Published by Michael Bigg on Thu, 3 May 2018 20:45

The text of Mike's sermon on John 15:1-8 (Sunday 28th April)

There was once a gardener. She was given a new plant for her birthday and the next day eagerly chose a spot for it and put it in the ground. A few weeks later she found that the plant wasn’t doing very well so she dug up the plant and moved it to somewhere that might be better. After another few weeks the plant wasn’t looking very happy so she dug it up and moved it to a new spot. This process continued every few weeks and by the time the summer was over the plant was well and truly dead. Of course, our gardener should probably have left it in the place it first was planted – by constantly moving it the plant never had a chance to put down proper roots.

The word “abide” or “remain” (meno in Greek) is an important one in John’s Gospel. Right at the beginning Jesus is asked: “Where are you abiding?” (1:38). Jesus responds: “Come and see” and the reader is invited to discover that ultimately, Jesus is abiding in the bosom of the Father.

In our passage today Jesus encourages his disciples to be branches that “abide” in his vine. “Abide”, “stay”, “stick around”. There’s great value in putting down strong roots. Strong roots weather a storm. In Jesus’ vine analogy we are encouraged to be branches that are strongly grafted into him.

In a world that’s very connected, it’s very easy to look at how other people or organisations do things and think: “If only I were over there then everything would be better”. The temptation is to pull up our roots, move to an apparently “better” spot and plant ourselves there. Jesus says no. Abide in me. I’m the “true vine”. The place in which you can safely put down your roots.

 

I think that this abiding also applies to our churches. We can get frustrated with our church and think that perhaps we should go somewhere else. We get dissatisfied and think our gifts would be more appreciated elsewhere. We think that maybe a different church would nourish us more. (These feelings apply to all of us – clergy and laity – from time to time).

But I think there’s real value in abiding within a particular church. There’s value in putting down roots in a particular community. Of course there are times when it’s good and appropriate to go to a different church (more on that later), but our default setting should be to “abide”.

 

The other thing about “abiding” is that it sounds dangerously passive to modern ears when we are often expected to be active and busy. I think that a big chunk of Christian faith is just about turning up. About abiding. About being part of Christ’s body come rain or shine, in season and out of season.

One of the great tensions of John’s gospel is the relationship between God’s activity and human activity. There are things for humans to do, and there are things for God to do. In the West we have become accustomed to putting the emphasis on the agency of each individual as primary, but I think Jesus makes God’s agency primary. To abide in the vine, rooted in God, is to make God’s purposes and activity primary rather than to be chasing after our own goals.

I would also like to talk about the uncomfortable imagery of being “pruned”. We actually have a rather feeble vine in our garden and I mentioned to someone last summer that none of the bunches of grapes were growing to full fruit. Aha! I was told. The trick is to remove some of the bunches early on in their formation to allow the vine to concentrate on forming fewer bunches of fruit.

Pruning and training a plant is, of course, an apparently violent thing. However, we must remember that a well-pruned plant is more fruitful. Pruning isn’t about “cutting down to size” or “controlling”, it is about enabling a plant to be abundant. Within our lives there are always things that need to be cut out in order to make our lives more fruitful. Within our churches there are probably things that can be removed to make us more fruitful. Yes, it might be painful and frightening but we can trust that God is a good gardener. He knows what he is doing.

 

This brings in the idea that Jesus’ vine imagery is an overwhelmingly corporate metaphor. Branches on a vine are not individual stems coming from the same root-stock. Branches are woven in together. One branch stems from another. Throughout the passage Jesus uses the 2nd person plural: verse 8 – God is glorified by this, that you (plural) bear much fruit. You could read that as you (plural) each individually bear much fruit but I think that the tone of the metaphor means we should understand it as you (plural) together bear much fruit.

Don’t be discouraged if you, personally, don’t feel like you bear much fruit. The question is whether we, together, as the body of Christ in this place are bearing fruit.

Could it be that God has been pruning you back recently ready to be fruitful for the whole vine? Could it be that God wants to prune you back after a fruitful time to make space for another branch to grow?

As Christians we rejoice when we see a fellow Christian being fruitful for God. But we should rejoice all the more when the church as a whole is fruitful for God.

 

One final comment before I finish. The language I’ve just used can potentially be very dangerous. In the recent past the church has been profoundly guilty of protecting itself ahead of protecting the vulnerable. There have been appalling abuses of children and vulnerable adults that have been covered over to protect those seen as “important”. We have used language like “pruning the vine” as a euphemism for dealing with embarrassing abuses of power. We have conflated prioritising the corporate over the individual, with the idea that the individual doesn’t really matter. Let it not be so with us.

 

What does a fruitful church look like? It’s not just about numbers (although it may be). A fruitful church is a place where love abides. Where all the saints tell of learning to forgive. Where the love of Christ ends division. Where the cross stands as a witness to God’s grace. Where we dream together of seeking God’s kingdom anew. Where love is found in water, wine and wheat. A place where peace and justice meet as we share God’s abundance. Where the outcast and the stranger bear the image of Christ’s face. Where our hands reach out beyond this wood and stone to live the faith we’ve been given. Where young and old, rich and poor rejoice together in God’s blessing and mercy.

We’re running a Christianity Explored course in June and I hope that it will bring new disciples to faith in Christ. But I hope more that it will contribute to a vision of human flourishing within this community as we reach out to others.

May you abide in the vine this day and always, so that we may bear much fruit. Fruit that will last. Fruit that will abide. Amen.

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