Fifth Sunday after Easter

The Grace and Peace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Jesus said, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

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 Let’s  join in a word of  prayer: Loving Holy Spirit of  God, we are gathered so that you can reveal your presence in our lives to mould us into the people that we are destined to become as baptised children of God. God our Father, guide our time together this morning, that we may recognise your working in our lives in word and sacrament, to prune away all that is not of Christ Jesus.  Lord Jesus Christ, as we rejoice over your presence with us, and continue to live in the glory of your  resurrection, we pray in your name. Amen.

One of our favourite places to visit is the Hunter Valley.  Looking over the vineyards, and the beauty of the area.  Tasting the wines, olives, and other fruit produced in that area.  This week, I was drawn to the illustration that Merrill Tenney provides in his discussion of John’s Gospel, about vines branches and fruit. 

‘In pruning a vine, two principles are generally observed: first, all dead wood must be ruthlessly removed; and second, the live wood must be cut back drastically. Dead wood harbors insects and disease and may cause the vine to rot, to say nothing of being unproductive and unsightly.   Living wood must be trimmed back in order to prevent such heavy growth, that the life of the vine goes into the wood rather than into fruit.

The vineyards in the early spring look like a collection of barren stumps; but in the fall the new branches are filled with luxuriant grapes. As the vinedresser wields the pruning knife on his vines, so God cuts dead wood out from within His saints, and often cuts back living wood so far that His method seems almost cruel. Nevertheless, from those who have suffered the most, there often comes the greatest fruitfulness. (Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, pp. 227-28.)

While a tree or vine is dormant, it’s difficult for most people to see which branches are alive and which branches are dead.   But I’m told that this is the best time to do the pruning.   

When things seem to be going really good in our lives, most people have a sense of confidence.  Whether that confidence is in God or in ourselves. I suspect that God, working through his Holy Spirit, finds this the most difficult of times to prune away all that is not of Christ Jesus and effect real change.

But in those times of our lives when things are going from good to bad to worse, people of faith often confront what needs to change in our lives and allow the Holy Spirit to effect those changes. So that we can regain a sense of joy and peace in living God’s way.

In our lives, I accept that the difficult times are times of pruning.   Clearing away the things in our lives that threaten our existence in Christ Jesus.  Painful times that bring self-reflection, repentance, redirection, and rededication.  We can be sure that the work of the Holy Spirit  is preserving the fruitful branches in each of us, nurturing our living faith.

I discovered that when a tree or vine awakens from being dormant.  Some of the branches begin to show new life.  Leaves, new shoots, and flowering fruit begin to appear.  While other branches remain lifeless.  It is during this time that the difference between the branches become noticeable.

It is during this time that the dead branches can be pruned away to make way for the living, growing, fruitful branches.  It’s clear to me that those around us will see the fruit growing on our branches before they notice the vine that is Christ Jesus.  The only way I can tell an orange tree from an apple tree is to notice the fruit.  The question we ask ourselves is “do we want others to notice the dead branches in our lives or the living fruitful branches.”

Christ Jesus says:  “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

The Apostle John tells us that ‘if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.  By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.”   As we abide in Christ Jesus, and live in his love, our Lord bears much fruit in us by his Holy Spirit.  Fruit of “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control”.    

We see all this being worked out in the Deacon Philip who lived through a time when things went from bad to worse.  A time when Stephen, his fellow deacon, was stoned for proclaiming the Good News of Christ Jesus.  Persecution that arose against Christians from both Roman and Jewish circles. 

The Bible tells us that as the persecution grew, ‘those who were scattered went about preaching the word. Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed to them the Christ.’  (Acts 8:4–5 ESV)

Through the persecution, God was pruning away the fear and anxiety, allowing the fruitful growth of courage and faith through the Gospel message.

As Philip lived that faith, showing the world the fruit of the Spirit, the Lord led him to one who was returning from Jerusalem.  One who had gone there to learn more about the God he found in the Scriptures.  One who would have been rejected at the Temple, and who would have  left the city unfulfilled, but still curious.  So God touched the lives of both Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch as he brought them together. 

One, abiding in Christ Jesus as a fruitful branch, and one seeking to be grafted into Christ Jesus to live as a fruitful branch.  What we learn from this is that we too can make a difference in someone’s life, just as Philip made a difference in the life of this eunuch.

I’m not sure that Philip was excited or even prepared to present Christ Jesus to a Gentile, a foreigner, a eunuch.  But Philip was prepared through God’s gift of Baptism and the precious Gospel message, and also the pruning of the Holy Spirit, to respond to the call of God when it was needed, in just the way it was needed. 

And so it is for us.  Most of us wouldn’t be prepared to stand on a street corner shouting the Scriptures, or even to sit with a group of people gently sharing the Gospel.  But I am convinced that each of us is prepared to follow the leading of Christ Jesus in whom we abide.  To witness the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our attitudes, actions and words, as we engage with those around us every day.  That is all the Lord expects of us.  As we abide in Christ Jesus by the faith he gives us, we can live in the confidence of our right relationship with God our Father, with God the Son and with God the Holy Spirit.

And, if we are ever confused about whether we are connected to Christ Jesus, in whom we abide, we can take a moment to contemplate our own navels.    

Our belly button is a constant reminder that we all started life abiding in another human being.  God’s Holy Spirit is the constant witness that we are abiding in Christ Jesus, by that feeling, deep in our gut, that we are not alone. That we are loved.

As branches, grafted onto the vine, Jesus calls us to be fruitful witnesses of the miracle of forgiveness and love, right here in the Mid North Coast.    To demonstrate our connection to each other by showing our forgiveness, and our connection to God by showing our love.  To join our hearts with a new sister in Christ through the gift of baptism, praising our Savour.

And  so, the grace and peace of God keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, the Saviour of all.   AMEN.

Rev. David Thompson.