Looking West from The Jump Up, north of Itjinpiri on the way to Amata, 1995

Do not flag in your abiding

Week of Sunday May 3 - Easter 5
Gospel: John 15

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

Isaiah 5

5Let me sing for my beloved
   my love-song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
   on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
   and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watch-tower in the midst of it,
   and hewed out a wine vat in it;
he expected it to yield grapes,
   but it yielded wild grapes.

3 And now, inhabitants of Jerusalem
   and people of Judah,
judge between me
   and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard
   that I have not done in it?
When I expected it to yield grapes,
   why did it yield wild grapes?

5 And now I will tell you
   what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
   and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
   and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
   it shall not be pruned or hoed,
   and it shall be overgrown with briers and thorns;
I will also command the clouds
   that they rain no rain upon it.

7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
   is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
   are his pleasant planting;
he expected justice,
   but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
   but heard a cry!

8 Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land!
9 The Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:
Surely many houses shall be desolate,
   large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
10 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
   and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah.

11 Ah, you who rise early in the morning
   in pursuit of strong drink,
who linger in the evening
   to be inflamed by wine,
12 whose feasts consist of lyre and harp,
   tambourine and flute and wine,
but who do not regard the deeds of the Lord,
   or see the work of his hands!
13 Therefore my people go into exile without knowledge;
their nobles are dying of hunger,
   and their multitude is parched with thirst.

First Impressions

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
   is the house of Israel,
and the people of Judah
   are his pleasant planting;

he expected justice,
   but saw bloodshed;
righteousness,
   but heard a cry!

 Ah, you who join house to house,
   who add field to field,
until there is room for no one but you,
   and you are left to live alone
   in the midst of the land—
 the Lord of hosts has sworn in my hearing:

Surely many houses shall be desolate,
   large and beautiful houses, without inhabitant.
 For ten acres of vineyard shall yield but one bath,
   and a homer of seed shall yield a mere ephah. (Isa 5:7-10)

When it comes to living in the house of Israel; that is,  when it comes to being all that a human should be, Jesus is the true vine. He is the fully human one— "Do not put your trust in princes—" or politicians or priests. (Psalm 146) "4Abide in me as I abide in you."

What does it mean to abide in him? There is an intimacy here; if he is the vine and we are the branches, we share the same sap! Bill Loader says

The language of abiding in or simply being ‘in’ is the language of intimacy, almost sexual in tone, but expressing a continuing relationship of closeness. For John, salvation is, above all, a relationship with the Son and with the Father through the Son.

­­ — — —

The readings for Easter, and these few weeks following, seem to have heightened the contrast between the church and the world. We believe in resurrection. However much we wonder and argue about the meaning of this symbol, or the 'mechanics' of it, there is a central understanding that death is in some way transcended; it does not have the final say about life and reality; we do not create the meaning of the world, there is something breaking in to our limited vistas and begging us to focus on the greater realities.

The appearance stories challenge us to entrust ourselves to this resurrection, and the image of the shepherd starkly contrasts the politics of princes, "mortals in whom there is no help," (Ps 146:3) to those of the good shepherd (John 10) who lays down his life for the sheep— always read Ezekiel 34 before reading John 10.

In Australia the reading of the good shepherd coincided this year with Anzac Day, a resurgent idol in our national life.

Bitter feuds raged over the correct interpretation of Anzac, the “new wave of patriotism” and whether the whole thing was really undergirded by a myth, rather than a legend. It had become a secular Australian religion in earnest – or in Don Watson’s estimation, a kitsch religion.

Worse still, it had become a species of idolatry, used to enchant our military ventures during the war on terror. And a way to exclude and forget the frontier wars, arguably much more formative to the national character. Or even more egregious, a “new opium” of the masses, a Christian baptism of the meat grinder, or a reflexive response to latent colonial inferiority….

