Saturday, May 30, 2009


In ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ – a very useful book to have read if you happen to find yourself unexpectedly kidnapped by aliens just in the nick of time when the Earth is just about to be demolished by a Vogon Destructor fleet in order to make way for an intergalactic hyper-expressway –the Earthling, Arthur Dent, naturally can’t understand a word anyone is saying to him even after he gets over the initial shock of finding himself on a spaceship surrounded by large and spectacularly ugly Vogons – until a fellow intergalactic hitchhiker hands him a Babel fish.  Named, of course, after the Tower of Babel, the Babel fish looks pretty much like a regular goldfish except that when you insert it into your ear you can hear and understand everything that’s said to you in your own language.  Unfortunately the fish has to stay in there for the duration, apparently the fish gets something out of the relationship as well, I can’t remember what.  Also it tends to wriggle a bit, which Arthur initially finds a bit disconcerting, but you can’t have everything.

The Babel fish is one of those clever ideas that catches on in popular culture – on the Internet, for example, you can go to the search engine, Yahoo, where you’ll find a thing called Babel fish translation – you just type in a phrase of English and select what language you want it to be translated into – though sometimes the results are a bit surprising - for example when I typed in ‘what are these mad Galileans on about’, and translated it into German and then back again into English to get ‘just what exactly are these furious Galileans on?’  Which, actually, is more or less what everyone was thinking at the time, even if they didn’t say so.

You see, Luke, in our story today from The Acts of the Apostles, also comes up with the clever idea of reversing the basic idea of that much older story in the Old Testament about the Tower of Babel.  And in fact there’s some very rich symbolism in the riotous scene that Luke paints for us – where the original Tower of Babel story tries to explain how it is that people can’t understand one another, why we get separated into factions that can’t see eye to eye, why we spend all our time arguing and fighting one another – here in the story of Pentecost we have the opposite - a miracle of comprehensibility, the miracle of people inspired by the Holy Spirit who do get the point. 

Maybe, in fact, Luke has got in mind another very old story associated with the Jewish harvest festival of Pentecost – so named because it falls fifty days after Passover this was one of the great pilgrimage festivals that gathered together Jews from all over the known world, the still-scattered remnants whose ancestors had gone into exile and never come back – people by now who spoke mutually incomprehensible languages who were at home in foreign lands and cultures but who still knew themselves to be the people of God’s promise.  By the first century Pentecost had become one of the great annual festivals to celebrate the coming of the Law on Mt Sinai – where, according to the Talmud a flame had come down from heaven and divided into 70 tongues of fire – one for each of the nations of the earth – everyone could understand what God was promising and what God required, but only Israel promised to keep the Law.  So Luke, the great story-teller, has got a lot of material to work with and he weaves it together to tell the story of how, in the promise of God made real in the crucified and risen Jesus, communication is being restored.  The nations of the world are being gathered in again like a great harvest – the Spirit comes as wind – a play on the Hebrew word for God’s Spirit, ruach – which, just like the Greek word, pneuma -  also means wind, or breath.  And the Spirit also comes in tongues of fire! 

Like Douglas Adams, Luke uses a bit of humour.  He makes it sound a bit like the phenomenon of talking in tongues, what anthropologists call glossolalia, the symptom of religious excitement that worries St Paul so much about the Church in Corinth because of the all-too human tendency to get carried away, to mistake the unusual effects of our own excitement for the presence and the work of the Holy Spirit.  Calm down, St Paul tells the Corinthian Christians – the real work of the Holy Spirit is love.  If love is growing among you then God’s Holy Spirit is working.  It’s that simple.  The Spirit of God is incompatible with the spirit of competitiveness and the spirit of showing off.  Luke, writing 30 or so years later than Paul, makes his story sound a bit like talking in tongues – he even says that to people who don’t know what’s going on they sound like a lot of drunks - but then he gives it a twist – the faithful Jews gathered from across the ancient world hear them talking plainly, miraculously making sense.  The curse of Babel is reversed.

For all Luke’s poetic licence, it’s clear something remarkable happened that first Pentecost.  An excited crowd of Jews from different language groups and cultures witnessed some sort of phenomenon that transformed these witless Galilean country bumpkins - who just weeks earlier had been scattered and scared – into fearless and compelling witnesses of God’s new deal for human beings.  Luke, no doubt, makes a good movie out of it, which is more or less what we do ourselves, when we dress up in red and decorate the church with vases of poinsettias.  Pentecost is a day for theatre, for celebrating the truth of the miracle even if we’re a bit hazy on the details.

