Monday, 23 April 2018

Readings, hymns and
sermon ideas for
Sunday 29 April 2018,
Fifth Sunday of April

The True Vine ... an icon in the parish church in Piskopianó in the mountains east of Iraklion in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Next Sunday, 29 April 2018, is the Fifth Sunday of Easter. The readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for this Sunday are: Acts 8: 26-40 or Deuteronomy 4: 32-40; Psalm 22: 25-31; I John 4: 7-21; and John 15: 1-8.

There is a link to the readings HERE.

Like the theme of the Good Shepherd the previous Sunday [Easter IV, 22 April 2018], the theme in this Sunday’s Gospel reading, Christ as the True Vine, may be so familiar to many of us and to many people in church, that it may be difficult to find an original and challenging approach to this Gospel reading.

This posting looks at the Gospel reading for next Sunday, with reflections too on the other readings that provide context for the Gospel reading and alternative ideas for sermons.

‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower’ (John 15: 1) ... a small vineyard in Platanes, near Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 15: 1-8

[Jesus said:] 1 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’

A Chinese Bible open at the beginning of John 15 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Introduction:

The Gospel story talks about Christ as the true vine, and invites us to abide in him as he abides in us. The Prayer of Humble Access prays ‘that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.’

Communities of faith have often excluded people who are then excluded from worshipping God. The Ethiopian eunuch in the first reading (Acts 8: 26-40) is excluded as a eunuch, but perhaps also because he was black, or a foreigner, or a court official. He can have no heirs, yet he becomes an heir to the kingdom.

The Psalmist (Psalm 22: 25-31) is reminded that no matter how rejected he feels, that the poor shall eat and be satisfied, and all posterity, even those not yet born, will serve God.

In our Epistle reading (I John 4: 7-21), we are reminded that God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God.

The Prayer of Humble Access prays ‘that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us’

Acts 8: 26-40:

As we continue to read from the Acts of the Apostles, we have moved to that part where Saint Luke recounts the spread of the Good News to non-Jews in the Middle East. He has just recalled how the Gospel was brought to the Samaritans, who were rejected because they had a different principal place of worship, scriptural tradition, and a questionable ethnic background (see John 4: 1-42).

This morning, we hear how the Good News is brought to another outcast, a eunuch from Ethiopia.

Ethiopia was then regarded as at being at the extreme limits of the known world. But ‘an angel of the Lord,’ or an agent of God, tells Philip to seek out the eunuch in Gaza, at the edges of the Sinai Peninsula.

Saint Philip has already between an intermediary when some Greeks wish to see Jesus on Palm Sunday, but feel they have been pushed to the margins and excluded by the crowd (see John 12: 20-22).

The eunuch is the trusted court official of Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia, and her finance minister, and now he is on his way home. Like the Greeks who were in Jerusalem for the Festival and who wanted to see Jesus, this Ethiopian has been in Jerusalem to worship. He is probably an admirer of Judaism, perhaps he was even born a Jew or has a Jewish background.

But his physical condition might raise questions about how he managed even to enter the Court of the Gentiles in Jerusalem. Eunuchs could have no heirs and therefore had no loyalties. Because of this, they made good servants, slaves, and advisers. But they were not welcome in the kingdom, even if they worshipped God: ‘No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord’ (Deuteronomy 23: 1). Like the Greeks Philip has met, was he too excluded and pushed to the margins at the Festival?

In the ancient world, people always read aloud, so Philip hears the Ethiopian courtier reading part of the Servant Song in Isaiah 53: 7-8, about the Suffering Servant and how the sheep will take on the suffering without a word:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

Philip rushes up and asks the Ethiopian whether he understands what he is reading. Philip proclaims the Good News to the eunuch by showing how the prophecies in the Old Testament are fulfilled in Christ.

The translation of this passage in the New International Version (NIV) translation infers Isaiah 53 speaks of the suffering one whose unjust death means they leave no descendants. But there is another, later, passage where Isaiah says:

Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let no eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
I will give, in my house within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off (Isaiah 56: 3-5).

Isaiah’s vision is radical. He says that those people who are not seen as part of the kingdom are counted in when God brings in new kingdom. Creation will be reformed and this reign of God will be universal. All people will worship God, his kingdom will embrace the whole of the cosmos – and even eunuchs, those without heirs, will become heirs of the kingdom themselves.

