How the Trinity encourages play

This Bank Holiday Weekend many people have been out having fun with their family, but what has this got to do with God the Holy Trinity? Our 1st Reading today (Deut 4:32-40) seems far removed from having fun. Here God is an immense power present everywhere “in heaven above as on earth beneath” – a God that should make us tremble! Our Gospel is even more challenging, as Jesus on the mountain – a symbol of God in all his glory and mystery – tells us to go “and make disciples of all nations.” And then, as if that wasn’t hard enough, he makes it even more difficult by telling us that we are to baptise people, not simply in the name of Jesus, but in a God who is “Father, Son and Holy Spirit” – a God who thus possesses this more than difficult concept of being so great, so beyond our understanding, that he can be both one and three at the same time! No chance of linking that God to fun time with the family.

 It is St Paul in our 2nd Reading (Romans 8:14-17) who helps me today, because he tells us that this God of power and might and mystery has come into us – into the heart of all that we are – as the Holy Spirit given to us by Jesus; and there, within us, he teaches us what Jesus first taught. He teaches us to call this God, that is so far beyond us, by a very familiar name. He tells us to call God “Daddy” – “Abba” in the original language of Jesus.

Now the thing about Daddies (or Dads) is that they love to do trivial things with their children. To kick a ball around, to play hide and seek, to put them on a bouncy castle, or to take them for rides on all kinds of mechanical objects – at fairgrounds or on my favourite fun time – steam trains!  Of course parents (not just fathers) are also deeply interested and concerned about other more serious things in their children’s lives – like school and exams and their future. But the parent who does not play with his or her child, the parent who does not do fun things with them, has missed out on a vital part of what it means to love their child.

So if the God, who is the immense power behind the Universe is also Daddy, then he is a God who’s interested in every aspect of our lives, not just the serious bits. He doesn’t want us to waste our lives on triviality, but he has made us, and indeed many other animals, as creatures who love to play. Indeed psychologists tell us that play is a vital part of a child’s development. It is crucial to what we are as human beings, and if this is so, which it clearly is, then play is an essential part of the design of the Creator. No wonder Jesus teaches us to call God Daddy.

It’s worth remembering at this point that the fact that Jesus taught this idea of God is one of the things that led to his execution. The religious establishment of his day were shocked rigid by this man who could speak about God in such a familiar way. And that is why St Paul links this teaching, to call God Father, to the massively significant idea that we are  all called to join with Jesus, to become one with Jesus, as children of God. There’s that word “children” again!  And beyond that, it is only by accepting that we are children of God, that we can inherit God’s glory – “sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory” – as St Paul puts it.

Now I am sure you realise that I am not suggesting that the whole of life ought to be one mad round of trivial pursuits, but we all know that we need such things to help us stay sane in this mad bad old world. God wants us to have fun because it is good for us, and helps us to be better human beings. Indeed in the Immigration Centre the other week I made a breakthrough with one group of men by playing Table tennis with them!  It was great fun even though my old knees found it a bit hard!

So when we pray, we need to be very careful not to limit our sharing of ourselves with God to the serious and solemn things, as if he is only interested in them. People often worry that when they pray their mind wanders off into all sorts of trivial things. But I always tell people not to worry too much about this, because God is interested in the things that concern us – the small things of life as well as the big momentous things.  This is precisely why we Christians know God as Trinity, because God is both immensely distant, far beyond us, and yet close within us as Holy Spirit, and beside us as Jesus our friend.

So there we are then! You might have thought that Holiday Weekends and God in Trinity had nothing to do with one another. I hope I’ve shown you today, that whatever you do to have fun, God has actually willed that such fun is part of what he has created us for!


