Easter 5: It’s all about the wine…

Sorry, vine….

Guest writer this week, Peter Gilks our Team Rector spoke on John 15: 1-8.

 

I was listening to Gardener’s Question Time  last weekend when I was driving somewhere and the question was asked of the panel “What really high maintenance plant do you like to grow?

Various answers came, but one panellist said A Grape Vine, and he then went through all the various tasks and timings that were needed, right through from October with the major prune, to all the cutting back and thinning out all the way through till the harvesting time. It sounded very time consuming and made me realise why we had always got such a feeble crop off the vine we had in our last garden.

Vines and Fig trees crop up very regularly in the biblical texts as they are used as images for the life and faith of the nation, and for the faith of the church as well.  Jesus told some quite puzzling parables about fig trees, (that’s a sermon for another day)   and in the reading from St Johns gospel today he uses the image of the vine.

If we look back into the OT we see vines used  in lots of ways:

Judges:  Samson’s mother is told to drink no wine while she is pregnant with Samson  (quite up to date advice really!)

1 Kings there’s a vision of settled peace during Solomon’s reign the people living in peace under their vines and under their fig-trees

Isaiah 24:  the vine languishes and the wine dries up &

32: 12  beat your breast for the pleasant fields and the fruitful vine

Jeremiah 2:  I planted you as a choice vine from the purest stock, how then did you become degenerate and wild.

Micah 4.4. they shall all sit under their own vines and under their fig trees and no-one shall make them afraid.

And that’s just a few of the references –  we could go through and look up other passages about vineyards and grapes too, and we’d be here all morning. But when you chase up references like this a picture gradually emerges about what the vine and the fig tree meant for the people;  it was symbolic of the health and well-being of the nation, and of their faithfulness to God.  In times of peace well cared for vines and fig trees would grow well and wine could be produced which would cheer everyone up.  Life could be tough and wine was a blessing which  “made glad the heart” to use yet another quote.

But behind this is the understanding that vines don’t grow productively when left alone. There’s various dark images about wild grapes, which are bitter, and about vineyards being left untended by lazy and irresponsible stewards. There a kind of partnership implied. The good householder will look after his vine, will prune it and shape it and nourish it and give all the care that vines need. Then the vine will flourish and provide the owner with shelter from the sun, grapes to eat as fruit and to make into wine and make his heart glad and, just as importantly, to share with friends. But you need peace and stability to grow a good vine, when there is war there is no opportunity for the time-consuming business of checking and pruning  and tying up the new shoots.  In the same kind of way, if the owner is careless and neglects his vine he won’t get good grapes and or good wine.

So with this kind of background you can quite see how the vine, which was quite a familiar thing in that culture became used by the rabbis as a very practical image for teaching about peace, about faithfulness, and about careful responsible living.  Jesus as a storyteller, used it with the best. With Paul, who writes rather differently, references to wine, vine and vineyards or even fig trees are really quite rare – I could only find one – something in

Ephesians about not getting drunk, miserable man.

I went on a retreat once where the leader based a lot of his talks around John’s image of the Vine, and one day he took us out into the courtyard of the place where we were staying and did a bit of bible study around an actual vine that was growing there.

He showed us that a well-trimmed vine is almost all branches there’s very little actual trunk, you get the time honoured thick branches and the young fleshy shoots. So when Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches, he is saying that he and his friends are at one, and so they live in him and he in them, there’s a continuity.

But as the vine grows during the year there will be some new shoots which have fruit on them and others which are just all leaf, and even on the stems where there is fruit there’s also a long bit further down the stem which is just leaf. These bits you have to cut off or the vine will just produce lots and lots of leaf and the grapes will be the size of garden peas.

So we can take this parable to bits and find some messages for ourselves and our church:

Christianity is now an old robust branch that has seen many summers, been pruned extensively, had stages where it grew a bit wild, and over the years has grown new branches and sub divided, and these branches have themselves grown new branches too. The Holy Spirit runs through it all, right down into the tips of the delicate  fleshy shoots which are perhaps you and me.  If we are faithful we shall produce good grapes and good wine that will make people glad.

The biblical image of the vine gives two functions, one is giving grapes which can be made into wine, the other function is shelter and shade, making somewhere that the people can rest out of the heat of the day. And that, to me, seems to represent the value of traditional church and established forms of worship – they give shelter and they give shade, places to rest and be re-energised at a deep level, to cool down from the heat of the day and rest in the peace of God.

