Lectionary Sermon for Trinity Sunday – Year B – (31 May 2015) on Matthew 28 16-20 or John 3:1-17

Trinity Sunday is confusing to the modern scientific mind. We live in an age when telescopes can probe the depths of space, looking back in time to many millions of galaxies, many with their million upon million of stars, many of which are hugely larger than our home Sun and each at mind numbing distances from where we live. In that setting, the notion of a kind of creative being which is somehow like a human Father, yet one sufficiently in control to be creator of the entire universe is hard enough to understand. To believe that same Father being is concerned primarily with one species living on the surface of what compared with the entire Universe is but a tiny speck of a planet, our planet, seems even stranger. That this super-human type God should somehow be equivalent – in fact more than equivalent but actually mysteriously at one with a human type son – and also at one with an even more mysterious Spirit that can influence the human species in peculiar ways is asking a lot of our credulity, particularly when we remember that the minds who first made this statement were much more limited in their understanding of creation than we are today.

Yet there is another way of approaching this mystery. If we start instead with our perspective as humans and our need to relate to our setting, and particularly to one another within that setting, then we see that the Trinity offers a great deal. Maybe there will come a time when humans need to have a clearer understanding of what lies beyond this world. But for now the overriding concern is with the world we inhabit. Our environment, how it affects us and how we need to look after it, and in particular our relationships with those who share our immediate communities and our setting in the wider world.

To have a relationship with creation is captured as a metaphor when we talk of God the father. The notion of a father immediately highlights our dependence and sense of obligation. To portray Jesus as the Son tells us his teaching is too important to ignore. To love as he first showed love for others is to capture the essence of the gospel. And the Spirit behind these relationships lifts the Christian journey to something above rules and regulations…God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit – three metaphors which together open up some of the possibilities for the relationships we need.

Contrary to popular opinion the Trinity was not clearly defined by the Bible.

If you look at the emerging ideas about God we find in the pages of the Bible, one puzzle is why the notion of a Trinity was so late in its formation. It is true that the Trinity was hinted at by Jesus, although in all honesty, even here we cannot be sure in an objective sense since the gospel writers were recording their accounts years after Jesus had done his teaching, and writing at the very time when the Trinity was only beginning to be discussed and formulated. A further complication is that Jesus seemed to be anxious not to have the perception of himself conflated with the idea of God. “Why do you call me Good?” He is recorded as saying, “Only my Father in Heaven is Good.”

So then what should we make of this idea of three in one. We get one clue when Matthew and Paul start talking of the persons of the Godhead. The Greek word meaning person they choose to use is the same as the word used to describe the masks worn by actors in Greek plays. The highly stylised Greek dramas would identify different types with different masks – yet it was always clear to the Greeks at least, that the mask was only the outward label. By using the mask term for person we get a hint that these are only the outward signs of the complexities underneath. Focusing on the mask would not be expected to tell you everything about what lay underneath.

Another clue comes from the timing. Virtually nothing about the Trinity was written up to the time of Christ, yet in the time after Christ, the notion of the Trinity re-occurred and eventually took centre stage.
Historically all the new understandings of what it means to talk of God came from times of crisis. When the Jews fled from Egypt, when the Kingdom started to show signs of breakdown, when they were under siege or appeared to have wandered far from their religious and cultural roots – that was when the prophets spoke. The oldest writings in the Bible reveal a very rudimentary notion of what God meant.

In the early years the Jewish God was seen as just one God among many tribal competing Gods. At one stage on their journeys they even carried this tribal God in a litter and when Moses presented his ten commandments there was frank acknowledgement of the other Gods around them – hence the commandment – you shall have no other Gods before me. When Isaiah is described as having an encounter with God, the plural Elohim is used. As the experience accumulated – the idea of God began to grow.

This is not to say that whatever creation meant to the Jews meant that the reality behind creation itself was any different to what it is today. The Jews’ perceived world was simply very much smaller than it is to educated people today. To the Jews there could be no perception just how vast or old the Universe is – or what wonders there were at the atomic and sub-atomic level. So their God was accordingly limited by their understanding. As their experiences and crises accumulated – so their perceptions of God began to change and grow.

In times of stability and ease, there is of course no need to rethink ideas. But think for a moment what was happening at the time of the birth of the Christian Church. Those early Christians were experiencing a time of total upheaval and change. The traditional Jewish Church had rejected Jesus perhaps because they found his challenge to be threatening. This basically meant that many of Jesus’ early followers had few supporters and no community structure that could help them. Even the Jewish Religion of the time was under siege because an unsuccessful Jewish uprising against the Romans resulted in effect in the destruction of the Temple and the sacking of Jerusalem – which resulted in the Diaspora – the scattering of the Jews from Israel.

Then too, the Christians needed an understanding that reflected their reality that they not only needed continued guidance, but that Spirit of Guidance could not be interpreted for them by some established hierarchy of priests working with tradition because each of their fragmented groups were virtually on their own. The traditional belief of the Jewish understanding of God the Father may have been basically unchanged – but suddenly the teachings of Jesus and the notion of life constantly seeking a spirit of wisdom and an awareness that God was continuing to act for them needed discussing and formalising.
The formula they eventually decided upon is what we now call the Trinity.

The actual formulation was not finally sorted to the majority satisfaction till the fourth Century when the crisis of the time was a bitter dispute – on a regional basis – of competing beliefs about the nature of Jesus. Although it took many of its ideas from isolated texts in the Bible – eg from the Baptismal formulation in Matthew, it should be remembered that there were many disputes in the first few Centuries about what for example was the nature of Jesus. Was he a wise prophet, the Son of Man, the Son of God – or God Himself? We should also remember that even today, although the mainline churches still maintain the fourth century formula Christians are not agreed in what it means to say the three persons of the Trinity are the same in essence.

The Unitarians famously insist that the Trinity has no real meaning for us today and insist on one God. The Church of the Latter Day Saints (the Mormons) insists that the three persons of the Godhead are separate beings, with one purpose rather than being one in essence. The Binitarians claim two persons but one deity and – and it is clear there are others as well. Some contemporary Christian scholars now talk of the Trinity as an idea that was appropriate for its time ie 4th Century AD – but one that needs further development to take into account modern understanding. One problem that should be admitted is that as science has revealed a far vaster universe of unbelievable grandeur and complexity, the notion of what was formerly thought to be a creator God with human like characteristics becomes increasingly inappropriate.
However I am assured by Church leaders that it is an inspiring and helpful idea. Thinking of the Trinity as a sort of academic religious formula of mystery would of course be next to useless. Remember the whole point of introducing the formula was to elevate the teachings of Christ and the working of the Holy Spirit to a point where they would provide trusted guidance for decision making in often difficult situations – of the sort faced on almost a daily basis by those in the early Church. Leaving it as an academic formula with its inherent problems is more akin to a character in Alice in Wonderland believing six impossible things before breakfast. On the other hand treating the Trinity as something to be lived, takes Christianity from being a sort of spectator sport to one where we too can respond with confidence to the guidance we find in the words of Jesus as capturing the essence of God – and trusting to the mysterious Holy Spirit to go with us into new territory.