So what’s the good news in this story for us, in 2009?  I really think there is good news here, and it’s summed up in one of Jesus’ favourite sayings that also gets repeated at various points in ‘A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ - whenever Arthur Dent gets himself all anxious and worked up about the strangeness and unpredictability of the galaxy he turns over to the next page of the strange little book that his fellow hitchhiker has given him and reads: ‘DON’T WORRY!’.

Or, as Jesus generally puts it: ‘Don’t be afraid’.

Pentecost, the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, marks a turning point in the life of the early Church, and it also marks a turning point in our own lives that, very appropriately, we reflect on at the end of the season of Easter.  Pentecost marks the turning point for disciples who have been pretty much OK about being called and nurtured, who are pretty much OK about following Jesus and being impressed – but who are a bit iffy about being gifted and commissioned and sent.  Pentecost is the feast of the Church that understands itself as the body of Christ – the body of women and men who speak Christ’s words and who live Christ’s risen life - not just because that makes us feel good or because it guarantees us a spot in heaven, but because we are faithful to our Lord’s commandment – ‘make disciples of all the nations and baptise them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’.  Pentecost is the feast of Christian maturity, a feast of the turning point for Christians who recognise that the Spirit of the risen Christ is a gift that doesn’t just redeem them personally but also challenges them to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ wherever they go.  Pentecost is for Christians who know Jesus calls them to be in mission to a hurting and fragmented world - but are a bit iffy on how to go about it.


Because it turns out that as you fly around this amazing and rather scary galaxy – or even just around Cannington – the only job you have is to grow in love.  The Babel fish in your ear is going to do the rest, because the miracle of comprehensibility is God’s work, not yours.  That’s the promise of Pentecost.  The Babel fish – or to use slightly more Christian terminology – God’s Holy Spirit – is going to keep wriggling in your ear, going to keep pushing you slightly off balance, going to transform you precisely to the extent that you are prepared to trust its power to do so.  You will find yourself in some pretty unusual places, there’ll be times when you’re not too sure how it’s all going to turn out.  But the promise is that the words of God will come from your lips, and they are going to be spoken in the language that is just right for the unique situations that you are going to find yourself in

Does that mean we can just forget about mission, leave it all up to the Holy Spirit?  Well, actually, no.  But if you’ve really put the Babel fish in your ear – and sadly, some Christians never seem to get around to it – not only do you find yourself tuning into the languages of love that are all around you, but you find yourself growing in the desire to live the way Jesus modelled for us, the way of compassion and forgiveness, and yes, even the desire to talk about it.  That, of course, is mission, which is the art of translating God’s love into the social contexts of our own time and place.  Nobody can do it for you, you’re the only mission expert there is in the challenges and the opportunities of your own daily life.  The promise of the Babel fish is that, if you actually want it to, God’s Holy Spirit will wriggle and grow in you and make you incandescent.


Saturday, May 23, 2009

Easter 7B

I remember when I was learning to ride a bike.  My dad had bought a second-hand bike for me, and I “helped” him do it up, and dad carefully explained what all the parts were and how they worked.  And then he started to teach me to ride.  He showed me how to do it, and he explained the theory.  I couldn’t quite get my head around why, on two wheels instead of three, you wouldn’t fall over every time, but he assured me you just don’t, if you keep peddling, and if you watch where you’re going, then you will stay upright.  And then, when all the theory had been explained, we started to put it into practice.  Which meant, at first, me sitting on the bike trying desperately to hold on to the cross-bar with my knees while dad held on to the seat and pushed.  Every time he let go, the bike stopped dead and slowly keeled over.  But he wouldn’t let me give up, and many bruised knees later the day actually came.  I remember it clearly  Dad wasn’t even there.  I got on the bike with my big sister’s help, and without warning she gave a mighty shove – and I rolled right across the front lawn and into the rose-bush.  It was a wonderful feeling, and from that day on I just rode. 

