Sermon on John 15:1-8

“I believe in Christian values, I just don’t think we need the Church.” That’s a comment I hear quite often these days.
“Yes,” I reply. “I like bananas. I just don’t think we need all those banana trees.”
The point is obvious, is it not? Where do Christian values come from? It is somewhat surprising that people think that they spring from somewhere inside us. The lessons of history rather tell us that human beings, left to themselves, tend to be terrifyingly violent, greedy and self-obsessed. So why do we think that we are different? Is it because we’re British? Or somehow more wise? Or more sophisticated? The more you press the point, the thinner the ground seems to become.
But for all that, I think they are on to something. They have recognised that Christian values are, well, valuable! That there’s something there worth living by.
And I think that chimes with what Jesus is saying when he is talking about vines bearing fruit. In fact he gives something close a definition of the meaning of life is when he says that his father’s will is, “that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Jesus’s idea of fruit, of course, goes much further than Christian values, but the same dynamic principle applies. We can’t have the benefits of Christianity without Jesus. And his idea of what it means to be Jesus’s disciple goes far beyond mere churchgoing, or simply subscribing to a series of private views about the world. It is about ‘abiding’ in him. Unless we’re doing that, there is no way we can make the difference in the world that he is calling us to make:
“Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
In other words, it all begins by being connected deeply to Jesus, to have his life coursing through us, just as the branch is connected to the vine and has the vine’s life coursing through it.
Now, Jesus’s metaphor here is carefully chosen. The vine is the Biblical symbol for God’s chosen people. And Jesus, as the Chosen One, takes that metaphor upon himself. In his own life, Jesus did everything that God’s chosen people were supposed to do. He is the perfect human being. He himself is the vine. And therefore he, and only he, bears the fruit that God longs to see from his humanity.
So what is that fruit? Well the Bible gives us that answer. The New Testament sets out the fruit that is borne in our own personal lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. They encapsulate the Christian values that are so precious to us and they are desperately important, perhaps more needed in our world right now than they have been for many centuries.
But it seems likely that Jesus had in mind principally the Old Testament’s teaching the fruit God’s vine was expected to bear. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” says God, through the prophet Hosea. Or through Amos “let justice roll down like mountains”. Or through Isaiah “good news to the poor, healing to the broken-hearted, freedom to the captive, release to the oppressed.”
God’s vision for humanity is that we will be so bound up in his life that he will transform the world through us, that through us, God will restore it to his own good purposes. And the Bible is absolutely clear that is not going to happen unless we give our lives to God. It simply doesn’t work to try to do the right thing, but keep God out. In fact, the Bible is clear that trying to do it without God was what caused it to go wrong in the first place.
And the lessons of history rather bear this out. One of the great lies that is told in our society today is that religion is the cause of all wars. As though human beings are naturally placid, peace-loving beings who only turn on each other when faith drives them to violence. What nonsense! You know, there’s a reason why, of all the known humanoid beings from pre-history only homo-sapiens remains – it’s because we killed them all off. That wasn’t religion. The ancient pre-Christian world was appalling violent with rape, child-sacrifice and duelling commonplace. A Saturday afternoon’s entertainment involved watching people fight to the death. And look at the attempts in the 20th century to create godless utopian societies: the Soviet Union, China and North Korea are not really noted for their peace-loving tendencies.
Human beings, left to their own devices, do not tend towards goodness. Even my friends who believe in Christian values seem to recognise this: that Christian values are somehow necessary, somehow a force for good in this world. But like bananas, they don’t grow on their own. Like the vine, the branches don’t grow unless they’re attached to the tree.
The world is crying out for the fruit that the Bible describes: justice, peace, joy, good news, freedom, self-control, patience, kindness and so on. And that only comes when we are rooted and established in Jesus, allowing him to make the change in us that only he can make, so that we can make the change in the world that only he can make.
So the invitation to us is to live fruitful lives by abiding ever more deeply in Christ. It is a wonderful image to set before us. Fruit itself is a wonderfully beguiling metaphor. It bursts with life-giving properties; it promises great taste and refreshment. It is fruit we squeeze into wine for joy and celebration. It is fruit we bring to the sick as a symbol of healing and health. And fruit is also a symbol of reproduction. Being fruitful for Christ reminds us that our calling as the people of God, as the body of Christ, is not just for ourselves. The fruit that we bear by being joined to Christ is to bring about the same life in others.
We see, in the Acts of the Apostles, that one of the key fruits of the first disciples is the way they share the life of the risen Christ liberally with those around us – today it was an Ethiopian eunuch. And we ourselves, as we prepare to become a mission community, are in the process of re-imagining mission. What does mission look like for us? Clearly it no longer involves pith helmets or making little Englishmen (possibly it never should). So what does it mean?
Well, undoubtedly part of mission is explaining our faith rationally to those, like the Ethiopian eunuch, with questions. But more fundamentally, it begins with living the life of the risen Jesus ourselves; living in a way that is manifestly different, a way of life that is bursting with the fruit of Jesus.
You know, it really is quite a compliment that many people in this apparently secular age still think that Christian values are important. It says we’ve got something right. It says that we are living in a way that is bearing fruit for Jesus and that must mean that we are abiding in him. But if we’re honest, we know that we don’t do so as fully as we could.
We all have a tendency to keep God out, like a child refusing to take its medicine. Each of us, I’m sure, will have felt that same temptation to unplug from Christ and from the life of the vine. We will have reasoned to ourselves that we can skip Church from time to time and still live by the right values. We can ease off in our prayers, not bother too much about the Bible and ignore Church life outside of Sundays and the sky won’t fall on our heads. I felt this tug myself, during my sabbatical, when it was much harder to motivate myself to go to a strange church I didn’t know. But what we don’t notice, when we drift away – and I’ve done this myself at times – is how the life of Jesus slowly ebbs out of us; how the fruit we bear is somehow less bountiful, less attractive and not so life-giving to others.
Now this is not intended to make anyone feel guilty for their attendance record – guilt is wiped away in the Church – but it is a call to go deeper and to recognise the remarkable significance of what we do when we come together in Jesus.
You see, those two words ‘Mission Community’ go together. Mission is what we do when we are joined together in Christ, when we abide in him and he abides in us. And maybe we don’t always notice the significance of what we do when we come together as Church, but perhaps that’s because it’s not us who make the difference, but Christ working through us. But when we are joined to him, as individuals, and when he joins us to each other as his body, as the vine, we bear wonderful fruit that we don’t even recognise. We become a blessing to our friends and neighbours, we have a richness of life that gives meaning and purpose, we make a force for good in this world that people recognise and value and we have a story to tell to those who also long for their lives to be fruitful.
We have so much in the risen Jesus that this world needs. Alone and cut off from him, we are nothing, just withered branches, proclaiming a past glory – and if we’re honest that’s too often how church looks. But when we abide in him and he in us, we bear much fruit, for our own healing and that of the world around us.
“4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit”. Amen.
Morland (joint) 29 April 2018