We’re at a stage in the life of the C of E where there is much focus on mission, and rightly so, those ventures are like the new wine that is exciting and bubbly. As it has always been said  – the gospel needs to be preached afresh in every generation. But while new explorations are important there is a still room for the established ways of being church – the traditional prayer and the sacraments, for new translations of scripture alongside the old.  These things are still meaningful, and while new ways of prayer and of being church are right for many of the people coming to faith now, there is an authentic place for established and traditional. This is perhaps more like sitting under the shade of a vine on a hot day, for relaxation and refreshment.

At the end of this passage the theme returns to the importance of love, Jesus talks about his disciples loving one another as he has loved them.  Perhaps love is like the sap within the branches – from the old knotty ones near the root, to the fresh green shoots at the ends. May we all be fruitful branches, open channels of the Holy Spirit, so that the new wine of the gospel may make glad the hearts of the people of our generation, and be able to shelter those who are in need of care and restoration.

 

 

 

 

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Easter 4: No-one takes it from me

The story of the Good Shepherd is well known – it is somewhat comforting to know that there is a Shepherd who looks after us, who knows us by name, who ensures that we never become so lost that we can’t be found. Everyone loves a hero and this Shepherd offers to lay down his life in order to protect the sheep, in order to protect us. It is comforting, and pastoral and idyllic.

But it is more than a gentle child’s story, or lullaby or even a spiritual comfort blanket: this passage is deeply challenging. It comes as one of the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus, each designed to open our minds to the larger concept of who God Emmanuel truly is; it also comes on the heels of a healing story, one in which sight is restored to a blind man, but in contrast the Pharisees are condemned for being spiritually blind.  Despite being experts in the law, many of the religious leaders of Jesus’ time had no concept of God’s true identity, and so time and again they come to blows with the Son of God.

One phrase stands out in this passage as we review it in the resurrection afterglow of Easter: Jesus predicting his death says,

No-one takes it from me.

As Jesus speaks of the Shepherd who ‘lays down his life’ we know that he is speaking of himself: Jesus is the Good Shepherd. It is his death that brings us restored  life in the presence of God the Father.

It was noted that as Jesus was arrested he didn’t fight back, nor did he when he was beaten, and when he was tried he never attempted to speak out in his favour. As he was presented with the cross which had failed to carry, he simply lay down an allowed the cruel nails to be hammered into him; and as he hung in agony, dying, not once did he speak out against any of his enemies, not once did he curse those who had betrayed or denied him.

When Jesus died, it was his decision to die. No-one took Jesus’ life, he gave it, freely.

The Pharisees, Sadducees, High Priests and Elders may have thought that they had stolen Jesus’ power, but they were wrong: Jesus laid down his life – no-one took it from him.

Herod and Pilate may believe that they exerted their powers upon this upstart and trouble maker, but they too were wrong: Jesus laid down his life – no-one took it from him.

The soldiers who nailed him to the cross may have felt responsible, but they weren’t: Jesus laid down his life – no-one took it from him.

Judas may have despaired at his role in bringing about Jesus’ death, but he didn’t kill him: Jesus laid down his life – no-one took it from him.

The Devil may have thought that he won the ultimate power struggle when the sky turned back, but he hadn’t killed God either: Jesus laid down his life – no-one took it from him.

There is no escaping the fact that Jesus gave his own life. He may not have wanted to, he may not have found joy in doing so, but still he did it. Sacrifice isn’t a concept we fully understand in our culture – certainly not the sacrifices that were well known in Jesus’ time – but a sacrifice would not have been willing. The animals slaughtered in the temple were forced into the role, and had they been given the opportunity to escape they certainly would have. The religious leaders, for all their piety, would not have given their lives. Most shepherds would not have risked their lives for the sake of some animals. To be honest, I doubt if I would risk my life for another, certainly not as willingly as Jesus did. I’m no hero.

But Jesus did: Jesus laid down his life. No-one took it from him.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What is the most sacrificial thing anyone has done for you?
  • What is the most sacrificial thing you have done for anyone else?
  • What is it that made the thing a sacrificial gift?
  • What makes Jesus’ sacrifice so precious and so powerful?
  • How do we respond to that sacrifice in our own lives?

Something to pray:

Lord Jesus Christ, Shepherd of the sheep, Lamb of God, we thank you that though we repeatedly err and stray, ignoring your voice and wandering far from your side, you not only seek us out, but also willingly lay down your life for us, freely giving that we might freely receive.

Equip us now to show our gratitude by following you more closely, trusting you more closely, trusting you more completely and obeying you more faithfully, so that our lives as well as our words may give honour to you, now and always, Amen.

Easter 3: Not in My Name

I sit and write this post in the aftermath of the bombing of Syria, and I want to scream ‘Not in my Name!’