How do you get from theory to practice?  From following Jesus around with mouths wide open in wonderment, listening to him telling us what God’s kingdom is like, watching what happens when he demonstrates in his own actions the transformed priorities of his way of love and forgiveness – watching in shocked amazement as he shows us he really means it, that he’s prepared to die for it.  Blown away with wonder at the realisation that not even death can stop the chain-reaction of transformed lives set in motion by one life of self-emptying love, grounded in the source of love itself.  Lives transformed by the encounter with the mysterious and impossible presence of the one who inexplicably was not, and would never be, absent.

Yet – just in case you missed it, Ascension Day having slipped past almost unnoticed in the middle of the week – it’s a presence that also, in a pretty obvious sense, actually is absent.  The Acts of the Apostles, as most serious scholars point out, simply doesn’t work on the level of narrative history.  Yet the comic image of Jesus’ followers standing around with wide open mouths – again – and also probably with cricked necks, gazing up at the sky as Jesus slowly recedes from view, disappearing, perhaps, behind a cloud and then maybe reappearing as a distant speck – ‘is it a bird, is it a plane – no, it’s ...’ – what the Acts of the Apostles very accurately portrays is the problem for Jesus’ followers as they find themselves careering out of control, across the front lawn, heading for a rose bush, filled with a mixture of exaltation and dread.

In short, you’ve read the book, you’ve seen the movie, now you’re it.  And we see Jesus’ followers working through to an understanding that they themselves are now Jesus’ body in the world, the Church, in fact, is the true resurrection body of Christ.  Your training wheels are now, officially, off.  And we ourselves, every single year, retrace the same steps.  We’ve wondered, through the holy season of Lent, at the depths of a love that is prepared to share the burden of our own conflicted humanity, we’ve watched in anguished fascination as love pays the price of human violence and we’ve woken in wonder to the realisation that love is indestructible, springing up renewed out of the heart of death itself.  And then we’ve listened to the words of Jesus with, perhaps, a deeper understanding: ‘That’s what God is – love.  And so that’s what you also have to be’.  Like Jesus’ original followers we’ve been given time to wonder, to relive the stories and to reflect how this resurrection helps us to be who we have been called to be.  But now we get the shove in the seat that sends us off across the front lawn.  ‘Be the body of Christ.’

Today’s readings take it to the next level.  This is the point in our journey – not, you might notice, just our journeys as individuals but our journey together as the Church, where we have to ask ourselves, ‘what next?  We’ve got that we’re supposed to be Christ’s body, we’ve got that he is sending us into the world just as his Father sent him into the world.  Just – what do we actually do next?’

I find it rather a delicious coincidence that we have an Annual Meeting coming up, that feast of practicality where we scratch our heads over the parish finances and elect office-holders.  Maybe sometimes with a sense of relief that somebody else has put their hand up for the hard and unglamorous work of worrying about pest control or cracks in the brickwork.  Because of course in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles the disciples are doing something very similar.  The first step in being the Body of Christ seems to be electing the right number of people to Parish Council.

And we might be a bit amazed at how they do it.  When Jesus calls the original disciples we are struck by the sense of clarity and purpose – they leave whatever they are doing and just follow.  For many Christians it’s like that when they first realise they want to follow the path of discipleship.  Jesus calls, and we hear it really clearly.  But now, when the disciples need to fill the spot left vacant by Judas, it seems that discernment in the everyday life of discipleship, which is the Church, is a lot less obvious.  And so of course they do it by tossing a coin.

Maybe the disciples haven’t worked out yet that discernment takes time, that listening for the guidance of the Holy Spirit is something the Church does collectively.  For example, when a person believes God might be calling them to the priesthood, the Church invites them into a period of discernment that takes a number of years, and commits itself to listening alongside them.  Discernment is what we should be doing when we get ready for an Annual Meeting or decide to run an Op Shop; it’s the organic way in which the life of the Church needs to grow out of a collective listening to the Holy Spirit.  Discernment is an art that gradually grows in us as we become more sensitive to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and the real, essential point, is that discernment depends on the very things Jesus is praying for in today’s Gospel reading, which also are the fruits of that process.

