5, 7, 9, 10), he invites them into this relationship of unity shared between the Father and the Son. Here the language of indwelling that characterizes Jesus’s relationship with his Father is extended to his disciples: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you” (14:20; cf. 14:23). In this Jesus envelops those in him into the Father-Son relationship.
Jesus explicitly says that this enveloping stretches to us as well: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (17:20–21). Jesus is the way to the Father (John 14:6): as we are united to the Incarnate Christ, we are united to the Father. As we remain in Christ, we enter, through him, into the love shared between the Father and Son before the creation of the earth (John 17:24).
Questions and Considerations
As Christians we often use relational terms to speak of our faith. The very title of this lesson references our relationship with God. In John 15 Jesus speaks of a particular relationship he invites us to enter: the relationship of love and unity between God the Father and God the Son.
- Do you use or identify with the phrase “relationship with God”? How do you understand this relationship? How does it relate to the relationship between the Father and Son we read about in John 14–17?
- How does your relationship with God relate to another Christian’s relationship with God? In what ways is it the same relationship, and in what way different?
- Does your relationship with God entail a particular relationship with the person sitting next to you?
Study: Through the Holy Spirit
John 15 stands in the middle of Jesus’s parting words to his disciples. This final speech fills five of 21 chapters of John’s gospel, spanning from chapters 13 through 17. Upon its conclusion, John will narrate Jesus’s arrest and crucifixion, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances. In this extended farewell to his closest friends, Jesus tells them of his imminent departure (e.g., 13:33, 36; 14:28) and seeks to prepare them for life without his physical presence.
Jesus’s striking claim in verse 4, “Apart from me you can do nothing,” follows his announcement that he will be leaving the disciples to return to his Father (14:28–29). Are these not strange words to follow an announcement of imminent departure (14:28)? How can Jesus at once foretell his absence and insist that without him the disciples will remain useless and fruitless?
It is significant that Jesus’s words here are sandwiched by references to the coming Holy Spirit. In 14:16–17, Jesus promises to send the “Spirit of truth,” who will remain forever in and among the disciples. The promise is reiterated at 15:26, where the “Spirit of truth” is given the role of testifying about Jesus.
John begins his gospel with the good news that in the person of Jesus Christ “the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (1:14). Jesus’s departure—the departure of the one in whom “all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9)—seems to reverse the increasing proximity of God to his people. Yet here Jesus promises that even greater intimacy will be possible through his sending of the Holy Spirit. Now God will not only dwell among his people but will dwell within them, through the promised Holy Spirit.
Interestingly, Jesus refers to the Spirit as “another advocate” (14:16), suggesting that Jesus too holds this title—as indeed we find in 1 John 2:1. The task of the Holy Spirit is to continue Jesus’s work in his absence, work which in turn was the Father’s work. Just as Jesus spoke and acted according to his Father’s words, so too the Spirit points to Christ: “He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you” (16:12–15). The Spirit reminds believers of Jesus’s words (14:26), words Jesus received from his Father. The Spirit testifies to Jesus (15:26), just as Jesus has testified to the Father. The Spirit guides believers in truth (16:13) and is the Spirit of truth (14:17; 15:26)—just as Jesus is the truth (1:17; 14:6).
Though today we have access to Scriptures that testify to Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, we live without Jesus’s physical presence, just as the first disciples did after the ascension. It is through the indwelling Holy Spirit that we are brought into union with Christ, that we are able to remain in Christ. The Spirit’s presence brings Christ’s presence in light of his physical absence. So Jesus comforts his disciples with the words that he will not leave them as orphans. Rather he will spend the Spirit and in this way, he says, “I will come to you” (14:18).
Questions and Considerations
- One of the Covenant Affirmations asserts our “conscious dependence on the Holy Spirit.” What role does the Holy Spirit play in your experience of God? In what ways are you conscious of the presence of the Holy Spirit—and of your dependence on the Holy Spirit?
