Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 Oremus Bible Browser

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

I had an insight this week that the readings are so self-explanatory that they don’t need preaching on and then I wondered whether this was because I actually wanted to watch the FA Cup final. I’m not sure actually, but there is something in the readings that seems to be very simple for us to get, which is often the case when we have those ‘I am’ sayings that we get in John’s Gospel. ‘I am the true vine’ - it gives us an opportunity to go somewhere and reflect on what that might mean. Without a lot of language and explanation we can sit with it.

The context again is always important. We are still very much in the place of seeking to understand Easter and in seeking to understand Easter, we can’t help but be in the same place where we’re seeking to understand Christmas. Both those events which have a focus on Christ are almost opportunities for us, or seem to be opportunities for us, to look at Christ, to look at God, so it’s really quite helpful today to get, in 1 John, verse 12, that no one, no one has ever seen God. And it’s helpful, because later on in that same passage from 1 John we hear in verse 8 that we can know God and I think there’s a distinct difference: no one can see God and yet we’re told we can know God. It changes the context of Easter and Christmas - we’re not looking at God, we’re not looking at the Son of God. That is not what that’s about at all, for it is not an outside experience for us to look at and to watch, that’s not what Easter’s about, neither is it what Christmas is about. We are not, and cannot be, are not called to be, and even if we were we couldn’t be, spectators of God, rather we are participants of God, and it’s quite funny because quite often we mix the two up. You know when suddenly you get - you’re doing a puzzle or you’ve got one of those glitches in the programme which Windows serves up every couple of hours and all of a sudden you get through it and you go, ‘Oh, I see’. What you really mean is ‘I know’, ‘I now know’, so we do muddle them up.

If we’re not looking at God in the Easter event and if we don't look at God in the Christmas event, what is it that these events are about? The readings post-Easter - we get a whole series of readings from the Acts of the Apostles and I always think they’re a lovely entry point for us to discover, because these are the acts of the early, the post-Easter church, so they’re parallel stories with us here today. But in the first reading that we heard, it’s there already - it is a reading about a journey. How many Easter stories, post-Easter stories, contain journeying - the road to Emmaus, now we’re on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza; it is a journey. Gosh, when I was at Sunday School I thought I learnt that Easter was it, that was the destination, that’s where it all happened, that’s where it all ended up. Why, after Easter, are we looking now at journeys? Those words from the cross, ‘It is accomplished’, do not speak of what was done; they do not provide an instant in human history where it is, it was accomplished. The destination isn’t the hill, the green hill outside the city walls. There is a revelation - the voice that says ‘it is accomplished’ is a voice for us, it is a word for us to seek and to speak, and what we learn from the Acts of the Apostles, what we learn post-Easter, is that that requires journeying, it requires movement toward a knowing rather than a seeing.

Sorry about that – so all you people who overdid it with the chocolate bunnies and sit down and think ‘well at least that’s over for another year’, bad news: we have to get up and move and journey, and today’s journey has got that little bracketed bit, ‘this is a wilderness road’. Oh gosh, I thought we did that in Lent! What’s the point of Easter if now we’re on another wilderness road? If we stay with it though, it has been revealed at Easter. In Lent we went into the wilderness to actually find, to find strength, to test ourselves for whether we could even get to Easter. The knowing that is revealed at Easter sends us out into the wilderness in a completely different way.

There’s that wonderful image in the first reading, in that journey of the eunuch, the Ethiopian eunuch - that is not a title that one should aim for in life, just in case you were thinking of it. The Ethiopian side of it says that he came from the edge, he came from far away; Ethiopia to the writers here was the end of the earth, there was nothing beyond it. The eunuch side of it says this is not someone who was generative or creative or who had the capacity to generate or create. He was stunningly in a minority and yet also someone who had power, someone who had achieved of his own, a status and a station in life, someone who had control over and access to great wealth. The fact that he’s a eunuch denied him access to the court of the Lord, according to the law of Deuteronomy, which is one text which when you study theology and you get drunk you spend hours laughing over - Deuteronomy 23:1. He did not have access to the court of the Lord. The Ethiopian eunuch I think is almost an icon of modern Western humanity. Relationally, it is totally about self, so much so that it no longer has the capacity to create life and have intimate relations with another. It can achieve whatever it wants for itself and yet there is still a seed and a thread, and you can often find modern man and modern woman, sitting on a couch reading a self-help book, thinking that this might enlighten them. This is so much the Ethiopian eunuch and it is so much the modern world.

Following that reading we have the text of God is Love, but before going there it’s helpful to begin with a much simpler reading of John’s Gospel. ‘I am the true vine’, and the reading goes on - it’s a very short reading, and yet within that reading, ‘bears fruit’, ‘bears more fruit’, ‘bear fruit’, ‘bear much fruit’, ‘bear much fruit’ - it’s as if there is something being repeated and emphasised. And more so than that we have ‘abide’, ‘abide’, ‘abides’, ‘abide’, ‘abide’, ‘abide’, ‘abide’, ‘abide’, all the way through. So what we’re asked to do is to sit with the image of the vine with one word that says ‘abide’, abide in me and another that says ‘bear fruit’. It’s interesting, or it was interesting at the time, looking at the Greek word for abide and seeing where else that is used and in what other contexts. Abide can be to remain, to sojourn, to tarry, not to depart, to continue, to be present, to be held, kept continually, to continue to be, not to perish, to last, to endure, to survive, to live, to remain as one, not to become another or different, to wait for, to await one. Golly, no wonder, no wonder the writer of John’s gospel said this is the essence – ‘abide in me’, ‘abide in the Divine’. And what about the Divine abiding in us - all those things?

The image of the vine is very, very helpful; it dispenses with quite a lot of Sunday School theology and introduces another layer of depth. It takes God the Father as separate - it says, ‘no, not at all. I am the vine, you are the branches’; there is nothing, nothing separating at all. ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’: there is a oneness that is being spoken of. It also, I think, gets rid of that Sunday School notion that the Church is the people. Well, let’s think about that - imagine the vine, just the branches! Oops! That’s funny too isn’t it? And it says that there is something more, something more for us to see and find, and that is to find a oneness between all of humanity and the Divine as one: as one, intimate, related to each other, an organic network that is growing and changing and that also gives life to each other. Imagine - giving life to the Divine, instead of passively sitting down, allowing the Divine to give life to me.

It also speaks of community and speaks of the necessity of community in order for there to be life. The Ethiopian eunuch in his little box with his little book had to come out of there to be baptised into a community. The organic network of the Divine has roots, a trunk, branches and leaves, which means that some parts of it are in the soil and in the dark; some are in the sun and the rain; some receive water directly and others receive it via their connection with those who receive it directly. The network changes shape constantly: it is a vine that is growing into a vine in order to become a vine. It has an orientation towards the true vine and it has an orientation towards and a collective purpose in, bearing fruit.

The interesting thing about the fruit of the vine is that it becomes the wine that Christ uses to say ‘This is my blood and this is what will always and forever hold you together and give you life’.

We are the branches of a vine that has an orientation towards bearing a fruit that will be consumed so that we may know ourselves as being a people in whom the Divine abides. We will consume the very fruit that we together seek to create in order that we may find ourselves in the Divine.

The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris

Textweek Easter 5