What defines civilisation?

I often reflect on how Christian ideas and wisdom relate to the non-Christian ideas, ideologies and wisdom expressed in Australian society and culture.  This reflection is necessary if we’re to be capable of meaningful dialogue with those outside the church!

Today, as I was doing some reading on Indigenous philosophy, I came across the suggestion that civilisation should be measured by the degree of polishing of an individual’s mind, and the building of his or her character.  (As opposed to, say, technological advancement).

This reminded me of studying Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in high school, and how in that work, civilisation was as much about self-control as it was about external cultural markers.  It also reminded me that the ancient Greek philosophers had a fairly low view of technology, feeling that it undermined the dignity of a human person by taking away meaningful work.

My critique of this idea would, I think, be that it is a mistake to be individualist.  We ought to look at corporate character and corporate wisdom as much as, or more than, individual development.  I am not sure that our society has good models for considering corporate character.

What do you think?

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Master or servant?

This is a sermon for the second Sunday after Pentecost.  The Scripture it references is Mark 2:23-3:6.

“How to destroy him.”  That is what Mark tells us the Pharisees wanted to do after their disagreement with Jesus about the Sabbath.  It’s a very strong response, isn’t it?  I might disagree with someone about all sorts of things, but it doesn’t usually leave me wanting to destroy them.  It’s a bit over the top, don’t you think?

It probably helps to realise that Sabbath, for the Pharisees, wasn’t just a point of legal detail, but was a fundamental question of their identity and place in the world.  The idea of a shared day of rest – a time for worship and recreation and freedom from the anxieties of work, for their whole community together – was part of what it meant to be Jewish, and part of what it meant to be in relationship with God. They felt threatened that if they lost the Sabbath, they would lose a key part of who they were, and a key part of their connection with God.  It was a very, very big deal.

But the problem was that in trying to preserve that, they were insisting on doing it in a way which became oppressive.  When you couldn’t pick food if you were hungry, or heal someone who could wait for medical treatment until tomorrow, because those things were too much like “work”…  well, Jesus thought they’d missed the point.

And the key to this really comes in him saying, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”  His point is that the rules about not working for one day a week are not meant to oppress us, they’re meant to do us good.

It’s a principle I think we need to hear so badly today.  So often Christians take some commandment, or idea from the Bible, and they think that because God said it, that that is – without question and without exception – God’s will for us today, and that we must follow it no matter what the consequences, because that’s what it means to be a good person and to have a relationship with God.

The classic example of this happens with the question of divorce.  We know that the ideal for human relationships is one of lifelong faithfulness in marriage.  But we also know that sometimes that’s not what happens, that there’s violence or abuse or some other violation of what marriage should be.  And yet the folks who think that what the Bible says can’t possibly ever be gone against are the people who’ll urge an abused person to stay because, after all, we know God hates divorce.

This illustrates so clearly one of the central questions we have to bring to reading the Bible; are these texts, and whatever commands we find in them, something which we are obliged to obey, no matter what?  Are they our masters?  Or is the situation a bit more complicated than that?

Paul gives us a clue in his letter to the Galatians; he wrote that “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.” The word here that we’ve translated as disciplinarian is a tricky one; it’s referring to a social role in the ancient world that really has no equivalent today, but I think the closest idea might actually be something like a governess.  “The law was our governess until Christ came…”

There are three key things about a governess:

  • She is a servant
  • She is a teacher
  • She is concerned with the welfare of her charges.

All three of those things were also true of the role Paul described in his letter.  So we could draw from that the principle that the law is there to teach us, to foster our welfare, and – ultimately – exercises authority over us in only a provisional way.  The law serves us, not the other way around.

So if obedience to some principle we find in Scripture is actually resulting in human harm – like the person staying in a violent marriage, or the person not being healed on the Sabbath, and so on – then we can be reasonably confident that we’ve reached the limit of application of that rule.  Because none of the rules are meant to result in harm.  That’s a distortion – a bending out of shape – of what they’re meant to be about.

Now here’s the thing.  That doesn’t mean we can just do whatever we feel like or whatever we want.  It doesn’t mean that the commandments and principles in the Bible don’t matter at all any more.  That doesn’t leave us in a healthy place either, when we give ourselves permission to indulge every whim and impulse, or to ignore the rules we don’t like.