The loss of public religion has robbed us of the language and ritual we once used to give purpose to death. In its absence, the military has sold us its own vocabulary and view of history wholesale. (Adam Brereton in The Guardian)

When a Uniting Church minister would not allow the coffin of a returned serviceman to be covered with an Australian flag, or for the secular RSL drill which includes the Ode of Remembrance to be said in the body of the church some years ago,   the ensuing media scandal led to death threats against him. And many UCA members joined the criticism of him— hopefully rather less violently.

Yet the presence of a national flag in a church ought to trouble us greatly. National flags are a symbol of our failed humanity; they are the sign that justice, peace and compassion has not prevailed, but that we have built walls and borders between ourselves and, too often, that we have killed each other instead being human together.

The symbol of the shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep is not the battle flag of a divided humanity upon our coffin, but the table behind and above our coffin,  to which he, the risen Christ, welcomes everybody.

The Australian flag, draped between the people and the table, is at best a potent symbol of our failings and, at worst, a glorifying of our wars. It is too often the symbol of the faux-shepherd wolves who lead us to war. It might even be a new curtain separating us from God. (Mark 15:38)

God help me that I should want this symbol draped over my body, or that I should want it upon the walls of the house of God!

Controversy raged this Anzac Day when a media personality posted a tweet about some of the less savoury aspects of the Australian military's involvement in war zones. "He … accused Australian soldiers of carrying out executions, rape and theft in Egypt, Palestine and Japan." Given the barbarous nature of war, it would be utterly remarkable if such things did not happen! (See for example: here,   here here,   here,  and here.) The outrage which followed, and his subsequent sacking, is the outrage of those who are protecting household gods too small to weather the failings of their followers.  

At church, the day after Anzac Day, we were singing words like these:

Honour the dead, our country's fighting brave, 
honour our children left in foreign grave, 
where poppies blow and sorrow seeds her flowers, 
honour the crosses marked forever ours. 

Weep for the places ravaged by our blood, 
weep for the young bones buried in the mud, 
weep for the powers of violence and greed, 
weep for the deals done in the name of need. (Shirley Murray)

But also

Our normal, ordinary ways
of doing business, getting more,
entrap the poorest in a maze
of hunger, debt, disease  and war.
In Christ we would make good our claim,
and find a gospel to proclaim.

The heart that's given to the Lord
will pray and work to understand
the ills that sabotage the good
 in trade and credit, wealth and land,
and will not turn aside its aim,
a smaller gospel to proclaim.  (Brian Wren)


William Watkins Reid penned similar sentiments:

From search for wealth and power
     and scorn of truth and right,
from trust in bombs that shower
     destruction through the night,
from pride of race and station
     and blindness to your way,
deliver every nation,
     eternal God, we pray!

and then this hope:

Keep bright in us the vision
     of days when war shall cease,
when hatred and division
     give way to love and peace,
till dawns the morning glorious
     when truth and justice reign,
and Christ shall rule victorious
     o'er all the world's domain.

We were singing of the Kingdom of God, which is a seriously different entity from the Commonwealth of Australia, where "our political leaders continue to demean Australia, to portray us as a narrow, wealthy, selfish community by the debates they conduct between themselves." (Malcolm Fraser)

The controversies over Anzac Day sermons, Anzac hymns— some congregations cannot bring themselves to sing the third verse of Shirley Murray's hymn, RSL services, flags in churches, and not unrelated struggles such as the baptism of children whose families have no connection with the congregation— a colleague, and the congregation, once had to delay morning service as the family dealt with the burglary of all the booze they had laid in for the after party!—

all these come to us because we seek to serve those who in some manner desire the love and care of the church— of God, indeed!—  but are not grafted into the wider vision of the church. They are not yet seized by vision of the kingdom of God where the wolf will live with the lamb instead of having her for breakfast. (John 10, Isa 11)

Our compassion, and our toleration of the ignorance of our symbols and precious rites, is a major channel for pastoral care, love, and evangelism. Allowing the insult of the flag in our sanctuary may not only allow a family to grieve. It also recognises that symbols are multivalent, as Robert Gribben said.

