Sermon for 5th Sunday of Easter. 2nd May 2021.
Readings: Acts 8: 26-end; John 15: 1-8.
Last week we heard Jesus describing himself as ‘The Good Shepherd’, and today he says ‘I am the true vine’. In St. John’s Gospel we find a series of these ‘I am…’ statements by our Lord. ‘I am the bread of life’; ‘I am the light of the world’; ‘I am the gate for the sheep’; ‘I am the good shepherd’; ‘I am the true vine’ and ‘I am the resurrection and the life.’
You might recall that when God appears to Moses in the incident of the burning bush, in Exodus, he says ‘I am who I am.’ When Moses questions him further, God says ”Tell the Israelites – I am has sent me to you.” That’s to be his name – I am. You’ve heard the Hebrew name for God ‘Yahweh’ meaning ‘I am’ which someone has expanded into this definition: ‘The self-existent One; I am. He was. He always has been and always will be. He is the self-existent One with no beginning and no end.” After the Babylonian exile the Jews didn’t use the word ‘Yahweh’ so much. Nevertheless, whenever Jesus says ‘I am’ he is saying something startling about himself. Later in John’s gospel, when Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the soldiers say they are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, he replies ‘I am he’; and the soldiers step back and fall to the ground. They were shocked at hearing those words and of Jesus using the exalted descriptive words about God for himself. Alright, you can get caught up in arguments about whether we’re talking about Hebrew or Aramaic, or Latin, as some versions of the bible were translated into, and how all this is best translated into English.
But we’re meant to understand that in all these titles Jesus gives himself – ‘I am the good shepherd’; ‘the true vine’ - and so on, we should marvel at the ‘I am’ bit as much as the description that follows.
But the image of the vine is an attractive one for us. Of course in the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, vines were everywhere, as they were suited to growing in the warm climate. There are many references to vines and vineyards in the bible. One Jesus probably had in mind was the account in Isaiah chapter 5, where the writer describes God as a landowner planting a choice vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, planted choice vines and expected it to yield a great harvest. Instead, it yielded wild grapes. So he intended to cut it down. The vineyard turns out to be Israel itself, and the people are his pleasant planting. The Lord expected justice, but saw bloodshed; he expected righteousness, but heard a cry!
So in these images of the vine there is an expectation that they will produce really good fruit, having been given all the conditions to do so. Jesus takes the image a stage further: he says ‘I am the vine and you are the branches.’ Then comes some straight talking: Every branch that bears fruit the vine-grower prunes to make it bear more fruit – as you do. So we are expected to bear good fruit in our lives; because the useless branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. God is the only true source of life. As one commentator puts it, “The fruitless branch is summarily severed.” It sounds very harsh. But we should remember that if you pick wild flowers, they die: that is just a fact of life. Similarly, if you take people away from God, they die.
The remedy against this fruitless life is to ‘abide’ in Jesus. Seven times in eight verses today in the gospel reading we have this word ‘abide’, the key verse seeming to be verse 5 in chapter 15: “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” We don’t use the word ‘abide’ very much now: we maybe use ‘abode’ more. A former parishioner in Kent always wrote at the top of letters to me ‘From the usual abode.’ There is something ‘homely’ about that word ‘abode’: the place where we abide. In the previous chapter to today’s passage Jesus says to the disciples “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” What sort of a home have you and I made with God?
Going back to the vine for a moment, we can’t escape this image of the pruning. More is not necessarily better; the vine must be reduced to its core for it to flourish. Lockdown has forced many people to look at their lives, and to re-think what they were doing, rushing around acquiring activities, consumables, acquaintances; spreading themselves too thinly, so that nothing much produced was of value. Maybe this last year has encouraged people to be more content within their core; learning patience again; using lack of activity and stillness fruitfully.
The reading from Acts today tells the heartening story of Philip and the Ethiopian. This is Philip – one of the seven deacons appointed by the early Church, not the apostle. Now Philip was a person who had allowed the Lord to abide in him, and the Ethiopian was on the way to doing so. Because of Philip’s sensitivity to the leading of the Holy Spirit within him, he encounters this Ethiopian minister just at the moment when he is ready to respond to the gospel. And because Jesus’ words abide in him, he is ready to answer the Ethiopian’s question, with a testimony about Jesus. The result is that Philip bears fruit, and the official takes a big step of commitment – baptism. So there is fruitfulness. If God does prune the branches of the vine, he does it, it seems, because he needs fruitful branches. How often do we stop to think how much God needs us? I expect not very often. Jane Williams asks, “An Ethiopian eunuch, miles from home, reading the bible. When did you last expect to find someone like that waiting for you? Most of us wouldn’t know such an opportunity if it passed us by…and so we miss the chance that Philip seized to work with God.”
But just as God abides with us, he desires that we, his Church, abide with the world, and especially with those who have no-one to be with them: the friendless, the forlorn, the forgotten; or those who would like to understand what it is that brings you and me to Church; or those starved of the affection and affirmation we all need in our lives to be at all fruitful. This abiding with the world as well as in the world is something we can all take our part in; we all have something to offer others.
Lord, help me to become more grafted into you; help me bear much fruit and become a disciple; to grow in service and serenity, with a tongue to tell of your love, and a life to express it. Amen.
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