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Readings: 5th Sunday after Easter

24 April 2015


Acts 8.26-end, Psalm 22.24-30, 1 John 4.7- end, John 15.1-8

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

THE VINE has a venerable Old Testament pedigree as an image for God's people Israel (Psalm 80.8-16; Isaiah 5.1-7, 27.2-6; Jeremiah 2.21; Ezekiel 15.1-6, 17.5-10, 19.10-14). In Jesus's hands, it becomes an entirely new way of imagining the connection between human beings and God. Unlike the prophets, he doesn't draw from it a lament over the ingratitude of the people to God, like a vine that rewards the vine-grower's care with poor fruit and undisciplined growth. Instead, he gives the detail of pruning to ensure a good crop a more complex interpretation.

The vine is not Israel, but Jesus, the Messiah, who draws his life from his Father's love, and extends this life into the world in the branches that grow from him and take life from him. The 11 gathered at the table are being offered the privilege not just of having a "share" in Jesus (John 13.8): they are being accorded a part in his very existence. He will go on to tell them that from then on they will be called "friends", not "servants" (John 15.15).

These "branches" of the "true vine", if they are truly living its life, will "bear much fruit" (John 15.5). Jesus does not claim that he bears the fruit - only that he supports the branches that will bear it. He has already made the gracious and astonishing promise that anyone who believes in him will not only do what he does, but also "greater works than these" (John 14.12). This model of pure good, unmarred by envy and self-seeking, is part of Jesus's ultimate purpose, which is to glorify the Father (John 15.8). The whole of Jesus's life has had this end in mind (John 12.28) and, when he is no longer with his followers, the Father will continue to be glorified in them. The 11 will not bear fruit because they are disciples; it is, rather, in bearing fruit that they will become disciples (John 15.8). They become disciples by being sent out, not by staying at home; and their fruitfulness will be an education for them as well as for those to whom they learn to show Christ. Jeff Astley captures this process exactly in his writings on Christian learning: it is on the "open road" that those early disciples, and subsequent Christian explorers, learn an "openness to Christ". That, with a glance towards Ephesians 4.20, is to "learn Christ"*.

But how does this constitute "abiding" (John 15.4-7)? Ben Quash writes that abiding is not a static condition. It conveys "a full, personal commitment", a way of being in which "God and the believer both get to be an 'abode' for the other". If there is something "asymmetrical" about the interdependency of vine and branch, it shows how "creatures can live not just in relation to but in God's abiding, as outgrowths of it."**

Psalm 80 describes the vine of Israel, liberated from Egypt and spreading from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates (Psalm 80.11). That vine broke its covenant with the vine-grower, and the psalmist seeks reconciliation with God (Psalm 80.14 &19). As those about to become disciples go out into the world, they extend a new covenant into which not just Israel, but all who respond to God in Christ are invited.

Philip branched out into Samaria (Acts 8.4-18) before the Spirit sent him towards Gaza, along the "wilderness road (Acts 8.26). On that road, his extraordinary encounter with a foreigner became the first sign that the gospel would reach many nations. Intrigued by the fact that the Ethiopian is absorbed in the fourth of Isaiah's "Servant Songs" (Isaiah 53.7-8), Philip asks whether he understands what he is reading. The Ethiopian replies that he has no power to make sense of the passage because there is no one to "guide him along the road" - for this is the etymological sense of the Greek word he uses. So it is on the road that he "learns Christ". Soon after that, the Christian faith would become known as the Way (Acts 9:2, 18:25, 19:9, 19:23, 22:4, 24:14, and 24:22).

Like a good catechumen, the Ethiopian comes via instruction to baptism. His joy after this is the realisation of that more abstract promise of 1 John 4.15: "God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God." 

*Jeff Astley, Christ of the Everyday (SPCK, 2007), chapter 1. See also Ordinary Theology (Ashgate, 2002), chapters 1 & 2.

** Ben Quash, Abiding (Bloomsbury Continuum, 2012), page217 

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