- What roles does Christ ascribe to the Spirit? Have you experienced this in your life? How?
- According to this text, what is the relationship between the work of the Spirit and the work of the Christ? Are the two ever independent of each other? What does this mean practically?
Study: To the Glory of the Father
As an analogy of our remaining in him, Jesus offers the organic image of the relationship between vine and branches. It is an asymmetrical relationship. “For,” Augustine writes, “the relation of the branches to the vine is such that they contribute nothing to the vine but derive their own means of life from it.” It’s a point of fact that a severed branch cannot bear fruit apart from its life source. A branch bears fruit only insofar as it functions as a conduit for the nourishment the vine provides. In just this way, Jesus says, “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me” (15:4b). He doesn’t say that we can do a little bit—or that we won’t be as effective as if we were connected to him. No, he says in no uncertain terms, “Apart from me you can do nothing.” Nothing!
This unqualified word decenters our own strength and abilities, leaving no room for pride. In his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul names Christ as the source of any confidence he possesses (3:4). “Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God” (2 Corinthians 3:5). So too Mark the Hermit, “When you have done something good, remember the words, ‘without me you can do nothing.’”
This is a great comfort and release: we needn’t work in our own strength, relying on our limited and capricious resources. Rather, with Christ as the source of our love, obedience, and fruitfulness, our primary task is simply to stay put in Christ.
This is a cause for celebration. We may enter into the Father’s love, and glorify the Father by extending that love. Christ has revealed the glory of the Father; now Christians will do the same: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples” (15:8). This fruit is love and obedience, and obedience is love: “This is my command: love each other” (15:17). In obeying this command, the disciples extend the love of the Father they in turn have received from Jesus: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Now remain in my love” (15:9). This is the fruit, the goal of our remaining in Christ through the Holy Spirit: obedience and love, which are not distinguished or distinguishable in this passage. It is this that glorifies the Father, the ultimate goal.
As we remain in Christ through the indwelling Spirit, we are brought into the relationship of love shared between the Father and Son before the foundation of the world (John 17:24). As we remain in Christ through the Holy Spirit, we will be empowered to share God’s love with one another, and so bring glory to the Father. And so it begins and ends with God, apart from whom we can do nothing.
As we begin these weeks of prayer and study together, let us shift our relationship with God, grounding all that we are and do squarely in the Triune God. Let us shift into the relationship made possible through Christ’s coming from the Father—and returning to the Father to send the Holy Spirit: union with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Only in this will we truly be able to share with one another the divine love we receive, to the glory of the Father, as the Holy Spirit empowers us to obey Christ’s command: “love one another.”
Questions and Considerations
- Theologian Karl Rahner once remarked that if it turned out the Trinity was false—that God is only one and not also three—it would not impact the faith or practice of most Christians in any substantial way. When you speak to and about God (in prayer, speech, song, etc.), do you use the names of Trinitarian persons (Father, Son, Holy Spirit)? Why or why not? What relevance might explicitly Trinitarian passages, such as John 15:26, have for our own experience of God?
- How does Christ describe the nature of the love he demonstrates and to which he calls us? In what situations have you been presented with an opportunity to share Christlike love?
- If apart from Christ we cannot bear fruit, in these particular situations how might you love in Christ? What is the practical difference between loving in Christ and loving apart from Christ?
- In this passage Jesus seems to limit his commands to loving one another. Does love equal obedience? How does the command to love neighbor relate to other commands?
- What questions has this study raised for you? How might you be able to pursue greater information or clarity?
- How can you remain in Christ? What in your life (people, activities, etc.) encourages you to remain in Christ? What in your life discourages or distracts you from remaining in Christ?
- Spend five to ten minutes sitting in silence before God, resting in and opening yourself to God’s Spirit within you.
Personal and Communal Committments
- Consider the work of your church. What factors promote ministry that is dependent on Christ? What factors might inhibit ministering in Christ? What can you commit to as a community to remain in Christ?
