Eucharist Sermon - 2 May 2021

The Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 15:1–8; Acts 8:26–40
The Venerable Jonathan Chaffey, The Archdeacon of Oxford

“Where do I belong?” If you put that phrase into an internet search engine you would find the title of 146th episode of ‘Desperate Housewives’. Of course I haven’t watched it myself, but the programme notes reveal a story line where a community of men and women are trying to exercise genuine care for each other while struggling to fight feelings of revenge and jealousy that remain from years ago. It all leads to overt expressions of emotional pain and much attention seeking – more than enough to keep 13m viewers happy. Perhaps such a high viewer statistic should not be a surprise for we are all stakeholders in this fundamental question: where do I belong? The answer is crucial to our wellbeing, for without finding a solution we may be similarly ‘desperate’: constrained by insecurities, clinging to fleeting allegiances (or recovering from them) and chasing false dreams.

In contrast, Jesus says: “Abide in me as I abide in you”. Jesus invites his followers to dwell within the love of God that creates, redeems and sustains. What a gift! Not earned but freely offered – as Jesus later says, in this same discourse, “You did not choose me, but I chose you”. That single verse remains in my memory, out of all the sermons that I heard at Theological College. That one is more to do with calling than identity but the principle holds true; for as Jesus says here, we are cleansed by his word. Our general sense of belonging may be formed from early childhood, with many blessings and knocks on the way, but as Christians the core of our being resides in Christ. The ABC described this reality in powerful terms a few years ago, having taken in the news that his biological father was someone different to the one whom he had assumed: ‘I know that I find who I am in Jesus Christ, not in genetics, and my identity in him never changes’. I hope that you are able to experience similar confidence through the grace of Jesus.

To illustrate this truth Jesus twice declares, “I am the Vine.” ‘Ego eimi – I am’. This extraordinary self-description is used 7 times by Jesus in John’s Gospel, echoing the self-revelation of God to Moses at the Burning Bush: “I am who I am”. The Vine, like the Good Shepherd, was a memorable image for Jesus’ audience. Not just a treasured plant, a source of physical life and health, but in the Old Testament a spiritual description of the people of Israel: a chosen nation but so lacking in fruit. Jesus, however, is the True Vine; we are the branches. It’s difficult to comprehend the scale of what this means: He is not just the stem but the whole vine. Our invitation to be branches is more than just to follow a leader or a movement; we are made one with God – as the BCP Communion service says, ‘we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy son, the blessed company of all faithful people, heirs through hope of thy everlasting kingdom…’.

With all this on offer we should heed Jesus’ command, “Abide in me!” CK Barrett describes this as not a static condition but a continual revisiting of our loyalty to Christ. I wonder what that might mean in your own life, in working relationships and practice, in domestic life, within your neighbourhood? Within the Church community we are profoundly interconnected, not just with God but with each other (whether you like it or not!); it follows that we should reflect the forgiving love of Jesus – as Jesus goes on to say: “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you”. It also means that we should be people of both Word and Sacrament. It is significant in our first reading, that Philip the Deacon shared the scriptures and then baptised the Ethiopian Official. So with us: we dwell in the Word of God, we are clothed with Christ through baptism, we are fed through bread and wine - and then, we are commissioned through the Spirit to share the good news with others.

Observe our streets, read the papers, look at your screens: we live in a world that is desperately in need of this good news, the healing love of Jesus. The sheer scale of suffering within the Pandemic has brought a sharper focus to poverty and inequality in their many and various forms. You may ask: “What can we do? The task is too great!” Jesus says: “Abide in me as I abide in you – as Bultmann puts it, as Jesus abides in us he remains ‘the ground and the origin of the possibility of life’. When we pray, as we live, speak and work in his name, Jesus abides with us. Fruit will come, possibilities will emerge, remarkable things happen, from acts of kindness through lockdown that remind us that we are not alone, to Cathedral online and physical services that open windows of faith, to encounters like Philip’s, that took the Gospel to Africa! There is a wonderful inevitability about this. Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” We will need to be pruned, some dead wood will need to go – I wonder what that might mean for you and for God’s church in this city and diocese - but if we abide then we need not fear, for our Father is the Gardener and he lovingly prunes even the best branches.

I’d like to conclude by quoting a Times obituary from yesterday, which captures some of these lessons: ‘In 1964, a young Russian-speaking Anglican priest, Michael Bourdeaux, was visiting Moscow when he heard that the Soviet authorities had just demolished a church. He went to investigate and noticed two women peering through a fence at a pile of rubble with a few bent crosses on top.

He approached them and revealed that he was a foreigner wanting to find out what had happened. “We need you,” replied one of the women and asked him to follow them discreetly by tram and bus to a wooden house on the outskirts of the city.

Safely behind closed doors, Bourdeaux explained that his visit had been prompted partly by reading letters smuggled out of the Soviet Union describing brutal attempts to intimidate monks and their congregation at a monastery in Ukraine. “Their faces turned white,” he recalled. “There was a stunned silence, then a cry, muffled in tears: ‘We wrote those documents.’

Today is the Orthodox Feast of Easter. As those ladies prayed, abiding in the risen Christ, so Michael Bourdeaux and the foundation he formed at Keston College began to support the church behind the Iron Curtain. It was not an easy ride, the Soviets seeking to discredit his ministry, but by God’s grace it changed the policies of governments, bringing release to prisoners and hope to many thousands.

If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’