Christ Church Cathedral Grafton
29 April 2018
As best I can recall, my very first Sunday reflection was on the Gospel passage we have just heard: John 15, the vine, the vinegrower and the branches.
I was around sixteen at the time and had not yet commenced any formal theological studies. Coming to faith in a supportive and affirming community at Camp Hill Church of Christ in Brisbane about 50 years ago, I was soon encouraged to preside at the Lord’s Supper and also to begin preaching.
Of course, I no longer have a copy of that sermon—if there ever was one. I was encouraged to prepare well, write a few points on small pieces of paper, and basically speak without notes.
It is probably a good thing that no written notes from that first sermon have survived, as I would doubtless no longer agree with almost anything I can now imagine myself having said about this text 50 years ago.
Much has changed during those 50 years, and for 40 of them I have been ordained within the Anglican Church.
But let’s revisit that passage, as I suspect I have not preached on it in the meantime.
The Gospel of John and the resurrection mystery
Last week there was a ‘change of gear’ in the readings set for these Sundays during the Great Fifty Days of Easter. We missed that change as we were observing Earth Sunday, and were not using the readings set in the lectionary.
We started a series of Sundays when the Gospel reading will be drawn from the Gospel of John, and that series will take us right up to the last of these Sundays during Easter.
During the first half of Easter, the Gospel readings focus on stories of Easter appearances, but that series is now finished. In this second half of Easter, we move beyond stories of Easter appearances and focus on the deeper significance of the Easter mystery.
During this series of 4 Sundays in the second half of Easter, we are invited by the lectionary to explore various aspects of resurrection life. The focus here is not so much the resurrection life of the risen Lord, but our own resurrection life; right now.
We do that during these final four Sundays of Easter by listening to the Gospel of John.
The Johannine voice
The Gospel of John offers a distinctive ‘voice’ among the NT gospels, and indeed among all the 30 something ancient gospels that have survived from antiquity.
This gospel offers us a different and distinctive perspective on Jesus.
Where the so-called ‘synoptic gospels’ of Matthew, Mark and Luke tend to focus on the historical activity of the Jewish prophet from Nazareth, the Gospel of John tends to focus on the spiritual significance of Jesus as the eternal Son of the Father.
The Synoptics tend to have Jesus speaking counter-cultural wisdom in aphorisms and parables. The Gospel of John tends to have Jesus speaking in lengthy monologues.
The Synoptics tend to have Jesus talking about the kingdom of God. The Gospel of John portrays Jesus as speaking mostly about himself.
The Synoptics tend to have Jesus exercising spiritual power (dynameis in Greek) as he heals, casts out demons and performs other miracles. The Gospel of John has Jesus revealing his eternal glory through a series of seven signs (semeia in Greek).
The Synoptics tend to have Jesus active in the north and making just one single fateful journey to Jerusalem. The Gospel of John has Jesus often in the south of the country and making repeated trips to Jerusalem.
These two ways of speaking about Jesus are impossible to reconcile and there is no good reason for us even to try to do that.
We do not have to choose between John and the Synoptics.
The New Testament holds them alongside one another in the same Bible so we can hold them together as well, without feeling any need to blend them into a consistent but tasteless spiritual goo.
We can appreciate each for what they have to offer.
Vine and branch
Vine and vineyard were important cultural elements in everyday life in biblical times. It is no surprise to see the Gospel of John using that familiar image to tease out the meaning of Easter faith for everyday life.
Of course, here—and throughout the Gospel of John—we are not hearing the voice of Jesus, but rather the voice of the Johannine community.
This was a distinctive stream of discipleship within earliest Christianity, even though their voice has often been drowned out by the louder Pauline voice that dominates the pages of the New Testament. We might explore their perspective on faith in a Dean’s Forum at some stage, but it is not something we need delay over this morning.
Throughout the gospel and especially in the chapters between the last supper and the arrest in Gethsemane, the Johannine pastor is teaching his people about the significance of Jesus for them. And for us.
For them—and for us—Jesus is the vine.
We are the branches.
Just as the vine does not exist separately from its branches, neither can the branches exist in isolation from the vine. Faith is a collective thing. We need the community of faith. Christianity is not just about individual personal beliefs.
We are church and outside of church there is no living faith.
For the Johannine community, the heart of Christianity is to live lives that are deeply embedded in Jesus; and to have the life of Jesus deeply embedded within us.
To live in God, and to have God living in us, is resurrection.
And as the writer of the First Letter of John reminds us:
God is love,
and those who live in love
live in God
and God lives in them [1 John 4:16]
This metaphor of Christian life—resurrection life—as life embedded in love is an immense source of spiritual hope.
This is indeed deep spiritual wisdom to live by.
This image takes us to the heart of Easter.
The deep Good News—not the headline story, but the deep news—is not that God raised Jesus from the dead 2000 years ago, but that in Christ we participate right now in the life of God: God in us, we in God.
We embrace a life transformed by the presence of God within us, a life in which others may catch a glimpse of God among them, a life that embodies the deep truth that God is love.
In the end, this surely is our mission as a Cathedral: to be deeply integrated with God-in-Christ, to form communities of invitation—not communities of condemnation, and not communities of self-righteousness, but communities of invitation: Come to the Table! Taste and see, that the Lord is good!—and to live lives that are authentic and therefore holy.
May the vinegrower tend that life which is love within us.