Saturday, May 26, 2012


A while ago I saw a TV documentary about the difficulties faced by school teachers in the Western Desert in Central Australia.  As most educators agree – and as Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson has powerfully pointed out – one of the most important determining factors in equipping this generation of Aboriginal children to gain employment and good housing when they grow up is a decent education – in English.  But out in the Western Desert, this documentary pointed out, most of the children could communicate only within their own language group.  They only spoke the language they learned at home.  They weren't learning English because they weren't going to school, and they weren't going to school because at school they didn't understand what was being said.  And the teachers of the Western Desert were making an important discovery, which was that the kids learned English better when they learned at least half the day in their own language.  Unfortunately the bureaucrats hadn't quite got that yet, the funding for teaching resources in the languages of the Western Desert wasn't being made available, but the point was clear.  The kids were not learning because the learning environment excluded them, but when they were addressed in their own language, when they were able to respond and learn in their own language then they knew they were being heard, that their experiences and where they came from were important and valuable – and they were empowered to learn other things that were new.

Today we celebrate the miracle of Pentecost, which is commonly acknowledged as the birthday of the Church – the high-octane day on which Jesus' followers are transformed into men and women in ministry, and a mega-church appears in a single morning.  A day traditionally celebrated with red-coloured cellophane and pyrotechnics that brings the high drama of Lent and Holy Week and Easter to a conclusion with a satisfying flourish.  A day in which, as the disciples begin to speak the local languages of everyone present, we witness the miracle – not of incomprehensibility and confusion – but of comprehensibility and inclusion.  And today I want to suggest to you also – that this miracle of comprehensibility is fundamentally a signpost to the demand for justice that shapes from the very beginning what the Church of God is supposed to be about.

The story as St Luke tells it begins – as so many of the post-Easter stories begin – with the men and women who had followed Jesus all sitting together inside.  In a holy if not very effective huddle.  It ends of course with them all outside – in a rush and on a mission – but we'll take it one step at a time.  And this is one of those stories where we need to listen very carefully to the words that Luke, the master storyteller, uses, because his language is not only colourful but also metaphorical.  There is a noise, he tells us, like a powerful wind – although the word he uses for wind is the same as the word for Spirit.  We could just about translate this sentence by saying that the house is abuzz with a powerful spirit of excitement!  And then our English translation tells us that divided tongues rested on them like fire – from which we get generations of Sunday School pictures of disciples running around with their heads on fire.  Except of course that the word for tongues in Greek – like tongues in English – means languages, and that is what this story is about.  Fire is another metaphor that Bible writers use to talk about the spirit of God, and it can also mean – in Greek as it does in English – a spirit of enthusiasm and excitement.  So as one commentator literally translates it – 'various languages descended on them like fire' – the disciples realised the divine gift of language and excitedly began to use it.  It's not my intention here to deny the general miraculousness of this, but simply to get away for a moment from the mental image of tornadoes and hovering flames and back to the central point of what is going on in Luke's story.

The Pentecostalist Church – which of course takes its name from this event – has got the right idea that the implication of the Pentecost event is that the Holy Spirit empowers us for ministry, because this story tells us that through the Holy Spirit God speaks to each one of us personally and directly.  This of course is the opposite of fundamentalism, the idea that only if we can read something in the Bible, literally word for word and preferably in 16th century English, can we be sure that God really means it.  The God of Pentecost isn't so easily confined.  On the other hand, Pentecost is widely misunderstood by Christian Churches who draw from it the idea that we should all be 'speaking in tongues' – by which is meant what psychologists call glossolalia, or ecstatic speech which sounds as though it should be but isn't actually any known human language.  Because Pentecost is the opposite phenomenon – at Pentecost the assembled people all hear themselves addressed in language they can understand, because it is their own native language.  St Paul as always sets us straight about this.  'I would rather', he pointedly tells the Corinthian Christians who are easily impressed about such things – 'I would rather have the gift of interpretation, of helping people understand, than the gift of incomprehensible speech that, well, God might understand but nobody else does'. [1]

The people come from all over.  Palestine during the time of the Roman occupation was a multicultural and multilingual place, and Pentecost – or Shavuot, the Jewish Festival of Weeks, was a big religious occasion when the local population would also have been swelled by crowds of pilgrims.  We of course live in a multicultural and multilingual place ourselves – which means this story tells us something very important about ourselves.