Called to be one with God in Trinity

Frances writes on the Readings for Trinity Sunday:- These Readings seem to trace their way from an ancient Jewish understanding of God through to the Christian and Trinitarian revelation. We begin with a Reading from Deuteronomy (4:32-34.39-40). Now ostensibly we and those ancient Jews encounter Moses, but in fact this is nothing of the kind. The Book of Deuteronomy dates from the reign of Josiah in the late 7th century BCE, when the patriarch had probably been dead for over 400 years. But it was common in earlier times to tag important works on to an earlier prophet to give it depth and credibility. The reformist King Josiah claimed to have ‘found’ this important document in the Temple at a time when the faith of Israel was in the doldrums and needed a thoroughgoing shake-up, a time for regrouping and return to the old ways which had fallen into abeyance. So this work obviously used earlier material and the temple priests, working for this reform of the faith, developed that material to restore what was necessary. And appeal to earlier times they did, with references to much earlier manifestations of the divine in fire, and that most significant of all formative experiences, the Exodus, the escape from Egypt, the journey through the wilderness and the giving of the Jewish law on Sinai. Josiah’s God was one who rewarded rule-following and punished dissent. A God to be feared and obeyed lest terrors overtake the nation. The fact that this document appeared shortly before Josiah’s untimely death at Carchemish, and the nation’s ultimate fall to Babylon in 587 BCE should not go without notice – Jews of the time certainly got the message!

But the Judeo-Christian understanding of God is light years away from this primitive reward-punishment understanding of the divine. No one reading Deuteronomy could ever have conceived of calling God ‘Abba’, ‘Daddy’ as Jesus did, and the thought that we relate to divinity in the way Jesus laid open would have been incomprehensible. In our Gospel (Matthew 28:16-20) we meet Jesus risen from the dead and significantly, and unlike the other Gospels, quite deliberately abandoning Jerusalem as a lost cause for a return to Galilee. Galilee was the heartland of Jesus’ earthly mission, dubiously up-country to the ultra-right in Jerusalem, and the place he felt most at home. Our Gospels portray Galilee as of dubious orthodoxy, an area where those in authority in Jerusalem sent spies to check on Jesus, and didn’t like what they found. Matthew’s Gospel finds Jesus in bitter conflict with Jerusalem and its valuations of the divine-human relationship, and is redolent with his and Matthew’s lament over the failure of his project to take Judaism to its final flowering in the life of its Messiah, who would smash open its old ideas of the enormity of the divide between God and humanity. So it is far from the rule bound holy city that Jesus gives his power and authority to the eleven disciples. It is what he confers upon them that is so extraordinary, claiming ‘All authority in heaven and on earth’, he sends the disciples out to all the nations instructing them to baptise them ‘In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.’ This means that Jesus claims an authority quite different from that of Jerusalem. It is God’s authority, for he immediately commissions the disciples to baptise, or claim for God, in the name of Father, Son and Spirit – God in three persons – three joined and equal and co-operating entities wholly united in their outreach to a fallen humanity. No longer for Jews set apart from the rest of defiled and defiling humanity, but now reaching out to every human; the work of their joint creation in an outreach that knows no bounds and has no ties with the old God of the law and rule breaking or following. Jesus simply commissions his disciples to teach the faithful to observe his commands, ones which have so little to do with Judaism and its food and other boundaries which separated them from the nations. Now the follower of Jesus, who promises to be continually present to his faithful in his Eucharist, as we ‘do this in anamnesis’ of him, have a wholly different relationship with God, one of intimacy, union, and the care which is the life of the Trinity, what God is.

St Paul here in Romans (8:14-17) is probably the best exponent of what this means. No longer are we outsiders to the inner life of God, but, beyond our wildest imaginings, included in the Triune relationship by grace, by the gift of the Spirit, which of course is Christ’s gift of himself to the world. He makes clear that that old understanding, the one expounded in Deuteronomy making us slaves of God, is finished. Then, we were entirely under his control and, as everyone in the ancient world knew, slaves were disposable items, merely used for a time until worn out and frequently the butt of the master’s ill will. Now, by the union won for us by the life, death and resurrection of God the Son, we have been adopted as sons into the Triune relationship. We have now become children of God, and even more significantly, since we can never be God the Son, we have become God’s heirs as adopted children. In the ancient world, many families, especially rich ones without living offspring, adopted sons from other families to carry on their powerful name and inherit and in turn pass on their property and responsibilities to society. Here, in sharing divinity with us, we too share not only in the sufferings of Christ on earth as Christians, but share his glory eternally with Father and Spirit. Truly, if this is God’s celebration day, it is by their grace ours too.

The Church is an altered reality

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- I suspect that most of us reading either John’s Gospel (17:11-19) or his Letters (1 Jn 4:11-16) read them with little appreciation of their original impact. We, totally mistakenly, read them in sentimental terms. They are about that much abused word ‘love’, either saccharine or sex and we completely miss the authors point.