In this mission story, Saint Philip is sent out and goes where God sends him. Mission involves going outside the Church, to the boundaries of religious norms and conventions. Saint Philip heads out beyond Jerusalem, out into the wilderness. The conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian is between two people on an equal footing, going together in the same direction.

Saint Philip baptises the man, but Saint Luke does not mention the coming of the Holy Spirit on him. For Saint Luke, the Spirit comes in the context of the community, the Church. This is the first individual baptism described after the first Easter, and it is interesting that this reading makes no mention of baptism being an entrance into any community. Rather, it is a pure acceptance of God’s gift through the crucifixion and a part of being sent out to share the good news.

Saint Philip is then spirited away, as was Elijah (see II Kings 2). Philip and the eunuch did not each other again, as far as we know. Philip next finds himself in Azotus or Ashdod, a port and entry point to the wider Roman world. There he proclaims the good news throughout the region, a Greek-speaking Gentile area, until he arrives home in Caesarea.

Psalm 22: 23-31

Psalm 22, as a whole, is a prayer for deliverance from illness. The psalmist, who is gravely ill, feels that God has forsaken him. In the past, God has helped his people (verses 4-5), and now he asks God to help him. He goes on to say that he will offer thanksgiving in assembly of the community, in the Temple (verse 22).

Now God hears the cry of the poor and the afflicted (verse 26). He provides perpetual life for the poor those who live in awe of him. May all people everywhere turn to God and worship him (verse 27). God is Lord of all (verse 28). All mortals, all who die or go down to the dust (verse 29), worship God. The psalmist says he will live following God’s ways, and so will his offspring. They will be God’s for ever, and will tell future generations about God’s saving deeds.

Love is … more than a box of chocolates (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

I John 4: 7-21

God is love, and this is seen in God sending his Son.

Romantic art and literature from the 19th century on, has conditioned us to think of love as a feeling, a heart-felt feeling associated with desire and intimacy. But this is often self-centred, and effectively selfish: what do I want? Who do I want to be with? Who can meet my needs and desires and support my ambitions?

Saint John is talking here about a more profound type of love – a love that is not expressed in Valentine’s cards or in romantic rhymes and songs, in a box of heart-shaped chocolates, a love that is not a mere inner disposition of emotions, but love that is expressed in choice and action, love that is total self-giving. In the incarnation we see God’s total self-giving and self-emptying.

Self-giving love means identifying with people. There is a well-known joke that an Irish way of proposing is to ask: Would you like to be buried with my people? But behind the humour is the truth that love involves complete identification of the lover with the loved. God totally identifies with us to the point that Christ is born among us, lives and dies among us, is buried with us ... and then the triumph of his love is found in the Resurrection.

God totally identifies with us in the incarnation. And the response we are asked to make to the giving of God’s love is love others.

The author of I John vigorously defends the claims of the incarnation against the gnostic teachings of the separatists in Ephesus. Christ is neither an illusion, an appearance or a manifestation, nor is he a great teacher or prophet, but he is the incarnate, only-begotten Son of God. But, by obeying Christ’s command to love one another, we too become the adopted children of God.

The only way anyone can see that we know God is when they see how we love. Our love for others is as close as we can come on earth to union with the God we cannot see.

The group who had broken away from the Johannine community in Ephesus claimed special knowledge (gnosis) and visions of God, and their failure to love the other members of the community showed that they did not love God.

The Holy Spirit testifies that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has revealed his Father as love. When his love is perfected or matured in us, there is no need for fear any more, and all fear is dismissed and cast aside. The gift of the Holy Spirit is our pledge of union with God.

Returning to the supreme example of love, the author of I John testifies to the reality of the sending of the Son as Saviour.

Love originates in God. A failure to love is the visible evidence of a breach with the unseen God, and a violation of his commandments.

Verse 21, which concludes this section, repeats once again the very foundation of the Christian emphasis on the role of love in the spiritual life: if we love God then we must love one another.

‘Fruit of the vine and work of human hands. It will become our spiritual drink’ … grapes ripening on a vine in Platanes, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

John 15: 1-8

The use of the phrase ‘I AM’ (ἐγώ εἰμι, ego eimi) is distinctive to the Fourth Gospel. It is significant within Jewish theology, for it is the name by which the God of the Exodus reveals himself to Moses as he commissions Moses to set the Exodus events in motion (see Exodus 36).