What good can it do to bomb a people who have already been bombed into a living hell? We live in a country which purports to be unable to afford free school lunches for young children, but can provide large expense accounts for MPs; a country which can’t afford to take in refugees from a devastated country, but can afford to use military power to bomb it. I apologise, this post is turning into a political rant: ‘Not in my Name!’

As a Christian though, my name isn’t what matters. As a follower of Christ, how do I respond in His name? This bombing isn’t part of a religious campaign or crusade. No-one has claimed to be dropping bombs in Jesus’ name – not that I am aware of anyhow – but the way in which I respond to what has happened has to bear some reflection on Jesus’ name, surely? The name which I carry with my faith and worldview.

Peace be with  you.

And so, the starting point for my response has to be Jesus himself: The gospel passage set for this week helpfully contains some of those lasting words of the resurrected Jesus before he ascended to heaven: Peace be with  you.

Luke 24:36-48

Jesus Appears to His Disciples

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.

Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things.

‘Peace be with you’ is a phrase uttered across congregations, we refer to it as ‘sharing the peace’: some hate it and find it intrusive to worship when everyone jumps up and wanders around the church hugging and kissing and generally making a public display of themselves, taking time for a natter in a time which should be set aside for calm worship; for some the peacefulness of worship has been shattered. Others love the opportunity to meet and greet those they may not see all week, for some it provides an opportunity to shake hands and be reconciled with those they have had words with during the week, before receiving at the Lord’s Table.

Here Jesus is greeting those who are startled, terrified, grieving; here are the people who have denied and abandoned Jesus, those who have not just lost hope in Jesus as he lay in the tomb, but in themselves and their ability to stand up for what is right, to stand by God when tested. This greeting has depth to it,

The Messiah’s peace which grants forgiveness, conquers fear and unites earth and heaven.

Andrew Knowles

‘Peace be with you.’ Peace be with the people of Syria? Peace be with Assad, with Islamic State, with Theresa May and Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron? Peace be with the members of our Air Forces and their families?

Why are you frightened?

Jesus then turns to the disciples and asks them. ‘Why are you frightened?’

Why are the disciples frightened? Their nerves are already shot to pieces, they are already scared that they will be next to be arrested, beaten and crucified – and there will be no amnesty now that Passover has passed. Resurrection stories are beginning to come in, they are discussing the events that Cleopas and his wife experienced as they returned to Emmaus, and now Jesus who is dead, is appearing before them all. What are they not frightened of?

What are we frightened of? The bombing of Syria doesn’t affect us, does it? Well living in the shadow of Salisbury and the site of the poisoning of the Russian Spy, perhaps it does. Are we scared of reprisals? Are we scared of this being the flashpoint of World War III as has been rumoured in the press? Are we scared that IS will increase attacks on our young people as we head towards summer and large gatherings and festivals? Are we scared that ‘Armageddon’ is happening right here, right now….?

When you hear of wars and rumours of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom…This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.

Mark 13:7,8

Are we scared that we will have stood by and let countless more innocent people suffer whilst we do nothing? Are we scared of letting Jesus down by allowing something to happen that is not ‘peaceful’? Are we frightened generally that the world we live in seems to be so uncaring, or are we frightened that we will be called to account and we will have nothing to say for ourselves?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God’

Matthew 5:9

Being a peacemaker and being a pacifist are not the same. One takes action to make things right, the other refuses to take action in order not to make things worse. In my research this week I have spoken with those who have military experience; they say that our technology has moved on to such a state that air strikes can be ultra-precise and that civilians will not be caught up in these attacks. Our weapons systems are not indiscriminate and we employ extremely strict rules about what can be targeted. If, as I understand, this weekend’s air strike was aimed at the factory where chemical weapons are made, then surely this, although certainly not the act of a pacifist,  could it have been the act of a peacemaker? Yes negotiations would have been the ultimate peacemaking action, and indeed over the past six years have been attempted, but all sides need to be willing to negotiate.  Blessed are the peacemakers: blessed those who are willing to put their own lives on the line, those who are willing to make unpopular decisions?

What are we frightened of? That we have made the wrong decision? That reports from others ‘on the street’, of liberation and ceasefire indicate the beginning of an end without the need for the West to wade in? Are we frightened that our involvement is not to do with being peacemakers rather our own (oil?) interests?

Look at my hands.

