A sermon preached by Nikolaj Christensen on 2 May 2021.
I’m a very amateur gardener – but up here at Church House we have inherited a number of big rose bushes that have clearly been here for years. Very appropriate for a garden in Rose Hill of course. Now, one thing I’ve been learning about roses is that they love to send off these incredibly fast-growing tendrils. They go right up into the air until they get too heavy and form a big arch. And overall, they don’t contribute to the ideal look of a beautiful rose bush.
So, they need to be pruned. Not only because of how they look, but because a rose bush is so active in making new branches that it excludes the light and the air that it needs to have around it, and it ends up choking itself. You might say, it makes all these grand plans, dreams up all these projects, takes all these initiatives, and ends up being crushed under the burden. Unless it gets some very painful help. When it’s really bad, we have to cut it all the way back until it looks like we’ve killed it. Only then will it grow back into a magnificent bush. — —
Can you see where I’m going? As individuals, over the last 14 months, we have all been pruned like never before. We can all think of plans that we had, which didn’t come to pass, or perhaps whole branches of our lives that were cut off. And it’s been hard at times to see if any good could come of it. Perhaps you still feel like that.
But since today is our annual meeting, I’m also thinking of our life together as a church. In today’s Gospel passage, we heard that image of Jesus Christ as the vine, the stem, and us – his followers – as the branches. It’s a vivid, organic picture of the church, quite similar in its way to the image found in St Paul’s letters: of Christ as the head and us as different parts of his body. And as a church we had plans and projects too which were cut back.
Now, what does a branch need to do to bear fruit? If you’re like me, you might have got a bit worried when you heard that the Father ‘removes every branch … that bears no fruit’. But the good news is that a branch does not need to try hard, or to be intensely determined to bear fruit, it simply needs to ‘abide’, to stay still, to stay close to the vine, to drink of the sap that the vine shares with it, and the vine will take care that the fruit comes.
A branch doesn’t need to come up with many grand designs in order to bear fruit. It may send off 10 shoots, and the gardener prunes off all of them, or perhaps all but one or two. A branch would be in real trouble if it thought it could bear fruit by its own efforts, without the help of the vine, without being connected to the vine. The branch doesn’t need to work; it needs to rest and abide. The good news in fact is what Jesus said, harsh as it may sound: ‘without me you can do nothing’. We should not attempt to do anything that doesn’t come out of resting and abiding in him.
So, we have been pruned, as individuals and as a church – but perhaps through that we have realised a little more of just why we come together as a church: is it for a nice social occasion over coffee and biscuits? No, we can’t do that. Or perhaps to experience the joy of singing together? Again, no. Is it to soak in the atmosphere of a gorgeous old building? No. We gather together as a church because we need to stay close to the vine.
And so, if our annual report indicates we have achieved something as a church, in this year of pandemic, it was all simply to keep ourselves close to the true vine. — —
We recently went to Waterperry Gardens where there’s a wonderful apple tree on which every single twig is a different variety of apple grafted on to the branches of the tree, each one labelled with its name. That to me was another vivid image of the church. Different as we are, we’ve all been grafted into this one community. In our reading from Acts this morning we heard of an African eunuch who became the first known non-Jewish person to have been baptised as a Christian – the first to be grafted into the people of God through baptism.
Next Sunday we’ll be particularly remembering the baptisms of six different members of our church, who will be confirmed. But it’s also a chance for us all to remember that we have been baptised, we have been grafted onto the vine, we abide in him, and nothing in this world can cut us off from him.
Thanks be to God.