It means we need a bigger-picture principle to apply when deciding whether a rule applies just now.  We know that what God wants for us is our absolute good.  We know that we were created good; that our lives are – at their best – supposed to be filled with purposeful relationships and characterised by love, joy and peace; that God’s desire for the world is justice and reconciliation.  So when we’re not sure whether a rule ought to apply in any particular situation, we need to weigh up the outcome and ask ourselves, “Which course of action will lead to the best outcome for the people concerned?  Which will best respond to real human needs?  Which will most adequately further the mission God’s given us?”

Sometimes we won’t like the answers to those questions, personally.  They might ask a lot of us, emotionally or materially.  They don’t give us free rein for self-gratification.  But they do give us a better approach than rigidly holding to a rule or commandment even when it doesn’t serve us, because we have the idea that “God said” that’s what we must do.

So whenever we read the Bible, or interpret the Bible, in ways which damage people, in ways which limit human flourishing, which limit our trust in God or our ability to relate healthily with one another, we’re on very dangerous ground indeed.  Because that’s not the purpose of the Bible.  It’s not why those words were inspired, written, passed down, collected and recognised as sacred for thousands of years.

Instead the call to wholeness, personal, communal and cosmic – the wholeness and joy and peace which the Bible tells us is God’s good purpose for everything that exists – is the vision which should underpin how we read the Bible, and how we use what we read.  Because the Bible is there to serve us, and not the other way around.

Trinity

This is a sermon for Trinity Sunday.  The Scripture quote it begins with comes from Romans 8:12-17.

Paul wrote: “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”

Did you catch it?  In that short quote we heard references to all three persons of the Trinity; the Father – Abba – the Son – Christ – and God’s very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.

And yet it took another four centuries or so for the church to begin to feel that we had a satisfactory way of talking about God as Trinity, which took into account what the Bible has to say, as well as the lived experience of believers.

And I want to emphasise that lived experience as important.  For example, it was because Christians worshipped the Spirit, sang songs in praise of the Spirit, and prayed to the Spirit; because they recognised the Spirit as present and active in the church’s life, that they found they needed a way of speaking which recognised the Spirit as God, as much as the Father and the Son.

So we talk about God as Trinity.  And I think it’s an important and valid question then to ask, “So What?”

I’d like to begin to scope out an answer to that question.

What is it that leads us to talk about God as Father?  Isn’t it that we celebrate the dignity, the value, and the wonder of each human being around us – and remember that these human beings are made in the image of God?  Isn’t it that we look at the heavens and the earth – everything from the vastness of space to the intricacy of a single living cell – and worship in awe at the wisdom which could conceive of this, and the might that could bring it into existence?  Isn’t it also that we are aware that in what we know, we are just playing in the waves on the edges of a vast ocean, and that we can only guess at the depth and breadth of the mysteries which are just too vast for us to grasp?

I suggest that every time we are mindful of these things, they bring us back to recognising God as Father, and to a profound reverence and awe in our worship and our lives.

And then, what is it to talk about God the Son?  The defining story of Christianity – of the God who emptied himself; who, as Philippians says, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but laid it aside, became human, and became our servant, even to the point of death – shows us an aspect of the life of God which is distinct from that of the Father.

There is, I think, something important consider here.  And that is that in no way can we consider Father and Son to be divided or opposites.  Sometimes in the way we think and talk about what Jesus did for us, in dying for us and opening a way back into intimate relationship with God, it sounds as if the Father and the Son were pulling something of a cosmic good cop-bad cop routine.  The Father is presented as the “bad cop” who holds judgement and damnation over our heads, and the Son as the “good cop” who steps in, placates the “bad cop” and makes everything alright for us, if only we comply with what is being asked of us.

I have to tell you, that kind of thinking about God doesn’t wash.  There is no difference in attitude towards us between Father and Son.  Both the Father and the Son love us; both the Father and the Son care for us, and the Father and the Son collaborated together in the costly work of our redemption.  In this, as much as in creation or any other work of God, they are united in purpose and action.

Yet we still need to ask, what is it for us to recognise the work of the Spirit in our lives, in our Church, and to be able to talk about that?  Last week for Pentecost I talked about spiritual gifts, but more than that, the evidence of the Spirit’s work amongst us is there to be seen in other ways.  As long as we can recognise in ourselves (or, more often it is easier to see it in others) the growth of a person, becoming more loving, patient, kind, generous and gentle; more wise, faithful, joyful, and peaceful; and more self-controlled – we can recognise the work of the Spirit in bringing about good fruit in our lives.