But it is not only intended as something to be experienced and lived….in my view at least, it may also be a work in progress. We might do well to remember that the notion of the Trinity was established post Jesus and in fact at least a hundred years after the last of the books of the Bible had been written. It was established to meet the changing situation – and here is the important point….the situation has continued to change. As the situation changes should we not rethink whether or not our understanding might also need revising?

Just as science has opened new understandings of the creation part of God so that God the Father now takes on new shades of meaning, so whether we like it or not that part of the Trinity formula has already changed. The other parts must also respond in our understanding to the changes in the sorts of day to day ethical problems which are far removed from those facing the early Church. Taking the essence of Jesus teaching and applying it to new situations: like the problems of mercy killing the terminally ill and long suffering in hospital, like dealing with the myriad of foreign religions and those with entirely different backgrounds to ourselves, not to mention new responsibilities for problems of distribution of resources in a finite world, genetic engineering, nuclear power, over population – the list is almost endless.

Ultimately I suggest the real question about the Trinity is this. Either as a metaphor – or as reality, if we are indeed inspired by the idea, what do we now do that is different because of our understanding?

Because our circumstances and understanding change the Trinity is a work in progress. Have we reached a personal view that changes our life?

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How Should we Relate Science to Religion?

One of the consequences of living in a scientific age is that many of our past assumptions are called into question. Because there is no single agreed approach to either science or Christianity it is difficult to find clear agreement on the relationship between the two, and still less agreement about how the modern discoveries emerging as a consequence of scientific discovery might influence an approach to religion.

If we consider the relationship from a historical point of view we might remember that both science and the faith history of Christianity had shaky and uncertain beginnings. Einstein reminded us that a few centuries ago human kind must have had so little understanding of nature that a mixture of fear and superstition largely shaped their beliefs. Placating forces beyond human understanding apparently included trying to find actions to control whatever Gods or Spirits who were thought to be responsible for disease, unexpected death, or the apparently malevolent forces of nature such as flood, thunderstorms, fire, volcano and earthquake.

In their most primitive forms there would not have been very much difference between science and religion in that a lack of understanding almost certainly gave false positives for experiments and incantations alike. The stories of Babylonian priests banging pots and pans to frighten the monster that was swallowing the Sun during what we now call an eclipse produced an outcome that would have been considered positive in a both a scientific and religious sense in that the desired result apparently occurred. Similarly sacrifices to a God in times of flood or famine would have some apparent effect in that the cycles of nature mean that very frequently sunshine follows rain and years of plenty follow years of crop failure. Presumably the medicine man or high priest tasked with curing the sick would have an apparently high success rate in that most sickness usually passes of its own accord. If prayers to imaginary Gods or what we would now call meaningless random medical intervention coincide with accidental success, the designated doctor or priest gains credibility in the eyes of the potential followers. We know for example that trephination, ie cutting a hole in the skull with a primitive chisel to let out the evil spirits responsible for illness was carried out by some ancient societies because we have found the skulls with such holes, and the skulls in which there was subsequent bone growth partially covering the holes showed that some patients survived (at least in the short term). Prayers for conditions in which natural immune processes affect a recovery reinforce belief that such recovery is caused by the prayer.

What then should we conclude about wrong statements in the Bible which are at variance with standard modern findings in science? Perhaps the clearest conclusion we can draw is that the unsurprising errors eg classifying bats as fowl do at least cause us to realise that the Bible is not infallible from cover to cover. However this is very different from assuming science gives better answers than religion when we are comparing like with like. For example science now reports that there are more than 100 elements yet in Bible times the best theory about elements was that there were four elements: earth, air, fire and water.
It is also a mistake to assume that modern standards of identifying true statements are the same as they have always been. For example in medieval times truth was often conveyed by allegory or parable and the retelling of favourite stories and parables rather than by restricting communications to simple factual statements. These more picturesque tales took precedence over reading from a fixed and accurate text in an age when few could read.

One popular common viewpoint is that Science and Religion are opposed, and even for some, at war with one another. This apparent mutual antagonism, inevitable inherent conflict, or even on the odd occasion, warfare(!) was characterized in the late 1800s by John Draper and Andrew White, who argued that science had in effect supplanted religion. What they apparently failed to notice was that many of the scientists apparently making spectacular advances in science remained committed to their religious faith and found no contradiction in so-doing. Since the Nobel Prizes in Sciences like Chemistry, Physics and Medicine have been established there is now a very substantial list of the prize winners who declare themselves to be Christian.

Although many university scientists would still classify themselves as Christian I do know from some of my own friends and acquaintances that some of those active in science have been forced to recant earlier beliefs. For example I know one Open Brethren church member who was a medical school lecturer forced to change denomination when he was taken to task by church leaders for explaining his support for the theory of evolution.

By reviewing the history of the Church, Draper and White were able to point to obvious cases where scientific findings have been opposed by those whose faith conclusions were being challenged. Galileo was opposed by leaders in the Catholic faith, and even today Darwin’s theory continues to find opposition from some Bible literalists. Don’t forget however Bible scholars have also met stiff resistance from Christian traditionalists when new findings about the Bible disturb long held beliefs. The fury turned on Albert Schweitzer for his study on the life of Jesus and the anger directed to Bishop John Robinson for his Honest to God or the contributions of scholars like John Dominic Crossan who took part in the Jesus Seminar suggest that conservatism is uncomfortable with modern scholarship.

Any historian of science can show countless examples of the same resistance to new ideas in science when the science traditionalists find their past work is being challenged. For example the scientist who produced the evidence for Continental Drift, Richard Wegener, had his work opposed by the scientific establishment for something like fifty years, and those identifying risks with tobacco, DDT and holes in the ozone layer had the greatest difficulty getting their work accepted.

It is hardly a fair criticism to say that a Bible developed in a pre-scientific age should be assessed according to modern scientific standards, any more than the converse that ancient science should be judged as reasonable according to the standards of modern scientifically literate theologians. It is true that some Church people have not progressed past ancient thinking confined by a literalist interpretation of the Bible just as it is true that many folk who are products of the modern education system have emerged through the process with only the most rudimentary knowledge of science.

A common example of such ignorance among Christians is when a fundamentalist Bible literalist refuses to accept the evolution of humankind or to retain the right to reject an ancient Earth and more ancient Universe on the grounds that it contradicts a literal Genesis story without being aware what findings in modern science have provided the evidence for the modern theories.  A parallel in science is the  example of a good proportion of a supposedly scientifically literate population refusing to accept standard science findings is when inoculations are rejected and homeopathy and astrology are used despite the testing which finds them ineffective.

