Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 29 2018
1 John 4. 7-21; John 15.1-8
Rev Páraic Réamonn, Church of Scotland
Páraic left Jerusalem on Easter Monday but is currently on deputation in Scotland. He preached this sermon in Aberlady and Gullane, in the Presbytery of Lothian.
For most of our time in Jerusalem, Vivien and I stayed in an apartment 10 minutes’ walk from St Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church.
Walk with us to St Andrew’s on a Saturday morning. The streets are strangely quiet. The shops are closed. There are no buses. Instead of the usual rush-hour traffic, there is only the occasional daring car.
It’s very like Scotland on Sunday in the 1950s. It’s West Jerusalem on the Sabbath.
Some of our neighbours walk to synagogue, although most don’t, for this is a secular part of West Jerusalem. “Shabbat shalom,” we say to those we pass: May you have a peaceful Sabbath; May you know God’s wholeness on the seventh day.
West Jerusalem is mostly Jewish. The Arabs of Palestine who used to live here mostly fled or were driven out in the war of 1948.
Across the other side of town, we can find Jewish settlers, who make life miserable for their neighbours. But most people in East Jerusalem are Muslim, and their holy day is Friday, when they flock to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City.
In both parts of Jerusalem and right across the Holy Land, we find Christians. The Christians of Palestine treasure their land, where Jesus of Nazareth was born and lived, died and rose again. Proudly, they trace their origins right back to the Acts of the Apostles. But they are a minority, and a shrinking one.
Our situation in Scotland is not so very different. There aren’t, I imagine, many Jews or Muslims in Aberlady or Gullane. To be religious here means mostly to be Christian. But religion in Scotland is becoming a minority sport. Some of us walk or drive to church on Sunday; but many don’t, for this is becoming a secular country.
What does it mean to be Christian, I want to ask, when Christians are in the minority, whether here or in the Holy Land?
We won’t find good answers if we start with ourselves. Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, John Calvin and John Knox in the 16th, Karl Barth in the 20th, all insisted that we must begin with God and with Jesus Christ. And that is what our readings this morning do.
God is love, says 1 John. This is the central truth of our faith, but it is a truth we find it hard to get our heads and hearts around. We have inside of us so many false gods. An angry God, telling us how bad we are. A vindictive God, from whom we want to run and hide. A punishing God, who scares us silly.
God is not like that, says 1 John. God is love, and love is from God. Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Everyone who abides in love, abides in God; and God abides in him or her.
It can take us a whole lifetime really to understand this and really to accept it. Until we do, we really don’t understand what our faith is all about.
Love is from God. The way this works is that God sends his Holy Spirit into our hearts, to take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh, to take away our hard hearts and give us human hearts. We abide in God and God in us, because God has given us of his Spirit.
There is no reason to suppose that this work of the Holy Spirit is confined to Christians. The wind blows where it chooses, says the Gospel of John, and we hear the sound of it, but we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.
In Jerusalem, we say that Christians, Jews and Muslims are the children of Abraham. It is a mistake to ask which of us really are Abraham’s offspring. We all are.
Everywhere, we say that men and women are the children of God, made in God’s image and likeness. It is a mistake to ask which of us really are God’s offspring. We all are.
It is the Spirit of God who makes us truly God’s children, who enables us to become who we really are. The Spirit of God, I want to say, is something of an anarchist, kicking over the traces, refusing to be confined by our prejudices, obstinately doing her own thing.
What then is the point of Christianity?
The point of Christianity is Jesus Christ, in whom we can see, and see clearly, what otherwise we may only feel in our hearts.
God shows us his love through Jesus of Nazareth, says 1 John. God sends his Son to be the atoning sacrifice, the means of forgiveness, for our sins.
It is easy to misread this through the lenses of our false gods and our fears: God punishes his own Son for our sins so that God doesn’t have to punish us. God kills his own Son so that God doesn’t have to kill us.
But if we crawl out from under the bed and read the text again, we can see that this is all wrong. It is, says 1 John, the love of God that is revealed through his Son. God has no desire to kill us but rather to turn us to himself so that we may live. The way God does this is by allowing us to kill his innocent Son and raising him from death so that we may share his risen life. The Father sends his Son as the saviour of the world.
There aren’t, I imagine, many vines or vineyards in East Lothian. But the Swiss village from which we moved to Jerusalem in 2014 is surrounded by vineyards. Throughout the growing season, our farmer neighbours tend and prune the vines, sometimes ruthlessly, so that they produce good fruit. When the grapes are harvested, we have a Fête des vendanges, a village party in which we eat and drink more than is good for us.
I thought of this when I read today’s Gospel. I thought too of the garden we left behind when we moved to Jerusalem. When we left, it had four ancient vines, growing against the garden wall; today it has only three. In our absence, one died. We need to dig it out and throw it on a bonfire.
I am the true vine, says Jesus in our Gospel, and my Father is the vine-grower; and he goes on to talk about his Father doing what vine-growers do – cutting and pruning so that the vine produces good fruit.
The image of the vine is drawn from the Jewish Bible in which Jesus and John were steeped. The prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel use it to speak of Israel as in a special way God’s people.
Now, says our Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth is the true vine, and we are the branches.
This doesn’t mean that Christians are better than Jews – or, by extension, that we are better than Muslims or any other non-Christians. It means that Jesus of Nazareth does what ancient Israel was called to do but was unable to do.
Jesus shows us the love of God; he shows us unambiguously the unambiguous love of God. As the embodiment of that love, Jesus is the beginning of a new humanity, the beginning of a new community of those who, knowing ourselves to be loved, are set free to love in turn – to love one another, and to love all those around us.
This is how we should read our Gospel. Fear may prompt us to worry about being fruitless branches: are we to be cut out and thrown into the fire? But fear has no place here: We read this text four Sundays after Easter, when we celebrate God’s new beginning with Jesus Christ and with us.
To be sure, we need to let God prune us as we grow. It can hurt, because only metaphorically are we made of wood; but it is for our own good. Can we as Christians and as a congregation allow ourselves to be pruned, perhaps ruthlessly, so that Christ, the vine, can flourish more abundantly in our lives?
Perfect love casts out fear, says 1 John. This is not our own love, which we know all too well to be imperfect. It is God’s love, slowly and sometimes painfully transforming us so that we are remade in God’s image.
We need not fear, then, for ourselves or our loved ones, for we are in God’s care. We need not fear for the church, or our society, or the planet we are trying so hard to destroy, for God will preserve and sustain them.
That doesn’t mean we have nothing to do. We and our world are safe in God’s hands; but that doesn’t mean that we can sit on our own hands.
This is God’s world. But we are called to respond to God’s love and open ourselves to his grace, as God uses us to further God’s kingdom.
We are called to trust in God, knowing that if there is work to be done, we shall have to do it, knowing that if there are neighbours to be loved, we shall have to love them. And we are called to give ourselves to that work, knowing that if it is to be accomplished, it is in the end God who will do it.
CH4 716 Come and find the quiet centre
CH4 528 Make me a channel of your peace
CH4 609 Come, living God, when least expected
CH4 552 Oh, for a closer walk with God
CH4 74 Not to us be glory given (from Psalm 115)
CH4 193 “God is love: his the care”
Robert Harvanek, “Trust in God”, May 13 2010
Sebastian Moore, God is a New Language (London: Darton, Longman & Todd, 1967)
John Predmore, “The Fifth Sunday of Easter”, April 29 2018
Working Preacher, April 29 2018