- Encourage one another in adopting prayer practices that root you and your community in Christ, practices that open up space to listen to the Holy Spirit. (See below for resources on centering prayer, one of many such practices.) Could you meet regularly for this as a church or small group?
- Commit to bearing witness to the Triune nature of God, in prayer and worship, as well as in Christian education (youth and adult). Could more thought be put into this central aspect of Christian confession?
The following prayers from Christians of various backgrounds invite us to Worship and proclaim the Triune God.
Heavenly Father, I worship you as the creator and sustainer of the universe.
Lord Jesus, I worship you, Savior and Lord of the world.
Holy Spirit, I worship you, sanctifier of the people of God.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
Heavenly Father, I pray that I may live this day in your presence and please you more and more.
Lord Jesus, I pray that this day I may take up my cross and follow you.
Holy Spirit, I pray that this day you will fill me with yourself and cause your fruit to ripen in my life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, three persons in one God, have mercy upon me. Amen.
Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth:
Set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God:
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the living God:
Renew me and all the world.
Collect for Trinity Sunday, Book of Common Prayer
Almighty and everlasting God, you have given to us your servants grace, by the confession of a true faith, to acknowledge the glory of the eternal Trinity, and in the power of your divine majesty to worship the unity: Keep us steadfast in this faith and worship, and bring us at last to see you in your one and eternal glory, O Father, who with the Son and the Holy Spirit live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Collect for Trinity Sunday, Catholic
God, we praise you:
Christ Lord and Savior,
Spirit of Love.
You reveal yourself in the depths of our being, drawing us to share in your life and your love.
One God, three persons, be near to the people formed in your image, close to the world your loves brings to life. We ask you this, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, true and living, forever and ever.
Resources for Centering Prayer
- Contemplative Outreach (centeringprayer.com, www.contemplativeoutreach.org)
- Books by Thomas Keating: Intimacy with God: An Introduction to Centering Prayer (Crossroad, 2009); Open Mind, Open Heart (Bloomsbury Academic, 2006)
- Craig R. Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2006).
- Jaques Philippe, Interior Freedom; trans. Helena Scott (Scepter Publishers, 2007).
- Joel C. Elowsky, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, John 11–21 (InterVarsity Press, 2007).
Youth Discussion Guide by Nate Severson
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit….”
Jesus is the vine, the ultimate source of life. If we stay connected to him, we will produce fruit. But if we are cut off from him we cannot produce fruit in our lives as God intended.
A few years ago World Vision was using a slogan that said, “You have one life, do something!” These words are a fantastic challenge for us today. The reality is, we do only have one life to live—and what we do with that life matters to God.
But we don’t always make great choices. In the midst of not-so-great moments it can be easy to wonder, “Why didn’t God just create everything (including me) perfectly so I wouldn’t keep messing up?” When we look at the world and see all the brokenness that surrounds us, it’s easy to ask the same thing.
Yet the brokenness we see in the world is a reminder of our need for God. Our own brokenness reminds us that each of us has parts of our life that need to shift so that we can look more like Jesus.
Being a part of something like CHIC 2015 can help us recognize and identify some of those not-so-good areas in our lives. Perhaps we’ve been well aware of some of these areas for a long time. Others might have been blind spots for us. Either way, it is important that our lives shift in a way that brings about necessary change.
The best way to learn how we might shift our lives is to examine how God speaks to us in the Bible. Today we are going to look at the story found in John 15:1–8 about the vine and the branches.
In this story, Jesus and his disciples had just finished hanging out together in a room where Jesus washed their feet and shared with them what is commonly called the Last Supper. And he had just told them that he would be leaving them soon (John 14:1-3). Knowing that this news would obviously not go over well, Jesus gave them an unforgettable metaphor about a vine and branches, which served as a way to encourage them for the time after he left.