Certainly we can smile back with a sense of superiority at some of the early Christian beliefs – like assuming prayer can change the weather, like chalking crosses on doors to ward off the plague, like assuming calamities like earthquakes and storms are God’s punishment for sinners in our midst, yet we should remember that in the absence of other understanding such actions must have seemed to offer rational possibilities and potential hope in the face of otherwise incomprehensible evil forces.

Some who have investigated the interface of science and religion argue that since they deal with different issues we can regard them as non-overlapping eg Stephen Jay Gould who describes the two areas as non-overlapping majesteria (NOMA). The perhaps unexpected term magistera he took from the1950 Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Humani generis (1950) and explained his assertion had been a commentary on Pope John Paul II’s 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences where the Pope had come up with the statement:”Truth Cannot Contradict Truth”. While we can probably understand the intent of the Pope’s conciliatory statement, in part he may have been intentionally glossing over the angry Church Science debates which continue to this day. For example it took many years for the Roman Catholic Church to concede the truth in Galileo’s conclusions about the nature of the Solar System and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.

The fundamentalist Bible literalist refusal to accept the evolution of humankind and retaining the right to reject an ancient Earth and more ancient Universe on the grounds that it contradicts a literal Genesis story has morphed into a pseudo scientific argument which is called intelligent design.   I have a personal difficulty with this in that any scientific morsel seen to support the creationist view is seized upon and retained long after the scientists have produced their answers.   For example Intelligent Design proponents claim that some organs such as the eye and the flagellum only have value when their complex component parts are assembled together.   They persist with this argument despite experts in the respective fields showing how the component parts have evolved. In some ways this is the equivalent of an atheist scientist like Richard Dawkins dismissing conventional Christianity on the grounds that it is often guilty of contradicting the obvious evidence generated by observations made and catalogued by scientists, when many fine scientists who are Christian have shown how their faith is simply not as described by Dawkins.

While there are certainly different emphases in the two fields I would like to suggest that the two fields cannot help but influence one another.
Although some followers of religion may see their study and beliefs as independent of science, some reflection ought to acknowledge that a literalist Biblical faith requires modification when scientific findings are incorporated. For example a host of modern scientific measurements make it virtually certain that the 6000 or so years of the Earth and Universe existence implied by a literal interpretation of the stories of one time Creation in Genesis do not match the billions of years required for the Universe as it is now observed when astronomical observations are investigated or when the measured ages of rocks and meteorites are cross-checked against a variety of measurement techniques. Such modern understandings help direct Bible scholars to the likelihood that the creation stories in Genesis should be seen as having a mythological rather than literal value. Similarly some events recorded in the Bible can be correlated with other historical records to see where the Bible record is accurate in an historical sense and conversely where the stories have been recorded for some other purpose. Similarly the modern techniques of analysis of writing style, including identifying the style of lettering, combine with other measurements to tell modern scholars how different translations of different parts of the Bible might be dated. It is hard to imagine a modern version of Christianity which has not benefitted from such systematic study.

Similarly there is a problem with seeing religion as concerned with values whereas science is supposed to be mainly concerned with clarifying how the natural world can be described and controlled. This implies a separation which doesn’t match reality. The scientist assumes the importance in choosing certain human values to help identify important fields of study. For example the study of medicine is ultimately concerned with value of assisting people to achieve desirable states of health while the application of bioethics assists the associated moral decisions. The pre=eminence of conducting research with integrity and reporting results truthfully is seen as essential, and while some science leads to unethical application of knowledge eg germ warfare, it seems likely that the majority of science researchers are interested at least in the well being of the community who support their research.

Social science methods are commonly used to survey the occurrence of behaviours and attitudes in different denominations. There is direct application of scientific principles in testing the effectiveness of prayer in improving health outcomes for certain conditions and current research looks at the relationship between life expectancy and Church attendance, the nature of near death experiences, and the relationship between brain function and specified publically undesirable behaviours previously labelled Sin. Recent research has looked at the relative brain structure and function of homosexuals and heterosexuals and the results of such studies may help Denominations determine if homosexuality is a chosen or determined behaviour.
Similarly there is a problem with seeing religion as concerned with values whereas science is supposed to be mainly concerned with clarifying how the natural world can be described and controlled. This implies a separation which doesn’t match reality. The scientist assumes the importance in choosing certain human values to help identify important fields of study. For example the study of medicine is ultimately concerned with value of assisting people to achieve desirable states of health while the application of bioethics assists the associated moral decisions. The pre-eminence of conducting research with integrity and reporting results truthfully is seen as essential, and while some science leads to unethical application of knowledge eg germ warfare, it seems likely that the majority of science researchers are interested at least in the well-being of the community who support their research.

The notion that factually accurate science will eventually win over some fluffy values laden religion misses another important dimension of religion. Religion has an important sociological dimension. A typical religious community offers a place where members can know they are valued, accepted and a setting where members know what is expected of them. By in effect agreeing to not to make too much fuss about the standard beliefs of the community, even where those beliefs are not always robust in a philosophical sense, the trade off may be experienced in the form of continued group respect and community support.

Since I am still trying to think through some of these issues, reader reaction would be appreciated.

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Lectionary sermon for May 24 2015 Pentecost Year b on John 15:26-27,16:4b-15 (and Acts 2: 1-21)

Pentecost – speaking in tongues… what was that all about? And what is John on about when he quotes Jesus saying he will leave a comforter with us to help us out when we are being persecuted?

I sometimes wonder if some are too quick to attribute their insights or words to the Holy Spirit. Years ago at a lay preachers’ course conducted by the great Rev Dr J.J. Lewis, Lewis was telling the lay preachers about the need for research and careful preparation for preaching. One of the participants put up his hand. “ I have no need of the preparation. I simply go to the pulpit and with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit I can go on with my sermon for anywhere up to 40 minutes without pause”.

Another participant put up his hand. “I attend this man’s services he said. I had no idea the Holy Spirit was so boring, repetitive and short of ideas”.

When I was still at University I once attended a Pentecostal service to see what it was all about. The congregation responded to the words of the visiting preacher by standing , arms in the air, swaying and babbling in strange sounding words. I too was carried away by the emotion and joined in swaying, waving and babbling. Then suddenly a baby started crying in the front row. The annoyed preacher suddenly abandoned his babbling with “Lady, get that baby out of here!”

I do not think for one moment that all Pentecostal preachers would have done the same, yet since my rudimentary theology at that stage was (and I suspect still is) much more in sympathy with Jesus’ reported statement, “Suffer the little children to come unto me” than it was in treating small children as an unwanted nuisance, I was uncomfortable at the mismatch between that experience and the nature of the one the experience was supposed to honour. In terms of my subsequent understanding of the Holy Spirit I confess that incident made me cautious to accept all claimed apparent encounters as genuine religious experience, and even more unlikely to accept this as a phenomenon available to be turned on at will.