Ego eimi
(ἐγώ εἰμί), ‘I AM,’ or ‘I exist,’ is the first person singular present tense of the verb ‘to be’ in ancient Greek, and its use of this phrase in some parts of Saint John’s Gospel is rich with theological significance.

When used as a copula, with a predicate, for example ‘I am Patrick,’ then the usage is equivalent to English. When used alone, without a predicate, as in ‘I am,’ ‘he is,’ ‘they are,’ then the usage typically means ‘I exist’ and so on.

In Saint John’s Gospel, Christ says ‘I am’ (eimi) 45 times, including those occasions when other people quote Christ’s words. On 24 occasions, these are emphatic, explicitly including the pronoun ‘I’ (ego eimi), which is not necessary in Greek grammar. These emphatic references can be sub-divided into ‘Absolute’ or ‘Predicate’ statements.

Ego eimi is used with a nominative predicate seven times in the Gospel:

● I am the bread of life (John 6: 35).
● I am the light of the world (John 8:12).
● I am the gate for the sheep (John 10: 7).
● I am the good shepherd (John 10: 11).
● I am the resurrection and the life (John 11: 25).
● I am the way, and the truth, and the life (John 14: 6).
● I am the true vine (John 15: 1).

The number of ‘I AM’ sayings is a literary device, for the number seven was regarded as the perfect number, and so indicates that Christ is the perfect revelation. In a similar way, there are also ‘seven signs’ in this Gospel.

Most of the images in the ‘I AM’ sayings have their roots in the Hebrew Bible, where they are used primarily for God:

The bread of life or bread from heaven (see Exodus 16; Numbers 11: 6-9; Psalm 78: 24; Isaiah 55: 1-3; Nehemiah 9: 15; II Maccabees 2: 5-8).

The light of the world (see Exodus 13: 21-22; Isaiah 42: 6-7; Psalm 97:4).

The good shepherd (see Ezekiel 34: 1-41; Genesis 48: 15; Genesis 49: 24; Psalm 23: 1-4; Psalm 80: 1; Psalm 100: 3-4; Micah 7: 14).

The resurrection and the life (see Daniel 12: 2; Psalm 56: 13; II Maccabees 7: 1-38).

The way (see Exodus 33: 13; Psalm 25: 4; Psalm 27: 11; Psalm 86: 11; Psalm 119: 59; Isaiah 40: 3; 62: 10).

The truth (see I Kings 17: 4; Psalm 25: 5; Psalm 43: 3; Psalm 86: 11; Psalm 119: 160; Isaiah 45: 19).

The vine (see Isaiah 5: 1-7; Psalm 80: 9-17; Jeremiah 2: 21; Ezekiel 17: 5-10).

Poetically, the bread and the vine open and close these seven ‘I AM’ sayings.

In the Cathedral Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, in some of the Eucharistic texts in the Church of England, and in other liturgical traditions, there is an adaptation of traditional Jewish table-blessings, drawn in turn from the Bible, that is said at the Taking of the Bread and Wine:

Priest: Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation:
through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
which earth has given and human hands have made (Ecclesiastes 3: 13-14).
It will become for us the bread of life (John 6: 35).
All: Blessed be God forever (Psalm 68: 36).

Priest: Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation:
through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink (Luke 22: 17-18).

All: Blessed be God forever (Psalm 68: 36).

[See also Common Worship (Church of England), p 291.]

Our openness to Christ present in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist is at the beginning and the end of our acceptance of who Christ is for us.

On the Sunday passed, we have read about Christ as the Good Shepherd. Next Sunday, we hear a theological reflection on God as vine grower.

God in Christ Jesus is the source of living water, he is the bread of heaven that gives life, and he is also the vine and we are his branches.

This passage comes after Christ speaks of his suffering, death and resurrection and promises to return and to not leave his followers alone. This passage, like the good shepherd passage, is a teaching about life in God and in Christ.

The image is of God the vine grower and the gardener. Christ is the vine and we are branches bearing fruit. The vine is trimmed and this has eschatological implications. But this is not the of the teaching here. Instead, the image offered here is one of abiding and remaining. The image of vine grower, the vineyard, the vine and the branches is one about the living Word existing as the life blood of those who belong to Christ.

