Trinity Sunday: Heavenly Heresies

A retired vicar said to me this week, ‘All wise clergy avoid preaching on Trinity Sunday’. Clearly neither he, nor I, have that wisdom as we are both scheduled to preach today.

The Holy Trinity is used to describe the Christian God as three persons yet one being: you can see before we even begin to explore further, how this could be confusing. The term  is not a Biblical one – it was coined by Tertullian in the second Century AD – along with 509 new nouns, 284 new adjectives and 161 new verbs in the Latin language. As the early church began to formulate a true religion around the life and teachings of Jesus and the prophecies of what we refer to as the Old Testament regarding him, there was much to be discussed and considered. How do you make sense of God’s mystery and majesty? How do you make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection? How do you make sense of the powerful presence of the Holy Spirit and all that those first disciples, and many disciples since, have been able to do empowered by her?

In 1894 John Richardson Illingworth declared during his Bampton Lecture at Oxford University, that,

The doctrine of the Trinity, as dogmatically elaborated, is, in fact, the most philosophical attempt to conceive of God as Personal. Not that it arose from any mere process of thinking…It was suggested by the Incarnation, considered as a new revelation about God, and thought out upon the lines indicated in the New Testament. Upon this the evidence of the Fathers is plain. They felt that they were in the presence of a fact which, so far from being the creation of any theory of the day, was a mystery – a thing which could be apprehended when revealed, but which could neitherneither be comprehended nor discovered.

Indeed looking back it seems that the development of a doctrine of the Holy Trinity grew out of a Christalogical understanding of Jesus: as theologians of the day sought to scour the Scriptures in order to make sense of Jesus’ death and resurrection, they learned more about his personality as Son of God, but also that of the Holy Spirit and God the Father.

Of course there were disagreements along the way and in order to banish heresies, the Nicene Creed was created as a definitive description of the Christian faith:

WE BELIEVE in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.

For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.

For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come.

Amen.

This was now the final word on what is and what isn’t ‘Christianity’: if you can ascribe to the creed you belong to the faith. If not, well…..

Of course along the way those heresies had to be nullified, and St Nicholas, patron saint of children and model for Father Christmas, was fully involved.

Arius was one of those whose understanding of Jesus was heretical. I am sure that he was well meaning, but in trying to get his head around these new mysteries he suggested that both Jesus and the Holy Spirit were created by God the Father and therefore not equals, and denied their deity. Legend says that when Arius began to sing a hymn in accordance with this belief, Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, reached the end of his tether and promptly punched him, knocking him to the floor! Now who’s naughty or nice?

Modalism (or Sabellianism) was another heresy disputed by the Council. Sabellius, stated that there was only one God, so far so good, who had three different roles. This doesn’t sound too bad, however, it is quite clear in the New Testament that Father, Son and Holy Spirit weren’t just different roles played by the same person, after all they had conversations with each other, but different identities.

Despite these (mis)understandings being disputed as heresy, we still fall into the trap of using analogies which fit into their teachings rather than a true understanding of the Holy Trinity:

The analogy of a woman as Mother, Sister and Daughter recognises than 1 being can have three identities – but there is no relationship between them. Water can transform into liquid, solid and gas, but cannot be all three at the same time. A shamrock may have three elements to its leaf, but those elements do not have distinct identities.

So how do we get our heads around this ‘mystery’ of faith?

My starting point is usually the Bible, but as mentioned earlier, the term didn’t even exist until much later. Throughout the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, but increasingly in the new, we see evidence of the Trinity. Right back in the opening paragraphs of the first book of the Bible when God speaks humanity into being:

Let us make humankind in our  image, according to our likeness.

Genesis 1: 26

also at the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, as he is baptised the heavens open and the Father’s voice is heard declaring that Jesus is his Son, whilst the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove alights upon him.