I would like us to think for a moment of the world in which John lived and worked, a Greco-Roman world, a world in which sex was very much ‘in your face’, seen in statuary, vessels for eating and drinking, frescoes on the house walls, lamps and not least in the portrayal of the gods. You met it on every street, in the temples, people’s houses, at the baths, in the forum and markets. It was inescapable; you were literally bludgeoned with sex. John, in writing, does not use the Greek word ‘eros’ in his writing about the Christian life, but rather ‘agape’ suggestive of a caring, a solicitude for the other and attention to their needs, in this kind of loving sentiment itself could be completely suspended. It was much more about putting yourself in the place of the other, responding to their needs, like the Good Samaritan, who knew nothing of the man he rescued. As John lived in a very class and status conscious society, where rank made an enormous difference to how you lived, how others treated you and your position under the law, one can begin to imagine the true significance of his statement ‘My dear people, since God has loved us so much, we too should love one another.’ Faith in Jesus required that at very least; within the Christian community one put aside the divisions of class and status. St Paul’s Corinthian Letters demonstrate precisely just what a tall order this was, even at the Eucharist. Yet John reminds his hearers that it is precisely in their relationships one to another that their understanding of their salvation in Christ is made manifest, and not in some esoteric beliefs.

Greco-Romans frequently resorted to exotic cult beliefs and their demands. For soldiers there was the cult of Mithras, in which the adherents worked their way up through a number of levels, often with strict rules of behaviour and a moral code, until they became superior to others. At the heart of the cult was the slaying by Mithras of a great bull, so clearly this was a pretty macho thing. At a very different level, the Cult of Isis, which required careful disciplining of life, was more popular. Isis was a goddess with many concerns, from childbirth to sailing, and her priests were all castrated as a sign of their purity and commitment. Both cults were the product of mythologies about the universe and the following of strange eastern gods. Christianity was different in that it spoke of a human being, Jesus, Son of God and fully of us, whose self offering for humanity reached out to draw an entire world into the very life of God himself. None of the other cults did this.

John 17, of which we read a small part is seen as the great prayer of Jesus to his Father shortly before his Passion, and it is redolent with imagery of the relationship between Father and Son, one of knowing, acceptance and care; and filled with Jesus’ utter conviction that we, his followers, are to be incorporated into his and his Father’s shared life. Significantly, Jesus speaks of how this valuation of things alters reality, alters his and inevitably our whole perception of the world in which we live, they lived. ‘I say these things to share my joy with them to the full. I passed your word on to them and the world hated them, because they belong to the world no more than I belong to the world. ‘ Clearly these were not just nicely phrased words, beautiful rhetoric, but indicative of the newly found life to be lived out in the real world by converts who now found themselves curiously estranged from the world they knew so well. Ultimately this new reality would embrace almsgiving to the poor (rather than those whose patron one was and over whom they exercised such power). It would become a world in which the super rich built hospitals, schools and monasteries to include the poor; it would include those who died for their witness to the faith, emulating Jesus, and something unheard of in paganism. Ultimately, the tiny house churches would become vast basilicas, dominating the landscapes and able to call the faithful to prayer and a sharing of Christ’s body and blood.

We begin to see something of the first tentative development of this altered reality in our Reading from Acts (1:15-17.20-26), in which the community met to choose a replacement for Judas. In ancient times, common men did not have any say in the government of their society. In the Roman Empire at this period, the Emperors were the members of the Julio-Claudian line, and later would be chosen by Emperors to succeed them. Governors of provinces were those who had often had high ranking army careers, or were from the Roman elite; and even local magistrates needed money and would have come from leading families in the area. In Acts by contrast, we see the apostolic community casting lots to choose from a number of suitable men, significantly, ‘Someone who was with us right from the time when John was baptising until the day when he (Jesus) was taken up from us.’ What was required therefore was a person fully cognisant with the real life and ministry of Jesus, that and no more. There was no talk of his class, his abilities or other things; they relied on the guidance of the Spirit in casting their votes.  They were part of a new world, a new vision of the God-Human relationship and above all, they had to live it out day by day, moment by moment, as we do too.


