Sunday, May 02, 2021

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Here is the transcript of the podcast version of my sermon for this week, the Fifth Sunday of Easter.

The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Reading: John 15:1-8

In our services, we are now beginning to think towards Pentecost and God’s gift of the Holy Spirit. Our Gospel reading this week comes from what is known as the Farewell Discourse in St John’s Gospel (John 13-17). This is Jesus’ final teaching to his disciples before leaving them. In St John’s Gospel, Jesus’ earthly ministry is divided in two: his public ministry in Galilee and Judea (chapters 1-12) and his private ministry with his disciples in the Upper Room on the night he was arrested (chapters 13-17). Jesus’ public ministry comes to an end in Jerusalem with people preferring darkness to light. Jesus then meets with his disciples for one final time in the Upper Room for what we know as the Last Supper. During the Meal, Jesus prepares them for the work he will give them to do for him after he has gone.

The Farewell Discourse can itself be divided into three: chapters 13-14; chapters 15-16; and then chapter 17, which is Jesus’ prayer to the Father for those who belong to him.

Some have suggested that St John’s Gospel, like many books today, may originally have gone through more than one edition. They suggest that the first edition, for example, may not have included chapters 15-17. They observe that the end of chapter 14 seems to lead very well straight into chapter 18. They argue that when the second edition was issued various additions were made, including chapters 15-17. Frankly, we do not know, but nor does it matter. If there were previous editions, we don’t have them; we only have the final edition.

In the Farewell Discourse, there are three major themes: the unity between the Father and the Son, which is shared with Jesus’ followers; the love Jesus’ disciples are commended to show one another; and the hostility from the world towards Jesus and his followers. Jesus tells them that the world hated him and it will hate them (John 15:18-19). How, then, are they to cope, keep Jesus’ commandments, and testify to him? Where are they to get the strength they need in the face of such hostility from the world, especially when it is ruled over, as it is, by the ‘ruler of this world’, the devil (John 14:30)?

In John chapter 7, when Jesus is speaking at the Feast of Tabernacles, he makes reference to ‘rivers of living water’ (John 7:38. St John explains:

‘Now he [Jesus] said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive; for as yet there was no Spirit, because Jesus was not yet glorified.’ (John 7:39)

This is an extreme way of putting it, and it is clear from what he writes elsewhere in the Gospel that St John doesn’t mean that the Holy Spirit didn’t exist before Jesus was glorified. St John’s point is that, as far as the disciples are concerned, the difference the Holy Spirit is going to make in their lives after Jesus’ death and resurrection will be so great that it will be as if the Spirit hadn’t existed before.

It is in the Farewell Discourse that Jesus teaches the disciples about the Holy Spirit and tells them what to expect. In chapter 14, Jesus says of the Spirit:

‘This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.’ (John 14:17)

One of the words in Greek that St John uses for the Holy Spirit is ‘parakletos’. The problem for us is that it is very hard to find a word in English to translate it. Various words are used by translators: comforter, helper, counsellor, and advocate are four common ones. Some translators just give up and keep the Greek word itself, expressing it in English as ‘paraclete’. The idea behind the meaning of the word in Greek is of one who comes alongside to help us and represent us. This may take place in a legal setting, hence the use of the word ‘advocate’, but not necessarily so.

In whatever way we want to translate the word Jesus uses, Jesus says that he will ask the Father and the Father will give them another ‘paraclete’ (John 16:16). So, who is the original paraclete? The answer, of course, is Jesus himself. In his first letter, St John describes Jesus using the same word ‘parakletos’ (1 John 2:1). The Holy Spirit will take over where Jesus left off, so much so that Jesus even tells his disciples that it is good for them that he goes away because only then will the Spirit come (John 16:7). It is better that he goes away and the Spirit comes, than for Jesus to stay with them and the Spirit not to come.

Zoom has become quite a feature of the pandemic. If we were to have the choice of a Zoom session with Jesus on a regular basis or the Holy Spirit, which would we choose? I guarantee that most of us would go for the Zoom sessions. Jesus himself, however, encourages us to think differently. The Holy Spirit makes a spiritual closeness and intimacy with Jesus possible that could never be achieved simply by his bodily presence - on camera or off!

Jesus begins our Gospel reading this week by saying ‘I am the True Vine’. There are seven ‘I am something’ sayings of Jesus in St John’s Gospel. Jesus says that he is the Bread of Life; the Light of the World; the Gate; the Good Shepherd; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way the Truth, and the Life; and then, finally, the True Vine. But if Jesus is the True Vine who is the false Vine?

