One of the good things about this year is that I have done a number of weddings. I don’t think it has overtaken the number of funerals, but it does make life a little more cheerful! Also during my time at Emmanuel I have had the privilege of a number of baptisms and child dedications. All of these events have one thing in common – relationships. I have performed the traditional role of hatch, match and despatch, but they are all dependent upon relationships. The other thing that they have in common is that the relationships between some friends and family members are sometimes a bit strained; and also the only time people see each other is on these occasions when everyone says, ‘Why do we leave it so long to get together? We must meet up more often. I’ll call you when I get home and arrange a date.’ Hmm…that also expresses something else about relationships – they need working at. They don’t just happen. We very easily become disconnected from one another and as you will be aware, loneliness is a symptom of 21st Century society.
We all need those relationships, unless you are like the person Simon and Garfunkel sang about in the ‘60s:
Don’t talk of love, I’ve heard that word before.
It’s sleeping in my memory.
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died;
If I’d never loved I never would have cried:
I am a rock; I am an island. (‘I am a rock’ The Paul Simon Songbook 1965)
But that is not how we were created. God created us for relationship with each other and with himself – as expressed in the Genesis story of Adam and Eve. What is it that homeless people miss? The fact that someone loves them, values them is even prepared to touch them. What is it that older people in care homes or their own home miss? Exactly the same. And what Jesus is talking about here in this passage is that relationship for which we were created – with God our Father and with each other.
I have only one point to make this morning, reinforced in different ways: Christian faith is about relationship with God through Jesus Christ, and from there all other things flow.
1. Christian faith is about relationship. The Bible is shot through with this. It begins with the creation account in which Adam and Eve are brought into being; that it was important for humankind to be in relationship with someone of their own kind as well as God their creator. It is illustrated as it talks about God walking in the cool of the evening seeking out the people he has created. It expresses the devastation of a broken relationship as Adam and Eve turn their backs on their creator.
We see it in the calling of Abraham to be the friend of God; to be the founder of a great nation that was to be the light to all the nations of the world drawing people to God their creator. Like all heroes of faith, his walk with God was not always straight forward and easy. There was however perseverance in the relationship, even through the difficulties and doubt, and he was never abandoned by God.
We see it in the calling out of the people of Israel from Egypt and the perseverance of God with the people in spite of their faithlessness and ungratefulness many times. We see it in the description given in Isaiah 5 from where Jesus takes the example of the vine:
I will sing for the one I love
a song about his vineyard:
my loved one had a vineyard
on a fertile hillside.
2 He dug it up and cleared it of stones
and planted it with the choicest vines.
He built a watchtower in it
and cut out a winepress as well.
Then he looked for a crop of good grapes,
but it yielded only bad fruit.
3 ‘Now you dwellers in Jerusalem and people of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more could have been done for my vineyard
than I have done for it?
When I looked for good grapes,
why did it yield only bad?
We have an expression of God’s love for his people, his desire for his people and yet that was rejected. The people had not remained connected to the vine; had become dead wood that was only fit for the fire. In case we are tempted to feel a little superior as we look back with the benefit of hindsight, the same judgement could be made on the church today, which is why we need to take seriously the teaching of Jesus in our own lives, because the church is made up of people like you and me.
2. Christian faith is about relationship. When Jesus says that he is the true vine, he is speaking against the backdrop of the last supper and moving towards his arrest. At the end of the last chapter it is indicated that they have left the upper room and are moving towards the Garden of Gethsemane. Perhaps that is why the imagery of the vine and the gardener came to mind. In any case, the point Jesus was making would not have been lost on the disciples. They lived in an agricultural community and would have understood the imagery. The vine is a plant that spreads and extends, but it will only be fruitful to the extent that the branches remain connected to the main trunk. It will only be fruitful if the dead wood is cut out and the branches are pruned.
When I was younger, I thought that gardening was what my parents did. Visiting different gardens was not my idea of fun and I didn’t quite understand why mum would get cross about my ball crashing into the borders and me stomping in after it. I didn’t appreciate the time and attention that was needed to make the garden flower and be fruitful. I didn’t understand that it was because my parents dug and planted and pruned and cared, that the garden flourished. Now, when I settle down on a Friday evening to watch ‘Gardeners’ World’, I realise I have become my parents!