Homily on God in us

When we hear the word “love” in the Bible, we must always remember that in the original Greek there are three words for love. In English we only have the one word love, and so it is easy to get muddled by confusing one kind of love with another. Now the love that we have in two of our Readings today (1 John 4:7-10 and John 15:9-17) is not just the caring love (caritas in Greek) that we hope and pray all human beings should have for one another, although sadly they don’t; nor is it the physical love a man might feel for a woman (eros). No, the love St John is writing about is perhaps best expressed in English by the word “friendship”. (agape in Greek)

What’s more, we also need to note that when Jesus says “Remain in my love”, it is just after he has said that he is the Vine and we are the branches. He is showing us very powerfully in that image that we are not just called to be followers of Jesus, but to be as close to him, as much a part of him, as a branch is to the plant it is springing from. It is easy, you see, to think that Jesus just loves us in a vague caring kind of way. We can easily think of God as a rather stern though kindly father looking down on us as if we were little children that he was patting on the head before leaving us to play. I remember once having to do that at a school, handing out prizes to children whom I didn’t know and would never see again. They were very happy and grateful, but there was no more to our relationship than that. I certainly couldn’t have called them my friends.

Jesus makes it absolutely clear in our Gospel today that he has come to bring us a love that is very different from what we might expect from a power that is so much greater than we are. He offers us a love that is those of equals, those who know one another well, who are not just servants but friends. But then he goes further, for the love he offers is that of a friend for whom he is prepared to “lay down his life.”  That is a rare kind of friendship indeed, and that is what he offers us, that is what he challenges us to live out in our lives.

But even the word “offer” here is not quite accurate, and to explain that we need to go back to that image of the Vine. We tend to think that the love and the joy and the grace that God gives us, in and through Jesus, is simply like a great gift that he hands over to us. Here is some love. Here is some joy. Here is some grace. Now use it well. But you see the love and joy and grace that God gives us are not simply gifts, they are part of what God is. As we will hear when we continue to read John’s 1st letter next week “God is love, and those who love live in God and God lives in them” (1 John 4:16)

When this true sacrificial friendship love is in us, then it is no longer God giving us something from outside, it is God working inside us. The sap that rises in the Vine, right from its roots until it reaches the branches and bears flowers and then fruit, is not separate from its source but is a continual stream of life. It is why it is often better to describe such love from God as God’s Holy Spirit dwelling in us. God in us and us in God.

In the world of the Bible that kind of friendship was very rare, and it is not that different today. In those days, and often today although it is perhaps more hidden, rich people were your patrons. You looked up to them, you put your “faith” in them; and in return they gave you their support, helping you with money or food, or helping you get a job or to grow your business. It was not a relationship of equals. Jesus, and the Church he founded, the Church to which we belong as Christians, had a totally view of what human life should be like. They challenged this view of life which has some at the top and some lower down, and presented instead a vision of a world, a kingdom, where all were equal, all were family, all were friends. So when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer “Thy kingdom come”, we are not simply praying for a future glory with God in his kingdom after we die; we are also praying that our world now may follow the way of our King Jesus, that our world now may become a kingdom where all are prepared to lay down their lives for one another.

In our 1st Reading (Acts 10:25-48) we heard one example of the change that made to St Peter and his fellow disciples. He was a Jew, of course, and Jews did not visit the houses of non-Jews, certainly not of the hated Romans. So when Peter arrives at the house of Cornelius, this powerful Roman soldier goes out to meet him, and kneels before him. He does not expect a Jew to treat him like an equal.  But Peter says, “Stand up… I am only a man” and then he goes on “I have now come to realise that God does not have favourites”; and although we have not heard it in this Reading, he goes into this foreigner’s house and eats with him.

Thus the teaching of Jesus, the love of Jesus, God’s gift of himself as Holy Spirit, has already begun to affect the way people treat one another. Here is a world where all are joined in a friendship, that ignores the differences that so often can exist between us humans. Here is a love that breaks down the barriers, and begins to create a new kind of world, a world that is a little sign of the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Intimacy with God

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings :- It is a quite extraordinary thing, yet very true, that the great majority of people, believers and non believers, think of God in negative terms. We cope or think we do with a punishing God, one out to ‘get us’ for the slightest misdemeanour; yet rarely if ever really grapple with John’s truly mind-blowing and intensely positive statements about God both in his Gospel (15:9-17) and in his Letters, here 1 John (4:7-10). Most of us, it appears, prefer to hang onto an Old Testament, punishing and rewarding type of God, rather than let ourselves be suffused with Jesus’ wholly positive interpretation of the one he had the audacity to call ‘Father’, and not just his but ours too. Unless we allow ourselves to engage with Jesus’ Father, we shall never understand Christianity and its promise to the world Jesus died and rose from the dead for.

