[despite posting this last week – and it showing up on Facbook, I have to publish it again because it isn’t showing on my website????]
One of my memories of my dad is that he had a grape vine growing in his conservatory on the back of the house. The vine was planted just outside a window and he had it trained through the window and along the ceiling. Once I joined in with treading the grapes, barefoot, in a tub in the garage. Great fun. I can’t remember what the wine tasted like though.
Yesterday was the 5th Sunday in the Easter season, with the gospel account of Jesus saying that he is the true vine. I decided to do a picture whilst praying about my sermon. Unfortunately the painting didn’t get done until Saturday and so it isn’t as good or as full as it might have been had I got moving earlier in the week.
For those who are interested, here’s my sermon along with the picture, plus others I included and the readings. This is the full version which took 15 minutes to preach at the 9am service. I decided to prune it a little for the 10.30 and managed to get it down to 12 minutes. The 3pm service was in a churchyard and it was threatening to rain, was a bit windy and I was holding the microphone which made reading my notes difficult. I therefore decided to ‘wing’ it and keep it to 5 minutes. I achieved this self imposed pruning challenge and actually finished exactly on 5 minutes. I hope that what I said was spirit inspired. I just tried to sum up the main message – and of course without the aid of pictures. We also only had the gospel, not the reading from Acts.
Acts 8:26 to end
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south[g] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31 He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
34 The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’[h] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[i] baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
15 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes[a] to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed[b] by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 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. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become[c] my disciples.
Wine and vineyards are images used by Jesus because they were familiar to the people. A vine was on the coins
and decorating the Temple
at the entrance to the Holy of Holies. His first miracle was water into wine – maybe that is why.
A Vineyard or vine was often used in the Old Testament to refer to Israel, God’s people. A vine is a useful plant as well as ornamental. It grows by spreading out. The people were supposed to spread out across the world showing God’s love.
Today’s gospel is set at the last supper, just before Jesus’ death. He refers to himself as the true vine – he had come to be what Israel had failed to be. Transforming failure is what Jesus does.
And let’s face it, his death did look at the time like a failure. He knew what was coming and that his disciples would be heart broken, wounded, scared and feeling weak, abandoned and let down. Yet these men and women, these ordinary people went on to do extraordinary things and experienced extraordinary growth of the early church.
How? By being obedient to Jesus’ instructions, his words at the last supper.
Obedience is key. The water was turned into wine because Mary, in faith, told the servants to do what Jesus told them to do. Her faith and trust that Jesus could, meant that he did. Plus the stewards doing what seemed to be crazy – serving up water!!!! But they were obedient – and the miracle happened.
Fast forward 3 years and these disorganised, fearful, bewildered, confused people by being obedient and doing what Jesus’ told them experienced explosive church growth.
They did what he said. And what did he say?
Remain in me and I in you. And my words remain in you. Some translations use the word abide rather than remain. Abide in me. It reminds me of the hymn Abide With Me.
For 3 years the disciples were with Jesus, abiding with him, living with him, listening to him and hoping to become like him.
Abide With Me is a comforting hymn and right at times when we especially need to know Jesus with us – his presence every passing hour in the difficulties of life. He gets us through the storms of life.
Storm Damage is the title of a picture of a branch hanging off the vine that I did as I was recovering from the death of my marriage.
We had just separated, and I felt neither use nor ornament. Hanging off – or hanging on. My faith was OK, but I was in no fit state to be ministering to others. I felt far from fruitful.
I needed time to heal. Or, to use the vine analogy, pruning. The word for pruning also means healing. A plant that is pruned is improved, and blossoms, grows more fruit. A neglected or damaged plant that is pruned is transformed.
Jesus doesn’t want us to stay there, in our grief and difficulties. He comes and transforms, he brings good out of our traumas, like silver being purified. It is painful at the time, but with Jesus’ help our hard times can be part of the fruit of the future.
As a church we have been through hard times – not just this last year – even before Covid we had seen signs of shrinking. Society pressures and changes have affected many churches. We are not immune. We have suffered storm damage.
Do we want to grow? Do we want more people to become members of the church with us? Yes? No?