Perhaps the biggest question when contemplating the Holy Trinity is ‘does it matter?’ Well, without the Father, Son and Holy Spirit being one, the power of Jesus’ death on the cross is negated: only God is a powerful enough sacrifice to cleanse the world from sin and do battle with death. Jesus and God the Father must be one. If the Holy Spirit is not also God, then we really are quite bereft without her presence in our lives. Jesus promised never to leave us nor forsake us and that he would send the Holy Spirit in his place.

Looking at the passages set for today, perhaps the key to our understanding does come from the Scriptures after all: in John 3, the gospel reading set for today, Jesus declares that,

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.                                                    John 3:16

As the American Episcopal Bishop said at the Royal Wedding, Love is the way.

For there to be love, there needs to be someone to love and someone to be loved by. At every wedding I conduct we begin with a Sentence of Scripture:

God is love and those who live in love, live in God: and God lives in them.

1 John 4:16

The Holy Trinity enables a relationship to exist between each of the three persons of the Trinity: it is not about what they do, but how they love. We are so bound up with doing in our culture that we forget to simply be in relationship with each other as God created us to be – with himself and with others too. When we greet each other (at least in Britain) we ask How do you do? and if we are meeting someone for the first time we often ask What do you do?

Perhaps if those bishops and their forerunners hadn’t been so busy trying to  do God’s business in interpreting God’s identity and had spent more time focusing on following God’s teaching about love, there wouldn’t have been the need for an unholy dust up  at the council meeting; and wary clergy wouldn’t find themselves taxed each year with the challenge of preaching about the Holy Trinity?

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What is your favourite way of describing the Holy Trinity?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in your analogy?
  • What can the passage from Genesis and the baptism passages teach us about the Holy Trinity?
  • Can you think of any other Bible passages that allude to the Holy Trinity?

Something to do:

Engage with my favourite allegory of the Holy Trinity: Trillionaire Shortbread!

Something to pray:

Sovereign God,

mighty and mysterious, before all, within all, above all, we would more truly honour you, more completely know you and more faithfully serve you.

Give us today, then,

a fuller sense of your greatness, a deeper awareness of your presence and a firmer understanding of your will, that we may worship, love and serve you in spirit and truth, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Amen.

Nick Fawcett

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Pentecost: This Preacher is on Fire

It is fifty days after Passover, or seven weeks, the weather is fine and good for travelling, which makes Pentecost, or the Festival of Weeks, one of the most popular Jewish festivals. It is the second of the three harvest festivals, celebrating the beginning of the harvest of grain, a celebration of first fruits: the first loaves baked from the barley are brought as an offering and thanks are given to God for feeding their ancestors in the wilderness, and for the law as handed down to Moses.

The disciples are gathered in one place, no longer are they tucked away in a hidden room, most likely they have congregated in one of the very public temple courts. The city’s population has grown by 130,000. The time is ripe, it is God’s time, kairos time.

We are somewhat scared by the power of the Holy Spirit; we have seen press reports of people seemingly affected by mass hysteria and coercion. It is dramatic, and powerful and to be honest, for us Brits, a little over the top really.

And let’s face it, the description of the Holy Spirit is not tame, she is a roaring lion rather than a purring pussy cat. She is described as a ‘rush like a violent wind’ and for those with experience on the seas, as the fishermen-disciples had, the knowledge of how the wind can whip the waters up into a perishing storm, does not provide a comforting image.

Nor does the image of tongues of flames provide a sense of peace for those who live in hot climates and who know the devastating power of a forest fire, or even a single spark shooting out of a homely fireplace and setting the rafters alight.

There is a sense of the unknown and of course the unknown can bring a sense of adventure, but also of wariness.

But used for good, a powerful wind can power sails and windmills; and a well positioned threshing barn allows he wind to blow through the open doors to blow away the chaff from the grain. Likewise, fire in the hands of a blacksmith can bring form and shape to the toughest of metals, and purify fine precious metals.

The Holy Spirit came upon each of the disciples and gave them the ability to speak in different languages. Why would she do this? What was the purpose in this strange, supernatural behaviour? Well the power of the wind and of the fire, gave the disciples the confidence to fulfil that lasting commission Jesus had given them as he ascended – to preach the good news and baptise in his name. The gift of foreign languages gave them the ability, the skills needed, to do so at this pertinent time when God’s people had gathered together from so many different places, and would shortly be returning to tell of their adventures and all that had happened whilst they were in Jerusalem.

