Sermon 29 April 2018 B – 5th Sunday of Easter

Todays reading for Sunday Easter 4 in 2018 Year B 
Acts 8:26-40 
Psalm 22:26-32 
1 John 4:7-21 
John 15:1-8

Transcript of the Sermon preached by Reverend Roberta Hamilton:

Easter 5B 18 Acts 8:26-40 1 John 4:7-21 John 15:1-8 Today is an interesting day in the life of our church family. It is a day of new beginnings, and it is also a day of endings. And isn’t that what happens in families? So often on a day of sorrow something wonderful happens. The day Nigel died, baby Sophia Barden was born. Today we welcome baby Elijah into the family of God, and our church family too, by extension, and we say farewell to dear Stuart and Karen who have been part of our lives for a decade. The lectionary, as it so often does, has come up trumps with a passage that deals with baptism, and the wonderful metaphor of corporate life, the vine and the vine grower. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a very important one for the church to hold well. We don’t have much acquaintance with eunuchs in our society, our most recent societal connection is perhaps to the castrati who a few hundred years ago provided the soprano voices in a world where women were not encouraged to grace the stage. The eunuchs in biblical days were very important because in a world where a grasping for power so often encompassed a desire for succession, having a man of capability who could never reign and never want the throne for his son, was a boon. The fact that he wouldn’t run off with your wife or daughter was also an advantage, so boys were castrated as children to provide this function. Eunuchs had a very particular place in society, and could be highly regarded for both their capabilities and their dependability, hence this man’s role as a high ranking official. However, in the Jewish system an eunuch was ritually unclean and as his manhood could never be restored neither could he ever take his place in the synagogue. However, Philip is sent, very directly, to bring this precious man the news of God’s love. The outcome was the evangelisation of North Africa- the Sudanese certainly consider this act the beginning of the church for them. And the baptism, what does that tell us? Well, firstly that baptism itself is an important rite, indeed a sacrament. It is the outward and visible sign of the invisible truth, which is God’s love for us and the relationship that we have with God, and in God, with others. As the eunuch is baptised, just as when Jesus heals people who are ritually unclean, we understand that nobody is unacceptable to God- God loves us all regardless of what our society thinks. The eunuch asks the highly significant question, ‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ and the answer is, ‘nothing and nobody’, because God calls you. And so we continue to baptise to affirm God’s love for each of us, and confirm membership in the family of God. And Baptism is a moment of rejoicing for the family, in the narrowest sense and also in a much broader sense, because whether we understand it or not we are all connected. “I am the true vine,” Jesus says, in this most vivid metaphor of life together. Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. We abide, stay, dwell, sojourn in God and God becomes part of us, the sap that flows through us, bringing us alive and causing us to bear fruit. One of the things that I really love about this passage, is that it is the vinedresser who prunes, and the vine itself who gives the fruit- bearing fruit isn’t something that we have to DO, just something that we have to stay connected for, and the fruit comes. The fruit is not for the vine itself, however, it is for those not on the vine. If you think about it in its biological sense, the fruit is there to make other plants. It is attractive so that it will be eaten and the seeds spread. So what does this metaphor of the vine tell us? If we abide in God, God will look after us, and help us to grow, and cause us to bear much fruit. But we have to stay connected. Just lately I had a bud on my Diamond Jubilee rose- it hasn’t done well this year, very possibly I didn’t cut it back hard enough, and I was watching the bud swell and grow and it had such potential. I was playing ball with the dog and somehow the rose bud was a casualty. The next day I came out and it had withered, and its potential was gone, it had failed to stay connected and had died. It wasn’t a matter of judgement, I as the rose dresser didn’t decide that the bud wasn’t good enough and cut it off, I cut it off because it had died. Apart from the plant, it could do nothing. Luckily we are not so fragile, we believe in the God of infinite chances, to whom we can always reconnect. Now, the idea of pruning can be a painful one, and we often associate the idea with the suffering of our lives. It is true that sometimes suffering produces real fruit in our lives. But there is another sense in which discarding that which we don’t want or need, can be liberating. Many of us know how free we feel when we have discarded a little excess weight. When done intentionally we have pruned ourselves to our benefit, though of course, like anything it can be taken to excess and become an illness. There is a movement, much vaunted on social media, towards simplicity, recently taken up by a Japanese woman, who calls her method the Kon Mari. She has written a number of books, and the first stage in her process of simplifying your life is to walk around your house, touch each object and ask yourself if it gives you joy, if it doesn’t you throw it away, recycle it I hope. I see a flaw in this method, which is that there are an awful lot of essential things that might not give you joy, that you really need to keep. However, people who have done this report that it gives them both a sense of liberation, and a better perspective on what is important. And the pruning of God may achieve both those things, we might willingly submit if we knew that we would feel so much better at the other end of the process. However, in my experience we seldom know that God is pruning us until it is over! In our congregation at this moment we all have a sense of being pruned. As a church we are losing two valuable branches that we will miss so much. They are not however, being pruned to be discarded and thrown into the fire. They are being grafted into a new section of the vine, which is also a biblical image. And there in their new place I expect they will bear much fruit, just as they have here. And they will remain connected to us through the sap of God’s love. John the Evangelist, writing to the early church, emphasised love. There is a story, probably apocryphal, that an elderly and blind John was carried into the assembly and when asked for a word replied, “little children, love one another”, and someone said something along the lines of, ‘you always say that’ and then there are several variations to the punch line, some say that he replied, “that is all you need to understand”, or “it is the Lord’s command, if you keep that alone it is sufficient”. There is also a rather less flattering reply which goes along the lines of “so why the dickens aren’t you doing it?” God is love. God is love! At one level it is all we need to know about life. And John adds, “Perfect love drives out fear”, another very valuable insight. We are connected to this love, through baptism, we are grafted into the vine of life in God and God’s love flows through us bringing fruit. And with that love comes an absence of fear. If God is for us, who can be against us? If God loves us, nothing else really matters and we are freed to love unconditionally. Jesus says,” My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”