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Chicken or Egg?

What came first? The chicken or the egg? That’s an old chestnut of a question which always fascinates us. It continues to be asked in a very sophisticated way by scientists in the fields of astrophysics and evolution but is also asked by young children as they explore the exciting world into which they have been born; as their enquiring minds ask: why?
The reason why the chicken and egg question is so hard to answer is that in our experience everything grows or develops from something else. The young embryonic chicken grows inside the egg until it is strong enough to break the shell and burst into the world. The egg was of course laid by the hen which less than a year before was chipping open the shell of the egg in which she herself had been incubated. New life in the natural world does not suddenly appear from nowhere, it does not just happen. There is always a procreator somewhere. The flowers and vegetables in our gardens, the birds and bees, the fish in the sea all reproduce themselves and of course human life itself is generated by the previous generation. This is reflected in the opening chapter of the bible: ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.’ (Genesis 1.11) ‘Be fruitful and multiply…’ (Genesis 1.22) God commands and so we can recognise the natural growth and fruitfulness we see around us as being the way God has ordered and blessed the world.
Jesus talks much in his teachings about the natural world. As the eternal ‘word’, he was in the beginning with God creating the world with all its wonderful mechanisms for reproduction and renewal, it might be expected that he would talk about it. Jesus lived in a time and place and amongst people for whom the fertility of the earth was vital for their wellbeing; fishermen and farmers. So, Jesus tells stories about a farmer who sets out to sow his seed, about wheat and tares or weeds and a net dragged through the water to catch fish. But Jesus’ purpose in telling these stories is not to make them better farmers or fishermen. He’s not speaking on behalf of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. He is using the natural world as an image, a picture, a metaphor of what is going on in our hearts. They are about the Kingdom of God, which we cannot see or measure, the seed growing secretly, but has an immense impact on our lives and eternal wellbeing.
Today’s gospel reading is from John. (John 15.1-8) In this gospel, Jesus does not mention the kingdom by name, but the principles are the same and he often uses examples from the world of nature to help us reflect on where our hearts are at, the kind of relationship that we have with God. Last week, we thought of the Good Shepherd and the sheep with Wayne anxious that we should not regard the church laity as animals! In this mornings passage, Jesus takes the vine as our teaching aid.
I don’t know whether any of you have experience of growing vines. I guess you are more likely to have sampled the fruit of the vine, especially in fermented form. They are formidable plants which put down a strong long root system which can suck up water from great distances. One of the largest and oldest is at Hampton Court Palace in London. Planted in 1768 by the great landscape gardener Capability Brown, today the circumference of it’s base measures over thirteen feet and the longest rod or stem is one hundred and twenty feet. It produces the finest black grapes year on year. It is said that even in the driest seasons, it remains fresh and verdant because it’s root run reaches the nearby river Thames.
Jesus uses the vine to make the point that its branches cannot bear fruit by themselves. Following the rules of nature, that we have already discussed; the lovely plump juicy clusters of grapes will not just appear from nowhere. They will only be born on branches which are securely attached to vine, which are indeed part of the vine itself. Their growth and productivity is wholly dependant upon them remaining on the vine.
Jesus would have watched the vine dresser at work. The main pruning of vines is done in the winter when the plant is dormant, but once the flowers have set in the late spring, it will be sending out many side shoots which if allowed to remain will draw the sap and goodness away from the fruit producing stems. These must be pruned out at regular intervals during the growing season. When Jesus saw these branches full of fresh green life cut from the vine, he would have seen how quickly they wilted and shrivelled in the warm Mediterranean sun. Once severed from the source of their growth, they were useless and good only for burning.
Pointing to this Jesus presents us with a powerful message: he is the true vine and his Father is the gardener. (John 15.1) Only those who remain in him will be fruitful in their lives. Others will wither like offcuts in the heat of the day. Jesus urges us to remain. This has nothing to do with Brexit! Eight times Jesus uses the word in this passage; to remain in the vine, to remain in him. The Greek word is ‘menw’, that is to stay, to abide, to rest, to remain unchanged. It carries a sense of settled permanence. Like anything else in nature, if we want to grow, to be fruitful, to leave a legacy for others, then we must derive our that life from something else. If we are believing Christian people, then that ‘something else’ is nothing less than the Lord Jesus himself. We are commanded as an intentional action to remain in him; permanently part of him.
This passage appears in the Easter season because it is dependant upon Jesus being risen from the dead. It is no good grafting a living branch or stem onto a dead root stock. Jesus invites us to be grafted as branches into him so that the life-giving sap of his Spirit, his resurrection life, can flow through us. That will not work if he is dead! The experience of millions of Christian people is that he is very much alive because, through being his branches, they have been enabled to bear much fruit. I trust that is your experience too.
The consequence of not remaining in the vine that is Christ are sobering. There are plenty of influences in the world today from which people attempt to draw sap. Many of them are not wholesome and helpful and we see their rotten fruit only too readily. To take just one example from the news this week, the treatment the ‘Windrush Generation’ have received from the officials of the Home Office. A culture had been allowed to develop of meeting targets, of picking easy fruit on low hanging branches which led to grave misjustices. It is easy for people not remaining in the true vine that is Christ to thrive for a time on the bitter sap of hatred and discrimination. Let that be a warning. Test yourself today. Are you firmly rooted in Jesus and living and fruiting on his good sap of the Holy Spirit?
Our bishop and his team in the diocese are keen that we grow our churches both numerically and spiritually. Indeed, an ambitious target of ten percent has been set for the next year. But growth does not happen in a vacuum. We can only grow out of something else. Can I urge you to be ‘remainers’ in Christ, developing and growing your relationship with him in prayer and worship, in the reading of his word and the sacrament, ever open to where he is leading you so that we may bear fruit that will last. (John 15.16)
Were you expecting an answer to which came first; the chicken or the egg? Sorry! The answer can only lie with the God we affirm by faith, in the God who is Jesus, the true vine. May be the closer we remain in him, the nearer we will be to the answer?
Easter 5 29.04.2018

Rev'd Jonathan Smith

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