Sketch by Patrick Murphy
With the Fourth of July just past, we have ringing in our ears and independence on our minds. National memory makes independence a chief value for Americans. Our sense of freedom is rooted in each person’s right to live as they see fit.
The classic “American Dream” is to achieve personal and financial success through one’s own hard work. We prize automobiles because we can go where we want, when we want. We have culturally enshrined the free-thinker and the conscientious objector. In America, the individual is king.
We Are “In”
Peppered throughout the New Testament is a phrase: “in Christ.” Christians are said to be “in Christ.” What a curious, abstract saying. What does it mean?
When contemplating “in Christ” the mind naturally turns to containers and enclosures. As I write this, I am *in* my house. Perhaps you recently found a cookie *in* a cookie jar. As intuitive as these examples are, they don’t begin to approach what the Bible means by “in.”
John chapter 15 contains what might be Jesus’s definitive teaching about “in.” Verse five pretty much sums it up: “I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in Me and I in him produces much fruit, because you can do nothing without Me” (John 15:5, HCSB). Being in Christ is not occupying a space with which I have no connection. It isn’t self-storage. I am in Christ the way a branch is in a tree. To be in Christ is to exist in organic, circulatory connection to the divine.
Jesus says a branch can’t live, bloom, produce fruit, or hold fruit when separated from the vine. The branch is completely dependent on its interconnectedness with the vine. The message to us? Unless we live interconnectedly with Jesus, the Vine, we have no source. We can only live, flourish, and be productive as we are in Christ. Said another way, we are “in”-dependent.
This seeming abstraction has far-reaching implications. Unlike other Americans, Christians cannot live however they see fit. Being “in”-dependent is far different from being independent. A Christian’s interconnectedness with Jesus proscribes how he or she thinks, believes, and lives.
How do Christians live “in”-dependently? How do they experience interconnectedness with Jesus? One way is addressed by the other half of Jesus’s statement in John 15–He remains in us as we remain in Him. Jesus Himself dwells in the Christian. Just as nourishing, life-giving sap flows from the tree into the branch, so Jesus’s Spirit flows into the Christian. His Spirit influences the values, temperament, and decisions of the Christian.
Another means by which the Vine communicates Himself to the branches is through scripture. The Bible is a record of how humans have been influenced by the Spirit of Jesus throughout history. Christians believe Jesus is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). How do my experiences with God compare to those who lived in different times, places, and cultures? Parts of my experience may resonate deeply with scripture. Or scripture may challenge my worldview and lifestyle. Whether it confirms or contradicts my life journey, the Bible helps me learn the boundaries of “in”-dependence.
Discussing scripture anticipates a third aspect of living “in”-dependently: I am not the only branch. I live interconnectedly with other branches as well as the Vine. Together we form a spiritual organism. I can’t live independently of that organism. Muscles acting in concert allow us to perform stunning athletic feats. When muscles function independently, without respect to coordination, it results in spasms, seizures, or other health issues.
I am not my own. I am part of Jesus and all those in Him. Who I am and what I do affects and is affected by that spiritual organism. The boundaries and support provided in this “physiology” enable me to live for more than myself.
Constituents of Christ
Christians appreciate and celebrate American independence. At the same time, we are constituents of Christ–a better, spiritual country (Heb. 11:16). In Him we celebrate our “in”-dependence, a freedom beyond self-government.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Record religion column July 18-19 2015