Now back to the gospel. Why did the Gospel writer John recall the words about the comforter which Jesus claimed he would leave with his followers when they faced a threat for acting on belief. John of course was recalling these words when the emerging Church found itself under increasing pressure from hostile neighbours. The Jews themselves were trying to regroup having been recently driven in disarray from Jerusalem after their rebellion failed. The heat was being turned up on this small sect of Christian followers. They needed to be assured that Spiritual help was available.

At the same time the Romans were gradually becoming even more of a threat. One of the key ways the Romans had been seeking to exert authority, was to insist that although there was to be some local freedom of religion, the number one requirement for all people under Rome control was to first acknowledge the divinity of the Roman Caesar. That this new grouping of Christians was insisting that their Jesus was their only Lord, together with their failure to acknowledge the Emperor’s pre-eminence, to the Roman eye was tantamount to rebellion and as a consequence, persecution was beginning. It was factors such as these requiring a source of encouragement, rather than the need to find Spirit-filled worship that must have been upper-most in the minds of those in the fledgling Church.

At the beginning of John Chapter 16 Jesus was saying “they will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed an hour is coming when those who kill you will think that by doing so they are offering worship to God.” This is of course a direct reference to Jewish persecution. Perhaps it is also an obvious point, but the implication is that the place where the action takes place would not be in the synagogue or place of worship. For our generation where there is a temptation for Christians to see our main focus as being what happens in the Church building it is also a reminder that, the activity of whatever Spirit Jesus is describing, it finds its real meaning in the challenges we meet in the sometimes confusing and sometimes even scary everyday world.

Although Jesus makes reference to the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete (or Advocate) – in today’s gospel passage this is most certainly not encouragement for some holy withdrawal from reality…and nor does it invite expecting the resurrected Jesus to somehow perform magic to take away the threat or even to do the work on our behalf.

The power of the magic and mystical has always held some attraction. We might note for example there is a company in the United States called Paraclete that manufactures and sells bullet proof vests! I see little evidence that the Holy Spirit provides protection from bullets as the followers of many Christian martyrs through the ages will no doubt attest. Yet this is not to say the Holy Spirit has nothing to do with our coping with adversity. John records Jesus as giving examples of the threat being real. In summary he appears to say, “I will no longer be there to act on your behalf, but the Spirit will help you find the words to say and the actions to take”. Please note, he did not add …. “and thereby you will avoid pain or real danger.”

You may recall that in last week’s New Testament readings about the Ascension, Jesus’ removal from the scene is emphasized. The two “angels” (or at least men in white) who were said to be present when Jesus disappeared asked the disciples, “Men of Galilee, Why do you stand looking up?” (Acts 1: 11) Whether this was recorded as a symbolic or actual event, the clear implication was that it was no longer appropriate for the disciples to continue looking for their help from Jesus in heaven. Their immediate tasks and challenges were tasks very much grounded in what we might now call “the here and now”.

Perhaps we are tempted to forget that message attributed to the angels. Some modern Christians certainly act as if Jesus is still going to do the work on our behalf. For example public prayer often comes close to exhorting Jesus to do those tasks where we may be tempted to avoid responsibility.

Prayers of the kind: “Jesus, heal my friend in hospital” sound trite if I am not at least prepared to spend time visiting my friend in hospital.
Jesus, bring about peace in the Middle East” also loses any sense of sincerity if we ourselves are not prepared to grapple with the practical tasks of learning how to show forgiveness for enemies, and to become involved in acts of peace-making or supporting peacemakers. Jesus I pray for my neighbours sounds a bit empty when 600 of those wanting to be neighbours drift as boat refugees for six months in appalling conditions because my government along with all those other governments had the not welcome signs up. We note in passing in was a group of Muslim fishermen (acting as good Samaritans)not Christians who eventually took pity on them and brought them ashore to a temporary makeshift hospital.

In today’s reading, Jesus does indeed say that the Spirit is available for those seeking to answer their accusers – and perhaps by implication we might presume available to those attempting the tasks of the kingdom. He does not however say the Holy Spirit is going to help those who only watch from the side-lines.

A moment’s reflection about the variety of people all claiming guidance of the same Spirit and yet who appear to have come to radically different conclusions as to the direction the Spirit is leading should give us pause at this point.

Peter the Hermit stirring up blood lust at the time of the Crusades was clearly driven by a different Spirit than St Francis of Assisi. Those “guided” to fly planes into the Twin Towers or strap explosives to child suicide bombers may well have believed that God (Allah) was directing them through his spirit but they are hardly in tune with the same spirit as a John Wesley preaching outdoors to the poor or a Mother Teresa called to work with the poor of the slums of Calcutta. Believing then that we are driven by the Spirit may not necessarily be the same Spirit as Jesus was referring to in today’s passage from the Gospel of John.

Perhaps the response should be not so much to stay looking up to heaven – but rather to ask the simple question. Is the action I am directed towards – or the words I am about to speak – in line with what I know of the teachings and spirit of Jesus? If it is the same spirit that motivated Jesus, it would seem follow that the actions led by that spirit should fit the main thrust of the life and teachings of Jesus.

It would then follow it is a mistake is to act as if the Christian walk of faith can be accomplished to meet the real challenges of the everyday world without any direct connection with Jesus’ main teaching.

One of the current serious issues facing much of the Western world at present is very much down to earth in the unequal deal offered to whole populations. While our country is chasing the policies that will continue to keep us near the top in luxury and peace, there are boatloads of starving refugees desperately seeking anywhere they can land to give them a start in life. The rich nations certainly don’t see them as neighbours in the sense that Jesus advocated. Each time we have a budget it is fair to remind ourselves that our true beliefs are revealed in the policies we demand. Socialism maybe, capitalism – maybe …. but it is fair to ask which form of government most closely reflects the Spirit of Christ.

To leave Christ out of the equation would for example be to focus entirely on one’s own immediate needs and only give token concern to the needs of those others less fortunate. Is this what others might see in us.

Each time we have an election we hear outrage expressed by the left about the plight of the growing gap between the rich and the poor. Those among the rich seem more concerned about their taxes going to help the unemployed. The thought that all of us should be primarily concerned not for ourselves but for our neighbours, rich or poor doesn’t seem to come into the discussion.

For Capitalists and Socialists alike, history teaches that short term benefits engineered for a single dominant group whether they be the workers or the rich is a long term recipe for disaster.

How very different is the focus of those dominated by the Spirit. In one of the alternative readings suggested in the lectionary for today ,1 Corinthians Ch 12 verses 3 -13, Paul explains that there are different gifts of the Spirit, but the point is that each is designed for the common good and not by implication for personal advancement. The fruits of the spirit are similarly easy to discern. Love, joy, kindness and generosity should indeed be discerned in gifts of the Spirit, for the genuine Spirit we seek is the same Spirit which was shown to be expressed in Jesus – and now which must be expressed in those who claim to follow. Perhaps we too need to ask ourselves if the gifts we express in our every day interactions reflect something of the Spirit of Christ.