But the Festival of Weeks was one of those festivals that carried a load of meanings.  Primarily, it was a harvest festival, celebrating the annual miracle that the earth provides for the people's needs and thanking God for the everyday blessings of soil and sun and rain, for the miracle of growth and the goodness of creation.  Which makes Shavuot a happy festival – an occasion for eating and drinking and laughing, for flirting and dancing and enjoying life.  But hand in hand with celebration and thankfulness – is the demand for justice.  This is the bedrock of the Jewish faith, the network of social obligation that comes out of the covenant the people make with God.  The Book of Leviticus contains the instructions for how the festival is to be celebrated, with offerings of grain and drink and the sacrifice of bulls and lambs, and a day off work for everyone – and then it says –

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien: I am the Lord your God. [2]

This is in fact the world's oldest system of social security, the provision for the poor who would follow the farm workers gathering the heads of grain that they missed, arduously gathering just enough in a day to feed their families, and God's people are directed to provide for their needs by not harvesting their land to its fullest extent.  Why? Because they were to remember that they themselves were once poor and landless and nomadic, and that God had led them then and provided for their needs.  The harvest festival, Pentecost or Shavuot, commands God's people to practise - not charity, but justice - to remember the needs of the poor and refugees and all who are excluded.

And I think that it is against this background that we need to read the miracle of language in St Luke's story.  Because to be addressed in our own language is to be included, to be made visible.  When you are not heard or addressed in a language you can understand, then you are excluded and made invisible.  The first thing that springs to mind is the situation of an immigrant – somebody who is isolated not just by the barriers of language but also of culture and experience.  The first thing to do when you migrate to a new country is to learn the local language and the local ways - but – as the educators of the Western Desert discovered – in order to learn you need to feel connected.  When somebody addresses you and understands you in the language you first learned, then the walls of disadvantage are suddenly not so high.  In this congregation, and to a larger extent within our Diocese, we have in recent years welcomed brothers and sisters from all parts of the world who – it seems to me – have enriched and enlivened our worship to precisely the extent to which we have learned to welcome and communicate across the boundaries of language and culture.  This should lead us also to think about sub-cultures within our own community that – while technically we share the English language – we find mutually incomprehensible.  For example the language of youth – if you are over a certain age – is one that requires us to listen intentionally.  And vice versa.  The language and life experience of people living with disability is one that challenges our ability to listen with empathy.  The miracle of Pentecost, it seems, challenges us to learn new languages and new perspectives in communicating with people whose experiencing the world is different than our own.  It pushes us, in other words, outside our comfort zones, as the Spirit of God always does.

The lesson of Pentecost, then, is the reality that God 'gets' us in our own terms, whether we speak Urdu or Malay or English or all at once – whether we wear a sari or a hijab or tattoos and body piercings, God speaks our language.  This makes us, not just individually but collectively – together – into God's people no matter how we got here or where we came from.  But Pentecost also teaches us as a Church what we do next - the lesson of pushing down barriers, the lesson of welcoming diversity, of learning to communicate and empowering those whose differences so often make them invisible and unimportant in our community.  It's a good lesson for Reconciliation Week, the week beginning on 27 May each year when we are invited to think about the milestones that have been achieved in joining together as Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians – and of course the challenges that still lie ahead in learning to speak a common language and understand one another's perspective.

I believe St Michaels Cannington has come a long way in learning to be a Pentecost Church.  Let's give thanks that, and work even harder to be a Church that celebrates the gift of human diversity.

[1] 1 Cor 14.9ff

[2] Lev 23.22

Friday, May 18, 2012

Easter 7B

One of my favourite party games as a small child was Chinese Whispers.  I'm sure you've played it.  Someone whispers a message into the ear of the first person, who whispers it to the next, and to the next – and so on around the circle until the last person gets it and stands up and tells us what they heard.  It never failed to amaze me how completely the message would be transformed as it passed around the circle, even a small circle – how the simplest message could be transformed into utter nonsense.  Whenever it came to my turn I would strain to hear and remember what was being whispered to me, frustrated that I wasn't allowed to ask, 'what was that middle part again?', secretly guilty because I knew deep down that I might have got it wrong, in fact I'm sure I made up that middle part I didn't quite remember – never quite realised that we were all doing exactly the same thing – we were all repeating what we thought we heard, trying our very best to fill in the blanks or correct the bits that didn't seem right and – well, that's how everything goes wonky not just in children's party games but in the grown-up games of work and politics and – Church as well, fairly often.