When Jesus spoke, as he does in our Gospel passage, of our relationship with God, both as Son and Father, he chose to do so through the metaphor of friendship. Now for most of us this just conjures up something rather chummy and innocuous, we have friends on Facebook and Twitter, we have them in real life in varying degrees of warmth and so on. ‘I shall not call you slaves (in the Greek text, not servants) anymore because a slave does not know his master’s business; I call you friends.’ The world Jesus moved in and knew was one in which the relationships between patrons and clients imposed strict social obligations, and whilst a superior might intercede for an inferior, in getting promotion to an upper rank, legal help, or cash, they were never equals but always in positions of ‘owing’ something to each other. Only those who were of equal rank, and who were not part of this obligatory relationship, could truly be friends to each other. With the very rich it would have been people like Augustus and Agrippa or Maecenas. These were relationships of equality, real sharing’s of self, intimates, people who knew each other through and through. Now of course down the social scale there were these relationships too, among fellow soldiers, who might literally die for the other in battle, or relationships of true warmth and self-giving, but the point Jesus is making by his contrast between slave and friend is literally about scaling impossible heights.

Friends are intimates, they share your life, they participate in your thinking – hence Jesus’ stress on the word ‘remain’ and above all, they share ‘joy’. ‘I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.’ Clearly more than just a bit chummy then! We, says Jesus, are now intimates, friends of God himself. ‘I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father.’ We are entrusted with this capacity by God the Son, and it must be the journey of a lifetime as we open ourselves to that divine friendship, allowing God fully to know us and ourselves to know, explore and love him. Not to go on this journey but to opt for the old punishing God is a betrayal of Jesus and his life and mission and even his death among us.

John’s letter, of which we read a small part, helps us on that journey. As we delve ever deeper into the love that is the identity of Father, Son and Spirit we are enclosed in that life of love, and slowly identify with the love by which the Father sent the Son into the world, as John puts it, ‘To be the sacrifice that takes our sins away.’ In other words, sin and punishment, that Old Testament stuff is finished with! John daringly has used the word ‘begotten’ for those lovers of God, the term previously used only of the Son in relation to the Father, which I think pins down precisely what we as friends are meant to be. All of us have a capacity for love, what we are called to be in the gift of Jesus himself is to use that capacity in a godlike manner, one which embraces the entire creation.

Our Reading from Acts (10:25-26.34-35.44-48) gives us just a hint of what that meant, but it was nonetheless a pretty demanding one to those involved at the time. Jews were a prickly lot, and generally kept to themselves in the massively pagan world they inhabited, even in Israel in the first century CE. Sure, they would trade with pagans and many foreigners, but they would not eat with them, invite them to their homes, or accept their hospitality either as lodgings or at meals. They would not marry with them. Until the start of the Jewish Revolt, Jews did make the concession of praying for the Emperor in the temple, and they had a separate place of prayer for Gentiles. There were even Godfearers, pagans who had sympathies with the strict morality of Judaism, but no more. Then we are told that Peter, a strict Jew, had his dream of the many animals coming down from heaven and the divine insistence that he eat. Messengers come from Caesarea, the great Roman port city built by Herod the Great ever keen to ingratiate himself with the newly rising star Augustus. Peter goes from a healing mission in Joppa to Caesarea to meet a pagan! On his arrival, Cornelius, a Centurion of the Italian Cohort falls to his knees and worships him! This was an extraordinary action from one in charge of part of a legion and used to ordering others about, Cornelius the pagan has accepted God’s word through this Jew. In his turn Peter does the unthinkable and baptises Cornelius and his household into the nascent Christian community. What the community had believed was for Jews only, now opens its hearts to pagans too. As the story progresses we find that Peter stays with Cornelius, living in his house and eating his food. Love appears, that love which is the being of God himself which can break down what appear to be impenetrable barriers. As we in the UK bang on about the numbers of foreigners arriving on our so cosy shores, we could take a leaf out of this book and its message.