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Lectionary Sermon for 17 May 2015 (Easter 7 b ) on John 17: 6 -19

The Judas effect
There is something almost therapeutic about great villains. To begin with they are not always easy to identify. Remember even Adolf Hitler in the period prior to the Second World War had many admirers in the West. Henry Ford, Charles Lindberg the US aviator, the humourist P G Wodehouse, even King Edward VIII were among many thousands who had many good things to say about Hitler in that period prior to the second World War.

Yet once the evil is identified and draws public focus there is a rush to condemn. This way whatever has gone wrong may be directed entirely at the identified sinners and our own sins can be quietly overlooked for the time being. I heard a second hand dealer in war memorabilia, after a trip to Bavaria, say that it was intriguing that although virtually every family in Bavaria had contributed in some way to supporting Hitler, that it was his impression as you travel around the Bavarian villages today that no-one is prepared to admit their family had anything to do with Hitler.

To many, Judas Iscariot is a villain in the same mould, one of the most talked about apostles and the most reviled, and yet remembered as one who has no characteristics admitted to be in common with the rest of us.

Many stage magic tricks rely for their illusion on drawing the attention of the audience towards an obvious distraction while the real action takes place elsewhere. It seems to me there is an analogy here with what I would like to suggest should be called the Judas effect.

So what is it we see when we look at Judas? The popular wisdom about Judas as the evil betrayer of Jesus, would have us think that here is a man who should never been chosen as a disciple in the first place. He, who after all that had happened, despite his seeing the goodness and wisdom of Jesus, betrays him for thirty pieces of silver to the High priest and the Sanhedrin and then, naturally as we would expect, overcome by his feelings of guilt at the enormity of his crime, he comes to a deserved end. Yet all is not quite as it seems. For example in Acts Ch 1 verse 18. We read: “With the reward he got for his wickedness Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out”. Then it says in verse 19: “Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this so they called the field in their language ‘Akeldema’, that is, field of blood”. Everyone in Jerusalem?… Well , perhaps not quite. Matthew in Ch 27 of his gospel claims that Judas was so upset he returned to the Priests and having failed to get them to take back the money, threw the money down at their feet and went out and hanged himself. In Matthew’s version it was the priests who used what they called “blood money” to purchase the Potters’ field for use for the burial of foreigners. I will leave it to wiser scholars than I to work out which account (if either) is the more likely to be true.

Perhaps in the interests of accuracy in scholarship I should even add to the confusion by reminding you that a Gnostic gospel called the Gospel of Judas written about the same time as the other gospels and rediscovered around the 1970s portrays Judas almost as a hero and gives an alternate version saying that Jesus himself had encouraged Judas to betray him to fulfil scripture. The Gospel of Judas also claims that Judas had a vision that the disciples would later persecute and stone Judas.

We may well see a deliberate sinner when we look at Judas, but Jesus finds something else. There is an interesting phrase in Jesus’ reported take on Judas in today’s gospel reading. He said “None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (John Ch 17 verse 12 b). Perhaps then Gospel of Judas might have contained a grain of truth and perhaps Judas had no real choice in his action.
It is certainly in line with the modern psychological finding that circumstances and background have far more influence on our decision making than we care to admit. For some, we now know that they are clearly predestined at least for the high probability of actions we often call sin. Think about it. The child brought up after being born with foetal alcohol syndrome, the child born with extreme autism, or the one born into a crack house or P lab. Are we really surprised that those have anti-social tendencies? Then there are those born into a family where a particular view of those considered to be enemies is frequently expressed. Is it any wonder children can be recruited to be suicide bombers if they are indoctrinated from an early age? Is it a judgment on them or us that society requires them to be condemned and punished to the full letter of the law?

This is relevant to those who wish to walk the Christian walk because it suggests we need to be very careful before condemning others for their actions. Modern psychology and brain chemistry show how a variety of factors beyond personal control influence actions, so the enjoinder “Judge not lest you yourself be judged” has support from science as well as religion. We might note in passing the Calvinists take a similar line in that they suggest that from what Jesus said about Judas in today’s passage that he had little say in it because he was predestined to betray Jesus.

It should also give us pause for thought that Jesus invited this same Judas to join the disciples, and that he was clearly trusted in that there is a verse reminding us that Judas was delegated to look after the disciples’ money. Perhaps he would have made a good parish steward. One Gospel story about Judas hints that he had a liking for money. You may well remember where Judas questions the wisdom of Mary Magdalene wasting expensive perfume on Jesus, yet is this so very different from the similar arguments are frequently heard when Church money is being discussed at Church leaders’ meetings? We would never have found ourselves in such a situation – or would we?

Some commentators have suggested that Judas’ surname suggests he was part of the Zealot rebel movement which might have meant he had an additional reason for abandoning Jesus in that the Zealots were trying to mount armed rebellion against the Roman invaders, and from what we read of Jesus, he was equally determined to tread a path of peace. I seem to remember that when George W Bush took America into the now unpopular war in Iraq there was almost universal support in the West for the violence considered at the time to be just. How many I wonder, remembered at that time they were also following one who had said: blessed are the peacemakers? Are some of the supporters of the US invasion of Iraq now even having second thoughts?  Maybe we are not so different from the Zealots after all.

Unfortunately the rush to judgment is a human characteristic. Other scholars remind us that, whatever the reason for different writers portraying Judas in different ways, that in all accounts, because Jesus was betrayed to Jewish authorities rather than to the Romans, this has provided an unfortunate excuse for picking on the Jews down through the centuries on the grounds that through their ancestors’ actions, as with Judas’s act of betrayal, they are judged to be killers of Christ. For the anti-Semitic thinkers (which at times encompassed whole populations), that Jesus himself was a Jew and that the other apostles were also Jews appears to have escaped attention.

Defending Jesus memory with acts of persecution in this way with a myopic eye-for-an-eye mentality is curious in that it is almost opposite to what Jesus taught. It is almost as if learning about Jesus has virtually nothing to do with following his teachings.

It is true there is no way that circumstances are likely to bring us to a direct betrayal of Christ, or at least not in the same way as Judas is reported to have done. Nevertheless there are reminders in this reading that we too might get tempted into another form of betrayal to Jesus message. Remember the reading starts with a Jesus talking of the need for obedience. The implication is that it is obedience to the way and acceptance of the message rather than the way of the world which presumably includes Judas’ natural preference of improving his lot that characterizes what a true follower is intended to be.

This then raises the awkward point that perhaps we too should ask if we give priority to improving our lot ahead of our intention to be loyal to Jesus’ message. The status commonly associated with success in the Church may not always sit well with Jesus’ words. The corollary to this is that obedience is actually not normally associated with successful leadership in the conventional sense. It is rather those who operate as servants who put obedience as a guiding principle. What does this tell us is required of us in our day to day dealings with others?