So maybe it seems surprising that this is what we mean when we talk about our Christian faith having an apostolic tradition.  The Greek word apostolos – just like angelos from which we get our English word, 'angel'– means a messenger –and in those days before the internet or telephones or even Australia Post the only way you got a message was if someone who was there when it happened came and told you about it.  The message had to be carried by a human being who was your link to what you were being told about.  Having an apostolic faith means we don't just have a faith because we can read about it in the Bible.  This might be the surprising bit – the Bible isn't what's most important – what's most important is the good news of Jesus' death and resurrection that shows us what God intends for all human beings, and fundamentally the way we know about that, and the way we get to experience it, is because of the witness of human beings, starting with the ones who were there and who saw the risen Jesus, the apostles who then went out and proclaimed the good news not only in words but in the fact of their own transformed lives, and then other people's lives caught fire from that, and it spread – sometimes through the centuries the message was very faint, the fire seemed almost ready to go out, and other times it seemed unstoppable.  Along the way the words on the page – the Bible – got put together and became an important witness in its own right especially in the last few centuries when people could actually read it, but the real unbroken witness to the life-changing good news of Jesus was carried from one flesh and blood witness to another, and so, eventually, to you and to me.  None of us came to faith, I bet, because we read the Bible from cover to cover and thought about it and decided it was good stuff – but because we saw the example of what faith in Jesus Christ could do in the lives of people we loved and respected.

And that's part of what it means when we refer to Jesus as the 'Word made flesh'.  Because the basic principle of how God speaks in human history is by being born among us and showing us what he's on about.  And that incarnated Word gets repeated over and over, until eventually it gets repeated in you and in me.  Remember that awful TV program, 'the Weakest Link'?  Well, believe it or not, you're the strongest link – you are the vital link because you're what joins the history of the Christian Church to its future.  And this is the major difference between the apostolic chain, of which you and I are a part, and the game of Chinese Whispers in which the message gets distorted despite our best efforts – because the message being whispered from ear to ear in this game is the lived reality of faith, and the power of the message relies not only on human ears and human words but on the living reality of God's Holy Spirit that – as we find in our readings next week – works by transforming human gobbledegook and misunderstanding into truth and comprehensibility.

But today, in our reading from the Acts of the Apostles, we come face to face with some very disturbing news – which is that apostles do sometimes turn aside from God's purposes – that this vital chain of human witness gets broken.  Interestingly enough, Luke's account of Judas's betrayal here and in his Gospel is quite different from Matthew's version – where we see Judas as a flawed but complex character filled with remorse, trying to undo the deal by giving back the money – in Luke's Gospel we just read that Satan 'enters into Judas' – and far from repenting he goes out afterwards and buys a small farm with the money – swapping the commission of an apostle for the status of a landowner.

So when Luke writes about Judas here, in the Acts of the Apostles, there's a serious point of reflection for the early Christian community – and ours too – about the effects of betrayal and the damage that's done when leaders of the Christian community get seduced by their own dreams of power.  Maybe Luke is bringing up the problem of Judas's betrayal here because it's an interruption in the flow of God's purposes - a problem that has to be resolved before the Church can go forward.  And it's a problem that the story doesn't really answer – what does it mean when God's purposes are thwarted or interrupted by human failure or selfishness? – for example, when Church workers sexually abuse vulnerable people in their care – does that call into question God's faithfulness or the sureness of God's purposes? – or does it ultimately reveal God's ability to work around and through the weakness and the moral murkiness of human beings?

I think the story is also making a pointed comment on the contrast between Judas's betrayal of Jesus and the more general betrayal of all the disciples – even Peter himself – Judas, who in this version doesn't repent – goes 'to his own place' while the remaining apostles – who do repent – find that even their greatest moral failure and their deepest remorse gets used by God to strengthen and resource them for proclaiming the forgiveness and the extravagant love of God that they have experienced in the risen Christ. 