As close to God as a branch to the Vine

I am a fanatical gardener, and so today’s Gospel (John 15:1-8) where Jesus describes himself as the Vine and all of us as the branches must be one of my favourite passages from the Bible. It’s also a very appropriate Gospel to hear just before a Baptism, because one of the essential things the Sacrament of Baptism does is to link the person baptised (baby or adult) into a special union with Christ; and the Vine image shows us how close that union is. We are not called just to follow Jesus. We are not called just to be friends of Jesus, not even just members of his family. No, we are also called to be even closer to Jesus than that, to be as close to Jesus as a branch is to the rest of the plant. In that union we are called to be one with God, or as St Peter says “to be partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4)

“But” some people say “Does that mean that if you are not baptised you are far away from God?” This is a serious question that needs answering. The point is that God is present everywhere and in everyone whether they recognise his presence, even his existence, or not. So St Paul tells the pagans in Athens that they already know God, for “in him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28)  Some people may deny God, but God never denies them, nor any part of his creation. I remember an atheist nurse once pointing at a Ward of suffering people, and saying to me “So where is your God in all this?” My answer was quite a surprise to her “In you, of course. God is present in you especially as you care for your patients.”

So when we say that God is especially present, more fully present, in the Sacraments, be it the Holy Baptism that we will witness today, or in Holy Communion, we are not saying that God is not present anywhere else. God is the creative force underlying the Universe so there is nowhere that God is not. I remember the first time I witnessed the birth of a baby, and was overwhelmed by the miracle of new life, but we need to take that sense of the glory of God’s presence with us into every part of our ordinary existence, and thus to see God – to see like a child the glory of creation in every blade of grass, and in every patch of mud especially ones we can splash in!

Yet God’s presence in the Sacraments is even more glorious, even more powerful than this. God chooses to focus his presence for those, like us, who wish to be even closer to him than all of us are already. He gives himself to the world in Jesus, and through Jesus he gives us these outward signs within which is his hidden glory. So as we watch or listen as that little splash of water falls three times on to the one being baptised, as maybe we laugh as the baby decides at that point to cry or not as the case may be, let’s not forget that in this strange little ceremony the full glory of God is given, and a wonderful union is created.

But the other part of the message from the image of the Vine needs to be remembered too. Jesus and his listeners knew what pruning a Vine meant, so we do not get the full force of this message unless we understand it too. Being part of the Vine does not make everything perfect, because for the Vine to flourish, to bear fruit, it needs to be pruned and pruned hard. Those of you who are gardeners like me, will know what that means. There is nothing that pains me more than a garden with unpruned roses, where someone has snipped at them. I heard Bob Flowerdew talking on Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4 a couple of weeks ago. He told his questioner that she would get no fruit unless she pruned the Vine right back to its stock once a year, and then, when the branches grew, to choose a few good ones, and cut the rest off.

Being a baptised Christian means that we are called to bring God’s love to the world, to bear fruit rather than to be vaguely leafy. So each of us has to allow God to prune us. Jesus says that we are pruned “by means of the word that I have spoken to you.” That surely means listening more closely to what God wants of us. How easy it is to come to Mass and to say prayers, in which all we do is talk to God. Jesus calls us not to be his servants but to be his “friends.” (John 15:15) ; so think how quickly we would lose our friends if we talked at them all the time, and never listened to what they want to share with us.

Our 2nd Reading (1 John 3:18-24) has the same message hasn’t it? “Our love is not to be just words or mere talk but something real and active.” Some people tell me they are good Christians because they follow the teaching of Jesus; but Jesus did more for us than just give us some wise teaching didn’t he? He suffered and died for us. We are called to love like he loved, to take up our cross and follow him.

Now don’t be alarmed by this. We will all bear fruit in different ways. Some of us may be called at some time in our lives to do something very dramatic and courageous. Those who have a tiny baby to care for, especially in the middle of the night know what I mean; but there are also lots of other little acts of sacrificial love that we are called to do; and in each one we are being pruned. Guided by God we are choosing to give up some things in order to do one or two that are right and good, and that’s the way, as branches of the Vine, we bear fruit. May each one of us realise more fully every day, what it means to be that close to God.






Christians are part of the Vine

Frances writes on next Sunday’s Readings:- Those of us who sadly do not live in wine-producing areas may find this weeks ‘I am the true vine’ problematical. (John 15:1-8) How very different life is for all those with a vine in the backyard and vine leaves, and of course wine, regularly included in cookery. However, I hope you will recall that I remarked last week on how radical and challenging each of those statements by Jesus were. The vine and wine feature frequently as part of the very identity of Israel and Jewish people, so his appropriation of it would have been noted and been challenging. It all began very early in their national identity, with the spies sent by Joshua returning from the Promised Land with a bunch of grapes. Clearly when Jesus proclaimed himself, using the divine ‘I am’ term as true vine, he was usurping all that national iconography and identification of Israel bound up in land, law and temple and made it redundant, as he focussed it on himself as Saviour. By the time John came to write about Jesus in Ephesus however, I suspect the significance of these images had moved significantly, especially as he wrote after the fall of the Jewish nation in 70 CE and was working largely with city dwelling converts from paganism to Christianity. John’s harsh views on Judaism and its leadership are plain to see throughout his Gospel, so we need to delve a little deeper to understand this saying within its context in the Province of Asia.

