Jesus is the vine John 15:1-8
As some of you may be aware my calling to the priesthood was not one that I particularly relished. My mother was a Methodist local preacher (a bit like an Anglican reader) when I was growing up, and had been ordained as a minister when I was at university. And whilst at times enjoyable I had spent most Sundays being taken around different churches playing my recorder and helping out in dramas and with readings. As a minister she was nigh on impossible to get hold of, appearing to work all hours God gave her, and obviously never available at Christmas or Easter to see the grandchildren. It certainly wouldn’t have been the life that I would choose for my children. Going to churches that didn’t accept female leadership I thought I was pretty safe that it wouldn’t be the case. However, it wasn’t long after finally giving in to the niggling feeling that I really should be attending the local Anglican church, which to be fair I had been resisting for about 7 years, that I knew that God was calling me to the priesthood. That was about 7 years ago. It’s taken a very long time for God to get me to the place where he wanted me to be.
The bible however is full of stories of people who say yes to God and get some immediate results. We heard two in our readings this morning. Abraham ready to sacrifice his only son Isaac, the son who had been promised to him by God many years before. But Abraham, living in a culture where child sacrifice could be considered a social norm, was happy to give his son up for the God who called him. And God not only immediately saves Isaac by providing a sacrificial lamb, but he promises to bless Abraham and his family making them numerous and a blessed nation in the future.
And then in our new testament lesson from Acts God tells Philip to travel from Jerusalem to Gaza, a road that is noted as a wilderness road, so it ensures that we know that this will not be an easy journey. But Philip gets up and goes. He meets an Ethiopian Eunuch and on God’s prompting goes to speak to him and helps him to understand the scriptures. By the end of the journey the eunuch has come to faith and is ready to be baptised.
Two great faith stories with immediate and long lasting results. There are stories of the disciples preaching and thousands being added to their number. Stories of Paul and his companions travelling the world bringing the message of Christ with him. Inspiring stories of faith, that if God is for you, who can be against you.
But then we look at the Church in the UK today. News headlines telling us of Church decline. Census and survey results telling us that less and less people identify as Christians. The media blast out how the church is no longer relevant today. How church members should not get themselves mixed up in politics and the two should remain as separate entities.
And it isn’t even just messages from outside the church either. Messages from the bishops the churches are shrinking too fast and we must aim to achieve a 10% growth in numbers by the end of the year, can seem like an impossible demoralising task.
We can look out at our own church congregations and see all the failings, the people who have moved away, an aging congregation, people who are doing so many things and are so busy that they can’t do anymore, services specially put on for children and then none come along, effort put into fundraising events and then the weather is terrible and numbers are low, the niggles about the services that we don’t like – the music too old, too new, too quiet, too loud, the sermons too long, too short…
So much to do and so little time to do it… and now the church is telling us we need to be doing more, we need to grow our numbers, and how are we going to do that?
Well Jesus gives us a very simple answer in our gospel reading today. He says “I am the vine, my father is the gardener. Abide in me as I abide in you… I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit”.
He doesn’t say you are the vine, you are the gardener and you are the branches. He doesn’t say you had better get to work straight away sorting yourselves out, digging the ground, adding fertilizer, doing the pruning, sorting out the harvest. That has to be the quickest way to a burnt out and depressed church. God the father is the gardener, not us.
Jesus just gives us a very simple command. Abide in me as I abide in you.
Well it seems simple, it’s only 3 words “Abide in me” but what does it really mean?
Does Jesus mean go to church on a Sunday and if possible give up at least a couple of hours a week to volunteer in some of the churches activities?
Not really. At least, not necessarily. It’s quite possible to attend church and not abide in Christ. I was talking with a colleague the other day who was saying they had had their ego boosted by a member of their congregation saying how much they liked their sermons and found them really helpful. So the vicar feeling that their ego could do with a little more massaging asked what their parishioner found particularly helpful. Only to get the reply back “Oh well I find that they give me a useful 20minutes to snooze”…It’s quite possible to come to church and not abide in Christ!
However, Jesus does go on to explain a bit more about what he means.
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you….
To abide in Christ means that we must spend time focusing on Him and His words. In practical terms, it means we spend time reading, studying, and praying through the words of the Bible. When God’s word abides in us, we are abiding in Christ. If we have knowledge of scripture then we will have knowledge of God’s will and so in our prayer life and petitions we will be praying in God’s will and therefore whatever we ask will be done for us. The image of the vine and the branches is one of a partnership with God the gardener, through our connection to Christ. This is not just about prayer and bible study once a week on a Sunday but communication throughout the week. Indeed within the letter to the Thessalonians we are told to rejoice always, to pray without ceasing.