If your answer is YES – then we need to grow spiritually as individuals and together as a church, as the first church did. Then, the numerical growth will follow. That growth happened because they were obedient to Jesus’ instructions at the last supper.
So let’s look at what he says.
No fruit? The branch will be removed. What needs to stop or end? What is no longer serving us – neither use nor ornament? Attitudes, and behaviours, things we do. We need to look at what isn’t or hasn’t been fruitful in the past as we move forward into the future.
Fruit growing? What pruning is needed to ensure even more fruit? What needs to change, or to be healed? The word Jesus used could mean cleansing or healing. That’s what he meant by saying you have already been cleansed by my word.
They had already made a commitment to follow Jesus. They had responded in their hearts. Just as we have – maybe many years ago now.
I’m reminded of the parable of the sower. The word of God lands on soil that is either good and produces a crop or not so good and doesn’t grow, maybe strangled by weeds, or doesn’t manage to put down decent roots.
If we want good fruit in our lives, then do we need to tend to the soil? Feed ourselves spiritually, clear away any weeds or stones getting in the way.
And of course, we need to ensure that we remain in Jesus – he is the vine, we are only branches. A branch on its own soon withers and dies.
What is the fruit?
1) Fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, self control etc – knowing God’s love in our lives.
2) Growth as a disciple – getting involved in what the church is here to do – showing God’s love to others.
3) More disciples – we are all called to be witnesses to what God has done in our lives, as well as some being involved in more direct evangelism.
Jesus prayed at the last supper for the disciples who were there and for us who would come after – he prayed that the world would believe. Jesus was praying for his church that they would bring more people to know him. To share his love with others in such a way that is attractive, and others will want to know him too.
We are all part of the Great Commission to go out into all the world and make disciples, baptising them and teaching them all that Jesus had taught.
How does the fruit grow?
Jesus’ words need to become part of us. The bible needs to be ingested. To be so familiar that we call it to mind… doesn’t matter if you know what chapter or verse, the important thing is that you know it.
Garry and I experienced a wonderful God-incidence on Thursday at morning prayer. We were talking about the need for churches to move into the new normal, that some churches were struggling and how can we encourage growth… that sort of thing….
I was reminded of a film, a modern remake of ‘The day the earth stood still’ – an alien comes to destroy the people on earth to save the planet. However, he is convinced by someone who says that when on the brink of a precipice people change. On the brink of a precipice is how some smaller churches may feel – knowing that something has to change, something has to happen, or the end is nigh.
Have our smaller churches got to that stage of being on the precipice and being willing to change?
Our psalm and old testament reading on Thursday morning were confirmation that what is needed. Psalm 118
13 Surely, I was thrust to the brink, but the Lord came to my help.
14 The Lord is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation.
And from Deuteronomy was the reminder:
“If you will only heed God’s commandment – loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season.”
All will go well when we commit all that we are to God. There was also the reminder:
You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land …..
With my morning cup of tea earlier I had started a picture to illustrate today’s gospel and was writing in the bible verses. Not quite the same, but serving the same purpose. Here’s the finished picture:
Just as Jesus had said – make sure my words become part of you.
The other thing is that you need to understand Jesus’ words. Not sufficient to just quote verses like Dot Cotton on Eastenders.
But words alone and understanding are not enough.
Jesus himself needs to become part of us. The first disciples shifted from being WITH Jesus, knowing his presence with them to being IN Jesus on the day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit – or the spirit of Christ as he is referred to in some places of the bible – joins with our spirit inside us and guides us, changes us from the inside.
In Acts we read of Philip – the one who said can anything good come from Nazareth – being led by the Spirit to the Ethiopian. He overheard the words of scripture and recognised them and was brave enough to have a go at explaining them. The Holy Spirit helped him to remember what he had been taught. The Holy Spirit helps us remember and learn what the scriptures mean.
The Holy Spirit also guides us into being at the right place at the right time. Amazing things happened to grow the early church.
The same Spirit and the same Jesus is at work in and through us and will do amazing things when we remain in Jesus and his words in us.
ASK if you want more fruit in your life and in the church. Jesus said we should. And then we need to do as he says.