All of this is as much to say, the idea of the Trinity isn’t an intellectual puzzle to be solved. It is an idea which comes out of the lived experience of every Christian believer.  It is the Church’s communal shout of praise for a God whose richness of being overflows, in ways which stretch our language almost to breaking point, but only so as to make room for us to grow in love and worship Him more fully.  It is as we realise the truth of God’s being, for us, that we find ourselves growing more fully into His likeness; that we find God’s kingdom growing and transforming the world in which we live; and that we find our language unable to contain the full meaning of truth which ultimately we have to experience to know.

I came across a line which I very much liked from Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who said that in speaking of the Trinity, we try to find, not the most exact but the least silly things to say; that we try to find language which will share the exhilaration of being drawn into the life of God.  It’s just possible that I’m a lot sillier than Rowan Williams.  But I hope that if I can say anything which is of use at all about the Trinity, it will be something which speaks of that exhilaration.  Of the abundance of God the Father, poured out in creation; of the generosity and selflessness of God the Son, shown in his life, death and resurrection; of the power and energy of the Spirit, renewing us, pushing at the world as God’s kingdom comes and grows in our midst.  Who wouldn’t be exhilarated?  Who wouldn’t be encouraged to glimpse something of this?

All of us are here today because something about God has been deeply attractive to us.  The deeply creative, loving, overflowing life of God comes to live within us; to show itself within us, and to work through us to take hold of others around us.  Our life as a community should mirror something of the inner life of God; a life in which hierarchy and ego is not at issue; a life in which each is willing to be involved in work that is costly; a life which is not closed off and turned inward, but looking outward in overflowing abundant generosity, love and joy.  God’s love has been poured into our hearts, and we can hardly remain unchanged after that experience.

That is my answer to the question “So What?”  That is the least silly glimpse into the meaning of Trinity which I can offer you today.  And this is the vision in which I think Paul would encourage us to to join our hands and minds and voices in unity of purpose and direction.

On gifts

This is a sermon for the feast of Pentecost.  

Let me start today by telling you a parable.

After Adam and Eve got kicked out of the garden of Eden, the animals could see that they couldn’t rely on these humans to take care of everything.  After all, they’d messed up spectacularly so far!

So the animals decided they’d better work on equipping themselves for survival, and they started a school. They wanted the best school possible, offering their students a well rounded curriculum of swimming, running, climbing and flying. In order to graduate, all the animals had to take all the courses.

Now, the duck was excellent at swimming. In fact, he was better than his instructor. But he was only making passing grades at climbing and was getting a very poor grade in running. The duck was so slow in running he had to stay after school every day to practice. There was only a little improvement, because his webbed feet got so badly worn. With such worn feet, he was only able to get an average grade in swimming, but average was quite acceptable to everyone, so no one worried much about it…except the duck.

The rabbit was at the top of her class in running. But after a while, she developed a twitch in her leg from all the time she spent in the water trying to improve her swimming. The squirrel was a peak performer in climbing, but was constantly frustrated in flying class. His body became so bruised from all the hard landings he had, he did not do too well in climbing and ended up being pretty poor in running.

I think by now you are getting the point of the story. Each of the animals had a particular expertise. When they did what they were designed to do, they excelled. When they tried to operate outside their area of expertise, they were not nearly as effective.

Now take the same principles, but apply them to the church.  Many churches are full of the equivalent of running ducks or flying squirrels. People who are trying to do the best they can, but they are doing things they are not gifted to do; because that’s what was needed at the time, or because somehow they got the message that that’s what they “should” do.

What if we could get the ducks in the water, the squirrels in the trees and the birds in the air? What if each of us could actually focus on the things we’re particularly gifted for?

Here’s the thing; Paul tells us in a number of his letters that the Holy Spirit gives each Christian gifts which are meant to be used to serve the Church and further our mission.  But the key to the Church actually working well is each of us recognising what our gifts are, and where they can best be used.