The Johannine scholar Raymond Brown says this passage is about the disciples remaining in Christ. Many people in the Church talk about following Jesus and leading a virtuous life. However, in Saint John’s Gospel and in Christ words, there is no concept of a personal relationship with Christ that brings about a virtuous life. Instead, the image of abiding is about being, not about becoming. If we are abiding in Christ, then God is central, not the desires of our egos.

’I am the vine, you are the branches’ … late autumn grapes and branches clinging to vines in November at the Hedgehog on the northern edge of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Liturgical Resources:

Liturgical colour: White.

The Greeting (from Easter Day until Pentecost):

Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

Penitential Kyries:

Lord God,
you raised your Son from the dead.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Lord Jesus,
through you we are more than conquerors.
Christ, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.

Holy Spirit,
you help us in our weakness.
Lord, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

The Collect of the Day (Easter V):

Lord of all life and power,
who through the mighty resurrection of your Son
overcame the old order of sin and death
to make all things new in him:
Grant that we, being dead to sin
and alive to you in Jesus Christ,
may reign with him in glory;
to whom with you and the Holy Spirit
be praise and honour, glory and might,
now and in all eternity.

Introduction to the Peace:

The risen Christ came and stood among his disciples and said, Peace be with you. Then were they glad when they saw the Lord. (John 20: 19, 20).

Preface:

Above all we praise you
for the glorious resurrection of your Son
Jesus Christ our Lord,
the true paschal lamb who was sacrificed for us;
by dying he destroyed our death;
by rising he restored our life:

Post-Communion Prayer:

Eternal God,
in word and sacrament
we proclaim your truth in Jesus Christ and share his life.
In his strength may we ever walk in his way,
who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Blessing:

The God of peace,
who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus
that great shepherd of the sheep,
through the blood of the eternal covenant,
make you perfect in every good work to do his will,
working in you that which is well-pleasing in his sight:

or:

God the Father,
by whose glory Christ was raised from the dead,
raise you up to walk with him in the newness of his risen life:

Dismissal: (from Easter Day to Pentecost):

Go in the peace of the Risen Christ. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Thanks be to God. Alleluia! Alleluia!

‘I am the true vine, and my father is the vine-grower (John 15: 1) ... vineyards on the slopes of the hills in Tuscany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Suggested Hymns:

The hymns suggested for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B), in Sing to the Word (2000), edited by Bishop Edward Darling, include:

Acts 8: 26-40:

390, Baptised into your name, most holy
273, Led like a lamb to the slaughter
435, O God, unseen yet ever near
591, O happy day that fixed my choice
214, O Love, how deep, how broad, how high
306, O Spirit of the living God
239, See, Christ was wounded for our sake

Deuteronomy 4: 32-40:

51, Awake, my soul, and with the sun
325, Be still for the presence of the Lord, the holy one, is here
262, Come, ye faithful, raise the strain

Psalm 22: 25-31:

581, I, the Lord of sea and sky
8, The Lord is King! Lift up your voice
492, Ye servants of God, your master proclaim

I John 4: 7-21:

515, ‘A new commandment I give unto you’
216, Alleluia, my Father, for giving us your Son
218, And can it be that I should gain
516, Belovèd, let us love: love is of God
520, God is love, and where true love is, God himself is there
89, God is love – his the care
3, God is love: let heaven adore him
312, Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost
125, Hail to the Lord’s anointed
422, In the quiet consecration
495, Jesu, Jesu, fill us with your love
525, Let there be love shared among us
634, Love divine, all loves excelling
432, Love is his word, love is his way
229, My God, I love thee; not because
102, Name of all majesty
214, O Love, how deep, how broad, how high
367, Praise him, praise him, everybody praise him
244, There is a green hill far away
315, ‘This is my will, my one command’
373, To God be the glory! Great things he has done!
530, Ubi caritas et amor
248, We sing the praise of him who died
531, Where love and loving kindness dwell

John 15: 1-8:

629, Abide among us with thy grace
39, For the fruits of his creation
311, Fruitful trees, the Spirit’s sowing
422, In the quiet consecration
524, May the grace of Christ our Saviour
451, We come as guests invited
394, We praise you Lord, for Jesus Christ

A Mediterranean village vineyard … grapes ripening in Tsesmes, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Scripture quotations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA, and are used by permission. All rights reserved.

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