In many ways the point of Jesus’ analogy is very clear: we need the relationship with the gardener to remain fruitful and growing as Christians. We need the pruning and cleaning like any perennial plant in the autumn, if it is going to flourish in the following year. If we become too distant from the main trunk, we will cease to be living and effective as followers of Jesus Christ.
3. This leads neatly to my next point: Christian faith is about relationship, and it is one of dependency. This is illustrated by the presence of Angelique this morning. She is completely dependent upon Zane and Nicole for all her needs. She is dependent upon them for her growth and development both physically and as a person. She needs them to nourish and prune, to provide the proper conditions for growth and to enable her to remain connected. As she grows and develops that need doesn’t change – even into adulthood! She is dependent upon Zane and Nicole loving her and standing with her in the good times and the challenging times – even when she may reject what she considers their interference because she knows best!
As Christians we are people who completely dependent upon God our Father through Jesus Christ. Now that goes against the grain, because ever since the time of Eden, the human race has been asserting its independence and since the 20th Century its independence from any concept of a creator or God who is over all things; and certainly from one who came into the world as saviour. As Christians we recognise that God is the author and giver of life; that he came in Jesus to bring forgiveness for the sin of humankind and restoration of our relationship with him through the sacrifice of Jesus. That in order to have that assurance of forgiveness and eternal life with him, we need to remain attached to him – attached to the vine.
4. Christian faith is about relationship. What are the marks of that relationship? Well Jesus gives some pointers. Are we bearing fruit? That means are we changing in our lives, our attitudes and values and becoming more like Jesus. Paul puts it like this:
Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. 2 Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will.
If we are going to bear fruit then we need to be reflecting on and applying the teaching of Jesus in our lives. There is no better place to begin than Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. I would suggest that we have a long way to go in applying his teaching and allowing our minds to be transformed into conformity to what he says there. It really is a counter-cultural lifestyle that challenges the accepted values of society around us. Allowing this to be our influence and guide will lead to us bearing fruit as Christian believers. It will challenge our ultimate values and objectives in life.
I read to you from Mark’s Gospel about Jesus’ encounter with the children and his response to his disciples’ attitude. In doing what he did in welcoming the children, he challenged the attitude of society towards children; he put them before the more important people who undoubtedly were in the queue waiting to speak with Jesus. He also told us that we need to become those people who are dependent upon God in order to enter the Kingdom – he wasn’t saying we needed to become childish. There was someone in the queue who would have considered himself more important than the children and who had to chase after Jesus to speak with him. This person, whilst very religious, revealed where his heart lay as he couldn’t rise to Jesus’ challenge to put him first. Read the account.
Jesus said that bearing fruit was about loving each other. This isn’t the mutual love of conditional friendship – as long as you continue to love me. Jesus said love each other as I have loved you. It is sacrificial and covenant love that is committed to the other through thick and thin, including rejection. It is love that perseveres and is strong enough to go through the challenging times. That takes a lifetime of learning and practice.
5. The last thing I want to say: Christian faith is about relationship and it is a relationship of commitment. When you become a parent, it is a commitment that doesn’t end when your children have grown up and left home. They naturally want to become independent and be their own person, but hopefully cutting the proverbial umbilical cord doesn’t mean that’s it and goodbye. We know that sometimes this is the case for all sorts of reasons – and that is an expression of the imperfection of our nature. When you become a parent, it is a lifetime commitment and a covenant relationship that keeps on keeping on. If we want our relationships to grow and be strong we work at them and we persevere through the challenging and even barren times. That is an expression of God’s commitment to us in Jesus Christ.
Jesus continually in this passage uses the word remain. ‘Remain in me, remain in my love. You cannot bear fruit by yourself.’ Don’t become the dead wood that is cut off and thrown into the fire. If we are followers of Jesus Christ, we have a responsibility. If we cut ourselves off, we will shrivel like the grape in the children’s video. We are the ones who cut ourselves off when we neglect the fellowship of the church; we neglect reading the Bible; we neglect our prayer relationship with God; when we reject Jesus Christ. Let’s not become the branch that withers and is thrown away.