But I think what the story is really about is what happens next.  Because here, in this story, the Church is balanced like a seesaw, poised for a moment between the emotional rollercoaster of death and resurrection, and the bright blurry uncertainty of the future.  Between the Ascension that completes Jesus' mission, and the miracle of Pentecost that's going to plunge the new-born Church head-first into its own.  And you can see in this story that Luke's main concern is about how the apostles led by Peter are going to be able to adapt to new circumstances – how the message of the risen Christ is going to stay grounded in human experience – through someone who was there and could tell about it.  This is the one and only time Matthias gets a mention in the whole of the New Testament – maybe he wasn't a great writer like Paul or a great preacher like Peter – but like you, and like me, Matthias is important because he becomes a part of the chain of human witness.    

Maybe Luke the great story-teller also means us to wonder at the contrast between Judas and Matthias – the one who turns aside from God's grace because he's got better plans, and the one who – whatever his own shortcomings – experiences and chooses to proclaim the power of the risen Christ.  But the election of Mathias to make up what Peter thinks is still the safe and complete number of twelve – for the 12 tribes of Israel - also raises some questions of its own.   What about Justus, for example – the other contender for the job – who like Matthias never gets mentioned again?  Does he go off in disappointment and forget the good news or does he become an unofficial apostle, does his life continue to witness to the message of the resurrection?  Does the Holy Spirit continue to work through him as well?  What about Paul, the apostle chosen not by the 11 but by the Holy Spirit to bring the good news to the rest of us?  What does that tell us about the decision-making processes of Church Councils?  What about you and me – what about Elizabeth, when we pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit to enliven her for ministry? How is her life going to witness to the good news?  Elizabeth's family, her godmother and friends have the joy but also the serious duty of being apostles to her – to show Elizabeth in their own lives the reality of God's love.  How do we encourage and support them – and one another – in that?  How do we support one another in carrying out the commission to be apostles that every one of us received at our baptism?  Because we've long since moved on from the number 12, and the casting of lots.  The job belongs to all of us now.  Let's pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit so that the witness of our lives can be – not the contradictory confusion of Chinese Whispers – but the clarity and truth of the good news of resurrection.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Easter 6B

The Sundays of Easter can be tough for a preacher, who week after week is faced with passages from John's Gospel, that – let's face it – have got a certain sameness about them.  No snappy parables to unpack, no improbable-sounding miracles to explain with a straight face, no confrontations between Jesus and his obliging sparring partners, the Pharisees, to get your teeth stuck into.  'Love one another', Jesus tells us over and over again.  'As I have loved you – as a shepherd who accepts the danger and hardship of caring for a mob of sheep – as a rootstock who sustains the life of the vine with nourishment drawn from the soil of God's love – notice this is not a guilt-trip sort of instruction.  Not – 'look at everything I have done for you, and this is all I ask ….' On the contrary it is an empowering kind of commandment – 'I have loved you, so now you can start to love one another with strength and integrity'.  But – well we started thinking about Jesus' final commandment way back on Maundy – that's from the Latin 'mandatum' or commandment – Maundy Thursday so spare a thought for the weekly preacher who by the sixth Sunday of Easter is starting to wonder whether there is a new angle here.

Have we got it yet?  A friend tells the story of a meeting between church leaders and aboriginal activists back in the heady days of the Mabo case and the struggle for recognition of native land title in the 90s.  At one point an elderly aboriginal woman got to her feet and looked around the room – at the white Church leaders – and said, 'it doesn't matter what the New Testament says, most Christians don't know what community is'.  And then she said, 'let's pretend you were really Christians.  You wouldn't hold on so tightly to what you've got.  You'd really love one another instead of just talking about it.  You'd treat each other like family.  You'd be different than other people.  Why don't you try that?'