Jesus then indicates his scars,

Look at my hands and my feet…Touch me and see;

Luke 24:39

Jesus wants to confirm in his doubting disciples minds that it is truly himself. They know just how he suffered and the scars he would carry. In touching his wounds they re-encounter his death, but also engage with the living, breathing Christ. Life has followed after the torture and abomination of their leader. Jesus provides proof of his death, and in doing so proof of his life. We are resurrection people. We know that there is life after death, that there is hope in even the darkest of places, and perhaps we can apply that hope now. Perhaps that comes across as patronising and condescending and cold Christianity, when we are safely tucked up in our churches in the West and our biggest concern is the quality of the coffee.

The outcomes of the resurrection of Jesus is that the whole world may be saved.

Andrew Knowles

Perhaps Jesus is saying something more than just ‘Look at me, I’m alive!’, perhaps he is saying that there is more to walking in his footsteps, more to carrying his name, than resurrection hope – there is also suffering and the carrying of scars, and the painful burden of difficult choices to be made. Perhaps, actions in the name of peace will cause painful scarring? Can I say ‘In my name’ to this? It seems callous. Go ahead, ‘in my name’ and strike terror in order to create peace, because it is miles away from home and I won’t carry any of the scars? This doesn’t sound sacrificial to me. This doesn’t sound like Jesus’ actions either – he placed himself on the cross, not others.

And yet….

And yet, to do nothing is also a decision. To stand by and let chemical attacks be carried out on innocent civilians is still an action. Is it a peaceful one?

And yet, as Jesus was nailed to the cross, God the Father allowed it to happen, turned his face away…

What are we frightened of?

Have you anything to eat?

And then Jesus says

Have you anything here to eat?

Luke 24: 41

Sorry, what?????

The dazed disciples are still wondering and disbelieving, and he asks for food! Perhaps resurrection is a hungry business, perhaps Jesus is concerned for the disciples welfare – doctors when visiting the bereaved will ask if they are sleeping and if they are eating. Perhaps, and this is how we commonly understand this moment in the gospel, Jesus is simply proving his human need for food in the way that the living, and not the dead, need to eat.

It also reminds us that life goes on. WH Auden’s poem quoted in Four Weddings and a Funeral beautifully expresses the desire of the bereaved to stay in the moment of grief, of not wanting to move on, but life does:

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

http://www.youtube.com/33dc31de-9c89-4612-824b-c5832cd2fbeb

In eating, Jesus breaks through the limbo state of grief, perhaps that is why the wake after a funeral is so important? Jesus wakes his disciples from their grief and reminds them that there is work to be done.

We can (and should) grieve what has been done to Syria; the countless families who have been made homeless, who have been torn apart, who have been bereaved. They do not need our ‘thoughts and prayers’, our sympathies without action, though.

‘Have you anything here to eat?’

I may want to scream ‘Not in my name’ at military intervention, but what have I actually done to feed those made homeless, to care for the widow and the orphan? To bring about  a ceasefire and an end to suffering? What have I actually done that I can put my name to?

Jesus then reminds his disciples of what he told them before he was crucified:

the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations Luke 24:46

When Peter heard this, he replied, ‘Not in my name’ – I won’t let this happen to you – and Jesus rebuked him.

When we observe actions such as these air strikes, are we responding as Peter did? We are not comfortable with the painful and costly decisions that others have to make and so we distance ourselves from them? We think we know better, but generally we have opinion rather than knowledge. I am struggling with what to write now, as I don’t want to twist the gospel in order to make a clever point. Jesus’ death and crucifixion certainly are not the same as the war in Syria, with or without the latest air strikes; however, Jesus does know that the ultimate cost of peace for him was pain and sorrow and anguish. He also knew that although he had to die, it would cause grief to others who would need to be forgiven for the role that they played in hammering those nails, in passing judgement, in plotting against him. It is claimed that the air strikes were plotted to create as little collateral damage as possible – to protect the civilians on the ground, but also the serving members of our air forces; we cannot protect from the emotional feelings of guilt though. With this air attack being so unpopular, the change of Facebook profiles to the ‘Don’t Bomb Syria’ button, and the use of #Notinmyname, forgiveness may well be something that is hard to receive and to believe.

Jesus’ final words in this passage are reminders of what we are called to do and who we are called to be:

You are witnesses,

Luke 24: 48

Perhaps this is something we can put our names to? To be witnesses of the God who brings redemption and hope, restoration and resurrection, forgiveness to those who repent? Perhaps at this time we feel the need to repent on behalf of our country? Perhaps we need to repent on behalf of our own inactions?

