While we are talking, we are not dividing

Dr Bill Leadbetter, General Synod representative from the Diocese of Perth reflected on some of the themes from General Synod in a recent sermon in the chapel at Wollaston Theological College.

Texts: Jn 15:1-8, Acts 15:1-6, Ps. 122

May I speak in the Name of the Living God, who is Life and Bread and Breath…

Rather like the Anglican Church of Australia, the Gospel of John falls into two parts, one slightly larger than the other. Our text this morning comes from a point near the beginning of the gospel’s second part, in what is called by New Testament scholars the “Last” or the “Farewell” discourse. This is a private conversation with the disciples in which Jesus confronts them with the transformation of their relationship with him. For years, the disciples, and particularly this close circle gathered in the Upper Room, had followed Jesus as students followed a teacher. Theirs was a pedagogical power relationship. In this discourse, Jesus changes this completely in a text that follows on after this morning’s passage: “I do not call you servants any longer…but I have called you friends.” “Friends”… this is an important word for us as it was in the world of the New Testament. I know that I speak among friends today – or at least, I hope that I do.

Here in verses 1-11, John’s Jesus uses a really important word eight times to paint this new relationship. That word is “abide”. Now “abide” is a bit of a church-y, bible-y kind of word. What does it mean? Well, other versions translate the Greek as “remain”. This makes the sense of this passage slightly more clear, but I want to suggest that it is not strong enough. Jesus, after all, is setting the stage for what will happen when he is no longer physically present. In doing this, he uses the image of a grapevine of which we are all branches. He is the vine itself that holds it all together; his followers, his people, are the branches, the tendrils, the shoots sprung from that vine and given life by it. The grapevine is, if you like, the abiding image. It reminds us that we are all very much a part of one another. Where we abide is where we want to make our home: the place where we want to do more than exist; it is where we want to feed and rest our bodies, raise children, binge-watch Netflix with the cat, it is the place where we want to feel safe. It is where our hearts are, where our hearts are.

Jesus makes a home in us: in our lives, as we are called to make our homes in him. It is that mutual indwelling that is the basis of our individual faith, our communal faith as a church, and the mystical union that is the church. That does not mean that being a church community is easy. That point was made abundantly clear to me last week. What I also learned is that faction is easy. What is hard is being alert to the working of the Spirit of God in all of us as we spend time together, pray together, work together, struggle together. We are still all the same church.

In using the metaphor of the grapevine, Jesus also gives us an image of marvellous diversity. Even when carefully curated, pruned and tended, a grapevine does not grow in one direction. The branches grow where they will and cannot be readily predicted, merely prepared for. The fruit of that vine is also diverse: table grapes; wine grapes; sultana grapes; zinfandel; shiraz; pinot noir; pinot gris. Jesus is preparing his disciples for a Christian community that is rich in cultures, languages, experience and traditions. Diversity is not always easy to sit with. At General Synod the diversity of our Australian Church was there to see. But also there, in that cavernous hall on the Gold Coast, our disagreements threatened to divide us in a way that shows that, while we are a diverse community of faith, many of us are uncomfortable with that.

This is not a new feature of Church life. Our Acts reading today draws attention to the earliest of controversies in the primitive Church: that of the circumcision of male believers. That was a real and enduring question, not a quirk of early church life. Paul and Barnabas lived in a vibrant and exciting Christian community in Antioch, a community that was alert to the Spirit, the first community where believers were called Christians. That very vibrancy was threatened by the sudden arrival of people from Jerusalem who insisted upon circumcision as the sign of full membership in the Church. Abruptly, a price was put on the grace of God. It was not an arbitrary price; it was grounded in both tradition and in scripture. Those who made the claim for circumcision could point to an enduring weight of argument, an argument entirely and properly sourced in the just commands of God as outlined in scripture, and garlanded by the simple reminder that Jesus himself was circumcised.

So there was division with both sides claiming profound warrant for their arguments. The commission of Paul and Barnabas was to travel to Jerusalem, to argue their case and to seek a ruling. The Antioch community refused to go it alone, but instead desired to talk it through. The consequence was what we have come to call the Council of Jerusalem. The Greek word for “Council” is – unsurprisingly – “synodos”, a “walking together”. Now the sad thing is that the Council of Jerusalem resolved nothing. There were still wandering preachers, as Paul’s letters show, who insisted upon circumcision. They persisted into the following centuries, as we find in Ignatius’ Letter to the Magnesians, the Epistle of Barnabas and the writings of Justin Martyr.

But even if talking together does not resolve anything, it doesn’t have to. It just needs to keep the conversation going. It keeps us engaging with one another. While we are talking, we are not dividing or splitting or making authoritative declarations that lead to dividing or splitting. The British politician Harold Macmillan once said, rather memorably, “better to jaw-jaw than to war-war”. More pertinently, as we are reminded in the Gospel of John, we are all part of the same vine, mutually abiding: God in us; us in God; we in one another. That does not make it easy; but it does set the parameters of the challenge.

Psalm 122 is a pilgrimage psalm: a “song of ascent”. The psalmist sings the praise of Jerusalem: the city of the faithful; the place of the House of David; the place of the House of God. For the same psalmist, who knew it well, it was also a place of the smell of sewage; a place of street fights and drunks; of traders and hawkers; there were slaves and soldiers and prostitutes and violence – all of the daily busy ugliness of any complex community. The Church is not so different. We are pilgrim people too, questing towards our Jerusalem, that city set on a hill, catholic and apostolic, a place of the indwelling God. But anyone who has been to a Synod, or even sometimes a meeting of Parish Council will know that when disagreements occur, they can be pretty ugly. When we get caught up in that, we can lose sight very swiftly of the Jerusalem to which we journey together; “Jerusalem the golden of milk and honey blest” (as the hymn says), and of our Church as the historic and universal community of the Spirit. We can never afford to drop our gaze from that because then we become just another squabbling club debating over the composition of the iceberg while the ship sinks beneath us.

Where there is conflict, we need to approach it in prayer and humility. We need to hold close that precious truth that we are all branches of the same vine, and we all bear different fruit, and none of that fruit can be sour. Let us all, instead, bear table grapes, sultana grapes, grapes for the wine that makes the heart glad. We cannot do this ourselves, but instead, in prayer and in hope, constantly throw ourselves onto the source and power of our faith, upon the one who keeps us from falling and make us all stand without blemish in the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, to the only God, our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord be glory, majesty and power and authority, before all time, now and forever. Amen.

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