Readings: Romans 12.3-13, John 15.1-12
Good morning! It’s wonderful to back here in Carlisle, in the Cathedral, and with you – old friends and new alike. After a very cautious couple of years, we’re making a Grand Tour of family and friends in the north including time with Lucy in Scotland and James in Sheffield, and we bring greetings from Chris and Caitlin who both live near us now in Herefordshire, where Cate is a country vicar. The wheel goes full circle!
As it happens this coming Tuesday is also the 40th anniversary of my priesting, so I do hope you’ll be able to stay and chat a bit after the service over some fizz and cake to celebrate that with us.
Whatever else I say in this sermon, I also want to celebrate the wonderful achievement of the whole Cathedral community in the work that has been on the Fratry, and not least Dean Mark’s role that. It’s been a long time in the coming, and though things often do take longer in border areas such as Carlisle and Hereford, they also often last longer. I’m reminded of the comment of a Border Regiment colonel I knew who said that if he wanted to take a hill, he’d send the Scots Borderers in, but if wanted to hold it, it would be the Cumbrians. God willing this sanctuary in the city, rising on just enough of a hill to keep its feet dry (said he, remembering the floods) will be here for many centuries to come, shining out with the light of Christ.
But I can’t delay any longer: just what is the one thing I might want to say, if this was indeed the only chance I had? Well, at the point when I was preparing to leave here and become a bishopI went on retreat as one should – and but because it was the ordination season all the holy houses were full, so off I went to a pub on the Isle of Whithorn, and pondered on St Ninian who landed there to take the Gospel to the Picts a very long time ago.
And in my mind, I heard God form the message that I must preach from the heart to the heart about the heart of the matter – along with the image of the Vine, from John 15 at its heart, which we heard as our Gospel reading. I hope I have done that – and would like to do so again now.
Here, in an ever more frenetic and ever more fragile world (or is that just how it seems to every old codger), here is a message of life and hope, of an underlying natural, and indeed supernatural, organic life. A message that calls us not to build Towers of Babel and trumpet our success, but to abide in the life it offers, drink deeply together of it, and go with its flow: three themes that I have sometimes – and I apologise for this – caricatured as Roots, Shoots and Fruits. Well at least that way they’re memorable. Let’s look at them in turn.
It goes without saying that if there are no roots, there are no shoots, and no fruits. Without the deep connections that bring life, we in the end run dry and die, whether that is as a person, a church, a country or the world. In Jesus’ image, he is the rooted vine, sharing in the life of his Father the vinegrower, and weare the branches, who – a key and favourite word for John – must abide in him, the vine. If we are to have life, and indeed life in all its fulness, we are called to abide in the living Word of God, the sap bringing that life to us, in all its forms: in the life of Jesus thr Word himself and the record of it in the Word of the Scriptures; in our prayers made in Jesus’ name; in the presence of Jesus in the eucharist; in the everyday presence of the Spirit of Jesus.
Abiding is so different from the transactional life we mostly share. We are not being asked to buy it, consume it, or pick it, today but not tomorrow, a consumer choice, a personal and passing preference, but to live in it and in relationship with it; for ever. I wonder if you long for a world where such abiding, in all aspects of our society, was still the norm. I wonder if you long for the abiding root which alone can feed those aspects to be still strong. I wonder if when you open your heart in prayer and praise today, when you open your ears not to what not I but Christ may be saying to you, when you open your hands to receive the Holy Communion, you will be longing to abide in Christ yourself. I believe you are. I believe you will be. Abide in him.
Jesus’ picture then goes on to show us that the branches – we as fellow-members of the church – grow and thrive when together we are abiding in the Vine. Paul’s parallel image of the Body in our Epistle is helpful too here. It points out that no one member, no one branch, can go it alone, if the whole Vine is to bear fruit. You plural are the branches.
Paul’s image also reminds us that it is the rising sap of the Spirit that brings with it the gifts we need to function well together; and that this is a natural, organic process. We may long for the Spirit to be at work, for a particular gifting to be ours, for our church to have more teachers, or more givers, or more people of compassion; but we cannot buy in the Spirit, or order a gift on Amazon. Rather, we are called to accept ourselves and our fellow branches for who we are, and with the giftings we have been given.
We live in a time of institutional stress, even crisis. It is hard to know if the organisational and financial aspects of the institutional church as we know it will survive. But to let our worries about that control our actions, rather than to trust in the eternally renewing work of the Spirit of God, whose very hallmark is resurrection and bringing new life out of old, is to abandon our abiding, to try and out-garden the Gardener, to try to out-God God.
Abide faithfully, share generously, and love one another as God loves you. The rest in the end has to be up to him.
Finally, the picture of the Vine is clear that is this abiding is what in fact will lead to much fruit. Fruit: think about it for a moment. It may be the crowning glory of the plant’s life; but is also entirely designed to be given away to others, to give them enjoyment and life, in the faith and trust that it is this giving away which is also the harbinger of the plant’s own life into the future. Like Christ, it must give its life to others; and for us too, as we are taught, it is in giving of ourselves that we find ourselves, in dying with Christ, that we find eternal life.
An anxious person and an anxious church are very likely to turn in on themselves, become obsessed with their own needs and survival, and lose both life and joy. Fruits kept in the fridge or larder too long just go off. They are designed to be used and given away.
Let me go back to the Fratry. Its name of course speaks of the common life of this church, the brothers as once were, all of you now, eating and drinking together, and building up your common life, as I am sure it will. But what a resource it also is the wider community, local and from afar. It is a living icon of a church opening its doors and offering its fruits to others; not to mention scones, soups and quiches.
As together, then, in this anniversary year you re-commit yourself to your roots in Christ, and enjoy not a few parties and plenty of prayers, growing shoots of Christ’s Spirit, so too may you bless all who come this way with the fruits of Christ’s love.