Something to do:

Light a candle and pray for the people of Syria and for the world leaders, that Jesus’ peace may be made known:

A Prayer For All Caught Up In The War In Syria:

Lord of all power and might, wisdom and love,
You gave your only Son to live with the suffering and poor, to die for our sins and rise from the dead so that we may live.
In your hands justice is perfect, and mercy and righteousness meet.
We pray for all caught up in the war in Syria; for the innocent who are poisoned by its weapons and bereaved or wounded by its violence,
for those serving in our armed forces, for those who make decisions and order actions.
Be merciful to the people of Syria, bring justice in their suffering, and let new life arise where there is now destruction and fear.
We pray these prayers in the name of your risen Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

 

Read Mark and Inwardly Digest: April Fools Day, or Happy Easter!

Today I generously presented members of my congregation with mini Easter eggs, only ‘April Fools!’ I had replaced the chocolate eggs with grapes, tee hee hee. April Fools day is fairly mild compared with some of the hoaxes of yesteryear. I can still remember  being told about the harvesting of spaghetti from spaghetti trees:

It certainly isn’t thought of as a festival of any great standing, no hallmark cards are available to wish you an Embarrassing April Fools Day! In other centuries, however, it was quite the ‘celebration’ even in churches and Cathedrals in the 12th Century. In place of the Bishop preaching, a donkey was ridden into church and all the liturgical responses were replaced with braying. In 1444 an attempt to halt some of the more chaotic behaviour resulted in a decree that only three buckets of water be poured over the ‘Bishop of the Fools’.

No automatic alt text available.

Of course the biggest April Fools joke is the one we are celebrating today. The religious leaders had been made a fool of so many times in Jesus’ ministry – in the three years he had been teaching and preaching and healing and forgiving the Pharisees and Sadducees had confronted Jesus, tried to trick him and undermine him and each time the tables had been turned and they had been the ones with egg on their faces. With Jesus’ death they’d had the last word. Pilate had also been concerned with his own reputation rather than fairness when he sentenced Jesus to death, and to ensure that none of Jesus’ followers would be able to fool him had placed guards outside his tomb. As Friday became Saturday, and Jesus’ body laid in a tomb, it seems that he and his followers were the greatest of fools.

But then comes Sunday and the tables are turned. Jesus had promised that he would be raised from the dead in just three days. He had been tried on the basis that he had declared that he could rebuild the temple in just three days; of course no-one had believed him, but here he is April Fools!

The question is, do we believe? The disciples struggled to believe. In Mark’s gospel there is no joy at the resurrection. No heartfelt re-union with the weeping Mary or the sprinting Peter and John. They are surprised that the tomb has been opened. They are surprised to find a young man sitting in place of the corpse. They are surprised by the message they are given. They are also scared. Mark doesn’t end his story of Jesus with joy and hope but with amazement and fear. The reader is left to work out for themselves what has happened, and to make a decision as to whether or not they will believe the message of the young man sitting in Jesus’ place.

How do we approach the open tomb? With disbelief, with fear, with grief? How will we travel on from this day? In faith and hope or fear and disbelief?

this unfinished story puts the ball in the reader’s court. It puts us to work; we must decide how the story should come out.

Lamar Williamson Jnr

Something to do: Light a candle and read through Mark’s resurrection account (Mark 16:1-8).

Something to think about:

  • Have you ever been on the end of an April Fools joke? Did you find it funny?
  • Why do you think the women were so surprised?
  • Why had it been so important for them to be the first at the grave?
  • Who do you think the ‘young man dressed in white’ was? Who do you think the women thought he was?
  • Despite being given specific instructions the women were too sacred. What were they scared of?
  • Have you ever been given specific instructions or messages that you have been to scared to enact?
  • Mark’s gospel ends in the middle of a sentence… why do you think he breaks of so dramatically? Why did he leave his story without any resolution?
  • ‘The shorter ending’ and the ‘the longer ending’ have been added at later dates – why do you think early theologians felt it was necessary to tie up all the ends?
  • Does our faith have neat and tidy endings, or do we often feel stuck in the middle of a sentence?
  • Despite their faithfulness, the women are not left in a particularly good light. We like to think of our disciples as fearless heroes, but here we see terror and amazement. How would you feel if you were confronted with an empty tomb?
  • The lack of a fullstop means that we have to make our own ending to the story – where do you want the story to lead you today?

Something to watch:

Something to pray:

By the mystery of your Spirit you gave their message voice, the dumb were made to speak and the grieving to rejoice; For somewhere on their journey in truth they met with you: From death and dread and silence the word of life broke through.

We fear your resurrection, unfathomable Lord; To follow you will cost us more than we dare afford. But yet the gospel fires us: the price of love is paid, And we will not keep silence – though we are still afraid.

Liz Varley

 

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