One thing that worries me as the vicar here, is that often I ask people what they think their gifts are, and they can’t tell me. I’m not sure if that’s because you’ve never been encouraged to think that you each have gifts, and that we need all of them to be all that we can be as a community.  Or maybe it’s because people think it’s not humble to be confident about what your gifts are and how you use them (or want to use them).  But I think it’s important that we’re each able to know what our gifts are, and to think about how best to use them in contributing to the community of faith.  That’s part of what it means to be a Christian!

Now, back when I was in a more charismatic sort of parish, the thing to do was to fill out a survey with an awful lot of questions, and add up all your scores, and it’d tell you which gifts your answers suggested you were most likely to have.  That’s not a terrible thing to do, and there are lots of such surveys online if you’re interested, although these days I’d probably suggest taking them with a grain of salt as well.

(Of course I would, those surveys tell me my strongest gift is discernment.  But I digress…).

But if you don’t really want to do that, there are gentler ways of exploring what your gifts might be.  One more reflective approach suggests thinking about it this way:

  • Look up. Ask God to show you what your gifts are. Be prayerful as you consider your gifts, and flexible as you explore his leading.
  • Look at Scripture. Read through the passages where Paul talks about spiritual gifts. See if any of them seem like they fit you.
  • Look back. Think about the past. What have you enjoyed doing as a Christian? What have you found energizing? When have you heard other people mention you’re good at something, or are excited about something? When have you done something that had a positive impact in some way?
  • Look in. As you look into yourself, what do you feel passionate about? What really excites you? If you were guaranteed success, the resources and gifts to achieve it, what one thing would you most like to do for God?
  • Look out. Ask other people to suggest what they think your gifts are. Choose some people who know you well, and choose some who only know you a little. Be sure they are people who want the best for you. Encourage them to be honest and truthful.
  • Look around. As you consider the parish and the local community, what needs exist? What openings are there for exercising gifts? Do any of these opportunities interest/excite you even if you don’t feel qualified or skilled? If you could choose one area of involvement in your church, what would it be?
  • Look forward. What are the plans this community has for the future, and how might you fit into that?

 But really, what’s important is to take the idea that you have gifts, that the Holy Spirit gives us each different gifts, so that together we can be more than we could be, each of us on our own. It’s part of God’s gift to us in baptism, that we each have unique things to bring and a part to play, and it’s part of what we offer back to God in giving ourselves to him in baptism, that we should use those gifts as God intends.  I might even go so far as to say that we each have a duty, in the Christian life, to do so.

I’d like to think that if I asked each of you, in a week or so, “What do you think your gift might be?” everyone would be able to give me some sort of answer, even if the answer is, “Well, I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m not sure, but maybe something along these sorts of lines?”

It’s okay to take time to figure it out; so long as we’re taking the question seriously.  Because taking our gifts seriously is an indispensable part of taking our faith seriously.

Crossroads

This is a sermon for the seventh Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 1.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.*

Did you spot why I started with this poem, this morning?

The psalm we just read wrapped some lovely imagery – of fruitful green trees by clear flowing waters, with unfading leaves, and so forth – around what seems like quite a stark division of the world’s possibilities into just and righteous on one hand, and evil on the other.  Two roads in the wood of life, perhaps; and sometimes difficult to choose between.

This psalm is one example among many – both within and outside the Bible – of what is called the “two ways” approach to ethics or morality. Think of Jesus telling his followers, “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Similarly, in Deuteronomy, Moses tells the gathered people of Israel, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live…” and so on.

There are many other examples, and this way of thinking, which – with some variation – was important in ancient Jewish, Christian and Pagan ethical thinking, was prominent in the writings of the early church, and continues to be expressed in various ways throughout the centuries. In his spiritual exercises St. Ignatius included a “meditation on two standards,” in which the person undertaking the exercise is invited to imagine the army of Christ and the army of Satan, drawn up to do battle, and to choose to seek a place under the standard of Christ.

So what’s the appeal? Is it just that we all like a bit of certainty? That there’s some comfort in the idea that there are right answers to life’s puzzles, and that I can know what they are? Superficially, perhaps, that’s part of why this sort of approach has persisted for so long. But I think there’s something deeper to it as well.

You see, if someone tells you that there are two paths in front of you, and tells you about the blessings of one and the dangers of the other, even if that person doesn’t say so explicitly, he or she is setting before you a choice. And in doing so, that person – the author of the Psalm, in this case – is affirming your ability to make a choice. This is an approach to ethics which has at its roots a conviction that a human person is, in a meaningful sense, a moral agent, and that the will and choices of people actually matter.