Firstly Jesus prays that the community should be protected from evil.  I think that’s not so much to be understood in the sense of being shielded from external events, because Jesus himself models a life of vulnerability and openness, but in the sense of choosing to walk the way of holiness, of loving what is good and lifegiving.  Above all, as a community, the Church needs the moral strength of being able to recognise and nurture what is good, to recognise, renounce and repent of what is destructive and self-serving.  The goodness of the Church needs to be palpable, our structures need to be open and accountable.  This is why, for example, the failure of the Church to protect children and young people from sexual abuse strikes at the very heart of what we are called to be.

Then Jesus prays that we might have unity.  You know, I think there’s a lot of who-hah about unity.  It doesn’t for example, mean that we all have to agree, because creative disagreement can be a wonderful resource that leads to new understanding.  And unity doesn’t mean ‘niceness’ or politeness, because these things can all too often disguise competitiveness and disfunctionality.  Unity means learning to see all our individual perspectives and abilities as mutually reinforcing – valuing our differences and learning from one another but above all, recognising our individual perspectives as gifts of the Holy Spirit for building one another up.  In a sense, the unity of the Church isn’t something we can just decide on, it is already a reality of Jesus’ resurrection life that we live into more deeply as we learn what it means to be God’s people.

And Jesus prays that we might have joy. Isn’t that something?  He doesn’t pray that we should be serious or dour or high-minded.  But that we should have joy.  Note I’m not necessarily equating ‘joy’ with ‘fun’ – sometimes living with integrity as Christians means there’s opposition, and that’s not fun.  But I think it does mean ‘delight’.  We are called to delight in one another, and we are called to delight in the goodness of God’s creation.  Because if we do, then we will also seek for one another’s good.  To delight in one another means to take pleasure in one another – something that came home very strongly in the movie Chocolat that we watched last Sunday evening at Paul’s home.  To delight in one another means to love one’s neighbour as oneself.

And finally, Jesus prays that the life of the Church should be distinct from the life of the world.  I’ve heard it said that the besetting sin of Christians in another age was to withdraw from the world – in our own age Christians are more likely to be immersed in the culture of the world and to live in conformity with its prevailing values and politics.  To be distinct from the world means to be reflective, it means to live in the heart of the world with a deep awareness of the holiness and the integrity of creation, at times to be uncompromising, always to live with integrity.

And I think it means to live without fear, secure in the knowledge that even though we might wobble a bit, if we keep peddling and watch where we’re going we will stay upright - because that’s the gift of the Holy Spirit.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Easter 6

Archbishop Roger, like our Prime Minister, is what is often referred to as a cricket tragic.  He refers to this obsession fairly regularly.  So much in fact does he appear to believe that cricket is the game played in heaven that a couple of years ago, during a particularly exciting though very long Diocesan Eucharist, the Arch took advantage of a lull in the proceedings to inform us all of the progress of the Test match being played at the same time.  Not being an absolute cricket tragic myself, or even a sports fan of any sort of calibre, I find this sort of fascination a bit bemusing.  Maybe I’ve got some catching up to do.

One of the things that really intrigues me – it’s not just cricket, I hasten to add, but any sort of sport – is the way we Aussies bend the rules to claim the latest bright star as one of our own.  You know how it is – if they’re playing for Australia, well and good, it’s a win for Australia.  But if they’re playing for some other country but they used to live in Australia – that’s close enough too.  She’s Australian, she’s been living in the US or Czechoslovakia or somewhere for the last 20 years, but deep down she’s Australian - so we’ve won again!  Well actually, she’s changed her citizenship so now she’s a national of the Bahamas, but really she’s an Aussie!  He’s Irish and he plays for Ireland - but he’s married to an Aussie!  She’s American, but she came here once on holiday …

It’s quite inclusive really.  In the name of sport, all we actually care about is if you’re any good, and we’ll happily claim you as one of our own if you’ve got the slightest connection with us.  We don’t argue the point, we’re just happy to accept you if the spirit of the game is running through your veins.  Maybe it’s a bit parochial and small-town, but the good thing here is that we’re actually celebrating our connection with one another based on the flimsiest possible pretext.  The more I think about it, the more I like it. 

In our short reading from the Acts of the Apostles this morning, we see the early Church grappling with a similar sort of issue.  Who are we going to claim as one of ours?  How much do you have to be like us, for us to recognise you as a Christian?  It wasn’t a new dilemma.