It is not only that

symbols may have both a light and a dark side; symbols open up responses to life that may be deeply disturbing, and which are ultimately not controllable

but that grace is able to subvert even the symbols we find offensive and use them to channel the Christ.

How do we not cheapen our convictions, and those things which are a cherished symbol of the Christ and our life together, but also not let them become a barrier to Christ because we have been uncompassionate in our insistence on proper liturgy?

How do we respond to the clash between a view of pastoral care that essentially gives the visitor to church anything they want, and a theology which recognises we stand against the princes and powers and their symbols?

The question remains: what does ‘pastoral care’ mean? Does it mean, as the radio caller declared, that we give the grieving what they want? This is a widespread view which applies to baptism and marriage as well. It is based on a weak missiology which thinks that God’s only answer to our questions is Yes. One younger minister asked ‘Has society come to understand that what matters to us in the Uniting Church is to offer acceptance, and that this was first modelled by Jesus the Giant Sponge, and that if even foundational Christian convictions create discomfort or offence, they must be modified and rethought?’  

Where is the boundary between church and nation? What do we owe to the country and what do we owe to the kingdom? How do we give to Caesar what is Caesar's while being faithful to the most important call upon us— giving to God what is God's (Mark 12:17)

Gribben's answer to this sort of clash was to say

The determinant is the crucified and risen One, not human need – if the response is to be Christian and not sentimental. It is his pastoral word which needs to be heard.

Which brings us back to the true vine in whom we are called to abide.

The Father "removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit." We are not our own.

In the image of the vine

there are no free-standing individuals in the community, but branches who encircle one another completely. The fruitfulness of each individual branch depends on its relationship to the vine, nothing else. What matters for John is that each individual is rooted in Jesus and hence gives up individual status to become one of many encircling branches…. (O'Day, quoted here by Stoffregen)

Fruitfulness is this:

 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. 9As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. 10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:8-10)

On Sunday one of my colleagues characterised 1 John as a commentary on the thinking of John. We see the commentary in 1 John 3

16We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? 18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 

I said last week that we are called to mould our hearts after the heart of Jesus. Our discipleship choices should be influenced by him. But the only way we can have confidence that we have his heart, rather than a theology of convenience, is by loving each other. Indeed, we should take the mutuality and love of the congregation so seriously that it is our highest priority, so high that we should find it difficult to imagine loving and serving him apart from the congregation. 

Abiding in Jesus means abiding in the mutuality of the church community, and being shaped by the growing and increasing humanity of the church community. This is the pruning which tidies our tangled life-vines and keeps us fruitful. It means we are given the heart of Christ, that we have the same sap running through us. And we may bring this with confidence to the pastoral questions and the cries for compassion which the world brings to us.

It does not remove the hard questions and dilemmas. It does not remove the injustice of shock jocks who portray the church as a body subject to the whims of consumers— one more shop who should give the people what they want. It does not guarantee we will always make the right judgement call in a situation. It does not mean that some in the congregation will struggle to hear the Christ in Murrays' third verse:

Honour the brave whose conscience was their call, 
answered no bugle, went against the wall, 
suffered in prisons of contempt and shame, 
branded as cowards in our country's name. 

But it will mean we have the heart of Christ and that our deliberating will be gentle, compassionate and sacrificial. It does mean that our guests have the chance to experience that compassion rather than our rejection.

It also protects us from building a superstition of words, or an empty piety around this Christ, because honest mutual abiding, especially when it meets the acid test of the suffering and grieving, is a great leveller of superstition. It grounds our theology.

When we are pruned of the extraneous branches and the tangle of canes which constitute the vague waffling of "ifs, buts, and sort- ofs" in so much of our thinking— when we travel light and close to the main trunk of the vine, pruned of the junk,  there is also a confidence in our theological thinking and a clear sense of what is most important. We do not have to remember this doctrine and that. Instead, we know what is of central importance. We live in it… and Him.

 

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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