All Saints, Cochrane
Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. Give us grace to love one another and walk in the way of his commandments, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
May the words of my lips, and the thoughts and meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Jesus is the first word from my lips this morning because I want to emphasize that Jesus is the centre of everything. He is the source and fulfilment of our being, and we can never overemphasize this fact.
Most of you know that today is my last day at All Saints as a theological student. I am being moved by the Archbishop to Holy Cross, Calgary for a few months over the summer and then will be heading down to the United States until June 2019 to complete my Divinity studies Nashotah House Theological Seminary in Wisconsin.
It is my hope that in my 20 months with this parish, in all I’ve done and in all I’ve said, I’ve managed to convey the primacy of Jesus Christ to you.
This idea of starting with Jesus and having Jesus as the centre of everything is not tripe sentimentality. It’s not some kind of Christian catchphrase. This is the Gospel of our Lord.
In our Gospel reading today, we heard that Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. The motifs of vines and vineyards are used throughout Scripture because they were something everyone was familiar with. Today it would be like Jesus saying I am the Tim Horton’s and you are the un-caffeinated Canadian on a weekday morning. We all understand something about that just as people in Jesus’ day understood about vineyards, how they worked and something about what you needed to do to make vines grow and produce fruit.
Many of us are familiar with Christ’s opening statement that he is, “the true vine.” We need to mark the emphasis Jesus places on true vine. The metaphor of the Vineyard was used throughout the Old Testament as a metaphor of the nation of Israel, God’s chosen people. Yet as we heard on Easter Sunday, Jesus told St Mary Magdalene that no longer would God be our God and we would be his people, but he will be our God as he is Christ’s God and he will be our Father as he is Christ’s Father.
This idea of Jesus as the true vine is a foreshadowing of how Christ himself in the resurrection changes the very nature of our relationship with God and changes the dynamics of the metaphor of the Vineyard. Christ himself is the true vine. He is how we come to the Father.
It is this truth that proclaims the need for the centrality of Jesus Christ in our faith, for it is through him that everything is made possible: the redemption of this World and the restoration of our relationship with God and neighbour.
We are separated from God. How do we know? We are all Christ’s, and he made us. He made us to bear good fruit. Yet we don’t always produce good fruit. Our Gospel passage today follows shortly after Jesus had told his disciples, after the Last Supper, that they would be identified by their fruit: by their love. Yet think about how just after he made that statement, Judas would turn Jesus over to the authorities for money. That was not good fruit.
So, Jesus commanded it, yet we don’t follow through. We fall short, as St Paul puts it. We sin. We do not bear good fruit. We fall into pride. We displace the rightful place of God in our lives and replace him with something, anything, else. CS Lewis wrote that, “human history is the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.”
That is the true problem.
We were made to be in relationship with God, but because we do not have that perfect relationship we recognize something as being missing in our lives. We seek to fill that longing in our hearts. St Augustine said our hearts shall find no rest until they rest in God. We have a longing to be filled. A longing to be nourished. A longing to restored. Yet we don’t always know how that longing is to be fulfilled.
In our Gospel reading today, Jesus helps us to understand both this failure on our part, and how God’s plans for our restoration in Christ overcomes this obstacle.
The passage begins with a warning that every branch that has no fruit will be removed. So, bear fruit! But what does he mean by fruit?
Fruit here is a reference to the acts of love by which Christ calls us to be known. Early Church fathers from St Clement of Alexandria through to St John Chrysostom all interpreted this passage through the lens of loving good works done as the necessary outcome of living a life consistent with the will of God. This isn’t just about being a nice person. It is the totality of the life and love of Jesus Christ we are called to live out.
The verse continues saying that if you do bear fruit, God will prune you so that you bear even more fruit. In a Christian context, we might think of it as being made more holy. Being sanctified. Jesus is essentially saying when you follow the Father’s will, he will make it easier for you to continue doing so. In the same way that St Paul warns us of the downward spiral of sin, here Jesus comforts us and encourages us saying that he will make it easier if we respond properly.
In verse four, Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” This comes to the heart of the passage today: abiding in Christ.
This concept of abiding in Christ, and he in us, can sometimes be confusing. Christ might have understood that, which is why he clarifies with the second half of the verse. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Jesus uses the metaphor to explain our relationship to him through the imagery of the vineyard. He is the vine and we are the branches. The vine is what nourishes the branches. Without that nourishment, it is impossible to bear fruit, and the branch will simply dry out and die. It is good only for kindling and will be thrown into the fire.
