For the full pre-recorded service, please visit https://youtu.be/4VJD1eIU0Vw
Growing in the Sun(Son)shine: A Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Preached to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, via Zoom, 2 May, 2022. Readings : Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 22.24-30; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-18.
“Abide 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.” (Jn 15.4)
Our young grandson was visiting and was in the yard, looking at the back of our house. “Why is your house covered in dead sticks?” It took us a moment to realize that he was asking about the ivy that covers our house. In the spring and summer, the front and sides are covered in lush leaves, but for some years now the green growth no longer returns to back wall, leaving only bare branches there. We had hoped that the back growth might return, but last year an arborist told us something that we should have realized. “Those trees in your backyard have grown so tall that they block the sun.” Denied the life-giving influence of the sun, these branches have indeed died and will one day have to be pulled down and disposed of.
Our grandson’s question helped me understand what Jesus meant in today’s gospel reading. We all have the capacity to have rich and flourishing lives, so what are the influences that sustain a healthy spiritual life? Just as the sun sustains the growing part of our ivy, so the Son sustains us, hence Jesus’ words “Abide in me”.
While it’s not a commonly used word today, “abide” has a particular spiritual resonance for
“Live in me as I live in you”.
John’s gospel makes it very clear that Jesus wants us to live our best life. “I came so that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10.10). It’s significant, I think, that Jesus says “life” rather than “eternal life”. In this statement, Jesus seems very much focused on our daily lives, as he is with the vine imagery in today’s gospel. Abundant life, bearing fruit, whatever image you choose from the many rich word pictures that Jesus offers us, all of them speak of the here and now.
The image of the vine and the branches also helps us understand two other aspects of the Christian life. One of them is fruitfulness – “Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit”. We understand bearing fruit as being personally virtuous in the Pauline sense of the Christian virtues – kindness, forbearance, charity and so forth (1 Cor 13; 1 Thess 1:3; 5:8; Gal 5:5-6; Col 1:4-5, 23; Heb 10:39; 11:1 )– and we also understand it as good works or service or ministry. I’m impressed by how our life at All Saints is fruitful in this sense – I think of Cross Links, our commitment to the people of Pikangikum, to Faithworks, and other individual projects that some of you pursue.
The other aspect of the Christian life that we see in the vine and branches imagery is community in Christ. Jesus describes us as branches, as part of the whole, meaning that we aren’t to think of our spiritual lives as isolated potted plants. Our flourishing is dependent on the flourishing of others, and our health stems from the health of the Christian community. If we’re not part of a vine that is nourished by the sun/Son, then we all wither and die. A good example of this mutual flourishing for me is our Friday prayer time, when some of us gather together online to pray and be prayed for by fellow disciples. I depend on that time to help keep my own spiritual life healthy, which is something that I can’t do myself.
Let’s finish by thinking of how we can apply this idea of the flourishing spiritual life to our own work as a missional parish, because the idea of a fruitful, abundant life can be profitably teased out in conversations with those who might be new to or curious in faith. Abundant, fruitful life could be meaningful connection with and service to others, a healthy freedom from the demands of the ego, a sense of awe and gratitude for the gifts of our life, or resilience and meaning when our lives take adverse turns. Perhaps most importantly, and this can speak to many people in today’s world, abundant life can mean that our lives have a destiny, an arc which follows the loving purposes of God, so that we’re not just bits of debris caught up in a meaningless current. I believe that this conversations can influence and attract others if they see that we are a church that is in a healthy relationship with Jesus and with one another.
What happens if we don’t live in Christ and how might we explain that to others? Jesus said, “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (Jn 15.6). That can sound a lot like hellfire and damnation language, which can seem a lot like extortion to those exploring faith (Join us or go to hell). I think we can take another, more helpful tack, because we know empirically what lives look like when they aren’t flourishing, whether we use the Christian tradition to speak about types of suns (selfishness, despair, anger) which just produce bitter and rotten fruit, or whether we use contemporary language about what happens when a life lacks any significant meaning and drifts from crisis into ennui, nihilism, or other destructive spiritual waters. Lives that don’t flourish wither and die, and end up, like the dead ivy on our house, just a bunch of dead sticks. That withering is not some curse or threat of God’s, rather, it is a sorrow that grieves the heart of Christ for each life that is not opened to his life-giving influence.
“Live in me, as I live in you”. Jesus wants us to grow and flourish, and we can if we open our hearts and lives to him. Those of you who have flourished through these long months of Covid understand this. It’s why you’re here. My hope is that we as a parish have learned lessons from this time of digging into and relying on our lives with Christ that will make us more missional and more attractive when we come out of Covid, so that we can share this abundant life with others. Let’s pray.
Jesus, we thank you that you are the Son of God and the sun of life that allows our spirits to thrive and flourish and grow. Free us from the withering notion that our lives our ours to manage, without care or concern for others. Remind us that we are part of your vine, part of the whole. Give us grace to flourish, as disciples and as a community, for the love that you bear to King Township and to the whole world you created and gave to us. Amen.