Introduction – On the 4th of March 2016 four gunmen entered a home for the elderly, abandoned and fragile run by the Missionary Sisters of Charity (Mother Teresa Sisters) located in a poor suburb of Yemen’s port city, Aden. They killed twelve people, included a local, young lady doctor, a Muslim, who went there regularly as a volunteer and whose young children on the day in question had asked eagerly to accompany her. It was a place of hopefulness, of coughs and groans, strange shouts and noises, smells too, but also laughter and joy. It was a place we too loved to visit when we lived there.
The gunmen also killed four of the five nuns who ran the centre. They were from India, Kenya and Rwanda. Yemen’s press are not squeamish. The front pages of the nation’s newspapers showed the bodies of the Sisters with their aprons on, lying in pools of blood. Said our son on seeing them, “What nobler way to die than serving breakfast to the city’s abandoned and forgotten.” In a city inured to brutality and sudden death, this particular act of savagery provoked widespread grief and indignation for the Sisters and their work were held there in the greatest affection and esteem.
I recount this incident not to shock, though I should do all I can to make Yemen’s shameful and most pitiful plight more widely known, but because the Sisters’ lives so vividly illustrate the import of Jesus’ teaching in our Gospel for today – his insistence on the necessity of abiding, and on the inevitability of good fruit in the lives who submit to his pruning and live in his love. Mother Teresa once wrote, ‘The more we receive in our silent prayer, the more we can give in our active life.’ We shared as often as we could in their prayer and observed with delight and wonder their active lives of cheerful, compassionate service.
The setting, context and background of today’s Gospel – The teaching before us, which includes the last of Jesus’ great I AM sayings, was given on the evening of his betrayal and arrest, perhaps on a rooftop beside the Upper Room beneath a spreading vine. His disciples would have been familiar with the cultivation of vines and with the imagery of the vine in their faith. Israel is described in Psalm 80 as a transplanted vine brought out of Egypt, as a luxuriant vine in Hosea (10.1) and tragically, as a degenerate vine in the 5th chapter of Isaiah. There God speaks of the care he had lavished upon the vine and of his expectation to find on it sweet, full and luscious grapes only to find bitter grapes, wild ones of oppression, bribery, brutality and falsehood. It is against this background that Jesus presents himself as the genuine vine, his followers, (ourselves included) as the branches from whom the Father, the vinedresser, has every expectation of good fruit.
Two further points in this overly long introduction! Firstly ,the introduction imagery of the vine at this point in Jesus life is so poignantly apt. A vine does not have the lofty grandeur of an oak tree nor, I believe, the spring blossom of the cherry. It is a funny, straggly, insignificant thing, but what fruit! It lives to give and when it has, it’s cut right down. As Jesus spoke these words, the tramp of the feet of those sent to take him are almost audible.
Secondly, in the teaching immediately before this, Jesus has taken much time to reassure his anxious disciples that despite all that is to come, he will be with them. Here, Jesus is keen to remind them, through the vine allegory, that proximity even integration with him carries responsibility to go, to live, to be for him. Privilege carries responsibility – to bear fruit. ‘The gracious indwelling of God for his people is not an invitation to settle down and forget the world it is a summons to mission.’ ( Leslie Newbegin )
The fruit God looks for – What then is the fruit God desires and expects? The prophet Isaiah in the passage already referred to told us what it is not – namely cruelty, greed and lying, the opposite of which is surely kindness, generosity and integrity, two if not all three of which are amongst the nine fruits of the Spirit listed by St Paul towards the end of this letter to the Galatians.
As a young undergraduate, I remember being told that being fruitful meant, ‘bringing friends to Christ’. I felt guilty because as far as I was aware I wasn’t doing a lot of that, though I did sincerely wish they shared the faith I held.
In preparation for today, I came across this simple yet comprehensive definition of what it means to be fruitful. ‘It is the life of Jesus himself reproduced in the lives of his followers.’