The timing of this message could not have been more perfect. The disciples were about to face the biggest shift in their lives. Their faithful leader would soon be gone, but his work was not going with him. With the guidance of the Holy Spirit, those who were willing to shift their lives to connect to the true Vine would produce fruit.
Jesus, the Master Communicator
You probably know that Jesus was an amazing teacher. He never talked over people’s heads, and most of the time he used illustrations that were familiar to his audience so they would understand his teaching. In this week’s passage, Jesus uses imagery that made it easy for his disciples to understand his words about the most important relationship we have in life.
As we look at this story together our goal is twofold: 1) Identify, discuss, and eliminate the vines attached to our lives that don’t look like Jesus. 2) Identify, discuss, and feed our connection to the true vine Jesus.
Our hope and prayer is that by following through with these two goals we may experience the promise found in the text in powerful ways. May it speak deeply into our souls and cause each of us to shift some things in our lives as we take an honest look at this picture of Jesus, the true Vine.
What Vines Is Your Life Connected To?
What if we could interview everyone in the world to find out whether there is anything we all have in common? One thing that would no doubt be on the list is the reality that none of us is perfect…we are all broken people. Because we are broken people, our lives are always “under construction.”
That means we all have attached parts of our lives to vines that represent areas that need to shift in order for us to look more like Jesus. It’s easy for this to happen—vines love to attach themselves to whatever they can get ahold of. Given time, they become a tangled mess that blocks out the light and chokes off precious nutrients necessary for growth.
That is exactly why Jesus identifies himself as “the true vine” in John 15:1. His life, his words, his death, his resurrection, and his teachings are the embodiment of truth.
Some examples of false vines are popularity, skills and abilities, possessions, bank accounts (or a parent’s bank account), GPA, social relationships, etc. The list goes on.
Looking at that list, you might be saying to yourself, “Some of the items on that list don’t seem so bad.” On one level that might be true. It’s not necessarily a negative thing to be concerned about your grades! But the issue has to do with attachment. When we attach our identity and significance to things that become more important than our identity in God, they can become bad vines. But when we attach our lives to God as our true vine, those other items fall into their rightful place.
So Pruning Is a Good Thing?
Pruning a branch involves cutting away the parts that are not growing correctly. Whether because the branch caught a disease or is infested with bugs, it is critical that the gardener cut away the unhealthy parts so a new branch can grow in its place—and the new branch will be that much stronger than the one before.
The reality is that every branch that is connected to the vine needs to be cut in some way so it can reach its full potential. The Gardener knows that this is the only way a vine will ever survive.
Gut Check Time
What vines are attached to your life right now? Are they helping you to look more or less like Jesus?
Maybe the most significant thing you could do post-CHIC is to consider those questions. Don’t forget that Jesus was sharing this story with his disciples (who needed to hear this message too) right before he was going away from them. It was a critical reminder to all of them about the need to remain attached to the true vine.
Let’s look at five significant steps that each of us can take to help shift our lives in a way that will help us stay attached to the true vine and do something significant with the one life we have been given.
- Identify and list areas in your life where you are attached to the true vine.
- Identify and list areas in your life where you are attached to false vines.
- Verbalize and share both of those lists with a trusted friend and leader.
- With your friends and leader put together a specific plan to shift your life in a way that connects you to the true vine and away from the false vines.
- Repeat steps 1-4 often.
In 635 A.D. a man named Bishop Aleben of Syria was the first Christian missionary to go to China. With twenty-four other priests, Bishop Aleben traveled to the capital of China, where they shared the love of Jesus with the people and even with the mighty emperor Taizong. Their message went over so well that it caused the emperor to shift his perspective on Jesus in such a way that he declared Christianity to be the “religion of light” and demanded that churches be built all over China. He even announced that all the people of China should connect their life to the one true light, Jesus. He also made clear that to make this kind of shift they would need to cut themselves off from their old religious gods that once ruled their lives. Amazingly, for more than 200 years this message took off all over China! The people even built a huge statue in honor of Aleben.