The Judas effect may draw our attention towards Judas’ sin and cause us to overlook our own weakness. Ultimately however, the description of what happened is not where the real action takes place. The important action takes effect when we realize that Christianity is not so much a passing acknowledgement of the stories of the Bible, but rather a genuine attempt to follow the teachings of the one at the centre of the story.

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Lectionary sermon for 10 May 2015 Easter 6 Year b (and Mothers day) on John 15:9-17

Since the Christian faith is meant to make a difference to our relationships and since today (1o May) is on the calendar as Mothers’ Day, I have a question…for all of us. Has our faith actually made a difference to the way we treat not only our mothers, but other family members and those we encounter from day to day? I guess studying the Bible can only take us so far towards living the Christian life. Sooner or later we have to decide for ourselves which parts of our faith are important enough to give direction to our life’s journey, and it is good to pause every now and again to ask ourselves how we are going on this journey. It is actually quite easy to lose one’s way when it comes to Christianity. Sometimes the arguments over the details of interpretation and what the earnest minded and even the fanatical might call the basics of belief, draw attention away from something Jesus claimed to be at the heart of his message. As far as I can tell the message Jesus emphasizes is essentially a call to relationship. Remember his two key commandments. The relationship commitment is first to embark on a life-long journey to seek that mysterious creative and elusive “God” force which draws us to journey with a sense of wonder, and the second to find and use a human setting for the awakened sense of love and compassion. Without this commitment to Love, as Paul so eloquently put it in chapter 13 of his first letter to the Corinthians, we are nothing. Jesus is very clear about the attitude required for this commitment and, according to the gospel accounts he himself was prepared to die for this principle. In our reading today from the gospel of John, we discover Jesus telling his disciples that they are to love, but not just love in general, they are to love as he has loved them. Although that sounds straightforward, to find meaning in his statement we must first be sure we know how Jesus expressed his love. Before we reflect on how Jesus loved the disciples we might pause and think for a moment as to who the disciples were. According to all four gospels the disciples were most assuredly not clones of Jesus. Loved they may have been but they were not all portrayed as particularly loveable. Peter for example comes across as impetuous and when it came to the crunch even cowardly. There were those who were ambitious vying for places of honor in heaven, and of course the largely illiterate majority who are portrayed as slow to understand Jesus’ message, not to mention the potentially dangerous Judas – and as a group, none obviously worthy recipients of Jesus compassion and concern. Certainly a clear majority are recorded as deserting Jesus at the very time he most needed them. For all their potential problems, Jesus did not appear to have gone out of his way to choose as followers those like himself. The implication then that by talking of love for ones fellows as Jesus himself had shown love, was not a prior requirement of those who would be disciples. Jesus commitment with his disciples was one to those who happened to be close-by. Dr Liz Carmichael from Oxford University, herself one who committed her efforts to working with the afflicted, saw this radical Messianic friendship of Jesus as: “Making friends with people who are not my sort”. Or perhaps even in Bishop Desmond Tutu’s words “an enemy is a friend waiting to be made”. Not all of us have the confidence to commit ourselves to strangers, but there is nevertheless, for most of us another form of relationship thrust upon us by force of circumstance. “You may choose your friends” goes the adage, “but you can’t choose your relatives”. If, as the history of Christianity’s saints suggest, it is possible to commit one-self to those who might even have a different view-point or different culture, then how much easier should it be to share commitment to those whose connection is that of a relationship by birth. Which brings us to Mothers’ day, celebrated in this country on the second Sunday in May, and for some now called “Church and Family day”. We might note in passing that in this country at least, Mothers’ day was born from a different age. The ancient Greek Holiday of Cybele and the equivalent Roman holiday of Hilaria, both in their own ways a recognition of motherhood, have undergone many changes. Although the form of Mothers’ Day is very variable across the nations the current traditions affecting this country seem largely influenced by England and the US. The Anglican Church organization in the English countryside was normally that of a Cathedral based in a city or large town with satellite Churches scattered through the countryside – each serving its local community who needed to be within walking distance of their church, particularly during the winter when the roads were virtually impassable. The first Sunday in May which generally coincided with a time at which the roads had become passable, the snow melted and the worst of the puddles dried, was set aside as the day where the small congregations could make their way in to the town and there join in celebratory worship in the cathedral. As this Mother Church Day (or Mothering Sunday) developed through the years, since it was also a time when the spring flowers returned, it became customary to gather flowers and give posies of flowers and small gifts to the Mothers as they gathered with their families. Another part to the modern tradition of Mother’s Day as the second Sunday in May comes from the US. As is now relatively well-known, Julia Ward Howe as a means of avoiding further war, made a Mothers’ Day proclamation in 1870 as a means of encouraging women in her call to disarmament. In 1908, one Anna Jarvis further suggested that an annual holiday be declared to honor mothers and eventually convinced President Woodrow Wilson to make such a national holiday which he did for the first time in 1914. The idea rapidly caught on, but the commercialization of Mothers day with cards and expensive gifts became so extreme that a disillusioned Anna Jarvis began calling it Hallmark holiday and claimed she regretted ever having started the commemoration. The day has evolved in different ways in different societies. In most modern Western countries with the changes in society, the original simple acknowledgement of mothers in a setting of a close nuclear family worshipping together with their local community is now a light year from the reality that many mothers face. With the constraints of the modern economy, even finding an entire family that stays together and worships together is increasingly uncommon. Employment opportunities are often transitory and geographically wide apart. Sunday trading and a diverse society encompassing many beliefs and interests mean that Church itself is now a much more minor part of this Nation’s Sunday scene. Not all of the changes have been negative. If we think back to Jesus’ day the male role was considered much more important than that of the woman, and women, including mothers, were expected to play a much more subservient role. It was also an age when roles of family members were much more defined than they are today. Jesus in his recorded dealings with women outside his family showed much more respect for women than was required but we should remember that this would not have been the norm for his day. While there are still places in the world, and even within subsections of our own society where women are given subservient roles, relatively rapid changes have been occurring. Some of these changes are no doubt a consequence of advances in technology. For many homes, the drudgery of household tasks such as of cooking, washing and cleaning, once immensely time-consuming, is now largely a thing of the past, and there are many more roles now available in the workforce to women. In today’s society, which still far from perfect, women play a far more significant role and enjoy more freedom. Unfortunately with that freedoms comes more potential for disaster. Just to take one area of concern. In Jesus day, the mother was the one most likely to bring up the young child. What Mum did back then would be key for the upbringing of most children. Today I guess what happens outside the home has has a bigger influence. These make the role of the mother much more problematic. You may have heard of the German proverb that roughly translated says: “to become a mother is easy, to be a mother more difficult”. If you want evidence of this difficulty look around. Solo parenthood in some parts of this city is now almost the norm. Youth gangs, youth pregnancy, accessibility to drugs and alcohol, statistics showing an increase of violence in the home, youth suicide, the insecurity of short term employment, youth unemployment, divorce, custody battles … we should not pretend that all is sweetness and light. Marriage itself is now seen as sometimes optional and certainly less permanent, and solo parents are increasingly the norm. This calls for a different form of community support. Jesus himself foreshadowed one aspect of this change by suggesting that the Church family rather than nuclear family should be a point of support. This has a modern ring. Loving those who circumstances bring our way could only help a fractured and uncertain society where there may be no immediate family to fill this role. In practice we should be truthful with ourselves and admit while John records Jesus as making the ideal of love key to his message, since few if any of the saints were able to achieve this ideal in all aspects of their lives, so while clearly it is an ideal worth striving for, it is probably best understood as a goal rather than as a prerequisite for the Christian journey. Ethics is inevitably situational in practice because we cannot know in advance what the calls upon the best of our intentions are going to be. Crunch situations find us out.“Greater love has no man than this, that he is prepared to lay down his life for his friend” said Jesus. The catch is that in the real world we have no knowledge of whether or not such a dilemma is going to confront us and still less how we will respond in practice. We do know that such situations are uncommon. The one who dashes into the burning building to save a trapped child, the one who responds to the call for help against the armed assailant, or the one who swims out in treacherous surf to the drowning swimmer are inspiring but rare examples of Jesus’ injunction, but in the same way the disciples were found wanting when the soldiers came for Jesus, the truth is that we do not know how we would be found in such circumstances. We know from history that the practice of prayer and Bible reading would not automatically equip us for such an occasion. The small percentage of clergy prepared to stand up against unfair provisions for families, or the few who speak up against inhumane Government policy, or show leadership resulting in tolerance for unpopular minorities suggests that even Church position is no guarantee of loving and sacrificial attitude. Nevertheless Jesus places this ideal squarely before us so what should our response be? If we are to take his message seriously perhaps the most sensible reaction is to make a determined effort to begin by shifting our first loyalty from ourselves, to those around us. Of course we can never be certain that our commitment to others is going to win through when the unexpected arises, but it does seem to me that until we see those about us as worthy of attention, worthy of sympathy and worthy of sacrifice we have not begun to understand how to honor those we claim to love.