This view of human beings skirts around the pessimism of the Calvinists, who will tell you that the only choice many humans can make is which sin to commit (because you’re going to be sinning!), without going to the other extreme and saying that since we are justified by grace, all options are open to us and equally good.

No. A “two ways” approach to ethics says to us first, that we are able to choose, and second, that our choices matter. It affirms our dignity as moral agents, neither puppets of greater forces nor completely bound in oppressions that we cannot transcend, and impresses on us our responsibility to choose well; because our own individual happiness, the flourishing of our community, and the healthy functioning of wider society, all are shaped by the choices which we make.

There is, however, a twist to this, particularly in the context of Christian thinking. All too often, people have made the easy identification of the right way – the way of the just and righteous – as simply being part of the Church. So the dualism of right and wrong gets carried over into thinking in terms of insiders and outsiders; we the green trees drinking deep from the waters of the Spirit, and outside, the sinners, the mockers, the evil doers. Us and them. And God on our side, of course.

But it’s not that simple. Christians can make bad choices. We do it all the time. And those outside the church – even if they don’t recognize God in terms we can easily affirm – can and do bear fruit in due season. So if we have meaningful choices in front of us, they have to be more than just the choice to express some sort of party loyalty. The church is a good thing – don’t misunderstand me, if I didn’t think that I wouldn’t have committed my life to it! – but in ethical terms, at least, it’s not an end in itself.

So what is the end? Although the psalm says that the righteous prosper, this is not an encouragement to a kind of prosperity ethics, one which says that if we make the right choices God will bless us by giving us all that our hearts desire. The image of green trees growing by flowing waters is not, ultimately, just about how lovely it is for the trees. Instead, throughout Scripture large, shady and fruitful trees are a symbol of God’s blessing for others.

Think about the parable of the mustard seed; so often what we focus on in that parable is the growth of a great shrub with large branches from the smallest of all seeds, and of the glory of God in bringing about that growth. But remember how that parable ends: “…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” The smallest of all seeds becomes a source of shelter and security, a place of blessing, a place through which God works to provide good things for his creatures.

I wonder what it might be like to consider our own ethical questions – our own moments in which we are confronted with real choices – and to make our choice in trust that if our heart follows the heart of God well enough, even our very small choices might become opportunities for God to bless others, providing for their real needs through our integrity?

It’s a very high view of human potential. But not, I think – looking out at all of you – too high. We are capable of real and meaningful choices. We are capable of taking delight in the knowledge of God’s way. We are capable of being like green trees, made fruitful by God for the blessing of the world.   And that, if we choose it, will make all the difference.

*The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost.

Joyful noise

This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is Psalm 98.

Well, you might remember that I told you last week, that I was going to preach this week about music and singing in worship.  After all, we just sang in the psalm that we should “send forth a joyful noise,” so what better reason to think about how and why we do that?

And yet, for all that it’s supposed to be a joyful noise, I’d have to observe that in just about every church I’ve been involved with, music has been in some way a source of tension and conflict; in one church I worked in for a few years, I actually had to be careful what shoes I wore, because if your shoes were too noisy on the floor, you faced the wrath of the director of music for disturbing the music!

Okay, so that was an extreme example.  But, when I think about all those arguments and fights about music, what music we should have, what instruments, how to support the congregation to sing, all of those things… I conclude that Christians argue about this so much because it matters.

It matters.  Music and singing as part of worship matter.  So what I really want to talk about a little bit is why it matters; and some of the principles we might use to navigate those conflicts which crop up from time to time.

And here’s the thing; our worship doesn’t exist, and can’t be captured, in a book, or on a page.  Worship – liturgy – is in its essence an experience.  It’s the lived interaction between the gathered people and our God; and what happens in and between us in that interaction. The books and papers (or even screens) are a prompt and an aid to what we do together with our bodies, minds and hearts.  We want to get to the point where rather than being focussed on the pages, the pages (if we need them at all) help us to focus on God.  And one way to do that is to sing our hearts out.