When Jesus gave his disciples the command to love each other, the night before he died, the little community of men and women who followed Jesus was about to implode and self-destruct – fragmented and shamed by their own inability to stay with Jesus through the dark hours of his trial and crucifixion.  Seventy or so years later the little Christian community that the Johannine epistles are addressed to is facing its own trial of persecution and ostracism, and maybe they are tempted to close the doors, loving God of course, loving their sisters and brothers in the pews if they really have to, but keeping a safe distance from a world that has become hostile and critical.  This sort of ineffectual spirituality is called quietism, and when it happens it is always a sign of a church that has lost confidence, lost its way.  Because if Jesus calls us to love each other as he loved us – calls us, in other words, to love the same way he loved – then it's a very different ethic than the behind closed doors version of spirituality, isn't it? The risen Christ, in fact, appears to us whenever we huddle in a little community of the like-minded and tells us, 'as my Father has sent me, so I send you'. [1] What Jesus models for us is not the sort of love that judges or insulates itself from the world, but the sort of love that transforms the world.  The love of John's Gospel and the Johannine letters is not the self-affirming reassurance of the like-minded - but an ethic of love-in-action that prunes and grafts and tills the vine of shared humanity.

Like secateurs, Jesus' command to love has got sharp edges.  It gives us nothing less than a clear template for forming our values and framing our actions in every situation – it cuts though our 21st century sophistication with a directness that exposes our self-centredness.  Ask yourself this about every decision or plan, or about every attitude or opinion – does this grow out of love?  Is it based in love, or is it self-serving?  Is this going to bear the fruit of love for everyone Jesus insists is my neighbour, or is it just going to bear the fruit of self?  I'm not sure how well my inner life or my actions stand up to that test.  But it's the only test that counts.

The sort of love Jesus commands us to cultivate has got little or nothing to do with the glossy New Idea or Hallmark version, the essentially self-serving romantic mythology of the modern age.  The sort of love that the New Testament writers call agape means simply to be other-centred rather than self-centred.  This sort of love is not mushy or icky or slightly out of focus but strong and clear and life-giving – this sort of love is the opposite of legalism and social 'nice-ness' – as Jesus demonstrated over and over.  Agape love heals and includes and forgives – and critiques and tells the truth and stands up for justice.  But above all, agape love fulfils the command of Jesus by loving the same way Jesus loved.

An example from the early Church might help.  You see, once the disciples took Jesus at his word and decided to put his technique of collecting riffraff and hobnobbing with sinners into practise for themselves – the Gospel went viral in the ancient world.  It wasn't a religion of the polite and the well-connected, it was, quite frankly, a religion of slaves and undesirables.  Respectable commentators were horrified.  I'm not making this up.  Pagan philosophers despaired of this new religion of questionable morality.  Celsus, for example, in the second century, complains that while generally people who are invited to take part in religious festivities are the upright and moral, Christians go out of their way to invite anyone who is living an immoral life, or who is simpleminded or sinful – the more unjust the better, he claims, thieves and poisoners and graverobbers are welcome.  Why, says Celsus incredulously, if you wanted to put together the best gang of ne'er-do-wells you could imagine, just go along to one of their Eucharists.  The great Father of the Church, Origen, in reply to Celsus, simply agrees with him and coins one of the great phrases that has echoed down the centuries.  The Church, Origen says, is not a haven for saints but a hospital for sinners. [2]

Unfortunately, following the conversion of a thuggish Roman emperor a couple of centuries later, the Church lost its disreputable edge.  We became respectable.  If you've ever wondered, for example, why priests wear albs and stoles and chasubles it's because this is the dress of a senator at the height of the power of the Roman Empire.  This is very bad for the practise of agape love, which works – that is to say in including the marginalised and finding the lost and healing the wounded – precisely to the extent that we are prepared to stand where they stand.  To the extent that we are prepared to identify with the miserable and the oppressed, the refugee, the homeless, the drug-addicted and the guilty.  Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn against Christianity.  Thankfully, it has become less fashionable and less sophisticated now to admit to coming to church.  We have a lot to thank the New Atheists for, people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins who helpfully point out the moral and intellectual vacuity of faith.  Apparently atheists now call themselves 'brights'.  Which presumably means people of faith are again simpleminded.  Thank heaven for that – let's get back to the core business of associating with riffraff and practising Jesus' simple genius of agape love.