It can be all too easy to focus on the things that we perceive to be wrong or failings in the church than to focus on Christ. I was at Pennant Melangell on Wednesday where we were given a tour of the shrine church. The vicar got to the back of the church and asked us to look at one of the old memorial plaques on the wall. She explained how when she had first come to the church the first thing about the plaque that had struck her was the large crack right across one of the corners, thinking wouldn’t it be nice if it hadn’t been damaged and she thought little more about it.
Well a while later she was in the church when an elderly man and his children and grandchildren came into the church for a service. The elderly man sat on his own at the back of the church with his head in his hands. And the vicar made a note to go and talk to him at the end of the service. Well by the time she got to speak to him his demeanour had completely changed. “Look, look at the plaque he said” “Yes….” “No, no look at it, look at the date on it”, “Oh yes, 9th of April, todays date”. “No, no, it’s more than that. My mother died on the 9th of April.” It turned out that his mother had died at a fairly young age, but he had realised that the person that the plaque was dedicated to had died even younger, but had done so much good in their life that they had their memorial on the church wall. Through looking past the brokenness of the exterior of the plaque and seeing what it was really saying, he had come to an acceptance for the first time about his mother’s untimely death.
In our current culture we can be very quick to throw things away as soon as they appear broken. In Japan however there is a long tradition of mending pottery. Not to try and make the break and join disappear, but by infilling the cracks with gold. Everything is bound to break at some point, it is how we fix it and move on that is important. If we are abiding in Christ, studying and praying the bible, then what is wrong and failing in our churches will be fixed with shining gold, healed by the presence of Christ.
The passage tells us that God the father is the gardener, pruning the vine and taking care of it. We should not be looking to the pruned clippings that have fallen to the floor as signs of failure, but as a sign that God is tending his church, ensuring that it will remain fruitful. Not looking at the cuttings that have been taken to plant or strengthen new churches as people have moved away. We need to be looking at the fruit that is already flourishing through our connection with Christ.
Because there is much fruit, and I apologise if I miss some out, as there is a very long list…
Warm smiling people welcoming people at the doors
Dedicated clergy, readers, worship leaders, pastoral assistants, vergers, wardens, flower arrangers, tea makers, cleaners, treasurers, fundraisers, altar guild and mothers union…
Choirs, organists, Josh on his guitar, Rhi leading kids action songs and getting us excited about worshipping.
A thriving church hall.
People willing to meet every couple of weeks in an evening to study the bible in greater depth and share fellowship together.
People willing to meet on a Wednesday and share lunch and pray for the churches.
People willing to meet on a Monday and pray for Caia Park.
Full to overflowing Carol services, and crib services and Christingle services and Easter services and 14 children from the Morris Dancing club turning up on Easter morning.
Sunday club, Kids clubs, Mission Area youth group, Youth games evening, Tin can growing from an after school drop in to having an evening youth group with a God slot, craft services.
Open the Book. School assemblies, schools coming into church.
Many baptisms in both St Margaret’s and St Mark’s, with an increasing number where the families stay in the church to worship afterwards, or families coming to baptism after attending Sunday Club or kids club. Young people and adults who want to confirm that they have grown in faith since their baptisms.
Lunch club, Prison Fellowship, feeding the roofless, holiday hunger, food bank, pop up night shelters.
People listening to God’s prompting and loving and caring for others. I think of one particular day when I was hurrying back from dropping the boys to school so I could get to St Margaret’s in time to unlock ready for Open the Book practice. As I was walking along I could see an elderly lady stood opposite the car sales, looking a little out of sorts. I wasn’t quite sure if maybe she was suffering with dementia and had got lost, so I stopped to say hello and ask if she was ok. She assured me that she was, so I continued across the road to church. When I became aware that she was following me. On arriving at the church she asked if she could come and look around. So of course I said yes. The rest of the Open the Book team arrived, and the lady came out of church looking fairly distressed. We asked what was wrong and I offered to pray for her, when she poured out how her son had just died. Now that very morning, Alys, had just returned to Open the Book after the death of her son. She took the lady back into church to chat and cry together. God’s timing, people listening to his voice and acting upon it, being at the right place in the right time, however small each action appeared, a lady came out the other end having met with Jesus.
And whilst we should not be complacent, it is good and it is right to celebrate these fruit and find joy in what we do, Jesus tells us in our reading today I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.
We need to continually remember to look past the pruning and see Christ the vine. To remain rooted in Christ through prayer and bible study so that we can know, and pray in, his will so that what we ask will be done for us. We need to learn to listen. To hear God’s calling on our lives and respond immediately like Abraham and Philip, rather than dragging our feet because somethings seems too hard. Or sometimes because it seems to be so small that it can’t possibly make a difference. Because as we continue to abide in Christ and study his word, he promises to abide in us, and that fruit will continue to grow in our churches.