St John the Evangelist, Tolpuddle
Sunday 29th April 2018
Acts 8.26-40; John 15.1-8
Poor Claudette – she really made a mess of things. I wouldn’t like to be in her shoes when M. Beaujolais returns from his trip on the Eurostar. The hens and the washing could be easily dealt with, but the prunings and the barrels of wine are a completely different matter.
If Jesus were here in human form today, it is unlikely that he would use the same images in his teaching now as he did 2000 years ago.
Our 21st-century British life is profoundly different from life in first-century Palestine. Even life in the Holy Land has changed dramatically, although when I visited there in 1999 one of the things that struck me most was the juxtaposition between the unmechanised farming that I saw in some fields, with donkeys and asses bearing the load of the work still and the creeping modernisation with the ever-present McDonalds golden arches.
Modernisation isn’t always better – I heard this week from some people who had visited South Sudan with the diocese. They’d been over the years sent tractors, but apparently the countryside now has quite a few old, useless tractors sitting around it, because nobody has the skills or spare parts needed to repair them when they get old or break down.
Far more use to these people in day-to-day life would be, I was told, some oxen and a traditional plough, until money is spent not on goods but on training, developing skills, transport links and so on. What is seen as progress in some places in fact hinders development in others.
The images Jesus used were things that were all around the people to whom he spoke – we heard about shepherds and sheep last week, and this week we are on vines.
Wine was a very important commodity for people in the first century. They drank grape juice and wine – though it would have tasted different from today’s wines because of the lack of preservatives and different methods used to produce it. It was an important trading commodity in the Middle East, and most people would have some idea as to the year’s cycle of vineyard farming.
We’re probably less knowledgeable in this church this morning about the exact requirements of growing grapes commercially than those who listened to Jesus were, even though, of course, we do have a vineyard in our benefice. But most of us don’t pass it closely enough to take account of what happens there day in, day out.
But, although the grape image is not one which is all around us every day, most of us can still relate to it in some way. Even if it’s only because wine is commonly drunk today.
Interestingly our local Langhams Wines describe on its website pruning, which of course is what Jesus talks about, as “vital for the healthy development of our vines” - they have 38,000 of them - and “arguably [being] the most important job of them all”.
So pruning is really important today as it was in the time of Jesus. It is essential for a good crop of grapes.
We Christians are also called to be fruitful. Fruitful in the way we live our lives, fruitful in God’s gifts, fruitful in our discipleship, fruitful in loving God and others.
How can we manage that?
Jesus is absolutely clear that the only way to become bearers of good and plenteous fruit is to be deeply rooted in him.
A branch that is not attached to the vine cannot bear good fruit.
We’ve all seen dead twigs lying on the ground – they are not much good for anything except perhaps as a dog’s plaything or kindling on the fire. Their meaning and purpose no longer exists once they have become separated from the plant or tree where they originated.
Some may be laden with fruit at the point at which they leave the tree, but we know well that if they are just left to rot on the ground the fruit will still go off.
Some may be dying while they are still attached to the vine – deadwood that is going nowhere.
That’s a bit like those who profess to be Christian but it is only a surface thing – a name they give themselves without any desire to grow more deeply or be more fruitful. These people are not really rooted in Christ, they’re hanging on the vine just waiting to drop off the minute a breeze blows or some brushes past them.
If we are to grow and flourish in God’s eyes, we need to ensure that we are deeply rooted in Christ.
How attached do you feel to the vine?
Do you feel that you are just hanging on by a thread or two or are you well established?
What will enable you to become more secure in your attachment to the vine?
There are obvious answers, which you will have heard me mention more than once. Prayer is absolutely key in this, as it is the main way of deepening that relationship.
Immersing ourselves in the Scripture also helps us to develop that relationship, the firm roots.
Praying with others, learning together, sharing and listening to one another.
I wonder why people find it so hard to talk about their Christian lives.
Is it because there is no longer a common language?
Is it because we haven’t had much practice?
Is it because we don’t really know where to begin?
Is it because we’re used in many of our Church of England services to use the words of others that we don’t really feel the need to find our own?
A faith as small as a mustard seed can and will grow, but like a vine, it will only be fruitful if it has the right soil, water, sunlight and so on.
I wonder what you need at this moment in time to enable you to become more fruitful in your faith.
It will be different for everybody. It will be different in different contexts.
At our rural deans and assistant rural deans meeting earlier this week we spent some time asking ourselves: what does success look like when it comes to our ministry and our Christian lives?
It is so easy to be swayed by the world’s values and to say that success is a big church, growing week by week, with lots of people involved in the ministry of word, sacrament, music, prayer, care, and so on.
I don’t know any church leader who wouldn’t like to be in that position, if we are really honest. There is something appealing about being seen to be successful in the eyes of the world, in being able to fill in the annual statistics form with increasing numbers of people each year. But is that real success?
In worldly terms, Jesus’s ministry was a failure. He ended up dead, his followers scattered, fearful and ineffective initially.
But because they remained rooted in God, the winter of the time straight after Jesus died became the Springtime of Pentecost. God turned the death into the resurrection.
And God can do that to us and to our churches, if we remain rooted in Jesus Christ.
Over the next few weeks and months, we will be looking in our PCCs and as churches at ways that we might encourage growth and more fruitfulness. The training day for the Weekend of Invitation on 30th June is for everyone, and I hope that as many of you as possible will try to come to it. Church growth is not the Vicar’s job, it’s a task for us all. There’ll be more details to follow, but please note it is for every church member and not just for those on PCCs or with a specific job title.
We need also to ask ourselves brutally honestly whether we actually want our churches to grow. Many people say they do, but the journey from here to there will require hard work and change.
Are we truly prepared for that? Or are we just giving lip-service to the idea that we’d like fuller churches?
Growth too is not just about numbers, important as they are.
Where is the spiritual growth coming in your life?
What are you doing to ensure that you remain attached to the vine?
What time is given to cultivating your fruit?
When did you last go on a retreat or quiet day? The benefice weekend still has places – perhaps that might be time for you to give. The theme is prayer – when did you last have teaching on that subject?
When did you open a Christian book or even the Bible outside a Sunday service?
If a church is to grow, it needs to be full of growing disciples, those on a journey, those who are doing what they can to prepare the ground so that God can grow in them much fruit.
We are still in the Easter Season of resurrection. Resurrection is all about new life and flourishing, fruitfulness and faithfulness. It is God’s gift.
Where is God bringing resurrection in your life?