A Sermon at Sidney Sussex College, that starts like another one you may have read recently but then takes a more subversive direction…
Deep in Poland, in an old-time convent, the Mother Abbess lay dying. The sisters gathered round her bed as she lay slumped back into the pillows, and asked whether there was anything she would like to have. “A little milk,” she wheezed, and slumped back into the pillows. Sister Prioress hurried off to the kitchen and poured the milk, but then noticed a bottle of brandy high up on a shelf gathering dust – left over from the Bishop’s last visit many years ago. It was now or never, and into the glass it went, a rather large glug from her inexperienced hand.
Back at the bedside, the Abbess sipped at the glass of milk. And the sipped again, and drained the glass, before slumping again in to the pillows, a little less heavily than before. After a discreet wait, the sisters asked again whether there was anything else they could bring her, or any last word for them. “Another glass of that milk,” came the reply. Once again the glass was prepared and fetched. Once again it was offered and drunk, only this time it was downed in one go. And once again Mother Abbess slumped back into her pillows, smiling happily.
After a while the sisters asked for a third time, was there anything they could fetch or any last word. With a strangely warm smile, their Mother raised herself one last time from the pillow, and pointed to the window behind them. “Whatever you do, don’t sell that cow.”
So – where does the spirit come from that gives you life? If this wasn’t a formal sermon I’d be intrigued and fascinated to get you talking about it, and I imagine the answers would be very diverse. Some of them would be to do with what is life-giving in an everyday sense – relationships, the arts, sport, nature, academic enquiry. Others will grapple with the inevitability of natural decay and seeking sources of life which can transcend it. And in today’s world all this will be both personal and diverse, and feel awkward about truth claims which are exclusive. I can perhaps tolerate and even be glad about your unexpected interest in the life-giving qualities of stamp collecting or the triathlon, and allow and even wonder about your experiences of meditation or commitment to Inuit religious rituals, as long as you do not also expect me to share them, or judge me inferior because I do not.
It is a tad awkward too, then, that the series of “I am” sayings by Jesus that you have been following in Sunday Evensongs this term make it clear that Jesus was not at all shy about answering my question in a very simple way. Life comes from him. He is the way, the truth and the life; the bread of life; the vine of which we are the branches. And his language about the fate of the branches who do not remain in him is gutsy to say the least.
In the days of Christendom such a claim was unremarkable, either accepted as an obvious given, or allowed to pass unchallenged. But in a globalised, often secularised world of many religions and of none it is not. How for instance do we calibrate it against those other exclusive claims to ultimate truth that can easily lead to inappropriate discrimination and denigration at best, and outright terror at worst?
By now you may be thinking that I am digging my own grave, but firstly, I think it is important to acknowledge the force of such a challenge as fairly as possible; and secondly, I think it is not just possible but proper to read tonight’s chapter from St John’s Gospel in a way which both subverts its surface reading and offers a powerful apologetic for why following in the way of Jesus is indeed the way of life.
Let me explain what I mean. Jesus speaks about himself as the source of life and love, and invites and commands us to follow him and do as he has done. That sounds like an act of domination. But then we read and remember that his iconic way of relating to us is to give his life for us in love, and that his command to us is to love and give ourselves for others in that same way.
It would be folly to think that human life and society will ever be devoid of the dynamics of power. Utopians dream of a level society, but it has never survived. No, the choice is not between a society marked by power and one that is not, but between one in which that power is for good and one that is not. So far so benevolent. The trouble is that famously all power corrupts, and we have a proper suspicion of others who have power over us which they claim is for our good. And so we are driven to a position that there will be and must be power in human society, but that the only power which can convince us that it is truly life-giving for us is a power that subverts itself totally and gives itself away, for our benefit, for us. We hear the talk but want to see the walk. And if and only if we meet someone who truly lives out a life for others not themselves, we are amazed.
Now perhaps you can see why I am so interested in Jesus, and in what a way of life that follows his could be like. We see a quiet subversion of the politics of power at every turn. The image of the Vine has three aspects, for instance, which can be labelled for memory purposes as roots, shoots and fruits, and which each demonstrate how life can lived another way up – perhaps the right way up in fact.
The roots are our choice to be rooted in Christ, to seek that extra life-giving spirit in him. And in so doing we find that we are turned round from choosers and consumers to chosen ones and lovers, from servants to friends.
The shoots are the way in which find ourselves one branch among many, the way in which we realise that the “you” that we had so naturally read as singular in the English is actually plural in the Greek; that it is possible for a highly ramified and diverse tree of life to share one stock, to be not just friends but family together, bound in love.
The fruits are the way in which, having been so formed, we find that not only are we able to lay down our lives for our friends, but for our neighbours, and for our enemies too. Because it is precisely when we placed ourselves most in enmity to God that he laid his life down for us. That if you like is his DNA, and when we are abiding in him, it is our part of our DNA too.
In fact, our Christian understanding of the nature of God sees that same DNA in every aspect of his being. In the self-giving of God the Father, as his life by its nature overflows into the almost absurd abundance of the cosmos. In the self-giving of the Son, leaving Godhead itself behind and embracing even death on a cross. In the self-giving life of the Spirit, offering to all a democracy of giftedness and grace from which none are excluded but those who choose to be closed to it. The bottom line is: with God, the self-giving goes all the way through.
That is the sap in the Vine, the Life of Christ, a Way that is so life-giving to follow that it has been the Truth for countless millions of our sisters and brothers across time and space. That is the Spirit that it is good to drain to the dregs, the Spirit that gives us life. Amen.