Sermon preached on the fifth Sunday of Easter (6 May 2012) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel
The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel looks at God’s love and mercy through imagination and poetry.
Acts 8: 26-end John 15: -18
Over the Temple gate in Jerusalem, at the time of the discourse between Jesus and his disciples described in this morning’s gospel account, was carved into the stone a great golden vine. Perhaps the romantic amongst us might conjure up an image of Jesus and his band of disciples pausing as they moved through that venerable entrance way and glancing up at this sculpted parable.
They’re on their way to Gethsemane with the taste of wine from the supper they have just shared still on their lips. And what about the psalm we’re told they sang as they went out? Was it Psalm 80 with its vision of Israel as the vine whose hedges are broken down so that the passers-by pluck off its grapes: a vision of degeneration and an appeal for mercy?
Such images are no less plausible because of the romance with which I have dressed them. The mind’s eye has a wonderful ability to blend reality and possibility without losing sight of truth. Some people call it poetic licence and it allows us to rise above the narrow confines of facts and figures which often slow down our ability to be generous and inclusive.
The last verse of Chapter 14 of St John’s Gospel – immediately before the passage we have just heard – has Jesus say, "Rise, let us be on our way.” The first verse of Chapter 15 has Jesus say, "I am the true vine.” Time must have elapsed between these two remarks of Jesus and our imagination rushes to fill the pregnant pause – hence the romantic guesswork with which I began.
Of course, romantic guesswork is also called poetry. Poetry is about painting pictures with words. And Jesus appears to have been a master of the art. The language in today’s gospel reading about the vine-grower, the vine, its branches, pruning and the bearing of fruit speaks eloquently about the importance of nurture in a Christian community and about the Christian as a member of the Body of Christ.
Christ is the whole vine, not just the stem, and to be a branch of the vine is to be part of Christ and wholly dependent on him – unlike Israel, who, for all God’s tending, had not been the vine he meant it to be. Remember Psalm 80.
And, indeed, poetry can be painful. In his poetic words about the vine in St John’s Gospel, Jesus talks of barren branches and perhaps an image of Judas presents itself to us. He talks also of branches needing to be cleaned before they bear fruit and perhaps an image of Peter presents itself to us.
In other words, not only do the gaps in the account encourage us to use our imagination but so also does the poetic language of the account. And, as we exercise that imagination, not only might echoes of Israel and images of Judas and Peter present themselves to us but also something of ourselves. Are we imaginative enough in our embracing of faith to make ourselves wholly dependent on Christ or do we place too many reservations and exceptions in the way of faith and make Christ wholly dependent on us?
Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch in this morning’s first reading from the Acts of the Apostles. The eunuch has been to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage and is clearly therefore a God-fearer, a Gentile interested in Judaism but not a proselyte to that faith because, according to the Book of Deuteronomy, no castrated person could be ‘admitted to the assembly of the Lord’.
Indifferent to past shibboleths and carefree with the new wine of the Gospel, Philip preaches and baptises with total confidence in Christ. There is something exuberant and joyous in the rhythm of this colourful story. One is almost breathless at the end of its recital.
This is about God being careless with his grace, bountiful with his mercy, and generous with his peace. What is this cautious and scandalous Christianity that we have invented over the years? It is prosaic and unimaginative. We are overly careful with God’s grace, mean-spirited with God’s mercy, and compromising of God’s peace. Despite the fact that none of these gifts is ours to give!
Philip is a great role model for us as a careless dispenser of God’s love and mercy. He runs to the chariot, he jumps down into the water, he is snatched up by the Spirit for more work elsewhere, and the newly-baptised eunuch goes on his way rejoicing.
It’s Desmond Tutu stuff and it requires powerful imagination and poetic licence if we are indeed to rise above the narrow confines of facts and figures, rules and regulations, reservations and exceptions so that we may be careless dispensers of God’s love and mercy.
Jesus himself, in this morning’s Gospel reading, has turned our thoughts vine-wards so that, in commending carelessness as a mode of mission and evangelism, one can’t help thinking of the wedding at Cana in Galilee and the request for more wine which results in Christ’s first miracle which is as exuberant as it is unnecessary, producing as it does, nearly 180 gallons of finest wine – much more than the two or three bottles that you or I might have found in a cupboard somewhere in the kitchen.
It has been said that, two thousand years ago, Jesus turned water into wine but that the Church has spent the last two thousand years turning it back into water. Not enough imagination; not enough poetry; not enough risk; not enough love. But ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’