5th Sunday of Easter
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.”
Some months ago, I was lucky to be in a reception class, watching a young trainee teacher give a maths lesson to a small group. The children were to roll two dice and take one number from the other. I shall never forget a little girl saying, “12 take away 19 – that’s incredible!” I think she meant “impossible”, but incredible is more poetic. And as we know – 12 take away 19 is not impossible, though it may be hard to believe.
In the weeks after Easter, we travel through some of the events of the early church. With any luck, Easter itself has touched us deeply, so that we feel, with the disciples, a newness about our faith, and can hear stories we may have heard before with new ears.
I’m a literature student and it always astonished me that when a form was new, the most extraordinary things could be done with it. No-one has really beaten Lawrence Sterne for bending the novel to do wild and witty gymnastics. The early church, like the early novel, was new and fizzing with creativity – nothing was impossible. Theologians have spent much ink on the little we can glean from Acts and Paul’s letters about those first fifty years, let alone the first weeks. But we can gather that creativity led fairly quickly to great differences in worship and opinion. No-one had told them that The Way, as they called it, meant anything but following the words of Jesus – and then everyone remembered them differently. This is why Paul has to devote his life to a massive feat of spirit-led quality control.
He was a tower of strength and creative, prayer-led thinking about what the new world was that Jesus inaugurated. But he was not alone in guiding the new churches. The letters of John show another writer – John or “school of John” – doing the same. In focusing on love, he merely extends the command of Jesus that we love one another. Keep it simple, he seems to say, and you will bear much fruit.
No other faith asks us to love one another. To be just, yes, to love God, yes, but to love our brothers and sisters? – unheard-of. Love without fear? – even more unimaginable. The truth is that we talk about love all the time but we’re not always that good at it. We hedge it round with caveats which protect us from risk, and we hate how vulnerable it makes us. And we’re not so great at abiding, either.
Jesus taught us to take that vulnerability as far as it can go, and emerge out the other side. He taught us that staying power is one of the things that characterises great love – like the Father’s steadfast love for us. Abiding depends on several skills, but probably the greatest of them is loving attention. Attention to the Beloved, and attention to the state of the relationship. Only love will keep us connected to the vine, with its roots drawing up the living water.
And what happens when we are connected and attending? You will all know long-term couples who jointly tell stories and finish each other’s jokes. Abiding tends to produce a joint language. If we abide in Christ then his words do abide in us. For the disciples, once they had seen the risen Christ, those words began to flow. Notably on Pentecost, of course, but once unstopped, the flow embraced everyone they met. Some, remembering Jesus’ words selectively, kept their words for the Jewish community. Some, like Philip, were certain that Jesus’ love had spilled over to call all nations to himself.
And so to one of my favourite stories, the meeting between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Often heard before, this year for me it packed a different punch. In the past, I always rejoiced in a tale which spoke of the inclusiveness of the Gospel. This year I thought about the clear call Philip had to speak to the eunuch, even before he realised he would be pushing an open door. A door made by the language of the great Old Testament prophet, Isaiah.
Last year, Fr. Lyndon kindly lent me some thick tomes on Paul by Tom Wright. I’m still working through the second! One of Wright’s main themes is that Paul rethought Jewish monotheism and salvation history in the light of the resurrection. 12-19 – incredible? The story of God’s steadfast love – as we hear at Easter – grows from its roots in creation itself up to the vine tendrils of today, you and me. Along the way, people like the eunuch are grafted in by skilled gardeners like Philip, or Paul – you can fill in your own names. No one comes to church just for duty nowadays, we choose to be here, and nearly always thanks to some gardener in our past, who knew the language of God and wooed us with it. Now, of course, it’s our turn. Amen.