From our own perspective in history it’s easy to forget, but Jesus was a Jew not only by birth but by religion.  His disciples were Jewish, and Jesus never told them to stop being Jewish.  In many ways, Jesus, like John the Baptist, acts and sounds like a Jewish reformer leading a movement that he thought would refresh and revitalise the faith of Israel.  At just a couple of points in his career we find Jesus himself realising that the new thing God is doing in him might also be good news for other people as well.  For example when he meets a Gentile woman who has a sick daughter.  And in the same way it seems the first generation of Jewish Christians just took it for granted that they would keep doing all the things that faithful Jews did.  They didn’t think of it as a new religion, just the right way to be faithful to the religion they already had.  But the problem for these Jewish Christians was that the message they were preaching about how God’s love had been made known in Jesus, how you no longer had to sacrifice in the Temple to be forgiven – this message of universal acceptance started to attract men and women who weren’t Jewish at all.  Well, no problem, there was a way you could convert to Judaism, if you were a man you had to be circumcised – well, maybe that wasn’t always such an attractive option - but the problem was that the message itself was attractive – Jesus himself hadn’t said anything about giving up pork and shellfish, he wasn’t super-strict on observing the Sabbath-rules, he just said ‘little children, love one another.  Love God who gives you life, and love one another’.  Simple as that, and it seems huge crowds of Gentiles heard the message and wanted to be a part of it.  So this was the problem – did being a Christian mean you had to adopt the whole paraphernalia of Judaism – did you basically have to live like a faithful Jew if you wanted to follow Jesus?  St Paul, we know, was one of the earliest Christians who said, no, you didn’t.

This wasn’t actually a new argument – there’d been an ongoing debate in Judaism about this for three or four centuries already.  Can Gentiles worship God just as they are - or are the distinctive customs of the Jews the only way people can be accepted and blessed by God?  This question started to get really controversial after the Jewish people came home from their long exile in Babylon.  While they were away, they’d got a whole lot more cosmopolitan, rubbing shoulders with people from all over the Persian Empire.  But they’d also worked out a whole lot of rules to make sure they didn’t forget they were Jewish.  The big fear, with the loss of the Temple, a long way from home, was that they’d lose their distinctive identity altogether.  So that’s when all the rules started to come in about eating kosher food and maintaining ritual purity.  But try as they might, the boundaries had got a bit blurred.  A lot of families came back with Persian-sounding names.  A lot of the men had non-Jewish wives.  You can read in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah about the concern for racial purity - how, when  the exiles were allowed to come back home and start rebuilding, a sort of ethnic cleansing was carried out and foreign wives and even children were sent away.

But the purists had some opposition.  Not everyone agreed with this idea that the Jewish people were so special to God that all foreign influences had to be got rid of.  And so in the Old Testament, alongside the hardliners and holy war advocates, we can hear other voices pointing out that God’s love is for all people, not just for the Jews.  Like the book of the prophet Joel who talks about boundaries being broken down and God’s spirit being poured out on all humankind.  Like the book of Ruth, a politically explosive little love story where the heroine is a faithful Gentile who is blessed by God and ends up becoming the ancestor of King David.  And best of all, perhaps, the book of Jonah, that tells us the whole point is that if we are God’s chosen people then what he’s choosing us for is to be a source of blessing to the people we’ve always thought of as outsiders 

So it’s the age-old question.  Does God bless other people even if they’re different – culturally, ethnically, religiously – different from what we’ve always understood to be the right way to worship God?

And it’s in this little reading from the Acts of the Apostles that we get the definitive, once and for all answer.  Yes.  Because this is what Peter points out – just look at what’s happening – it’s perfectly obvious that God’s Spirit has been poured out on them – and then he says, if the Holy Spirit doesn’t discriminate, then who are we to be pernickety about what you’ve got to do or who you’ve got to be? 

It’s a simple test.  If the signs of the Spirit are there, if we’re seeing lives transformed by God’s love in places where we never expected, then we’d better just catch up.  For Peter, the evidence was the enthusiasm, the babble of excitement and the talking in tongues that overtook these new believers.  For Jesus, maturity in faith is first and foremost seen in infectious outbreaks of love.