Aleben did something with the one life he had been given.
How is your story being written today? The bottom line is that your life reveals your connection to the vine. If the stories of our lives lead back to us, we are not connected to the right vine. But if they lead to Jesus, it’s a pretty good sign we are connected to him.
God, we acknowledge that we have been given one life, and what we do with that life is incredibly important. We ask that you grant us the ability to be honest about the vines in our life that don’t look like you. We acknowledge that you alone have the power to cut those vines from our life. We also acknowledge that you alone can make something beautiful grow in their place. We ask you to help us surround ourselves with people who are closely connected to you. We pray that together we would live a life that produces fruit that demonstrates that you are in our lives.
Small Group Questions
- What are the vines in your life that shape and form your identity?
- What are some areas in your life that have shifted toward Jesus since CHIC?
- What are some vines in your life that don’t look like Jesus…that need to be cut off?
- Why is it important that we verbalize the areas in our life that don’t look like Jesus with someone else?
- Read Galatians 5:22-23. One way to see how connected you are to the vine is to compare your life to the fruit of the Spirit. Take some time to discuss how you can live these out.
Children's Ministry Lesson by Heidi Morrow
The story of Saul’s conversion on the road to Damascus.
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”
2 Corinthians 5:17
“If anyone is in Christ the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!”
“[Jesus] said, ‘I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’”
God loves us and has extended that love to us through his Son Jesus. When we accept Jesus as Lord and Savior we become changed people, filled with God’s Holy Spirit and extending God’s love to others. In Acts 9, both Saul and Ananias needed faith to do what God asked of them. Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection changed both men. Only Christ has the power to change lives in that way. Every day we have the opportunity to live as changed people living into God’s will and extending God’s love to others.
2 Corinthians 5:17
“If anyone is in Christ the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!”
- Saul was a zealous Pharisee (strict Jewish religious leader) who persecuted followers of Jesus. After his conversion, he went on to write 13 of the letters of the New Testament and become the church’s greatest apostle. As Saul traveled throughout the Gentile (non-Jewish) world, he began to be called by his Roman name, Paul, which is how we know him today.
- Persecution is causing other people to suffer because of what they believe.
- Transformation/conversion means to change in character or condition.
- This story is found in the Book of Acts, which is short for “Acts of the Apostles.” Acts is a history of the early Christian church and is the only history book in the New Testament.
Set up tables or stations with various props or activities for children to engage in once they enter the room. (See Entering Activities below for specific supply list.)
Designate a place where the Shift theme is displayed and the weekly topic posted. Place a candle near where the lesson will take place.
God asks us to do his good work. But first we have to know God. It’s not enough to just know about God, or to go to church, or to read our Bibles. We have to shift the way we relate to God. We have to receive Jesus into our hearts, and then the church body can teach us how to be good disciples. Sometimes the shift (or transformation) can be sudden and dramatic like it was for Saul. Sometimes it is a slow, growing awareness of the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
The goal is to help children understand:
- God can change and transform lives
- Anyone can be called to do God’s work
- God can even change enemies into friends
- Without God, we are going the wrong way
- God wants us to recognize our need for Jesus’s love and forgiveness in our lives
At the end of the class, children will be able to:
- Talk about Saul’s persecution of Christians and his conversion on the road to Damascus
- Identify the contrast in Saul before and after his experience on the road
- Talk about the role that Ananias played in Saul’s conversion
- Talk about the ways in which God tries to get our attention
- Reflect on conversion and God’s call
Map showing Tarsus, Jerusalem, and Damascus
Goop—Goop, better known as Oobleck (named for a slime in Dr. Seuss’s book Bartholomew and the Oobleck), is a fun material to play with. It changes its properties in reaction to external stimuli. At one moment it’s a solid, and at the next it’s a liquid.
- 16 oz. container of cornstarch
- Up to 1 cup of water
- Liquid watercolors or food coloring (optional)
- An under-the-bed plastic storage container works great for mixing and keeping the mess contained while children play.