Read it here.

The timing of this was not accidental, the Holy Spirit’s gift of language was not proof that the disciples were supernatural uber followers of Christ, but a practical and timely gift to enable them to begin the task of spreading the gospel. This gift was chosen with care and with meaning and given to those who would value it the most. Isn’t the Holy Spirit thoughtful?

The result of this gift was that Joel’s prophecy would begin to be fulfilled:

Then afterwards
I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions. 
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit.

Joel 2: 28-29

the Holy Spirit has now presented herself to everyone, not just a select few holy individuals for holy tasks, and many of those present heard and believed; and the result of that (if we read on) was the baptism of 3,000 people. That’s more than the population of the village I live in, but not everyone present. Some mocked, some walked away and shrugged off what they heard, but others listened, carried the gospel in their hearts and carried it home with them too, and so the gospel spread.

For such a time as this, Bishop Michael Curry was given the eyes and ears of the nations when he spoke at the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Not everyone would have paid attention, not everyone would have tuned in to the whole sermon, and certainly there has been mockery;  but everyone would have seen the passion and enthusiasm with which he spoke and would have heard, at the very least, the Good News of God’s love for every child of his.

So if the Holy Spirit first came in wind and flame to empower, and the gift of tongues to preach the good new to all nations, how does the Holy Spirit come today? What gifts does she give us and to what purpose would she like us to use them in the furthering of God’s kingdom, and will we be courageous enough to use them?

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What images do wind and fire create for you?
  • What expectations do you have of the Holy Spirit?
  • What is the most passionate sermon you have encountered?
  • Is there a moment from a sermon that has stayed with you?
  • How can we fulfil Jesus’ commission to ‘preach the gospel to all nations’ in our generation? How can we do so in our own communities?

Something to pray:

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The Royal Wedding: A Right Royal I Do

There has been much discussion about The Royal Wedding, as there always is with any wedding large or small, but especially this one. This Royal Wedding is bringing our understanding of marriage and the wedding ceremony that celebrates it, up to date.

The bride has been married before. Her father is not ‘giving her away’ indeed no-one is. the language of the vows will be modern and not the Shakespearean language of the  1662 Prayer Book vows. The Bride is a ‘commoner’ but that’s nothing new, the fact that she is American, is, perhaps also her African American heritage.

Fashion designers will be watching with sketch pads at the ready to create replica dresses, florists too, and brides will be watching with baited breath for inspiration.

So what, as a vicar, as a registrar of weddings can I look forward to for my brides and grooms?

Well, white, of course. Simple and elegant, with a very long train and veil, held by page boys in mini uniforms. Diamonds sparkling from a tiarra. And a woman stepping confidently towards the church, not a chattel or child being traded or offered as a peace token between nations. Choral music sung live as she enters alone, and makes her way to her husband to be, who is watching adoringly. His father escorts her the last steps. The Dean, welcoming, sounds more nervous than the bride or groom! Her veil stays in place, until the first hymn when her groom lifts it.

Lord of All Hopefulness

The Archbishop asks everyone to commit to the Bride and Groom and suddenly this feels less like a pageant and more like a family wedding.

The Bride and Groom are made to wait to make their vows until the readings (Song of Solomon – beautiful love poem), anthem (If Ye Love Me, by Thomas Tallis) and address.

The address is given by the head of the American Episcopalian church -whose ties with the Anglican Communion were partly severed due to their inclusion of LGBT+ marriages – and begins by quoting Martin Luther-King.’The redemptive power of love.’

There is power in love, don’t underestimate it, don’t over sentimentalise it.

The Most Reverend Michael Curry (retired basketball player) is alive and vibrant and engaging, and speaks of Jesus and God’s love, and uses this moment to tell the Gospel of God’s love to the whole watching world. And makes us all laugh.