And yet it’s not a dead issue, is it?  It’s an argument we keep having in the Church, arguments over the right way to worship and whether traditions that are different from our own are acceptable to God.  Our own Anglican Church threatens from time to time to split over arguments about whose interpretation of scripture is right, or about what God really thinks about gay Christians or female bishops.  Even at the level of parish life, Church can be a place where some people feel left out and other people feel they need to protect their rights.  We’re human, after all, and to be human is to be prone to misunderstanding, to jealousy and anxiety.  Our relationships are less than perfect.  But Jesus keeps drawing us back to the main point, and the whole purpose of why we’re here.  If you love God, the preacher reminds us in our reading from 1 John, you’ll obey God’s commandments.  Again, the whole point of his sermon is: be consistent!  And Jesus for the umpteenth time reminds us what the Law of God boils down to: love God by loving one another.  Not, he shows us in his actions, the icky, sentimental, mostly fake stuff of pop songs, but the sort of love that quietly reaches out to somebody in need, the sort of love that reaches out to include the newcomer, the sort of love that gently reaches out to repair a broken relationship.  The sort of love that’s prepared to celebrate our connection with one another on the flimsiest possible pretext.

Which actually is all it takes to transform a collection of disconnected individuals into the body of Christ.


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Easter 5B

I wonder whether you know the Aesop’s fable about the three boys who inherit a vineyard?  Now their dad was what you’d call a self-made man, he had worked hard all his life and the vineyard was doing pretty well, the vines were healthy and produced good fruit, but the one thing that worried him was that all three of his sons seemed to be allergic to the very idea of work.  As so often is the case in wealthy families, the next generation were keen on the idea of spending money, but not so hot on working for it.  And so, as he lay on his death-bed, dad called his three sons in and said to them, ‘my boys, there’s a secret I have to tell you ... but you have to swear to keep it to yourselves ... the thing is, I’ve made a lot of money over the years but most of it is hidden ... out there in the vineyard, buried amongst the vines, there’s gold out there and lots of it ... just be careful not to let anybody know what you’re digging for’.  And then most infuriatingly dad breathed his last.

Well, of course, for the next forty years the boys dug.  They were too clever to hire a backhoe and just rip all the vines out – that would have given the game away – so they spent every spare moment digging around the vines, systematically working their way through the vineyard and turning the soil over as they went.  My guess the soil was already rich and black, and as the years went by the more the boys dug, the more the vines produced.  They sent the grapes to market, although it was an annoying distraction from the main task, and as the vines flourished and every year the harvest was fuller and sweeter, their bank accounts grew fatter, and what with all that digging, the young men themselves grew lean and healthy.  But they never did find that treasure.

Well, I’m not going to insult your intelligence by telling you what the treasure was, but the fact is we in the church are a bit like those boys, except we’ve been digging for 2,000 years.  And just before he goes away Jesus says to us, ‘abide in me’.  ‘Make your home in me, just as my heart’s home is my Father, so your heart’s home is me’.  And just to make it all worthwhile he promises us treasure, the gift of the Holy Spirit.

It seems to me that Christians systematically miss the point of Jesus’ final instructions, certainly we miss the point of ‘abiding’, maybe we keep expecting it to be more highfalutin or mysterious, at any rate one of the most common mistakes Christians make – in my humble opinion, at any rate – is to spend our time metaphorically looking ‘up there’ rather than right here, expecting that whatever it is that Jesus promises us is going to come tumbling out of the sky.  At any rate, the writer of the Epistle, writing to his community around the end of the first century, already feels the need to spell it out.  And he does so by stressing the need for consistency – a couple of weeks ago the metaphor was light and darkness – if Jesus was light, you can’t say you’re following Jesus if you’re living in the dark – in other words, you need to see yourself clearly, acknowledge a few of the problem areas – and then he used the argument from genetics – if you’re really children of God, if you’ve got God’s DNA in you, then there actually needs to be a family resemblance, your lives right here and now need to show some evidence of that – not just in devotion to God but by displaying God’s priorities.  And here today he cuts to the chase, and picking up one of the central themes of St John’s Gospel he says, God is love.  Not, ‘God is loving’, not even, ‘God loves you’, but ‘God is love’.  It’s a definition.  That’s what God is, so the reverse is also true: ‘Love is God’.  Real love, that isn’t self-serving, that always seeks the best for the other person, that’s prepared to pour itself out, to give itself away in love for the other person - real love, that is rare and precious comes from the centre of a heart that is connected to the source of life itself.  And then, in the argument that should be getting familiar by now the writer says, ‘if you love like that, that’s how you know for sure that your life is centred in God – if you don’t love like that, then you’re kidding yourself’.

