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SERMON PREACHED AT ST MARKS BY FR. KEITH BRISTOW ON 2ND MAY

Jesus the true vine – Acts 8 v 26 – 40; John 15 v 1 - 8

I clearly remember the first time I encountered wine growing in France. It was many years ago, and long before English wine growing had really got off the ground. I was excited by seeing names ‘in the flesh,’ as it were, that previously I had only seen on bottle labels. The row after row of carefully tended vines descending the hillsides in Burgundy were an impressive sight and, of course, the ‘degustation’ – wine-tastings, were an added bonus along the way!

As any wine grower will tell you, making good wine is an art. Left to their own device’s vines do not turn themselves into great vintages, much hard work and loving care goes into each bottle that is later enjoyed. The same can be said of making good disciples – hard work and loving care is needed, and this is why, in todays Gospel, we read of Jesus using the imagery of wine making with regard to His relationship with us who have chosen to follow Him.

In Jesus’ words, God the Father is the vine-grower, the one in charge of the vintage. We are the vine branches who need pruning at times in order to bear more fruit, and always need to be connected to the main vine – Jesus – if we are to bear fruit at all. ‘I am the vine, you are the branches’ says Jesus and we have to maintain a living connection with Him always, otherwise we will wither and be thrown away.

It is a powerful image, and one which makes a similar point to St Paul, when he talks about us being members of Christ’s Body. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve excused themselves from coming to church by telling me that they don’t need to do that to be a Christian. The assumption is that being a Christian is a purely individualistic pursuit, that it is purely about ‘me and God’. But from the words of Jesus and Paul we see that that is not the case. Of course, we initially come to Jesus as individuals and we never lose our individuality, but Christianity is always about being part of a community of believers – not merely a scattering of individuals. Just as the vine brings nourishment to the branches connected to it, so does Jesus nourish us, particularly of course in the Blessed Sacrament. But also, just as in the vineyard, the branches need to be linked together to flourish, so too, should Christians be linked together in order to nourish and support one another and be able to do the work that God wants us to do for Him.

During this past year we have seen the damage that can be done when people are cut off from one another and feel isolated. As human beings, as the creation story in Genesis observes, we were not meant to be alone. It has been wonderful to see how so many people have made extra efforts to link up with neighbours, especially the elderly, to do shopping and get prescriptions etc. Now, as lockdown restrictions begin to be eased, it is important that those efforts are continued and we don’t return to selfish ways as a nation. We will still need one another.

But, returning specifically to the Christian community, what should we be taking from todays Gospel as the Church itself moves out of lockdown? Certainly, keeping our focus on Jesus for guidance and support, as we enter this new era, is paramount. If we try to make plans without Him they will not bear fruit. More prayer and study of God’s word should be at the top of our list of actions. But also, we need to spend more time just waiting on God and listening to Him. Jesus promises that if we abide in Him and He in us we can ask for whatever we wish and it will be done for us. Of course, that isn’t a promise that we can pray to win the lottery, for example, and God will arrange for it to happen! If we truly abide in Jesus, we won’t be making such selfish requests, but, rather, asking for those things that will advance God’s Kingdom and enable us to support and nourish one another. Putting ourselves at Jesus’ disposal in other words.

Our reading from Acts this morning show us the fruits of doing that. Philip responds positively to the angel who tells him to ‘get up and go’. As a result, he is led to witness to a eunuch from the court of the Queen of the Ethiopians. The eunuch needs help in understanding the scriptures, he needs Philip to explain them to him – just like so many of our family, friends and neighbours today. He is converted to the faith because Philip is allowing himself to be used in God’s service. The eunuch then continues his journey home as a Christian and is able to witness to others in his turn.

Tradition has it that this was, indeed, the start of the church in Ethiopia, and so it predated the colonial missionary activities in much of the rest of Africa in the nineteenth century. Philip’s work was a success, not because of his own efforts, but because he was ‘abiding in Jesus’ and obedient to the will of God the vine grower. The vine was established in Ethiopia and flourished there because of that close bond between Philip and his risen Lord.

Some people argue that we are living in an increasingly secular society and that our Churches are becoming largely irrelevant. I would disagree with that analysis. Certainly, the number of people regularly coming into our buildings has decreased in recent years, but that doesn’t mean that people aren’t still searching for meaning in their lives and spiritual guidance. Like Philip, we are being asked to ‘get up and go’ and speak to those, like that Ethiopian, who are searching and who are lacking understanding of the things of God now. We can’t make any assumptions about what people already know these days. Like Philip we need to share our experience of God with them, and be honest with them too about our own doubts and struggles. Lockdown has made many people look at their lives afresh and question what their priorities should be in the future. As Jesus said on another occasion ‘the harvest is plentiful but the labourers are few.’ There are many opportunities for witness just waiting for us, and whatever our age or experience, God can use us in that harvest if we respond to his call.

Let us then rise to the challenge of working together and showing people that Christianity is very much alive and relevant today. Taking our nourishment from Jesus, the vine, He will strengthen us in his service if we are willing to let him, and if we are willing to risk the pruning that we sometimes need – when we have to realise that it’s not our plans that are important but God’s.

We all need to remember Jesus’ saying that ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples’. So, to God be the glory, now and to all eternity and may He strengthen us in His service in the challenging weeks and months to come. Amen.