Saturday, April 14, 2018

Preacher’s Study – Easter 5B

The Preacher’s Study

Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

John W.B. Hill

Acts 8:26-40; 
Psalm 22:25-31 (BCP/BAS 22:24-30); 
1 John 4:7-21;
John 15:1-8.

The Easter Season provides an important opportunity for mystagogical reflection on the sacramental life of the Church.  For those newly baptized at the Passover of the Lord, this is especially important, for they need to grow into the awareness and confidence of their new being in Christ.  The readings appointed for this Sunday provide an excellent basis for unfolding the implications of their Passover — through baptism, into the eucharistic life of discipleship.

The first reading provides a retrospective on the path to baptism.  It begins with (1) a quest for spiritual connection: a visitor to Jerusalem (who apparently has his own copy of the scroll of the prophet Isaiah), and who has come from “the ends of the earth” (Psalm 22:26-27), is now returning home, his quest as yet unfulfilled because of a religious disqualification (see Deuteronomy 23:1).  Nonetheless, (2) he identifies deeply with ‘the servant of the Lord’ about whom he is reading, “for his life has been taken away” (Acts 8:33, more literally translated as “his life was cut off”: see Isaiah 53:8).  (3) He encounters a disciple of the Lord who pays attention to his concerns, and who (4) responds to those concerns with an account of the good news that answers precisely to the man’s quest.  (5) He is told what he must do (the man’s request for baptism presupposes that Philip’s account of the gospel also mentioned baptism as the way to respond to the good news), so (6) he receives baptism and goes on his way, rejoicing that he is no longer cut off but welcomed into the household of God.

Then, the appointed Gospel reading, based on a parable about viniculture, must be heard as a reflection on life in the Eucharist, for two reasons.  First, it is one of the discourses of Jesus during the Last Supper.  Second, it is a discourse on ‘the fruit of the vine’.  Although this link with the Eucharist might be thought a little feeble, it is supported by the Jewish prayer of blessing of wine at meals: “Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, Creator of the fruit of the vine”; thus also, in Mark’s account of the Last Supper, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God” (Mark 14:25).  What is most significant about the fruit of the vine which we enjoy at the Lord’s Table is precisely the sharing of the cup, the act of giving and receiving the blood of Christ, the intimate and trusting relationship we enact with one another through the fruit of the vine.  Jesus gave it to us to share!  The ‘fruit of the vine’ is the organic relationship we share in Christ.

This discourse has as its focus another of the ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus.  Last Sunday we heard Jesus say, “I am the good shepherd;” this Sunday, he says, “I am the true vine.”  Although it may be tempting to hear in this an allusion to scriptures about Israel as ‘the vine which God brought out of Egypt’ (Psalm 80, etc.), that is not how the parable is being used here.  Instead, the emphasis falls on the fruitfulness of the branches of the vine.  “I am the vine,” Jesus says, “and you are the branches.  Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  And what is the fruit?  “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”  God is glorified when the powers of darkness which dominate this world are vanquished by the light that has come into the world through Jesus (John 1:4-5; 3:19-21; 8:12b; 12: 35), and now through his disciples.  That is why the branches must abide in the vine — so that the sap can flow and they can bear fruit, the very fruit that was brought forth by Jesus’ own life and death and resurrection!  In celebrating the Eucharist together, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26), not only in word and symbol, but by becoming what we eat and drink.  As Augustine liked to tell his congregation as he held up the holy food, “Behold what you are!  Become what you see!”

What the parable makes clear, moreover, is that there is no way to abide in the vine independently of the other branches!  We abide in him by abiding in the company (Latin: com-panis, ‘with bread’) of his disciples.  This gospel defies every attempt to distinguish between being a disciple and being a communicant. 

And yet we carelessly allow individualism to invade even our celebration of the Eucharist: preserving quiet isolation for those who believe worship is a private affair; whispering words of administration to individual communicants; and individualizing communion for the presider who simply takes communion (instead of receiving it).

The second reading challenges all such individualism.  “We love because [God] first loved us.  Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  The world is a dark place because there is so much fear and hatred.  How then can a congregation cast any light into that darkness if its members are frozen in isolation from one another, frozen in isolation from the neighbourhood around, and poisoned by infighting, cliques, and power-plays?  The privatized piety we use as a cover for such a dysfunctional state cannot be called ‘communion’!  We are all branches of the vine, members of one body; it is this that we celebrate with bread and cup.  And it is for this reason that we exchange the Peace before we approach the Table.

And so, we hear about love being “perfected among us...that we may have boldness on the day of judgement,” for “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”  From the vantage point of the day of judgement, what will matter is not what others thought of us, but whether we found the freedom to live in love.  It is around the Table, sharing ‘the fruit of the vine’, that we are formed in this freedom of love.  That is how the branches of the vine are pruned, so that they may bear more fruit.

John W. B. Hill, an Anglican presbyter living in Toronto, Canada, is a Council member of APLM, chair of Liturgy Canada, and author of one of the first Anglican sources for catechumenal practice. He will be one of the featured speakers at this summer’s conference co-sponsored by APLM and Journey to Baptismal Living: NAAC

“The Sacrament,” “The Vine and the Branches,” and “The Bread of Life,” by Solomon Raj.

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