Jesus is saying that the idea of vine and branches isn’t just some illustration of hierarchy. He’s saying that he is the one who nourishes us and links us together in order that we can bear good fruit. We’ve gotten multiple verses in this passage that talk about being thrown into the fire, but the core of the message here isn’t some kind of “bear fruit or you’ll be thrown into the fire,” warning; the core of the message is Jesus saying: “I love you, I want you to be fruitful, so I will nourish you so that you can be fruitful.”
Ask! Be Nourished!
Today, we still fall short. Everyone in this room has sinned at one time or another. I certainly have, and I’m going to be really embarrassed if I’m the only one. More than that, though, we also fall short of the solution. Our biggest problem is not so much falling into sin, as it is refusing to be nourished by God.
Jesus says that if we abide in him, if we listen to his words in Scripture, then we can ask whatever we desire and it will be done for us. Our immediate reaction is to probably think of how many problems in our lives could be fixed if God would just instantly do what we want and change everything for us. That’s not what this passage emphasizes, though. The key word here is ask. And how do we ask God? In prayer.
I’m not going to be quoting Karl Barth today, so I need to say something that expresses my appreciation at the vast amount I’ve learned from Fr Greg in my time here. I think one thing that will stick with me is his summary of John Keble’s famous Assize Sermon of 1833 which kicked off the Anglo-Catholic revival in England.
Fr Greg’s assessment of the sermon is that Keble wanted people to pray just a little bit more. Keble argues that we must be constant in prayer, and that it is prayer that will sustain us in all our other Christian duties. “The constant sense of God’s presence and consequent certainty of final success,” Keble says, “can be kept up no other way,” than by prayer.
Prayers does not have to be hard. Many of you know I went through a rather difficult October last year. I received some difficult news about the decline in my mother’s health, and then the next week, after a very difficult Diocesan Synod that weekend, my friend and mentor Fr Bob Greene died somewhat suddenly. My prayer request was simple, and to the point: “God, please help me, I can’t handle this.” God knows your heart. God knows your needs, more than you can ask or imagine.
As Keble argues, when you pray, it strengthens you. If you think back to what I said only a few moments ago, when you bear fruit, God will enable you to bear even more fruit!
St Thérèse of Lisieux was a 19th century nun who wrote extensively on her own relationship with Christ. I find her powerfully insightful when it comes to considering this idea of abiding in Christ. She once described prayer as “an aspiration of the heart, it is a simple glance directed to heaven, it is a cry of gratitude and love in the midst of trial as well as joy; finally, it is something great, supernatural, which expands [our] soul[s] and unites [us] to Jesus.”
Prayer is more than just a means to communicate with God. Abiding is about resting in Christ. As we rest with him he is willing to listen if we speak, and he answers if we ask. Through prayer, we deepen our relationship with Christ. Through prayer, we place him as the centre of our lives, to abide with him and he with us.
Abiding in Christ is all about being nourished by him, and Christ offers more ways than just prayer to do so. If we truly want to abide, we should feed on him and his grace in all the ordinary ways that he offers it. Through the washing in the waters of Baptism. Through feeding on him in his Word. Through the most Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. And finally, in prayer.
So dear friends, turn to Christ. Speak to him as a friend. Come to know him in his Word and in his Sacrament. You will find that it becomes easier to do what you ought to do. It becomes easier to not do what you ought not to do.
Most importantly, you will find it becomes not a burden but a joy to centre your life in Jesus: not simply your teacher, not simply your God, but your friend. When that happens, nourished by him, you will find you are truly abiding in him.
I want to conclude with some lyrics from a famous hymn, “All for Jesus” by Sir John Stainer.
All for Jesus—thou hast loved us; All for Jesus—thou hast died;
All for Jesus—thou art with us; All for Jesus crucified.
All for Jesus—all for Jesus—this the Church’s song must be;
Till, at last, her children gather, one in love and one in thee.
All for Jesus—at thine altar thou wilt give us sweet content;
There, dear Lord, we shall receive thee in the solemn sacrament.
May we always be conscious of our need to be nourished, and the fact that we are the branches and that abiding in the vine, we are offered to be nourished by Christ Jesus.
 St Jn xv. 1
 St Jn xiii. 35
 Rm 3:23
 CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, “The Shocking Alternative” 2.3.7
 St Augustine of Hippo, Conf. 1.1.1
 St Clement of Alexandria, Paed. 1.8
 St John Chrysostom, Hom. Jo. 76.1
 Rm i.20ff
 Jn xv. 7
 Bl. John Keble, National Apostasy (1833), para 26.
 Eph iii. 20
 St Thérèse of Lisieux, The Story of a Soul, 10.34
 “μένω,” TDNT, 4:757ff
 “All for Jesus,” Book of Common Praise, 571.