May 6, 2012

 

   ON A MOONLIT WALK THROUGH THE VINEYARDS

                                                             Sermon delivered by the Reverend Father Bill Smith
                                                   at Holy Faith Episcopal Church, Port St Lucie, on 6 May 2012
 
                          Reading in lieu of the reading from the Hebrew Scriptures: Acts of the Apostles 8: 26-40
                          Reading from the Psalter:                                                                            Psalm 22: 24—30
                          Reading for the Epistle:                                                                                     I John 4: 7-21
                          Reading from the Gospels:                                                                                 John 15: 1-8

 

Last week we saw just how important it is to place the familiar readings from the Holy Scriptures against their original setting insofar as we are able if we are to understand what it was Jesus was teaching in his day.  The same truth holds this week as we look at another of the familiar parables of Jesus.  We need to remember to whom he addressed this parable in the first instance, where they were and the timeframe in which it was told. 

The timeframe is easy enough to determine.  Jesus told this parable of the vine and the branches as he and his disciples were on their way from the Last Supper to the Mount of Olives.  It was, therefore, told at night under a bright Paschal full moon.  At that meal, Jesus had done his very best to keep the group of his disciples together, but one of them, Judas Iscariot, had already made a choice as to what he intended to do, and he had already left the group, even before the meal had come to an end, and had headed back to Jerusalem to set in motion the train of activities that would lead to Jesus being put to death even as the Paschal lambs were being put to death in the Temple precincts.

As we read the Fourth Gospel carefully we realize that for this evangelist the Last Supper was not a Passover meal, and therefore it did not have to take place within the city limits of Jerusalem.  Given the large amount of teaching that Jesus extended to his disciples – it occupies three long chapters in this Gospel – we are entitled to argue that the walk to the Mount of Olives was a long one.  When we studied the Fourth Gospel some years ago it became clear that the Last Supper, according to this evangelist, occurred in the home of Jesus’ younger brother Simon, called Lazarus in this Gospel, at Bethany.  From there Jesus and his disciples, or friends as he has told them he is going to call them, set out along the road to Jerusalem passing through the various villages and estates along the way, including the vineyards for which the area was well known. 

As was his custom, Jesus used the local scenery and settings as background for this parable.  How natural it was for him to take the image of the vines and the vineyards through which they were passing to teach a valuable lesson.  The group of friends were familiar with vineyards and how the vine-dressers attended to their plants each year.  After the harvesting the vine-dressers would work their way through the estate, pruning a plant here, removing a plant there, in order to improve the stock and so the crop for the next vintage.  There was nothing sentimental about this.  The damaged and diseased plants were cut out and burnt so as not to cause infection of the other plants. 

Jesus tells his friends that a similar process takes place in the relationship between God and his people.  In fact it was taking place that very night.  Jesus had done his very best at his brother’s house to keep Judas in the group.  He had washed his feet, he had given him the place of honour beside him at the table, he had reminded him of the ancient custom of not betraying someone with whom you have shared a meal, even going so far as to taking a tasty morsel out of the common dish and personally handing it to Judas.  Yet Judas had deliberately chosen to follow a different path and to separate himself from the group of the friends of Jesus.  

We cannot be sure of his motivation for doing so, but in all Christian generosity we must give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that Judas was acting in good faith, at least according to his own beliefs, beliefs that he had probably had instilled in him from his days in the classes for boys held each Sabbath in his village synagogue.  He had been compelled to do what he was about to do because he believed that his view was the right one.  The history of the Church is replete with similar betrayals made for what the traitor thought were the best and most proper reasons.  There are very few priests who have not known similar actions on the part of trusted parishioners. Earlier in these words that he spoke to them after Judas had left, Jesus had said, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.  Whoever does not love me does not keep my words.”  (And we might notice in passing that those who love Jesus keep his word, while those who do not love him do not keep his words.  In the first instance Jesus is talking about his word, his commandment if you will, to love one another as he has loved them, while in the second he is talking about his words, his teachings if you will, that have illustrated what his commandment involves.  Yet there is another way to understand what Jesus meant by “keeping his word”, and one that is actually more familiar to those of us who speak English.  When we give our word, we are making a promise or even swearing an oath.  And here the promise that Jesus makes is that he and his Father will make their home with those who accept his promise or his oath, and this will show that they love Jesus, because they accept his word and his promise – even his oath to them.)

Judas had shown that, devout though he might have been, he had failed to accept, to heed, the word of Jesus and had ignored the words of Jesus.  Since he had not rooted his thinking and practice in the teachings of Jesus, he must be rooted in something else that ultimately was hostile to Jesus and so hostile to the God and Father of Jesus.  For such a man as Judas, there is only one fate, and it is the same fate as those in the time of Moses who had chosen to ignore what the Lord God was speaking through his prophet and had chosen to revert to what they had seen and learned as children in Egypt, and that was their separation from the community and their death and destruction in an unexpected natural disaster, a mini-earthquake. 

The writer of the Fourth Gospel and of the epistle, a man whom we call John (a name meaning a Gift of the Lord), is quite consistent in his teaching.  If you choose to do other than the will of God for you today, then you will find yourself cut off from the Community of Faith, the Communion of Saints, those who share in the love of the Father and the Son.  Those might sound like hard words, but we each make our choices and we have to live or die by them.  If we choose to do other than what the God of Life directs us to do, then we are no longer his disciple or his friend – and I would suggest that it is unwise to argue with the God of Life.  It is an argument that you will never win. 

Our reading from Acts of the Apostles tells us that it is possible to graft a shoot on to older stock.  This is as true of vines as it is of virtually any other fruit tree.  I remember having afternoon tea in a garden in Jamaica and my hostess offering a choice of a Bombay or a Number 11, both of which were growing on the same mango tree, the one having been grafted into the other.  Through baptism, then, Philip, under the guidance of God the Holy Spirit, brought the unnamed Chief Financial Officer of the Kandake of Ethiopia into the Christian fellowship.  The mentor of Luke, who wrote Acts of the Apostles, the Apostle Paul, once wrote that even if a branch has been removed from the vine it might still be grafted back in and it will produce good fruit.  That is lousy viniculture, but Paul, based on his own spiritual journey, knew whereof he spoke. 

The God of Life saw to it that Jesus rose from the grip of Death, but then Jesus was totally obedient to the God of Life, having accepted his word, his promise, his oath, completely.  And if we are to be restored to a life lived in the presence of the God of Life we must let him restore us on his terms, not ours.  And these terms are worked out for us in the epistle reading for today.  It is not enough, argues the writer, to claim that “I love God”.  Oh you might claim to love God, but if you do not love those whom God loves, those who are meant to be your brothers and sisters in Christ, men and women you can see and touch and communicate with, then you cannot love God, no matter how loudly you proclaim that you do.

As John concluded the passage from his first letter that we heard read just now:  “The commandment that we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  And this only happens when we are open to the Holy Spirit of God, aware that he is breathing God’s life into each of us.  It has to be God’s way.  If it is not, then the other way, no matter how attractive it might seem to be and no matter how well trodden, leads only to the fate that awaited Judas.  The choice is there for each of us to make, day by day, while we still have life to make the choice – the way of Jesus or the way of Judas.  You choose!