Sermon: The Sixth Sunday of Easter (B) – 10th May 2015

St Alban’s Anglican Church Epping 8am and 10am

Readings:   Acts 10:44-48;  Psalm 98;  1 John 5:1-12;  John 15:9-17

“Love one another, as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Some of Jesus most famous words. I often suggest today’s Gospel passage as a reading for commemorations such as Anzac Day, and but also in a very different context as a possible wedding reading. And today we hear them as our Gospel reading.

And yet when I saw that it was our Gospel reading I was a bit disappointed. Not because I don’t think the words are important, but I wished we could have started the reading at the beginning of the chapter. The extra eight verses would have made for a fairly long Gospel reading, so I understand the decision: but I think those verses at the beginning of John 15 give a background or context that helps us to see more of the significance of these familiar words of Jesus.

Now I guess that some of you are mentally scratching your heads trying to remember what comes at the beginning of John 15, while others are assuming they’re about to be told. And no doubt some of you are quietly congratulating yourselves because you know.

Well, what does Jesus say at the beginning of John 15? “I am the true vine and my father is the vinedresser.” Actually, if we hadn’t celebrated Philip and James last week, we would have heard those first eight verses as our Gospel for that day. Perhaps I would have been thinking at the end of the reading: “No, you can’t stop there – you’ve got to go on!”

Well, here we are. And I guess what I want us to see is that these great words about sacrificial love grow out of this image of Jesus as the true vine. In the Old Testament, the picture of a vine or a vineyard is used as an image to describe God’s people. And what is the purpose of a vine or a vineyard? To produce fruit, fruit that will bring refreshment to people, and of course will provide income to the owner.

And Jesus uses this picture from the Old Testament to describe his relationship with his followers: the removal of branches that bear no fruit, the process of pruning which enables more fruit to be produced, the necessity of branches to be properly attached to the vine if they are to be fruitful.

And out of this picture come those other famous words: “Abide in me”. It is vital for us to stay properly connected to Jesus. Only that way will we bear fruit for Jesus, and demonstrate that we truly are his disciples. It is a powerful image, and it brings us many challenges.

If we are followers of Christ, we need to be connected to Christ. But how do we do that? Jesus doesn’t give a neat and tidy answer, and I think that is actually helpful. We are not just connected to Jesus: we are in relationship with Jesus, we are his family. And how do we develop that relationship, how do we express its reality? If we are loved by Jesus, how do we respond to that love?

Like members of a normal family, we as Christians are not identical: we are different in many ways, and our experiences and our insights will be different. For some Christians, their relationship with Jesus is expressed in prayer or in meditation or the study of scripture or perhaps ecstatic tongues. It may be expressed in the service of others or in miraculous or mystical experiences or in personal devotion or particular types of worship. For most of us, a number of these will be involved as we express our relationship with Jesus.

Jesus is challenging us not to take our relationship with him for granted, but to see it as important, to work at it. And in passing, perhaps we can beware of the temptation to assume that those whose experience is not the same as ours has got it wrong! The important thing is to be serious about staying connected to Jesus, maintaining that relationship with him. And if we do that Jesus says that we will bear fruit for him. But what is this fruit?

Once again, the answer is open. In the rest of scripture, we see that the church bore fruit as it reached out with the Gospel: many turned to Jesus and the church grew. So it is that as we bear witness to God’s love in our actions and words, fruit is developing and growing.

From a different angle, fruit is also written about by the apostle Paul: the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience and those other beautiful specimens of spiritual fruit which adorn the life of people who are clearly connected to Jesus. Christian character then is part of the fruit which Jesus hopes to see in us; and because it is the fruit of the Spirit it will have a lot to do with whether we stay connected to the vine, who is Jesus himself, and who is after all the giver of the Spirit. Ultimately the fruit that Jesus seeks from us is our loving service of God and of each other, and indeed of our neighbour – who of course may be any person to whom we are in a position to show active love.

The close connection between the vinedresser, the vine and the branches can be described in a different way. “As the Father loves me,” says Jesus, “so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” We accept Jesus’ love as we trust in him and his gracious love.

And how do we abide in his love? “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” says the Saviour. And what is the central commandment? “Love one another as I have loved you.”

As Jesus’ followers, it is quite appropriate to think of ourselves as his servants. But Jesus honours us: he calls us his friends, and the word he uses for friend is a form of an ordinary word for love. We are his beloved friends.

No doubt a number of you are familiar with Downton Abbey. A significant aspect of life at Downton Abbey is the difference between upstairs and downstairs. The family love each other, with the inevitable ups and downs in their relationships to keep the drama going. And the family members generally treat the servants in the right way: but the servants are still servants. And indeed, when servants get too close to the family or even marry into the family, life is difficult. There is a difference.

But though we serve Jesus, the Lord Jesus, Jesus sees us as his friends, beloved friends. For Christianity is not simply a list of rules to be obeyed, or even a way of life: at its heart, it is a relationship – a relationship with Jesus, which puts us in relationship with each other.

What Jesus’ image of the vine does is to show us how these different sides of our lives link up together. We trust in Jesus for forgiveness and life, and become branches on the vine: connected to Jesus, dependent on him for life and for strength to serve. But also connected to each other. We express our response by seeking to obey Jesus’ will, and above all by loving service of others. And these things will not only bring honour to our Saviour and blessing to others: it will encourage us in our faith. Faith, obedience and love.

In the First Letter of John, from which we have been having readings over the past weeks, the writer wants to encourage his readers in their faith, and challenge them to be real about their faith. He picks our three important aspects of the Christian life: guess what they are!

Faith: he wants us to be sure that it is the real thing, and that our faith is centred on Jesus the Saviour. Obedience: if our faith is for real, he says, it will be expressed in a way of life where we seek to genuinely obey and please God. And love: we express our obedience above all in a life characterized by love, and loving actions and relationships. Of course, this is love which doesn’t use and manipulate people, but genuinely seeks their welfare. In 1 John, what sort of life does God seek from us? A life of faith and obedience and love.

And in Jesus’ words from John 15, what does Jesus seek from us? He seeks faith that keeps us connected to him who is the source of our life. He seeks obedience, by which we show that we are truly his people, his friends. And he seeks love: love as we actively seek to care for and reach out to others, both members of the Christian family, as well as others.

Faith, obedience, love: that’s a daunting challenge. And of course we continue to fall short. But in faith, we receive Jesus’ forgiveness, and know that we loves us, he understands us, he forgives, and he encourages us to keep going along the path of faith, obedience and love. He first loved us: what a privilege to be his beloved friends! What a blessing to be part of his family! What a privilege to have him with us and for us as we seek to bear fruit for him! Amen.

Reverend Paul Weaver