- Spoons, small bowls, and other items for scooping and filling
To make Goop, pour the water into the container, and add cornstarch. Stir the mixture together until it is gooey. As children play, you can talk about how the goop transforms and changes.
Hard-Boiled Eggs—Have hard-boiled eggs on hand for children to decorate with markers. As children decorate the eggs, you can talk about the many forms or transformations that eggs can take, from raw, to scrambled, to hard-boiled, etc.
Kinetic Sand—Kinetic Sand sticks to itself and not to kids, so it can be easily cleaned up and stored. It oozes, moves, and melts right before your eyes. It flows through fingers just like real sand and leaves them completely dry, but when pressed together, it sticks to itself and keeps its shape. You can purchase Kinetic Sand at craft or toy stores, and you can also find recipes to make your own online. Again, this is an opportunity to talk about how things can shift and change!
We are journeying together through this series called Shift where we are able to see how God can call and move us to become more like him in how we love him and serve others. As we continue to draw closer to God, we see that we need to continually make changes, or shifts, in our lives in order to be faithful to what it means to follow God.
Today we are going to look at what happens when these shifts or changes begin to be displayed in our lives. We will see what happens when we begin to shift our relationship with God so that we are living by God’s will and not our own.
Light a candle. Begin by reminding children that this is a place of worship and that everything we do here is an act of worship. Remind them that the way they listen, answer questions, sing, and pray are all ways in which we can give glory to God.
Share with kids that this flame is a reminder that God is with us. Invite them to repeat this small litany:
Leader: The flame is a symbol of God’s presence found in the Holy Spirit.
Kids: God is with us.
Leader: God loves you and is watching over you right now.
Kids: God is with us.
Leader: God is with us and loves us! Isn’t that great news? Let us continue to center our hearts toward God as we begin our time in prayer.
Ask God to open our hearts and ears to what he wants us to learn about shifting our relationship with him.
Depending on time or your practice, encourage children to share their prayer requests or to pray for one another. If children share prayer requests, it is good to write them down and share them with a prayer team so they can pray for these requests throughout the week.
Depending on the size of your group, break into small groups and ask leaders to pray for and bless each child. Keeping a prayer journal and regularly reviewing the requests are great ways to continue to teach children that God cares about their needs and answers prayers.
Prayer example (younger children): “Thank you, God, for your power to transform people and things in our world. Amen.”
Prayer example (older children): “Dear God, when our lives lead us away from you, please turn us around. Help us to stop our sinning and to follow your way. Amen.”
This object lesson is a great lead-in to the Bible story and will help students better connect with the Bible characters and needs.
Seeing in the Dark
Ask children how they feel when it is dark. Many of them might be afraid of the dark. Some may have nightlights in their bedrooms or glow-in-the-dark stars on their ceilings. Talk about why they are scared when it’s dark. They will probably say that it’s hard to see things. If your classroom is dark enough and you think the children won’t be afraid, turn off the lights. Then light a candle and hold it up. Show them that the candle helps you see where you are going. Turn the lights back on, and tell the students that the world is sort of like being in the dark. Sometimes it’s hard to see the right way to go. When you try to walk in the dark, you bump into things. The same thing is true if you try to walk without Jesus. Read John 8:12. Explain that Jesus shows people the right way to go. Jesus is the light that we should follow.
Tell children you are now going to tell them the story of one man in the Bible, Saul from Tarsus, who didn’t like Jesus or the people who followed Jesus. He had them arrested, put in jail, and sometimes even killed. Jesus met Saul on the road to Damascus and changed his life forever.
Based on your ministry patterns and age groups, you may choose to use other options to present this story, such as puppets, costumes, or dramas.
Explain that as we read the Bible, we do so first to spend time with God. Invite children to stretch out their hands palms up to receive the word as you or another child prays: “Lord God, please help us to hear what you want us to hear, and see what you want us to see and remember what you want us to remember as we read your word.”
