Monday, October 01, 2018

Sermon: Sunday 29th April 2018 - All Saints, Goxhill and Holy Trinity, Barrow on Humber

Texts: Acts 8.26-40
          John 15.1-8
Opening Prayer
May I speak in the name of God: The Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Those were the first, somewhat loaded words spoken by Philip to the Ethiopian when they met on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
The words reminded me of another short but heavily loaded question thrown at one of my senior officers in the early years of my military career. My Field Ambulance was partaking in war-games somewhere in the wilds of North Yorkshire, and our vehicles had trundled into location overnight, in the midst of a heavy fog. The following morning saw the arrival of a very irate Brigadier, who summoned my Officer Commanding with the words:

 ‘Major McGarva – Do you know where you are?’

Yes, Sir,’ came the defiant reply. ‘I am here, Sir’.

Defiant they may have been, but in truth, we were lost. In fact, we were in front of the enemy lines– which is never a good place for a medical unit to be. We did not understand what the map was telling us; had no idea how we had arrived there, did not fully appreciate where we were, and had no idea as to how we were going to complete our mission. 
‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Philip’s question to the Ethiopian also reminds me of another phrase that has captured the inquisitive nature of, quite possibly, millions of television viewers: ‘Who do you think you are?’ is the name of the programme, where celebrities are helped in the attempt to uncover the past history of their family.

It is human nature for us, at some stage of our lives, to ask questions of our past – where have we come from? Who were our ancestors? How did we get to the place we now find ourselves? They are the questions that websites such as help us to answer, and in so doing, give us a greater understanding of our identity and our place in the world today – they help us to know who we are, and where we are, in the great timeline of life.

‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Of course, the Ethiopian didn’t realise the enormity of what he was reading before Philip arrived on the scene. He didn’t realise that, by reading the portion from the book of Isaiah, from what we now call the Old Testament, he was reading something that predicted the arrival of God in the form of Jesus Christ, and of his subsequent crucifixion.

In effect, it was somewhat akin to reading an historic document within the family archive of Jesus’ ancestors, that spoke of a generation yet to come.
For that is what the Old Testament is to us, as Christians. It is our collective family history as Christians, our Biblical equivalent of It informs us of our past; it tells us who our collective ancestors were before the birth of Jesus Christ; it helps us to understand the enormity of who Jesus Christ was and is; it helps us to understand who we are as Christians, and how we arrived at this place today; and it helps us to understand our mission from here on…

For the Old Testament helps us to fully understand the New Testament, and the New Testament provides us with our tasks as Christians in the 21st century. By reading both the Old Testament and the New Testament, we understand with greater clarity the answers to those questions as to Who are we? Where are we? What should we be doing? and Where are we going?


‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

Philip’s question to the Ethiopian is just as pertinent to us today, as we read the Gospel of St John.

Here, we are introduced to the concept of the vine and its branches. We are told that Jesus is the true vine, that God is the vine-grower, and that we are branches of that vine. The passage continues to speak of pruning and cleansing – of our cleansing - and of bearing fruit – and in truth, it may all seem a little puzzling at first glance.That is, unless we remember words from the Old Testament. It is another case of Do you understand what you are reading?’

For the Old Testament tells us that Israel was first likened to a vine, and that the 12 tribes of Israel were its branches. However, that vine contained a lot of dead or diseased wood and proved not to be as fruitful as God desired it to be.

With the incarnation of God in the form of Jesus Christ, God the vine-grower was starting again. Jesus brought us a new covenant, a new promise -  doing away with the old promises made between God and Israel (the old vine). As part of that covenant, Jesus became the new vine – a strong and healthy vine, with the ability to grow and spread far and wide. Those who abided in Jesus – those who stood with Jesus – became the metaphorical branches - the healthy new branches - of the new vine that was, and is, Jesus.

And as any gardener might tell you, for a vine to grow luxuriantly, and to have strong new branches, it needs to be pruned - or cleansed - of its dead-wood. In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells us that we have already been cleansed.
But how would that be so?

Well, the story of the Ethiopian reminds us as to how we are cleansed. Once the Ethiopian had heard from Philip the Good News of the life of Jesus Christ, what did he do? He stopped his chariot by some water and asked Philip to baptize him.

Baptism is an act of cleansing. By our baptism, we are cleansed of our sin, and we are thus at one with the body of Jesus Christ; we abide in Jesus; we become a healthy branch of the new vine that is Jesus Christ. For the Greek word for cleaning and pruning is from the same origin, and when the Gospel of John refers to us as ‘pruned branches’, he is referring to our baptism.


But I say again, that question of Philip’s to the Ethiopian:
Do you understand what you are reading?’

For, having understood that the ‘old vine’ of Israel was failing so badly in God’s eyes, so that God became incarnate – became alive - in the form of  Jesus Christ, and that Jesus is the metaphorical, the symbolic, new vine – the ‘new Israel’ - replacing the old vine that was the Israel of the Old Testament -  and that we by our baptism have been cleansed – or, to continue with the metaphor, are the pruned branches of that new vine that is Jesus Christ – having understood all of that, we then have to understand what it means for us ‘to bear much fruit’.

For that is what John tells us that we are expected to do - ‘bear much fruit’ and ‘become his disciples’; become the disciples of Jesus Christ.
So, what exactly is this fruit we are expected to bear as we abide in, or stand with, Jesus?

It means that we are expected to act; to make his words and our beliefs meaningful in kind; not to simply pay lip-service to his commands, perhaps once a week in church on a Sunday. We are expected to fulfil God’s mission – to tell others of the hope and love that is the Good News of Jesus; to baptise new believers; to provide care and compassion to those who are ill; and to make new disciples – new followers, supporters, helpers - who will assist us in the work of God.

….that is where we are supposed to be going as we leave this building today – that is what we are supposed to be doing next – today, tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, for the rest of our lives – that is our mission – that is the mission set for us by Jesus – that is God’s mission.
And we know the vast importance of that task – that monumental task – the task set by virtue of our baptism – that act which made us cleansed and pruned, healthy branches of the vibrant vine that is Jesus Christ – by all of that, we know the vast importance of our task that will glorify God, and, in so doing, also bring into our own lives, and the lives of those around us, that which we need to be human – we know all of that, and we will receive all of that, once we truly understand who we are as Christians, where we have come from, where we are now, and how we fit into that huge map that is comprised of the Old and New Testaments, which in turn gives us our mission for today…

We know all of that with great clarity, once we can answer ‘yes’ - ‘yes, we do’ - to Philip’s question.

May God open our eyes and our ears, our minds and our hearts, so that we can truly understand what we are reading.


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