Sermon preached by
The Reverend Charles Royden
21st May 2000
John Chapter 15.1-8
Jesus said: "I am the true vine, and my Father is the
gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every
branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.
You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in
me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must
remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am
the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will
bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain
in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches
are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. If you remain in me and my
words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you. This
is to my Father's glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be
I was reading a piece in the 'Weekend' section of the Times yesterday (Saturday May 20 2000) by Laura Peek which spoke of how evangelical Christianity is sweeping across the campuses of our universities. Apparently one of the things which it produces are the growth in young people who are committed to high standards of sexual ethics. One of the students spoken of was Kristy Axford who is a history student at Bristol University. She is the Southern preacher's daughter in the Galaxy advert who discards her bible, slips on a silk negligee and leaps from a window onto her boyfriend's haycart. Axford says
'Christians are hip, I was voted Miss Cool when I
modelled in Bliss magazine last year'
The article read as follows
'when I met her she was in fashionable Browns brasserie
sipping Cappuccino and chatting to her best friends…. they are trendily
dressed, enjoy nighclubbing and belong to the cocktail society. Five minutes
conversation, however reveals that they are not the typical student party
animals they seem. 'I don't believe in getting drunk and would never
consider sex before marriage' says Shelley 21, my body is the Temple of the
Holy Spirit.' We meet through the week and pray and sing together, We
encourage one another to lead a Christian life and to resist the pressures
of drink, drugs and sex.'
Laura Peek says
'Christian students are not the campus squares they once were. These days they are far more likely to sport fashionable clothes than tambourines and Jesus sandals.
Now all this sounds quite encouraging to me. Sadly the article was not meant to be a resounding endorsement. There was a feeling that there was aggressive recruitment of new students and far right politics.
'The moral certainty that evangelical Christianity offers is increasingly attractive to students'
says Andrew Henley Professor of Economics at Aberystwyth and journal editor of the association of Christian Economists.
'Another factor is that post modern culture is telling them that they can think what they like and that's okay, but actually that is a very insecure answer to an emotionally and financially insecure student.'
I think we can all understand why there is a concern. We do not pretend that right and wrong answers are all black and white. In our churches we do not imagine that it is possible to use the Bible as an easy answer to every complex moral or political question. We are not churches where we all believe the same thing because we recognise that some of the answers to ethical and theological questions are so difficult and a murky grey colour rather than easy blacks and whites. Nevertheless what we do try and be is faithful in preaching and teaching God's word so that by the gift of the Holy Spirit we can all seek faithfully to discern answers to our own questions.
This position recognises that we are not living in a moral vacuum, moreover we do have teachings of Jesus which are clear and compelling regarding some of the dilemmas which we all face. It is clear that Kristy Axford and her friends are right when they reject drugs and irresponsible sexual relationships for religious reasons. As Christians our bodies are 'Temples of the Holy Spirit' and if we can inform our young people that certain types of behaviour are self destructive then we are doing our job and being faithful.
You see it is true we do live in a society which has lost its spiritual roots and because of that it has no means of informing itself in order to make the right moral, ethical, political decisions. Are we surprised that cut off from the source of truth, we end up living in a dried up wilderness doomed to follow dumb idols and seek illusory goals which will never satisfy our souls. It is that wasteland in which many young people find themselves at a time in their lives when they so badly need a spiritual compass to enable them to navigate the difficult choices which face them. The truth be told though, it is not just young people, it is all people. We all need to be close to God in order to draw the strength that we need for our souls to survive.
What I have said is nothing more than an updated version of Jesus said to his disciples in John Chapter 15. When he said 'Abide in me, as I abide in you.' Jesus was addressing something very basic in who we are and how we live. Alienation is the bane of the post-modern world. Yet belonging and identity are so keenly sought. "Abide" is not a word we use often in everyday speech now. It calls to mind the old hymn "Abide with me". Not perhaps everybody's favourite but it has been a great comfort to many.
Of course that hymn does not fully capture all that this passage is about. It is about being fruitful in living the life of a disciple of Jesus. To abide in him is stay in communion with the Lord of life. The passage from John for today has a promise "If a person remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit". These words are an encouragement to us, they are full of grace. They reassure us that there is no need for us ever to feel we have to try hard to be a Christian. They tell us that we must never feel that we are not good enough for God or that they have not done enough for Him. The image of Jesus as the vine and ourselves as branches reminds that salvation and wholeness, and indeed all good things that we experience and produce, come not because of what we do, but because of what we are and where we are. Even obedience is not something which we strive to do by our own power and might and effort. It comes from being attached to the vine. Jesus uses a very graphic illustration and we can understand it easily. Cut a branch off a plant and it will die. To be alive it must be a part of the main stem. So too we die spiritually, are incapable of producing fruit, when we are not attached to the vine, or when we are not connected to the roots which nourish us. It also reminds us that when we are attached that the fruit that we produce - indeed the prosperity of the land itself, comes to us naturally, as a gift of God.
The gardener does the work and the vine he plants carries the sap and all its nutrition to us, and we, because we are in the right place, prosper and produce for the world the fruit that it needs. All of us want to do good things, we want to produce good fruit. However how many people in trying to do good things end up feeling burned out, exhausted and even despairing. This particularly happens to many people in the so-called caring professions - to doctors, social workers, nurses, etc. etc. They do much good - but many get frustrated, angry, and tired, their ability to help others decreases, and some end up giving up entirely on their professions.
As Christians we need to recognise that God expect nothing more of us than that we abide in him. The rest is left to him and we will bear fruit if we continue to abide. It is sufficient that we are connected to the source of hope, to the source of life, to the source of care and love.
Christians have disagreed over what the word 'fruit' which Jesus speaks about means. What does he mean when he says that we will bring forth fruit. Does he mean the fruits of the Spirit that are spoken of in Galatians Chapter 5:22
'But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. '
Perhaps in Jesus mind was the expectation that the fruit we bear was like the sower who sowed the seed and what he intended was the growth in the church.
We will perhaps never know but it is largely irrelevant. The fruit is a by product of healthy growth. It happens naturally when we abide. The plant and its branches don't have to force themselves to grow, they do not have to make a resolution to bring forth sweeter and more succulent fruit, nor do they need to remind themselves to be more abundant in their production. They simply need to be in the right place, the place that the gardener has prepared for it, the place where the conditions for growth and fruit bearing are to be found. For us the right place to be is in the vine that has been planted by God and which is tended by God—the vine which we call Christ.
Each one of us here today, as people who profess that Jesus is our Lord and believe in our hearts that he rose from the dead, are part of the vine of Christ. We are able to produce tremendous quantities of fruit, conditions are perfect for our growth—because God himself tends us and ensures that those conditions are perfect. All we need do to be fruitful is remain a part of the vine, and perform the simple tasks that every branch performs as a means of maintaining a fruitful life in the vine.
I would like to spend time thinking more about what it means to abide but I cannot today, for lack of time. Suffice to say that Jesus himself gave us a special example in The Lord's Supper which we share in this service. Among the "outward and visible signs" of connection with the source of life we have been given the sacraments, with the central symbol of the cup of salvation in the blood of Christ (Mark 14:24-25). John 6:32,35,56-58) The true bread [like the true vine] comes down from heaven. `I am the bread of life.' (John 6:53-56) "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them."
May we each draw close to our Lord and share his risen life as we abide in him and are nourished as we share the gift of his risen life in the bread and wine