In the Hebrew Scriptures, it is Israel who is described using the image of the vine or the vineyard (see, for example: Isaiah 5:1-7 and Psalm 80). Very often, the prophets use this image in the context of condemning Israel for her failure to be true to God’s covenant with him (see Ezekiel 15:1-8). All too often Israel has shown herself to be false. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that around the entrance to the Temple was a magnificent vine made of pure gold. Anyone going to the Temple couldn’t fail to miss it. It represented Israel. Jesus tells his disciples that he is the True Vine and his Father the vinegrower.

Developing this image as a metaphor for his relationship with his disciples, Jesus tells them that his Father, as the vinegrower, removes every branch that fails to produce grapes. Every branch that produces grapes, he prunes, so that it will produce even more.

In John chapter 14, Jesus has spoken about how the Father and the Son will make their home in the life of the person who believes in him (John 14:23). This will happen through the Spirit, whom Jesus will send to them from the Father (John 15:26). Jesus has told them that the Spirit will abide in them. He now tells them:

‘Abide in me as I abide in you.’ (John 15:4)

Just as the branches cannot produce grapes unless they remain connected to the vine, so too we, his followers, cannot produce the fruit that God seeks unless we abide in Jesus and remain connected to him. He is the vine; we are the branches. If we abide in him and he in us, we will produce the fruit that God seeks. But in the same way that the vinegrower gets rid of branches that don’t produce grapes and burns them, so too God will get rid of us if we don’t live the sort of lives he requires.

More than that, as the vinegrower, God prunes those branches that do produce fruit so that they will become more fruitful. This is both a warning and an encouragement. It is a warning, frankly, we just don’t take seriously. God is saying that if we don’t show in our lives that we are Jesus’ followers, we are like dead branches that are fit only to be destroyed. God is too nice to destroy us, we tell ourselves, and so we get on with living as we wish without any regard for the commandments of God in Christ.

Secondly, though, as we produce fruit in our lives by seeking to trust and obey Jesus, God works with us and on us to make us more fruitful. This he does by cutting away that which is bad in our lives. This may not be things which are sinful in themselves, but things which are bad for us and get in the way of our service for Christ. In the same way, as the vinegrower tends and cares for the Vine, so that it will grow in the right direction and produce the best grapes, so too God works in our lives to guide us and lead us.

The vinegrower’s care for the vine is essential, but it is also vital that the branches remain attached the vine or else they will die and have to be got rid of. Jesus tells them that they must abide in him as he abides in them. They must remain attached to Jesus, the True Vine. Jesus tells them in the starkest of terms:

‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.’ (John 15:4)

Jesus continues:

‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.’ (John 15:5)

Jesus wants us to be completely dependent on him. Unless we are, we are no use to him. We are to abide in him. Abiding in Jesus is more than abiding with Jesus. It is about a close and intense union in which Jesus and the believer are one. Jesus could not be more emphatic about this.

It is, then, worth asking how we think we should live our lives as believers. Some of you will be familiar with the various personality tests that are used to analyse someone’s personality. People are grouped into personality types based on the answers they give. Employers, for example, will often use psychometric tests to assess a potential employee. If we were to devise a personality test to describe believers and churches, I think that you would find that believers and churches tend to fall into four broad ‘types’. (You may have heard me describe these different types of believers and churches before!)

1. The Doctrinal: This type describes those who put an emphasis on right belief and the teachings of the faith. They want to understand and explain what it is that we should believe if we are to be true to God. They worry about false teaching and want to guard against it. They place an emphasis in the Church on the sermon, Bible Study, and Christian education.

2. The Ethical: Those of this type place more emphasis on what we do and how we live. They are concerned that we should follow the teaching of Christ and about how we care for and help others. They focus on issues of right and wrong and want the Church to be clear on its moral and social teaching. They are active in working for justice and fairness and in seeking to right the wrongs they see in the world, and they want the Church to be active too.

3. The Experiential: This is those for whom emotion and experience are important. They point out how in the past believers have been very concerned with the intellectual dimension of faith. They want to put some feeling back into it. They are concerned that people should feel welcomed and accepted when they come to Church. They particularly focus on worship, which, in churches of this type, is lively and expressive.

4. The Ecclesial: This is those who focus on the Church itself and on the communal dimension of our faith. They are concerned with how the Church functions and is organized. They want it to be strong and well ordered. They work hard, serving on various committees and raising funds for the Church’s work. They are the ones who volunteer, and they can be relied on to keep the Church going.

Now we need all four emphases if we are to be Biblical in our approach as followers of Christ. Believers of each of the different types have something important to teach us. St John himself stresses the importance of what we believe. In his letters, St John tells those to whom he is writing not even to associate with anyone who believes things which are false (2 John 10). Jesus in the Farewell Discourse stresses the importance of keeping his commandments (John 15:10) and of bearing fruit for him. What we do and how we live matters. It is also true that feelings and emotions are important, and they have often been neglected when it comes to our faith. After all, in most of the important decisions we make in life, how we feel about the choices facing us plays a major part in what we decide to do. To exclude feelings from faith is to shut our faith off from an essential part of who we are. Jesus said:

‘I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.’ (John 15:11)

So too with the communal dimension of our faith. Jesus said that where two or three are gathered together in his name, he is there in their midst (Matthew 18:20). Throughout the Farewell Discourse, Jesus stresses how we must love one another (for example, John 15:12) and, in John chapter 17, Jesus prays that we, his followers, may be one. Being a follower of Jesus is something we don’t do alone but with others.

