Readings – John 15:1-8; Acts 8:26-40.
Pruning doesn’t seem like a very pleasant process for whomever is being pruned. It carries connotations of being taken down to size, perhaps of having one’s wings clipped. Christ says in today’s Gospel that abiding in Him, and bearing fruit for the Father, means that at times we’ll have to undergo the process of being cut back. It’s right here in one of the most loved passages of Scripture.
Currently in the Church, it can also be an idea that is pushed to one side, replaced by a forced confidence that “good” vicars and “faithful” parishioners will have “growing” churches that run a whole range of social projects which never go wrong. They not only feed the hungry and clothe the naked, but get them signing up to adult baptism courses as well.
We shove out of the way the idea that we are a vine that sometimes needs pruned, perhaps because it brings into the open a difficult reality: that following Christ is often painful. It is emotionally painful – for trying to love our enemies or forgive those who have wronged us always hurts, and is so difficult that it often ends in the second hurt of failure. Truly following Christ is often financially painful, or painful in the way that it shatters our ego and self-delusion, and it can be physically painful. As we meet here in peace to celebrate the feast, somewhere in the world, someone is being put to death for their faith in Christ.
Well, Christians aren’t persecuted in this country by any reasonable definition of that word. Some of our brothers and sisters claim we are, but they seem desperately to be trying to avoid a reality which is physically safer but in some ways more likely to provoke despair – in the main, people in the England of 2015 don’t think much about what Christians believe, and insofar as they do, they think it’s a bit bonkers but usually harmless.
“When Jesus went to Birmingham, they simply passed Him by. They would not hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die.” Already ninety years ago Geoffrey Studdert-Kennedy wrote those words. In the time since, the long retreat of the Christian faith from the lives of the majority of English people has gathered pace. Only one young adult in four now calls themselves Christian in even the loosest sense. In the mid-19thCentury half the population was in a C of E church on any given Sunday. Today, it’s more like one in fifty.
We look around church on a Sunday morning. Those of us who are old wonder where the families and young adults are; those of us who are young wonder how we can possibly keep all this going once the old faithfuls are gone.
Have I depressed you enough yet? Consider that a little bit of pruning!
Because for today’s Church of England, this Gospel is one of the most hopeful passages in the whole of Scripture. Look at the history our Church – at times the finest in Christendom, and at times extraordinarily squalid. It is hard to believe that God will not reap more rich harvests from us, but equally understandable if we needed some robust pruning. And remembering that a thousand ages in God’s sight are like an evening gone: it is quite possible that cutting us down to size might reasonably take around a century!
The New Atheists taunt that the retreat of Christianity in this country and across Western Europe is an unstoppable mark of progress, and that we who hold to the Faith are the last dying remnant, consisting of those too stupid, too bigoted, or too fearful to let go, and that we will soon be extinguished. Let them taunt! For the dispassionate and rational examination of the facts they claim rests at the centre of their system of beliefs shows them to be wrong.
Let us not buy into the dated 20th Century conceit that history is a journey from a backwards and barbarous past to an enlightened and utopian future, and that religion is part of the past.
The failures of the previous century’s secular ideologies of left and right should tell us that, at their worst, secular scientific minds can produce unenlightened barbarism that would put any Bronze Age tribe to shame. And, on the positive side, right now Christianity is growing rapidly in many parts of the Far East, in countries at least as sophisticated, scientifically-literate and highly educated as our own.
In our country, is the period of pruning coming to an end? That is not ours to know, but when it ends, we will bear yet more fruit. As we try to discern the signs of the times, why should we be hopeful?
Our Bishop is asking us to consider three areas of focus in our life as a Diocese over the next period. Very simply, they are: pray, serve and grow.
I don’t want to tickle your ears too much, but if St James’ is like most churches in this Diocese, you are already rooted in prayer and rooted in service of your neighbour. One thing that is striking when travelling around the Diocese is how churchpeople are so often the heart of community life and caring for others, often as part of secular organisations.
So if we’re praying faithfully and serving joyfully, why aren’t we growing more abundantly? Well actually we are in many ways. We should be growing in love of Christ, growing in care for one another, growing in our knowledge of the Faith and, usually, we are. We also spend a lot of time eating and drinking and laughing together and that’s absolutely central to growing in Christ.
But for those who think all that’s a cop out and that the hard numbers are all that matter, remember a third of churches in this Diocese have grown in numbers over the past decade and another fifth have remained on an even keel. The growing churches are of different sizes and different Anglican traditions, some in our biggest towns and some in small villages.
As St Paul said, God gives the growth, our job is to scatter the seeds of Faith and nurture them. What can we do to sow and nurture better, so we can look forward to renewal with hope?
Here’s one suggestion, inspired by our other reading this morning, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. The Eunuch, although not a Jew, had travelled 2,000 miles to worship the God of Abraham and Isaac at the Temple. And at an early stage of the long journey home, he was convinced that Christ was the fulfilment of prophecy and was baptised. Perhaps he played a key role in the establishment of one of the world’s great ancient churches, that of his native Ethiopia.
The Eunuch wanted to know more about the Scriptures, and was fortunate that Philip was there to guide him. In our time, the more likely scenario is that someone tells us they reject Christianity, but soon make clear they have rejected a bad pastiche of literalist, angry, judgemental, fundamentalism. Could you answer someone telling you that the Bible is murderous, bigoted, sexist, tripe – those are the words of a sticker often seen in student areas of university cities, although a stronger word than tripe is used!
We’re not all called to be walking encyclopaedias of Christianity, still less are we called to be religious bores – heaven forefend! But we can all get to know our Bibles and the history of the Church a little bit better. And it needn’t be hard and dry study.
Have you ever read any of the Gospels in one sitting, for example? The way they hang together as complete stories is so much clearer than it can be from hearing the readings on Sunday. My favourite way of doing this is to wait for a free afternoon on a sunny summer day and park myself outside a pub with a pint. It usually takes around two hours to read a whole Gospel, so a second or sometimes even a third pint may be required!
There are alternative methods – the “glass of wine in the garden” option also has much to recommend it.
The serious point is that reading Scripture should be fun and relaxing – we’re doing it to learn more about our Lord and Saviour, not to pass an exam.
Or why not consider a good popular history of the Church as bedtime reading – Diarmaid MacCulloch’s, for example, is excellent – and comprehensive!
Or perhaps you might surf the net to learn more about the modern Christian martyrs depicted on the West Front of Westminster Abbey? Their lives and deaths show that Christianity isn’t about “pie in the sky when we die” but a faith in the Resurrection so strong that it allows us to sacrifice all for the good of others.
Taking a little bit of time to get to know our Bibles and the stories of the Church better is worthwhile in itself, but also means we can play our part in correcting the misunderstandings of our Faith that are so widespread.
For everything there is a season, and the season for the pruning of our Church has been long. It will not last forever, for nothing does. Renewal is already here, in pockets, but growing and spreading. God will give the growth.
Our job is to scatter the seed, clear the weeds, tend the vine. Take the time to become a little bit more knowledgeable about your Faith and you might be surprised what God will use you for.