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Some Home truths about Anzac Day

Anzac Day is a day where the citizens of both Australia and New Zealand can rightly celebrate what in effect was the first significant time when soldiers from both nations fought side by side at Gallipoli. They fought in extraordinary difficult circumstances and in many cases paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is difficult to fail to be impressed by courage and determination. Given the background of the circumstances behind the conflict at Gallipoli it is also difficult to believe that so much blood was spilt to so little purpose.

History serves many purposes and it is intriguing to talk to those whose education has shaped a radically different understanding. The popular New Zealand and Australian understanding is that this Anzac effort was a significant part of the fight for freedom and democracy. Perhaps it should not surprise us that the Turks see it very differently.

From the Turkish perspective, European powers were gathering to carve up the Ottoman Empire to gain control of the mineral, gas and oil reserves. Perhaps, in retrospect, even if this wasn’t the intention, it was very close to what transpired. According to the Turkish tour guide who was hosting our bus tour through the Gallipoli area in 2007, the main Turkish understanding is that the combined British and Anzac invasion they were repelling had very dubious beginnings.

In the years prior to the First World War the Ottoman Empire centred on Turkey was in disarray. They were losing land and being abandoned by previous allies. After defeats at the hands of the Balkan armies, and losing control of significant parts of the Middle East, the Turks were anxious to forge new alliances. They approached Britain and were rejected. Since Britain already controlled parts of the previous Ottoman Empire, this was not too surprising. They approached Russia but were told the price of an alliance would be to become subservient to Russia. Germany was much more sympathetic but initially there was very limited popular support from the Turkish population for such a treaty, and although possibilities were explored behind the scenes, an interim measure was to strengthen their own military power. It was decided to purchase two Dreadnaught battleships together with some smaller vessels and the funds for their construction were raised by public subscription.

Britain agreed to supply the battleships which were then paid for in full. Unfortunately as the likelihood of war grew, when the Turks sent representatives to Britain to collect the Dreadnaughts, they were told that Britain was not only confiscating the battleships but also the other ordered warships. The Turkish people were furious particularly as public money had been used for their purchase and Turkey turned instead to Germany for assistance. Germany seeing the strategic advantage of setting up an allegiance with Turkey, not only agreed to provide battleships but also provided sailors and a German Admiral to oversee the fleet. It was this admiral who initiated the shelling of Sebastopol which in effect brought Russia into the War.

The British and Anzac attempts to invade Turkey were a chapter of miscalculated disasters. Perhaps they simply assumed that because Turkey had lost in the Balkans, their military forces would capitulate easily. Winston Churchill ordered the naval shelling of Istanbul, and when that failed saw the Dardanelles with its narrow strait as a next presumed weak point. The naval campaign in the Dardenelles was a disaster because the narrowness of the strait made it easy to mine. Although minesweepers could be used to remove the mines, the minesweepers operated so close to the shore they were in easy reach of the Turkish guns. Although it was assumed that a landing would be achieved with little difficulty, the slow and ineffective naval operations gave the Turks plenty of time to bring up reinforcements and organise their defences.

When finally the Gallipoli landing was attempted at the foot of the very hills the Turks were using as the centre of their defence, the invading troops were in an almost impossible position. The British saw themselves as in charge of the operation but lack of experience with this type of warfare led to the same sort of stupidity that characterized the War in France and Belgium. Ordering hopeless charges across no-man’s land in the face of machine guns, setting up camps within range of enemy guns, water in the base of the trenches, dysentery and other diseases, problems with evacuating the wounded, difficulty in finding suitable places for burying the dead and a general refusal to consider alternative tactics were some of the factors that combined to ensure eventual defeat.

So what then should we celebrate on Anzac Day? Celebrating that we sent young men to die for King and Country won’t quite do it because, at least for that particular campaign, we need to acknowledge the foolish tactical mistakes, the violence directed to those who were doing little more than defending their homeland, and the suffering and death initiated for very mixed motives. Certainly we should remember them because the memory of what and who we have lost might make us more cautious about treading that same fated path in the future. At the very least Anzac day can remind us of the horrors of war and imbue us with a sense of thanksgiving that with care we can avoid needless slaughter. One of my friends pointed out that among the impressive and patriotic speeches at Anzac Cove one aspect was underplayed. In order to move on with life perhaps we should be rather more direct about where as a nation we have gone wrong in the past. Perhaps our histories are incomplete, because unless we confess past mistakes we are ill-prepared to avoid them in the future.

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Lectionary Sermon for 3 May 2015 , Easter 5 b (The True Vine ) John 15: 1-8

It is inevitable that we must encounter Jesus through the filters of the Gospel writers. With anywhere up to three years of the Jesus ministry to generate the original events and memories on which the gospels were based – and a few decades of telling and retelling the stories before they were recorded, we are fortunate that virtually all the material selected appears sufficiently fresh and vivid to stand the test of time.