As an aside, the Anglican Church still struggles for respectability.  I'm not convinced, for example, by the recent edict of our insurers, endorsed by the bishops, that we can accept some released prisoners into our churches only if they are prepared to sign a legal document restricting their involvement in the life of the community.  By all means poisoners and robbers should leave their arsenic and cudgels in the foyer when they enter the church – the safety of little ones is not protected however by putting fences around Jesus' ethic of radical inclusion.

So what does it mean for us? What if we simply don't have the opportunity to get to know our local drug dealer or car thief?  What if our friends and family are all drearily law-abiding? How do we practise agape love then? Must we all volunteer at soup kitchens or needle exchange clinics?  Well, many Christians do.  A group of young people in Victoria Park right now are raising money for poor villagers in Papua New Guinea by accepting the challenge of living for a month like the poorest Australians by eating less than $2 worth of food every day.  That's agape love, identifying with the poverty of others and doing something about it.  Our own parish craft group is busily knitting squares for the Anglicare Winter Appeal, identifying with the needs of people in our own community who are going to be cold this winter.  That's agape love.  Smiling and talking with members of your own community in the local shopping centre – the young woman in the hijab, the young man covered in tattoos and piercings, the older man who looks as though he's been sleeping rough.  Getting to know the person sitting next to you in the pew right now who – frankly – looks and sounds a bit different than you.  That's agape love.

[1] Jn 20.19-21

[2] Origen, Contra Celsus, 3.59ff.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Easter 5B

Many years ago I had a bad experience with pruning.  What made it worse, was it wasn't my tree, it was at a place I was working.  'We just need to lop a couple of those over-hanging branches', I suggested – trouble is, when I lopped them off it was obvious I needed to take a bit off on the other side to match.  Then it looked ridiculous because the side branches were short but it went straight up in the middle, so I had to get a step-ladder – every attempt to make it look symmetrical meant I had to take a bit more off somewhere else - by the end of the morning the damage was done.  All that was left was a couple of bare branches, and a solitary leaf.  My boss and I never spoke about that tree ever again – eventually he had it chopped down altogether.

Pruning isn't a job for the faint-hearted.  It's a job for realists, for people who know that a living thing needs to be able to direct its energies into areas of new growth, that dead and dying wood needs to be amputated and growth needs to be encouraged in the direction that is going to be most beneficial.  It's a job for realists who know what they're doing – you need to be able to look at a plant and see where its energy is being wasted, you need almost to be able to see the currents of life flowing up the trunk and out to the extremities, to be able to visualise how that life can be channelled for the plant's own good and also to suit the purposes of the gardener.  It's a job for realists who have empathy and even love for the living thing they are tending – the ability to sense rather than calculate what is going to be for the flourishing of the whole plant.

Actually, Jesus didn't invent the horticultural analogy.  All through the Old Testament, God's people are described as a vine planted by God, for example in Psalm 80, that describes Israel as a vine that God has planted and tended, but now has been brutally hacked back by invaders who are helping themselves to its fruit.  The image of the vine tells God's people about God's care for them, about their dependence on God, about the need to stay connected with God and in community, but also about their need for accountability.  The whole point of a vine is to bear good fruit – our very existence as the vine, and the soil we're planted in and the care we receive are gifts to us from God, but what we produce needs to match the love and the care that God has put into us.

So, this is the first point.  This marvellous image suggests to us that we might experience God, the divine energy of life, as something that comes up through the roots, that rises up into us from below – something that flows like groundwater carrying nutrients in the very soil we're planted in.  It's an organic image of how our life depends on divine nourishment, an image that probably isn't going to be surprising to gardeners.  I guess the way we often imagine our relationship with God is from the top down, as though God's love and blessings are poured down on us from on high – but this image suggests something simpler and more earthy – it's about recognising the ways in which we soak up the nourishment of God's own life through the everyday blessings of ordinary human relationships, through the soil and the water and the sunshine of the world we live in.  The sort of spirituality suggested by the image of the vine isn't something rarified or separate from our everyday life, but something that just happens naturally when we attend to what really matters – staying grounded in our relationships with one another and recognising the goodness of the world that God has created.

This earthy analogy of our relationships with God and with each other reminds us that our faith is above all incarnational – that wonderful word that means God's love for us is not just a promise, but grounded in the flesh and blood presence of God's Son and experienced in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives.  The way we live our faith also has to be incarnational, not just a set of right beliefs and doctrines, not just rationally known to our minds or felt in our hearts - but woven into the grain of our lives and expressed at the level of everyday reality and human relationships. 