- Invite the children to read through the passage taking turns to read one verse at a time. Children may pass if they don’t wish to read.
- Encourage the children to use art or craft supplies to create as they listen to the story two or three more times.
- Ask children to reflect on the story: What do they see, feel, hear, smell, or even taste?
Acting out the Story of Saul (Paul)
- Saul opposed those who followed Jesus. He asks the high priest for special letters that would allow him to imprison anyone in Damascus who followed Jesus (vv. 1-2).
- On his way to arrest more believers, Saul meets Christ in the form of a blinding light. For three days he is blind (vv. 3-9).
- In Damascus, God calls a believer named to go visit Saul. Ananias is afraid to go, but God assures him that he must do this because God has chosen Saul to do important work (vv. 10-16).
- Ananias places his hands on Saul. Saul is suddenly able to see again and he is baptized. (vv. 17-19).
Take time to talk about Saul. Let the children think about each question.
- What was Saul like before he met Jesus? What was he like afterward?
- How did God get Saul’s attention?
- How has God gotten your attention before?
- God used Ananias to help Saul change. Do you think God might use you to help someone else change? How? Has God ever used someone to help you change?
- Ananias was afraid to visit Saul. How should we treat other believers, even when we are afraid or doubt their motives?
- How do you show others that you believe in God and have Jesus in your heart?
- What do you think about God using someone like Saul to accomplish his purposes?
- Saul was filled with the Holy Spirit and was changed forever. What can the Holy Spirit help you change in your life?
“Amazing Grace” (Veggie Tales version for younger children)
“This Little Light of Mine”
“Amigos de Cristo / Friends of the Lord”
G=God’s Word: Encourage children to share the creations they made earlier while listening to the story. Encourage them to share what struck them most about the story. Ask if they have any questions for God about the story. If you created space on a bulletin board or on a wall, hang these pictures for the rest of the church to experience.
R=Relationships: Have kids form a circle, pass a string yarn ball to one another while instructing each child to keep holding onto the string so that it makes a tangled web around each other. As they toss to each other, ask children what relationships they see in these stories. What do these relationships teach us about how we are to love God and others?
O=Outward Action: Is there anything in the Bible story that shows us how we should help or serve God or others? Ananias served God by visiting Saul, even though he was scared to do so. Share the name of one person you might be able to serve this week.
W=Worship: We see the power of God at display in this story. What words come to your mind as you reflect on how God is revealed in these passages? Let’s take some time to respond by finishing this statement, “God, you are…”
Invite the class to act out ways we try to get someone’s attention.
Ask: How did Jesus get Saul’s attention? How does God get your attention?
Have a child stand before the group so the group can take a good look at them.
Then have the child slip out of the way and change one thing to their appearance.
See if the class can guess what is changed. Do this with the other children.
Explain: We have been talking today about how Saul changed. But the change had more to do with his heart than his appearance.
Ask: How was Saul’s heart changed? How was Saul different?
Ask: How does God change us? When do we feel closest to God? Who helps us know Jesus?
Explain: Every day we have the opportunity to live as changed people living into God’s will and extending God’s love to others.
Ask for volunteers to act out ways they show their love for God and their love for others.
Gather children around the candle again. Remind them that the candle illustrates that God is with us. As we leave this building, God leaves with each of us too. God is calling and sending us out into our schools, neighborhoods, and homes to be the light to this world. God doesn’t leave us empty-handed; he leaves us with his Holy Spirit to guide and direct our lives. Encourage kids to hold hands up, palms up, to receive this final prayer and benediction.
“Dear God, as we leave here today, help us to listen to the Holy Spirit and recognize anything in our life that we might need to change. Help us to see you with new eyes and to serve you. Be with us and guide us. Help us to be a light to others. Amen.”
Close with blowing out the candle.
The Adventure Bible for Young Readers by Zonderkidz
Rotation.org for great lessons and ideas for Christian educators