John 15.1-8, Acts 8.26-40
They are familiar words and images to many aren’t they, the vine, the vine grower and the pruning to bear more fruit.
I expect your thinking ‘here we go again, we’ll be listening to him spouting on like an episode of Gardener’s World’.
It is difficult to talk of these words and not feel a real affinity with the life that surges through plants, I’m sure Jesus intended that, but I promise to avoid an excess of agriculture.
What Jesus was aiming to do was to draw upon this familiar imagery and enable the listeners to feel and understand holistically what he was explaining.
The life giving sap runs into the branches as the spirit runs from Jesus to us.
When the prophet Isaiah spoke of the vine as an image of Israel he said that it produced wild grapes and needed re-establishing. So when Jesus says ‘I am the true vine’ it’s clear that he is the way to God and his followers are now God’s people.
As God’s people, abiding in him, grafted to him and dependent upon his grace for our very existence we are then able to bear fruit. Some will judge our dependence as weakness yet we know it to be life giving.
There will be a wide range of ideas what this ‘fruit’ might look like and how we would recognise this in each other but it will include acts of kindness, generosity, self-sacrifice and service.
This year I resolved to use the lockdown period that coincided with lent in a positive way and engage in course with people I don’t know from a different region, as after all it wasn’t as if I would be travelling to any meetings in person so I may as well have discussions with some different talking heads on screens! I thought I’d found any interesting course in the USA but then worked out that the sessions would start at one o’clock in the morning. I therefore decided upon a course run by Leeds diocese.
One of the most distinctive impressions from this was to hear an elderly and unassuming chap, when pushed for a contribution about his faith share how he was going for long walks over the Yorkshire moors with ex-offenders. He found that given time and space to talk without judgment that most were looking for something better than they had found thus far, more meaning, more belonging, and he was prepared to help.
The spirit had found the Ethiopian man before we heard that Philip found him. It’s one of the earliest times we learn of someone outside the Hebrew community being baptised into the Christian faith.
The man was clearly seeking out God and had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to pursue this, but as a eunuch, Hebrew law, set out in the book of Deuteronomy, forbade his participation in temple worship.
As a court official of the Queen’s Treasury the man has the means to travel and possess a scroll of Isaiah as well as being educated enough to read and ponder its meaning. Despite this he sits outside the accepted norms of the time by appearance, background and sexuality.
Perhaps in the lamb led to the slaughter, humiliated and denied justice the man recognises enough of himself to seek out the true meaning of these words and in his yearning finds the humility to accept help.
Philip meets the man where he is and brings the words to life as he tells him this is the story of Jesus.
An American theologian, Willie James Jennings says of this story: “Faith found the water. Faith will always find the water.”
People looking for God are wanted by God and sometimes we could be privileged to be used as the facilitator, directing people to the open door they need push only very gently.
Tentatively push that door and it will open to a warm welcome, come on in.
Where we are able to help others deepen their relationship with God we should follow Philip’s example, even if “Do you understand what you are reading” is a question for the right place and time.
It’s a reminder that we can’t sit back and wait for people to find God alongside us in our place of worship but have to help others find him wherever our lives take us.
If Philip were to ask us “Do you understand what you are reading?” our answer is likely to range from ‘I haven’t got a clue to…I could always do with some help. Of course we have a few more resources now. If Tesla had made chariots they would probably have large touch screens and we could just do a search on Isaiah but it still wouldn’t come near to a first hand experience with one of Jesus’ disciples!
Do these words seem familiar to you?
Whoever you are, you'll find a warm welcome at our services and activities. We believe that everyone is loved by God and is part of his family. Whatever your background, age, ability, disability, gender or sexuality, whatever your level of faith or doubt, whatever the story of your life, we'll be glad to see you.
We’ll also be glad to find you, glad to help you in whatever setting we find ourselves.
They are on the website for this, our church. It’s affirming to think that we aspire to live the same spirit led openness Philip demonstrated not only because we know that this is right and is Jesus’ teaching but also because in doing so there is the potential for our own faith to be enriched.
In his actions Philip showed that he understood how the true vine has changed everything. This is a reflection of who Jesus is and that his invitation is for all. Jewish rules which previously could exclude people ,had become and remain unacceptable to followers of Christ. His eyes were opened to what this looked like in reality.
Thanks to the wonders of technology I was able to watch a live stream of Colin Brown’s funeral this week. A school teacher, lecturer at Spurgeons Theological College after retiring from school and 12 years director of Reader training in Rochester Diocese I was privileged to benefit from his significant wisdom, alongside many others.
He had the ability to encourage and criticise in a way that was hard hitting. You would take the, sometimes quite blunt criticism, because you knew he was on your side, trying to help you be the best you could become.
His written feedback to me included ‘I suggest that you rethink the final two paragraphs, it seems that in comparison to the rest of the sermon they are fairly mundane’. Cheers Colin, it’s never good to end with the mundane!
His daughter made clear the fact that he knew life was a muddle, often a compromise with unresolved grey areas. He didn’t think that he could put everything right but he could point people in the right direction and equip them to help others do so.
I looked back on my notes from Colin and found this ‘ the life of a minister of the Word can only be lived in temptation and chaos. (That’s a relief to hear). Simple, slick answers indicate an escape from the complications of life.’
Words that have rung true over the 20 or so years since I first read them and which are true for all of us on our Christian journey in the sense that we know we are not offered slick solutions but a relationship with the living God.
After his baptism was life a bed of roses for the Ethiopian man?
More than even before the various lockdowns we need to reconsider what service, faith and love look like, not always seeking neat definitions that reassure and comfort us.
If we will only be happy when pews are filled, previous ways sustained and the coffers overflow then I suspect that we are headed for disappointment.
If a core of people find God’s love, space for worship, learning, contemplation and reenergising in this church, If we take this out into the world and make it real for others, then we will truly be people who have borne fruit.
2nd May 2021