And here's the second point that this analogy of the vine makes for us, which is that staying connected to God is part and parcel of staying connected to one another.  It's worth digressing at this point, I think, to reflect on the words of the 14th century mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich, whose feast day is observed in the Christian calendar on Tuesday this week.  Julian, who lived much of her life enclosed in a tiny cell adjoining her parish church, wrote profoundly about Jesus who she describes as "our true mother, the protector of the love which knows no end … All the love of offering and sacrifice of beloved motherhood are in Christ our Beloved."  Julian's words are maybe specially appropriate during the week before Mothers' Day – but the more general point is that it is in our human relationships, in our experience of the love and self-sacrifice that characterise our most intimate human connections, that we come to understand the love of God.

This emphasis on relationship is typical of John's gospel, where the main concern is about how we can be gathered together into the experience of belonging to God and belonging to one another.  John calls it 'abiding' – this wonderfully rich word that means living, staying, dwelling – but also suggests something about rest, stability and intimacy.  For John, salvation is all about abiding - about the quality of the relationships that make us who we most truly are – the relationship we have with God through God's self-disclosure and commitment to us that we see in Jesus – but also the relationships we have with one another through which we find the security to be ourselves and the courage to grow and explore the world.  Our experience of God's grace does depend on our willingness to be dependent on one another, our willingness to care for one another and to work with one another instead of in competition against one another. 

But eventually we do need to talk about fruit.  Because, when it comes down to it, vines are domesticated plants, the whole idea of a vine is that it bears fruit.  I guess most of are thinking about grape vines, but it could be pumpkins, it could be rockmelons or zucchinis – if you've got one in your back yard and it's taking up space without producing anything you're going to pull it out and go down to the supermarket instead.  So this image has got a hard edge, it's about accountability.  You bear good fruit if you stay connected to the source of nourishment, that's your part of the bargain.  God's part of the bargain is to come along from time to time with the secateurs.  I don't think the image of fruit is intended to suggest that as Christians we need to produce some sort of tangible output that you can measure – the fruit of a life grounded in God's love and connected in community is most obviously the fruit of love and service.  Other more tangible fruit might also result from that – you might be a great evangelist or a tireless worker in the parish kitchen but I suspect that isn't the main point.

I guess one of the ways this passage has been read has been to assume that if we're all branches, then it's the good branches that the pruner is going to bypass, the good branches that escape the pruner's saw while the non-productive branches get lopped off.  In which case the trick is not to get pruned.  You might find yourself thinking of John the Baptist, and his scary warning about the axe at the root of the trees.  Stay connected or you'll get chopped off and thrown into the fire.  This is an interpretation that is still especially popular among Christians who are most concerned about what you have to do to go to heaven, how are you going to make sure you don't end up in the other place.  Are you in or are you out?  Are you still connected to the vine, or have you been pruned and chucked on the bonfire?

But there's another way of hearing this, especially if we remember that it's also the healthy branches that get pruned.  Because, unlike my clumsy attempts, pruning is a gentle art, and a loving exercise – you try to see what the plant needs, how it needs to be encouraged in this direction, how it needs to be relieved of having to put all its energy into excess growth.  We all do get pruned, in our lives, don't we?  And often what we notice at the time is the hardness and the sharpness of the secateurs that cut us off from some possibilities, that limit our growth in some directions – and maybe we don't notice till a long time afterwards that – actually it was the pruning that made it possible for us to thrive in ways that might not have been possible otherwise.  You might reflect on the times in your life that the Divine Pruner has lovingly shaped you, and cut away what was not life-giving, letting the sunshine get to where it was most needed.  You might also reflect on what in your life still needs to be pruned, where you still need to invite the Gardener to cut away what isn't being fed and nourished by the life-giving sap of the Holy Spirit.

To be the Church, we need to recognise our dependence on God, and on one another.  We need to bear the sort of fruit that God intended us to bear.  And we need to open ourselves to the loving care of the One who tends us, and who prunes us to stimulate us into new growth.  But the image of the vine reminds us - most particularly – that we need to do it not as individuals – but together.