Sunday 6th  2018

Sixth Sunday of Easter

John 15:9-17

The Rev’d Jenny Wilson

The scene is the Last Supper. In John’s account of this final meal that Jesus shares with his disciples, the key action is not the institution of the Eucharist, the giving of bread and wine. The key action is Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Jesus shows his disciples what his way of loving looks like and then he gives his commandment to those washed disciples to love one another. The trouble is that they are beginning to realise that he will not be with them.

Jesus loves in many different ways in his life on earth and in this poignant scene before he leaves the disciples, his second key way of loving is through speech. Jesus talks and talks, in John’s version of the supper, urging the disciples that their hearts not be troubled, and then describing to them what life in his and the Father’s love looks like. Jesus teaches them with word and image. In chapter 15, from which this morning’s gospel reading comes, Jesus uses the image of the vine. This image would be one that is familiar to the disciples in two ways. They would see vines about them and they would hear of vines in their stories of faith. The image of the vine was deeply significant in the Jewish faith; Israel is the vine, God the vine-grower. I am the vine, you are the branches. [Jesus says to his disciples.]Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) Jesus is the vine and the Father, God, is the gardener.

Jesus speaks of pruning the vine and, apparently, the Greek word used in the text can mean cleansing as well as cutting. If that is the case, the image of the vine is immediately connected to Jesus’ actions at the supper, washing his disciples’ feet. The consummate teacher, Jesus weaves his actions and his images, building a picture for the disciples of what their life in him, in God, is like. The disciples are to abide in him as he abides in God, and Jesus loves them by washing their feet, by pruning them as branches, preparing for a joy and thriving and bearing fruit. Bearing fruit, an image that obviously relates to the image of the vine, means loving. Love one another as I have loved you, Jesus says. Bear fruit, Jesus says. It’s all the same thing. If we abide in Jesus in God’s love, if we are washed and pruned by him, we will learn to love like him.

There is one more thing that Jesus says in the passage we heard read this morning that is worthy of our attention. We might think that it was our decision to live our lives in this faith in Christ, we might think that we have chosen him, but Jesus makes it clear that the choosing works the other way around. “You did not choose me but I chose you.” (15:16) He says. We might think that Jesus approves of us, chooses us, if you like, on a good day. On a day when we have done some good deed or not behaved too selfishly. We might think that. But that is not what Jesus is saying. Jesus chooses us, all of us, the heart of us. Jesus chooses us, and our families, and our communities, and our world in this time and place with all its blessings and struggles. With all of which we are ashamed, Jesus chooses us. And washes our feet and then bids us love one another.

One way of loving is to pray. Jesus’ whole life was lived out of his deep praying life in his Father. He went up mountains to pray. He gathered with others in homes and synagogues to pray. And bidden by his disciples, he gave us a prayer that is the essence of his prayer, a prayer we name after him. “Our Father in heaven,” he bid us pray, “Hallowed be thy name, Thy kingdom come…”

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has invited Anglicans across the world to join him in praying the prayer, “Thy Kingdom Come” from Ascension to Pentecost and in our Cathedral we are going to join him. We will celebrate the Feast of the Ascension this Thursday at a Eucharist at 7.30 in the morning and at a beautiful Choral Eucharist sung by Certaine Notes Chamber Choir at 6.30pm at night. We do hope you will join us as we begin this special time of prayer together. Our curate Wendy has videoed a number of us saying the words “Thy Kingdom Come” in different languages, and on Pentecost Sunday, in two weeks’ time, we will hear all those languages spoken as we remember the story in the Acts of the Apostles when the spirit came and when the disciples spoke about God’s actions in Christ people from many different countries understood the things they said.

What is this kingdom, though? What does it look like? For what are we praying?

In Mark’s Gospel, the gospel on which we are focusing this year, Jesus bursts upon the scene in Galilee, after his time of temptation and soul searching in the wilderness, saying “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15) Jesus clearly believes that in his life and ministry the kingdom is coming near. And that the way to engage with the kingdom is through repentance and faith. “Coming near” is an interesting phrase. We might think that Jesus would announce that the kingdom is here. But he does not say that. The kingdom is not yet here. But it is close by.

Before we look a little more closely at Jesus’ words about the kingdom it will be helpful to reflect on the word “kingdom”. Our image of it might be unhelpful. The word for kingdom in Greek is basileia. Scholars tell us that the word basileia would be better translated “reign” – that what Jesus is bringing in is the “reign of God”. A kingdom for us might conjour up the idea of a place, a piece of land and a group of people that is owned and controlled and fought over. The kingdom of God is not like this –instead,  it about a way of living that is inspired by and guided by God. The prophet Micah’s words are well known and seem to hint at this reign of God:

What does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?
(Micah 6:8)

Jesus knows that the Reign of God that his presence is bringing near is difficult to understand and so he teaches those with him about it in different ways. He tells us that we must receive the kingdom as a little child – with the openness and vulnerability and trust that children bring. He meets a rich young man who is searching for God and says after his meeting with the man, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.’ (Mark 10:25) The kingdom is indeed difficult to understand and so Jesus uses many parables to describe it. One of my favourite kingdom parables is about the mustard seed.

With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? Jesus says. 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’ (Mark 4:30-32)

What is fascinating about this image is that Jesus does not say that the kingdom is like a great shrub with large branches in which the birds might make their nests. He does not say that at all. He says that the kingdom is like a seed. A seed that is hidden in the ground, waiting. A seed full of potential for life and thriving but is not seen,. This is what the kingdom is like. And we can be greatly encouraged by that. For let us imaging a patch of soil with no seed in it, a barren patch of soil. Is there any hope in this image? And, then, let us imagine that patch of soil with one mustard seed in it. Imagine the difference. Image the hope when there is just one mustard seed in a patch of soil waiting to grow, waiting for the rain and the warmth/ Imagine the hope for life to emerge. And that gives us a little insight into what the kingdom of God is like. It is here and yet we may not see it. It is present and waiting and yet it is unseen. The kingdom may be like this and so we are encouraged to pray for that kingdom to come. “Thy Kingdom Come” we pray and we will pray with Anglicans across the world from Ascension until Pentecost.

We will each pray this prayer differently. Who we are and what we care about matter as we pray for the coming of the kingdom. In chapter 10 of Mark’s Gospel we read that Jesus asked Blind Bartemaeus, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51) This is one of the most important questions in the spiritual life. What do we want God to do for us? And when we pray for the coming of God’s kingdom, we might ask the same question. “What do we most want God to do?” The answer to this question will become our prayer. It may be that we long that a dear friend knows that they are loved and forgiven by God. It may be that our great hope is there is peace in a particular place in the world. It may be that we hope that no young person will sleep on the streets ever again. It may be that we grieve over the plight of our planet. For each one of our hearts desire will be different, but the desire of our heart will lead us to a way to pray for the coming of God’s kingdom.

“You did not choose me but I chose you.” Jesus said. “Love one another as I have loved you.” May we, each one of us, spend a little time in the days from Ascension to Pentecost knowing to love of God in Christ and praying in that love that God’s kingdom may come.