Love God, love your neighbours and whilst you’re at it, love yourself.

Love is the way for all of God’s children.

We got to get ya’ll married.

The Kingdom Choir sing Stand be Me, and it resonates beautifully in the Chapel.

And now those words, those intimate words when the whole world melts away and it is just the bride and groom and the love they have for each other, and God. Friends and family, dignitaries, cameras are no longer present. A holy bubble surrounds them, and it could be any couple getting married, the most important man to the most important woman.  The ‘knot is tied’ as the Archbishop wraps his stole around them (no flashmob).

The choir sings Rutter’s The Lord Bless you and Keep You.

The prayer for the couple is beautiful:

Blessed are you, O Lord our God, for you have created joy and gladness, pleasure and delight, love, peace and fellowship. Pour out the abundance of your blessing upon HARRY and MEGHAN in their new life together. Let their love for each other be a seal upon their hearts and a crown upon their heads. Bless them in their work and in their companionship; awake and asleep, in joy and in sorrow, in life and in death. Finally, in your mercy, bring them to that banquet where your saints feast for ever in your heavenly home. We ask this through Jesus Christ your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Guide Me o Thou Great Redeemer, a great Welsh rugby hymn – must have been chosen by the Prince of Wales!

And finally the registers are signed, and the vows are made legal whilst a cellist plays for those not witnessing the the signing:

Sicilienne – Maria Theresia von Paradis (1759-1824) arr. Chris Hazell (b.1948)

Apres un reve – Gabriel Faure (1845-1924) arr. Chris Hazell

Ave Maria – Franz Schubert (1797-1828) arr. Chris Hazell

A fanfare for the newly weds – or being upstaged by your inlaws? – a grand procession out, beaming smiles, and the bridesmaids having a little fight with their bouquets! Ululations, a guard of honour, and finally, the groom kisses his bride.

 

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Easter 7: Expect the Unexpected

I adore Eurovision. What’s not to love about this wonderful, colourful, musical feast of diversity. I have learned to expect the unexpected, from Bucks Fizz whipping off their skirts to Russian Grannies singing to raise funds to build a new church. My earliest Eurovision memory is watching Penguins perform.

Last night however, the unexpected happened: everything stopped and even the commentators were silenced, when the stage was invaded and the performer, our performer, had her microphone stolen from her: expect the unexpected.

 

 

Jesus has ascended to heaven – we celebrated that on Thursday with an open air communion on the hillside (Danebury Hill Fort). God is in his heaven and all is right with the world. Or is it?

The disciples have seen Jesus go, this is the second time they have had to say goodbye to their friend, teacher, leader, Lord. Their emotions are all over the place, surely. They have lost Judas, but gained Jesus’ brothers who had once thought him mad and had tried to drag him home. Now Jesus has told them to go home and wait for…. they aren’t quite sure what, but it will be astounding. In the meantime they set to work to replace Judas and strengthen their numbers, and once more become 12.

Naturally they pray about the situation. They use their beloved Jewish scriptures as a reference book for all that Jesus has now set in motion. They draw lots as had been priestly practise, to decide upon Matthias.

Already they are beginning to lift their heads from the deep pain and sorrow of their own shortfallings and of the loss of a friend, and are beginning to look to a future. Already they are renewed for the work ahead of them. At his ascension Jesus commissioned them to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, but soon the power to do that will be granted them in the arrival of the indwelling Holy Spirit,  dear Paraclete, upon each of them.

I wonder what the disciples were expecting? Heads aflame; tongues declaring in unknown languages; power, authority and drive to become preachers? Expect the unexpected.

So often we think we know what to expect. The church has been established for so long now, our set liturgies go back hundreds of years, we have fallen into regular pattern of worship. Paraclete is unpredictable, she comes alongside us when we need her most and lifts us to places we could never imagine, but we cannot control her or even predict how, and because of that many of us Brits are scared of her.

We are scared that we will lose control, that our bodies will respond in ways that we just aren’t used to, that aren’t decorous, that aren’t, well British. We are scared that we will be nudged into doing something dangerous, life changing, challenging, something completely unexpected, and that would be just too uncomfortable, unpredictable, unexpected.