Shared music and singing is a way of building shared faith and identity. It’s something which allows us to participate to the full; with our bodies, our intellects and our emotions and memories.  And singing together creates community; we join our voices, listen to one another, keep the same tempo; the people with stronger voices support those less well practiced to do something worthwhile together (especially true when there are no instruments, as you might have noticed last week!)  Even when one person can’t sing (for whatever reason), they can be caught up in the swell of voices from behind and around and in front of them, making us all a part of something bigger than ourselves.

There aren’t many things that we do together the way we sing together; it’s a living expression of being one body.  We’re not a random crowd, not a group of people who just happen to be in the same space, but a community with a shared identity and purpose.  Bonhoeffer put it this way: “It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song.”

Now I realise, of course, that this gets tricky when hearing becomes a problem.  For people who are deaf or have hearing loss, music or singing can pass them by or be difficult, and that then requires more creativity on our part about how we do things together.  So I’m speaking here about what we might reasonably expect for most of us who can hear and do have a working voice; and for those people – which is the vast majority of us – the question is not, do you have a voice?  But, do we have a song?  The music and singing we share in worship isn’t supposed to be a professional production or a performance, but it can be a giving to God of our best, done with confidence and reverence.

And here’s some of why music adds so much to what we do together.  It creates connections in our brains, between our thoughts, our emotions and our memories; connections which don’t happen if we’re just hearing words spoken.  So by doing that, it helps us integrate ideas and experiences with our sense of self; it enriches our understanding.  And because when we sing something familiar, we remember where we’ve sung it before, and the emotions and meaning it had then, it connects our past with our present, and relates both of those things to our hopes for the future.

More than that, because music as an art form expresses beauty and order, in itself it says something about the character of God; that God is not chaotic or ugly.  Music isn’t just something that belongs to human culture on earth; in the book of Job God talks about how the heavenly beings sang before the beginning of creation, and the book of Revelation tells us of sung worship in heaven for eternity.  Our own music and singing, in our worship, give us an echo, a hint of those incredible realities, and allow us to participate in them just a little through the beauty, the order, and the goodness of music as an art form.

In that way, too, music gives dignity to what might otherwise not be very dignified at all.  It can give us a container for our grief, bring peace to our anxieties, and relieve our stresses.  None of which are an end in themselves, for us in church, but can help us put ourselves in the right frame of mind to really worship.

Music moves us, sometimes quite literally; hopefully, in worship, carrying us to a spiritually healthier place than we were in before we gathered.  When I say that it moves us, I mean it shapes our sense of identity, it gives us a sense of belonging, of commitment, of hope and joy, and so on.

And because of all of this, music and singing help us to connect our own personal life stories with the big Christian story; helping us to see who God is to and for us, and the meaning of our own ups and downs in the bigger picture.

Now we do need to be careful.  Music is supposed to support us in all of this, but it’s not supposed to be manipulative.  Ultimately, worship music – just like any of the arts involved in churches, like architecture or the visual arts or the poetry of prayer – any of these things done well invites us into a space where we can encounter God; but it can’t create that encounter, and it can’t substitute for it.  We do have to let God be God, and leave a little room for mystery.

But if we approach questions of music and singing in worship with the questions: how does what we’re doing together help us in the process of worship?  How does it enable every person present to truly participate?  How does it help us to be the sort of community we’re truly supposed to be?  And how does it, not just proclaim the good news, but give us a lived experience of what that good news means in our own lives?  Then I suggest we’ll be on the right track, and we’ll truly be making a joyful noise.

Being a vine

This is a sermon for the fifth Sunday of Easter.  The Scripture it references is John 15:1-8.

Jesus describing himself as the vine, and us as the branches, made me think about how a plant lives and grows; how it functions and stays healthy.  Some of you know that I studied science straight after school, including a fair bit of plant biology, so I had a few botanical ideas knocking around in my head, and I thought I might share some of them with you, starting at the bottom.

The roots of a plant are often not obvious or even visible at a casual glance, and yet – as anyone who’s done some weeding will remember – they can be surprisingly big and resilient.  If the body of Christ is the vine, then it follows that he is at the roots of our faith.  And roots do a couple of really important things for a plant.  One is that they draw water and nutrients up from the ground to the rest of the plant, to the branches.