And here comes that funny word, ‘abide’ again  It’s a powerful word that means not only to live, to dwell, but to continue.  There’s nothing accidental about ‘abiding’, you can’t abide in a hotel room or a caravan park, to abide you need to have your roots down deep.  The Greek word that our Bible translates as ‘abide’ is exactly the same.  Meno.  You can’t meno by accident, you have to mean it, if you want to meno with God it means your roots go deep into God’s heart and God’s roots go deep into you.  You can’t just move away next week.  And the letter writer has got a particular reason for using the language of abiding, because he’s saying ‘if you’re rooted in God, then you have to be rooted in one another as well’.  Otherwise you’re kidding yourself.

And here we get back to the grapevines again, which is just as well because we human beings think a whole lot better in concrete images.  Jesus says, the way you abide in God’s love is by staying connected, by being grounded, by living together like an organic community with its roots deep in the soil that gives it life.  Here’s the first thing about Jesus’ image of the grape vine as a model of what Christian community is all about, and it’s that the water and the nutrients, everything that gives it life, comes up through the soil.  It’s a picture of our relationship with God that is not top down but bottom up, an image of Christian spirituality not as a gift from above but as that which seeps up through the groundsoil, intimately connected with our existence as creatures of the Earth.  God’s Holy Spirit, in other words, is not something extra that happens to us on top of human life if we’re very, very lucky, but the very condition and sustenance of our life, that which gives us life in the first place and which sustains us and nourishes us, sometimes without our even being aware of it.  And yet, as the boys in the fable discover, the treasure of the Holy Spirit needs nurturing.  We need to do the spadework, to dig in the compost, to be intentional about our connection with what gives us life.

And here’s the second thing: that the grapevine is a community. The stem, what keeps us grounded and connected, the conduit that draws the juice of the Spirit out of the earth, that which gives us structure and holds us together, Jesus tells us, is him.  We’re the branches, we’ve got our own work of photosynthesis to do and that helps to support the whole vine, we each get to produce grapes – and maybe your sort of grapes are different from or juicier than mine - but the point is that we are interdependent.  It’s an image that argues against a Christian version of individualism - you can’t flourish if you cut yourself off from the rest of the vine, go it alone and you wither and die.

And the third thing is that we get pruned.  That’s the sobering part of this picture.  Also it’s not entirely clear what Jesus means.  Are the branches that chopped off people who fall away, people who have to get culled out for the good of the whole vine, or is it that all the branches get a little bit lopped?  And in my expert horticultural opinion, I think, maybe a bit of both.  You see the branch that’s just not thriving, or that’s growing out in the wrong direction and you need to cut it out.  And it seems to me that sometimes there are people who, even if they look like they’re part of the grapevine, aren’t actually thriving, aren’t actually being nourished by the sap of the Holy Spirit.  And they cut themselves off.  Sometimes it’s their fault, sometimes it’s our fault.  We haven’t cared for that branch. 

But even the branches that stay connected need to get pruned so they can stay healthy and produce good fruit.  From the point of view of the branch, pruning sometimes seems painful.  You certainly know when you’re being pruned, when unproductive parts of you get cut back, or when what seemed like a fresh new direction is thwarted by the secateurs, and sometimes the pruning is so extreme you wonder how you can possibly grow back.  But the point is not that anytime anything difficult or painful happens in your life, that’s God pruning.  In fact, the branch that needs the heaviest pruning is often the one that’s suffered the most damage from frost or disease.  God’s care of us sometimes sets limits, sometimes encourages new directions for growth, but always is designed to keep us joined to the stream of life-giving nutrients, to keep us connected with the whole vine and producing the fruit that we’re designed to give.

The art of abiding, it seems to me, means to pay attention to what gives us life.  It means to be an intelligent grapevine, a community of care in which, together, we spend some time digging in the soil that sustains us, learning how to tap in to the currents of God’s Holy Spirit.  A community in which we attend to one another, learning to recognise the directions God is encouraging us to grow, attending to the branches that need some extra care, sharing the sap and marvelling at the grapes that grow, like a sort of by-product, when all the time we’re looking for treasure.