In our reading from Acts, Judas is described as having been ‘allotted his share in this ministry’. Each of us also has been allotted a share in Christ’s Kingdom Ministry. The question is are we willing to fulfil it? Are we ready to allow Paraclete to come alongside us, empower us, guide and direct us, so that we can take our place alongside the disciples in being God’s witnesses to all that he has done and all that he is doing, or would we rather stay hidden? Read it here.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What is the most unexpected thing to have happened to you?
  • How did you respond?
  • What is the most surprising thing you have experienced with God?
  • How do we feel about the Holy Spirit, Paraclete?
  • How can we be active participants in God’s kingdom as we await his return?
  • What is the difference between active and passive waiting?
  • How do we understand the claim that even Judas had a role to play in Jesus’ ministry?
  • How does this help us to view these who seem to be most difficult in our communities?
  • What prevents us from fulfilling our roles?
  • What can we do to enable us to set our hearts and minds on taking active roles in God’s kingdom here on earth?

Something to pray:

Dear Holy Paraclete, we wait for you to be present in our lives, in our hearts and homes and fellowship groups. Help us not to place any barriers in the way of giving our whole selves to you and from looking towards your heavenly future.

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Easter 6: Everyone is Welcome

The followers are facing a bit of a dilemma: Jesus was a Jew. Jesus had been brought up as a good Jewish boy and had never denied his Jewish identity, indeed at time he had made it quite clear that the Jewish people were to come first in his teaching and preaching and other encounters. To not be a Jew was to be a Gentile and to be a Gentile, as far as Jewish teaching was concerned was to be an outsider, to be unclean, to not be part of God’s kingdom. Unless of course you were willing to receive the baptism of a proselyte and, if you were male, to be circumcised.

The dilemma is that so often Jesus welcomed people who weren’t Jewish and told them that their faith had ‘saved them’. What’s more he never instructed anyone to be circumcised. Baptism was to become the only ritual of belonging to God’s kingdom.

On the one hand Jesus is saying that the Jewish way to do things is the right way, and on the other hand he is saying that everything is new and different and the gates to the Kingdom of Heaven have been flung wide open!

What is a good Jewish boy like Peter to make of all this?

The infant church is arguing with itself, but in the meantime, Paraclete (the Holy Spirit) has already acted. The third person of the Holy Trinity has poured herself out onto the Gentile believers – they are alive with the power of God, there is no way of denying that these people have been received into the Kingdom of God. As Peter meets with them, their relationship with Jesus is infectious, and he realises that it is a no-brainer, and these people should be baptised immediately.

The last sentence of this little passage suggests that this wasn’t an easy decision to make or understand – but it was an honest one made in faith. The local believers ask Peter to stay, and he does for several days so that they can learn more from each other and this new way of being God’s people.

Acts 10: 44-48

Gentiles Receive the Holy Spirit

While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.

If only that was that. Sadly we still struggle to understand what it means to belong, to be made welcome, to be loved and valued for who we are. Immigration is a dirty word in our current political climate. Hospitality is an empty word, when what it means to belong is questionable.The recent Windrush scandal is a sign of the brokenness of our culture, and how remote we have become from the Son of God who commanded us to ‘love one another as we have been loved’.

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have prejudices. Whether its political, racial, gender or class based, it is still a fracture in the command to love. Such biases do not belong in the Kingdom of God, they do not belong in church and they do not belong in the heart of those who seek to follow Jesus.

Something to watch:

Something to think about:

  • What does it mean to belong?
  • What is the best welcome we have ever received?
  • How do we welcome people in our churches? Is there anything that needs to be changed or improved?
  • Are we aware of prejudices that need to be tackled?
  • What does it mean to be baptised?
  • How can we prepare for the coming of  Paraclete (The Holy Spirit)?

Something to pray:

Holy Spirit, think through me till your ideas are my ideas. Amen

Amy Carmichael

 

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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.

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