Think about this; earlier in John’s gospel, he promised the woman at the well springs of living water, gushing up to eternal life.  And he taught the crowds who followed him that he is the bread of life.  Water and nourishment – in abundance – are to be found in Christ.  Remaining in him, then, as branches of the vine will mean that we look to him for that replenishment, as he is at the roots of our very being.  That is serious encouragement to us to consider our lives of prayer and reading, and how we nourish our spiritual lives.

The other thing that roots are really important for, and this function they share also with the trunk or main stem, is support, structure and balance.  Without this function of the vine, it would be prostrate on the ground, sort of the plant equivalent of a jellyfish.  Not really able to grow or live well.  And it occurs to me that we each need these supports in our lives of faith as well; unless we are happy to be the spiritual equivalent of jellyfish!  Developing some discipline, and allowing ourselves to be accountable to others in the church, gives us some structure when life is confusing and overwhelming.  Carrying one another’s burdens, caring, and being willing to share our own stories for encouragement helps to provide the support and balance that a healthy community needs.  These are things which we cannot experience if we try to live a life of faith on our own.

But what then of the branches?  How do we see ourselves in this extended botanical metaphor?  I think there are two things to say about us as branches.  One is that we are the growing edges of the vine.  It is the very tips of the branches which stretch out to new areas.

I remember when I was sharing a house with three other students, and none of us really had time or inclination for gardening.  I planted a grapevine outside our back door and then basically neglected it.  By the time I got round to looking at it a few months later I realised its branches had climbed into the neighbouring lemon tree to a height far above my head.  I think my housemates thought it was very funny when I was out there trying to detangle it and encourage it to grow over the fence I had originally intended…

But while that story doesn’t say much about me as a gardener, it does say something about the vigour of growth in a healthy vine.  And I would suggest that one of the things we should look for in ourselves, as healthy branches, is whether we are being stretched and reaching out.  This stretching can be in the interior life, in the stretching of our personal response to God.  And also, at the same time, this stretching means paying attention to the people around us, and looking for the ways to build connections with them.

The other key thing about branches is energy production.  It’s in the leaves – on the branches – that the plant produces all the energy that it needs to survive and thrive.  Without wanting to bore you all to tears with the chemical details, the water drawn up from the roots, (you remember that living water, don’t you?) with the help of the energy of light, goes into making the sugar that every cell in the plant needs.  Well, the intricacies aren’t important.  But I think it is very helpful to recognise that something vital happens in us when the light of God in our lives, and the nourishment he provides us, meet.  There is energy for us, there is something which keeps each of us going, keeps the church going, keeps the kingdom of God real and manifest in this world, in this meeting of elements, in us.  That is, none of it would be realised without us.

Which brings us, finally, to the fruit.  It is the energy produced in the leaves – on the branches – which is needed for a plant to produce fruit.  The fruits of the plant are its reproductive bodies; they hold the seeds of new life.  And again, a bit like the growing edges of the branches, this is true for us both in our interior lives – we remember the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace and so on – but also in the new life that comes about as new people are drawn into and become part of this community, this vine which ultimately is Christ.  This is another thing that simply can’t happen in the church without us functioning as we should.

But what, you might ask – and it’s a good question – what about that bit about pruning, withering and burning?  That doesn’t sound so positive.  It sounds somehow like punishment for failing to reach a high enough production level.  But look carefully at what Jesus says.  His comments about the branches which whither and are burnt come after his instruction to “Abide in me.”

If we remain in him, we will remain healthy, able to bear fruit, able to be the church we are created and called to be.  If we remove ourselves from him, if we deprive ourselves of all that the vine offers – the water, the support, and so on – we should not be surprised to find that we are dried out, lifeless, fruitless, and not able to continue.  I suspect that Jesus is simply pointing out the obvious; a branch away from the vine dies, and there its possibilities end.

It also made me think about how we remain in him.  Christ is risen and ascended.  While I don’t want, in any way, to imply that we don’t each have a personal relationship with Jesus, we participate most fully in that relationship by being part of the community of believers, part of what Paul tells us is the body of Christ.  We are the body of Christ; we affirm it week by week; and we need to understand that in that sense, this community is the vine.

I hope that by now, you’re starting to see some of the potential each of us has as a branch.  Here we are, the gathered body of Christ, experiencing something of life in the vine.  Nourished, watered, given structure and support, able to be a people of dynamism and growth, able to produce fruit; this image of the vine tells us some important things about who we are!