As Jesus remarks that his Father is the vinedresser, indeed, the pruner of the vines, cutting away dead wood and forcing healthy branches to bear even more, I suggest that he was seeing all this in terms of a picture of the Christian community tightly bound together, and that the vine stood for the intimacies of the patronage system. It had now become a metaphor for the relationship which was critical to ancient life, and therefore central also to the imagery of Christian communities. Patronage was a central feature of Greco-Roman society; those at the top of the political, economic and social tree would have had many clients, who looked to him for protection, jobs, financial support, and legal aid and so on. As all such great men in the towns and cities of the Mediterranean owned many slaves and regularly freed some of them, setting them up in businesses, shipping, building, import and export, and the like, so they would have had widespread interests. Clients would have been very careful to pay patrons the correct attention each morning, and form part of the entourage of the elite, voting for them in the city elections and generally solicitous for them as supporters; even on occasions forming part of their small armies of thugs, and this regardless of whether they were freed or born free but dependant. Such ‘fathers’ had colossal clout in the ancient world, and of course there was a trickle down emulation, as freedmen owned their slaves and behaved in a similar manner, as did others of the less well off but free.

This is why I think John’s Jesus says ‘Make your home in me as I make mine in you.’ This passage is redolent with the word ‘remain’, it is even more apparent in the Greek than in our text. The other critical word is ‘bear’ as in bear fruit. Now all this speaks volumes of a tight knit relationship, one like the patron-client relationship, which the client severed at his peril. Indeed it was social and economic suicide to do so. John takes a common understanding of how society works, and develops it through the intricacies of the vine/vinedresser/branches imagery to press home the nature of the church, the Christian community. Christianity was of course a relatively new faith and organization in the Eastern Mediterranean, and John has to labour to keep his churches loyal and working together. Whereas pagan clubs and guilds were relatively loose groupings of people, for burial purposes, or particular trades; the Church needed to stress and develop a strong and lively sense of identity if they were to survive and grow; becoming the evangelistic communities we know they did. Significantly patrons dispensed largesse, ‘grace’ (charis) and clients responded by giving their unfailing ‘loyalty’ (pistis). We meet it time and again in ancient letters. John took sayings of Jesus to develop and foster that sense of the community and its absolute interdependence, ones which brooked no fracturing or despising.

In order to facilitate this process we see in the Johannine Letters (1 Jn 3:18-24) how this sense of group solidarity needed to reach out into the actual lives of adherents to the faith.  John stresses that belief in Jesus is not just about an idea, like the Greek philosophies current in places like Ephesus, a great centre of pagan learning. Our faith must be enacted in our daily behaviour, in our relationships to and with others, in the way we structure our lives, making them models of Christ. Our text opts for a very modern word ‘conscience’ to do this, but the Greek has the word ‘hearts’. It is an interesting contrast between the mind thing – so very Greek – and the active thing, what we do as our hearts pump blood through our veins and enable us to live at all. John, like the earlier Paul, would have been all too aware of the difficulties converts from a moral-free paganism experienced, as they learned to live as followers of Christ.  His Gospel is the one in which Jesus commands believers to ‘love’ one another, (13:34) and what a minefield of misunderstanding that could embrace! Developing the correct appreciation of precisely how the convert lives in God and God lives in him would be and remains still the work of a lifetime, but it was something John hung onto. The believer is truly one with God the Father, owing him absolute obedience and honour, the process however can be a very rickety affair, and is a measure of the Father’s creative genius and toleration, something that penetrates and shapes our lives. Our Reading from Acts (9:26-31) is a brief but very telling insight into the growth of the Christian community and its capacity to forgive even persecutors and murderers within the community, as people like Paul take on a new life in Christ. It still has the power to carry that resounding message of divine forgiveness and change, and it is something we who live in such a blame culture could do well to ponder upon.