John for example, has picked up on a number of metaphors Jesus is thought by tradition to have used. Each one of these is related to an aspect of human experience. I am the true vine, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the light etc. Today’s gospel picks up the striking image of Jesus as the true vine. If we go back a little we see that Jesus is addressing this to his disciples, those who had already chosen to follow him. Accordingly, as we consider what he is saying, we might wonder if John chose to record such words for those in the Church who intend to follow Jesus’ teaching.

The grapevine was an image well known to the Jews. The historian Josephus (who is the main non-Christian historian who provides independent evidence for Jesus) describes the Temple in Jerusalem as having golden decorations on its entrance archways with human sized depictions of grape clusters on a grape vine. The scriptures referred to the Jews as God’s vine-stock damaged by captivity in Babylon and brought to Israel. The prophets also captured this image and Isaiah, Hosea, Ezekiel and the Psalmists all used the same metaphors of the Jews as part of the vine and of God as the Vine dresser.

In John the image is expanded and the new branches on the vine are taken to mean the Gentiles who are now also part of the picture. The bit about the non-fruiting branches being destroyed may even have been partly John’s addition because he was writing at a time between 85 and 115 CE when the Temple had already been destroyed and the Jews driven from Jerusalem.

Certainly some of the reported comments about the Jews are problematic in that Jesus and the disciples were Jews and such passages were later used as an excuse for prejudice against the Jews.

It might be said by some that Jesus as the true vine is only a metaphor, yet metaphors can remind us of truth that we may prefer to overlook. For example, it may seem a minor point but a vine that is grown for fruit production is only cultivated for that one reason. If it does not produce the fruit it has no other purpose. Thus for those who believe that the purpose of Church is getting together for worship, this may be to miss Jesus’ point. It may even be worth reflecting on how those in the community might view the “fruit” being produced. A grocery or fast food shop has a discernible purpose for a community. If our local Church were to disappear tomorrow it is worth asking why it would be missed. What good fruit is produced there?

I want to suggest that the chosen metaphor of Jesus as the true vine is both helpful and thought provoking. It is true that any metaphor can be subject to unwise interpretation, but if nothing else using a true vine is good gardening practice. At worst, the lazy naive gardener might plant fruit trees and grape vines by the process best known as spitting the pips. That grape you have just tasted might well be the best you have encountered, but as any gardener would tell you, the chances of taking the seed from that grape and getting it to produce the same version of grape with the same characteristics is almost impossibly small.

The standard practice is to select the good fruiting vine with great care and having identified the one required, take cuttings and graft them onto separate root stock. Simply being in the same vicinity as the well grafted stock won’t do it. Joining a congregation where there are warm and active Christians doesn’t mean that all who are associated with that congregation will have those same characteristics. Each individual shoot must be considered separately

If we look back over the last two thousand years we see all too often it has not always been Jesus’ teaching with his central principles of compassion forgiveness, peace, justice and acceptance which have always been at centre of the expression of Church, but rather sometimes it is as if there is a graft to power, position, local custom, exclusivity and religiosity. The clue – as with viticulture – is to see what fruit has been produced.

Families are linked automatically by relationships put in place by happen-chance of birth. You may not always like your cousin or brother or aunt but there is a tie which is there as of right by birth. This is not so with a faith. In the case of the vine of Christianity we are not linked to the family tree as of right, because the sap of life for those attached to Christ is in effect the flow of love and compassion. Nor for that matter, are we linked to the vine by self- labels like being born again, like being evangelical, or liberal or conservative. The fruits of faith are seen in our attitudes to one another rather than in our statements of faith.

If the flow is interrupted, the relationship becomes suspect and the fruit will not be acceptable.

If the branch is not productive or if it begins to die, horticultural practice suggests it should be excised. Here it is not clear if Jesus was talking about the person or the characteristics of a person or even if his words should apply to whole communities. Most of us, if we are human, will have human failings as well as human gifts. Our faith communities are unlikely to be exempt. In this observation Jesus is saying no more than we know to be true. Not all parts of the vine produce good fruit – and not all dimensions of human behavior are acceptable.

What is more debatable and which even seems at odds with other things Jesus said, is his reported statements about destruction and burning of the parts which have been cut. The notion that the humans themselves might be cut off, rejected and burned does not fit in with other parts of Jesus actions and teachings. In other places for example, he accepted sinners and those who had no right to be accepted. However since he seems to acknowledge that even among the faithful we should expect there will be those who will have attitudes and behavior which are contrary to the principles he taught, it follows that such behavior and attitudes should be corrected.

In reality the identification of weakness is not automatically followed by instant improvement. The sad truth is that many succumb to a host of addictions and undesirable thinking and behaviour patterns. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous for all their successes can also identify many failures. It is all very well to agree in principle to love enemies, to love the poor and fight for the disadvantaged – but in practice it is difficult to do alone. Perhaps we get a hint of how to at least start becoming a productive part of the vine in Jesus’ words of encouragement.

“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you bear much fruit. But apart from me you can do nothing.”

As with Paul’s words of encouragement in first Corinthians 13, the phrase “abide in me” is an instruction to engage in a series of deliberate acts rather than a feeling. Building Christian Community may start with the identification of the theory of Christ’s teaching but as long as it stays with reading and hearing about Jesus and his interaction with those who would follow, it will remain unrealized.
Jesus talks of those areas of the vine not producing fruit. This calls for honesty – and not, as many seem to think, only honesty about the lack of applied Christianity in others. The fruit of the Gospel in our lives should be apparent to strangers, to friends and neighbors and not least, to ourselves.

What is required is that we actually need to follow Jesus’ example of caring about those who are not necessarily deserving of our care. We need to be peacemakers – not just in theory or expressing peaceful sentiments in pulpit prayers– but in defusing actual disputes, we need to be identifying and meeting injustice, and above all we need to be serving others. In short we need to be abiding in Christ in a way that makes some difference to the life we live outside the artificial atmosphere of the Church building.

When it comes to identifying the useless parts of the vine, knowing that others are likely to have weaknesses may be a truth – but Jesus’ notion that the vine will have weaker parts reminds us that we too may have weaknesses and maybe what is required is not so much our judgment of others, as helping one another overcome our weaknesses. Jesus reminds us that we have to be ruthless in dealing with weaknesses that get in the way of producing fruit. Nowhere does he say only in other people.

Finally I want to suggest that whether or not the metaphors used by Jesus makes a difference in our e veryday lives will ultimately depend on whether or not we truly believe Jesus’ teaching is for the community we inhabit in the setting of a real world. If there was good news in Easter, it has to be good news for the everyday life we and others live. The true vine produces the fruit. May others find in us the evidence of that “true vine”.

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