Important though all these different dimensions of being a follower of Jesus are, none of them is central or gets to the heart of what it means to be a believer in Jesus as he himself explains it. Central to believing in Jesus and from which everything else flows and holds together is having a relationship with him. The relational dimension is key to understanding the nature of and giving meaning to being Jesus’ follower.

The people who have understood this the most in the history of the Church are those often described as ‘mystics’. Interestingly, there are four female Doctors of the Church, and they are all ‘mystics’. A ‘Doctor of the Church’ is someone that the Church recognizes as an authoritative teacher of the faith. The ‘mystics’ of the Church, who have been both men and women, put knowing God and a consciousness of his presence at the very heart of their faith in Christ.

Last Thursday was the Feast Day of St Catherine of Siena. She was one of the first women to be declared a ‘Doctor of the Church. St Catherine was born on March 25, 1347 just as the black death was beginning in Europe. The black death was to wipe out up to 60% of the population of Europe. At the age of 6 or 7, St Catherine had her first vision. At the age of 16, she cut her hair to make herself unattractive to the men her parents wanted her to marry. When she was about 21 (c.1368), she was to experience instead a mystical marriage with Christ, which she describes in the most intimate of terms. The book for which St Catherine is famous is called, The Dialogue with Divine Providence (c.1378). In it, she gives an account of a conversation she has with God. St Catherine lived the life of a nun without joining a convent, and committed herself to fasting and prayer. She was to die at the age of 33, probably as a result of excessive fasting.

Today, we would probably think her mentally unstable. There certainly would be no chance of her being ordained in today’s church. Yet she devoted her life to helping the poor and nursing the sick. Kings and rulers turned to her for counsel and advice. She worked for the reform of the church and of the clergy in particular. This was 100 years before the Reformation in Europe. She even persuaded the Pope that he should return from self-imposed exile in France.

Whatever we think of her and her visions, St Catherine and her fellow mystics put their relationship with God above everything else, and it was the reality of this relationship that led them to be active and effective in reaching out to the poor and working for those in need. To use the metaphor in this week’s reading: it was their relationship with God in Christ that led them to produce the fruit that God was looking for in their lives.

However, because their lives and experiences are often so strange to us, we put the mystics in a separate category, so we can respect them while not seeing them as having anything to teach us personally. What, however, these teachers of the Church have to teach all of us is that our relationship with God needs to come above and before everything else. Yes, theirs was a special and to us at times strange relationship with God. What matters, however, is not the form of the relationship but its reality. St Catherine prioritized her relationship with God just as Jesus in our Gospel reading tells us we should do. St Catherine abided in Christ.

Her life and language can sound extreme to us, but we forget just how extreme our Lord himself could be. He told his disciples:

‘If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire. And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.’ (Mark 9:43-48)

Hearing these words of Jesus, St Catherine cutting off her hair seems quite mild by comparison!

The presence of God was real to St Catherine. We are not called to have the same sort of relationship with God that she had, but we are called to have our own relationship with him; a relationship that is just as real and personal. Jesus tells us that he is the True Vine and we are the branches. This is not the language of academic theology, but of connection and personal relationship. Jesus says ‘without me you can do nothing’.

We live at a time when we are encouraged to believe we can do anything if we but put our minds to it. In the Church, we emphasize free will and human autonomy. These words of Jesus, then, sound strange and alien and to us. Like the world around us, we too have cultivated a culture of success. Our heroes, for example, are those who are successful and who have large congregations or who are polished and popular speakers.

St Paul instead speaks about how God’s power is made perfect in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). If he must boast, St Paul writes, he will boast of things that show his weakness (2 Corinthians 11:30). As he explains, ‘For whenever I am weak, then I am strong’ (2 Corinthians 12:10). What Jesus wants is for us to be completely reliant on him. This is what it means to be a branch attached to the Vine.

A Prayer of St Catherine of Siena.

Eternal God, eternal Trinity,
You have made the Blood of Christ so precious
through His sharing in Your Divine nature.
You are a mystery as deep as the sea;
the more I search, the more I find,
and the more I find, the more I search for You.
But I can never be satisfied;
what I receive will ever leave me desiring more.
When You fill my soul, I have an ever greater hunger,
and I grow more famished for Your light.
I desire above all to see You,
the true Light, as you really are.


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