The life of Jesus expressed indignation in the face of hypocrisy, anger in the face of wickedness, compassion in the face of suffering, lonely obedience to the will of his Father when easier paths beckoned, joy in the Spirit and a ready telling of the good and loving purposes of God for his children.
Illustration – At the home run by the Sisters, a Sister from Tanzania asked me concernedly over a cool bottle of Fanta whether I knew of any Muslims in the city becoming Christians? “Yes,” I replied, truthfully and readily. Her eyes lit up. “Do you know, I pray every day that the people here may come to see the beauty of Jesus.” I was moved. Such passion and love !
Fruit production! – If that be the fruit, how then is it produced? 1) Abiding, or staying in the vine. That’s obvious but essential, and Jesus is extraordinarily blunt about it – ‘Without me you can do nothing.’ Of course, hundreds of millions of us do do lots without him. We do so frequently. We pursue careers, go to Aldi or Waitrose, book holidays, redecorate homes and extend the patio. We can do all that but life lived removed from the vine cannot, Jesus says, produce fruit, the fruit that God looks for. And the opening of this passage carries a sombre warning of the fate of those who professing to be Christians produce no fruit. What then does ‘staying in the vine’ entail?
It will include what we are about today – worship, meditation on the life of Christ – prayer. It also, in the words of a former Bishop of Liverpool – someone of whom a rough working man said once on hearing him preach, “Yon man’s no bishop. I can understand him well”! – means, ‘cling to me, stick fast to me, live the life of close and intimate communion with me, put your whole weight on me . . . never let go your hold for a moment.’ It’s a reciprocal relationship, put well in the lines of a simple hymn, ‘I’ll live in you if you live in me. I am the Lord of the Dance, said he.’
2) Pruning – Two weeks ago we were visiting an elderly friend in Durham, in the north of England, where we admired the neat pruning of her crab apple tree and just the beginning of new buds breaking out. I recall some time ago walking past vineyards where the vines had been cut back and pruned after harvest. They really looked savaged. They were though the vines of a very good winery. A good vine won’t be left to grow rampant, nor, suggests Jesus, faithful Christians.
On the subject of pruning, here are some gleanings from guidelines drawn up for the care of vines in the Champagne region of France in 1938. ‘Pruning is the most fundamental of vineyard tasks. It’s purpose is to encourage the sap to flow towards the fruit-bearing buds – the main pruning season for grape vines is early winter but they need regular pruning throughout the growing season. Regular pruning is essential for producing quality fruit yields.And what is essential for vines, Jesus taught, is an inevitable and necessary part of the course for his followers, and in his purposes and for our pruning God can use sickness, bereavement, shattered hopes and thwarted ambition, heartbreak, dark long days of depression and helplessness.
Illustration – We once had living with us a delightful young man called, Nicholas, who while living with us learned that he’d failed to gain entrance into Cambridge, something his family members had not done for generations. His parents were appalled and he, upset, but some months later he said wistfully over breakfast, “I think it’s as well I didn’t get into Cambridge, I would have been such a prick.” (Pardon the language!) I refrained from saying, “Amen, Nicholas.” He had been given bless him, grace to see in his disappointment, the gracious hand of God at work in his life and he has had many opportunities to see it since, both in joy and at moments,of acute suffering. I dare to suggest that sometimes where the pruning has seemed most savage, the resulting fruit has been the most beautiful.
Farshad Fathi, is a young Iranian Christian. He was sentenced to six years in prison for his involvement with the growing Christian congregations that met in homes across his town. He wrote from prison, a poem entitled, ‘My Wilderness’. In conclusion, I quote a few lines.
My wilderness is painful but lovely . . .
My wilderness is like an endless road, but short compared to eternity
My wilderness seems like a lonely trip but I’m not alone
My beloved is on me . . .
My wilderness is dangerous but safe because I dwell between his shoulders
So I love my wilderness because it takes me to the deeper part of you, Lord,
and no one can separate me from your arms, ever.