Fifth Sunday of Easter
29 April 2018
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Jonathan Cain
Acts 8: 26-end; John 15: 1-8
I am pretty hopeless at gardening. The very first thing that Rebecca does if she’s been away for a few days (often before she has properly said hello to me and the boys) is check the houseplants, the bedding plants and the hanging baskets. Usually at least part of the horticulture is in imminent danger of expiration, and needs some sort of attention. I’m pleased to say that the boys are usually not in such a precarious state!
I’m not sure what it is. I’m good at mowing, weeding, cutting down and back, but just not so good at growing things. And yet, when it comes on the radio I’ve come to really enjoy gardener’s question time, or GQT to those in the know. Last week’s episode featured Incredible Edible, a network of community activists that transform public spaces by planting gardens where people can gather food. This item was really interesting, but it was another feature, the question and answer feature, that really struck me last week. Usually listeners ask the panel of experts for ideas by starting their question something like this: “I’m looking for something low maintenance …” If I was into gardening that is exactly the sort of question that I would ask. Last week somebody mixed it up a bit, by asking the panel to name their favourite high maintenance plants. GQT regular Bob Flowerday responded without hesitation; “grape vines”, he said. He went on, “If you plant a grape vine in the ground you are going to spend the rest of your life pruning, nipping, thinning, choosing, getting up close with little scissors …” Now I’m partial to the odd glass of wine, but Mr Flowerday’s description of what it takes to grow the grape, put paid to any thoughts I might have entertained about making my own.
This description really brought to life the parable in this morning’s gospel reading. Without pruning, vines grow wild. A thick tangle of wild branches occludes light. The energy required to support wild branches exhausts the plant, and the plant ceases to produce good fruit. A vine without the vine-grower’s attention will quite simply dry up, wither and die.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, in a statement that sets up the intimate relationship between him and his Father the vine-grower. Jesus describes the Father’s pruning which, we know from our GQT expert, is not an indiscriminate hacking – the kind of cutting down and cutting back that non-gardeners like me do in the garden – but a careful and loving removal of that which will not give life to enable the plant to flourish and bear fruit. He goes on to say that the disciples have already been ‘cleansed’ by the word that he has spoken to them; and here it is important to understand that in Greek, the original language of the gospel, the words Jesus uses for pruning and cleansing have the same root. What Jesus is in fact saying is that through their relationship with Jesus his followers receive that same close attention from God; the same pruning of that which is not life-giving to expose them to the light of God’s loving purposes, and bear good fruit.
As Jesus sets up the intimate relationship between Father and Son, so Jesus also sets up the intimate relationship that his followers are to enjoy and to cultivate. Branches that decide to go it alone, to try living without the life of the vine will wither and die, good for nothing but the fire. But branches that abide in the vine, and submit to the pruner’s knife when necessary, live and bear fruit. That is the prospect that Jesus holds out to his followers, to all of us. The urgent question it would seem then is this. How do we abide in him?
A few years ago Ben Quash, who was then Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College, wrote a book in which he argued that Abiding is a concept that is central to the Christian life. Abiding, Quash demonstrates, has the sense of full personal commitment, solidarity, and consistency in the Christian tradition; of God’s commitment to us and of our commitment to our communities. And yet the kind of ‘abiding’ that Jesus calls his followers to, is one of relinquishment, openness, change; living a life that is out of one’s own control. This kind of abiding is perhaps particularly difficult for those of us who have the means to maintain control of our lives, or at least the illusion of control.
To abide in Jesus then we must remain in the community that knows, loves and celebrates him as Lord. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We cannot go it alone. To abide in Jesus we must also remain as people of prayer and devotion in our own intimate private lives; cultivating a relationship, knowing Jesus and being known by him. After a sharp warning about the cost of staying out of relationship with him, Jesus makes his most extraordinary promise. “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you” he says, “ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
In Jesus God chose to abide with us, to be there at our beginning and our ending. God is patient as a parent with a beloved child; he will never leave us; his tender love and mercy will never end. Abiding in Jesus means being part of the vine, and subject to the father’s pruning knife. By this God will be glorified and we will bear much fruit. Cutting away unhealthy growth always hurts and involves a certain loss of control, but the vine-grower is never closer to the vine, taking loving care over its long-term health and fruitfulness than when he has the knife in his hand.