Easter 5: Called to be an Abider

Easter 5: Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. If we want to stay close to God, to know and hear his voice we need to learn to be a Church that abides.

HVG Zoom 9:30
Easter 5

Acts 8:26-40
John 15:1-8

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Olive branches in St Remy, Provence

As we have mentioned, the Church is still in the Easter season between the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost. The readings of these weeks tell the story of the early church and what the disciples were getting up to.

Last week in Acts, Peter was speaking to the elite of Jerusalem about the Good News of Jesus and this week Philip meets the Ethiopian eunuch. The Gospel readings spotlight some of Jesus’ teaching. Sue M’s brilliant sermon last week talked of Jesus the Good Shepherd, she left us with the challenge to spend time listening for his voice. This week, Jesus invites us to abide with him as branches on his vine.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch begins with an angel of the Lord visiting Philip. The angel tells him to ‘get up and go toward the south’. And he does. No argument, no excuses, Philip’s first response is not No! He simply goes. Most other people who encounter angels usually respond with surprise and shock, think of Mary, Joseph and Elizabeth. Philip doesn’t seem to register any fear or shock, he got up and went. The next thing that Philip does is hugely courageous. Again, he is told what to do and he does it. This time by the Spirit: ‘go over to the chariot and join it.’ Philip approaches the eunuch and asks if he understands what he is reading?

Whoa! Imagine for a moment the next time you are on a bus or plane or next to someone who is reading a Bible. Would you interrupt them and ask, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ Would you do it?! This is courageous living! We have talked recently at some of the PCC’s and the Rural Review meetings about wanting more people to come to church; particularly young families with children. This is great and I am praying for that! We, and by this I mean you, us, need to be able to explain what faith is about. Not religion, not the churchy stuff, rather the Good News of Jesus as Philip did with the eunuch.

Philip in this account appears to be fearless. Why? I think he knew and recognised the voice of the one calling him. The angel and the Spirit both spoke to Philip and he acted in obedience. Like the sheep with their Shepherd, he recognised the voice.

Philip was right in the middle of the new church which was growing rapidly, more people were being added every day, there were prayer meetings and meals together. Lots of activity and in the midst of that, Philip recognised the voice of the one who was calling him. He had no reason to fear. Because he knew the voice, Philip was then obedient to what he was being called to do. So he approached the eunuch which led to an invitation to sit with him and proclaimed the Good News about Jesus. Then Philip baptized him – right then and there on the side of the road.

What good news for the eunuch. We don’t know his name – but he is a foreigner in Jerusalem. He would have looked and spoke differently. As he was a eunuch he could never be fully accepted by the Jews despite being wealthy and of high social status in his own country. It is good news for other people when we overcome our fears and share the good news of Jesus by our example and by our words.

How can we find the courage to recognize, face and overcome fear? By getting to know the one who calls us. Spending time in his company.

John calls this abiding. Abide is a funny word. It is not normal in most people’s everyday language. It feels somehow outdated as we live in a world that does not allow for much to be static; change happens quickly and we seem to be waiting for the next ‘new thing.’ There is a quality to abiding that speaks of commitment and endurance. To abide is much more personal than just hanging about or waiting.

In these early verses of John 15 Jesus speaks of the vine and the branches; He is the vine and we are the branches. The great desire of Jesus and of God the Father is that we remain together. There is also a warning about being apart from the vine; we can do nothing, we will not bear fruit and ultimately we will wither. The branches that do not produce fruit will be removed. I am sure we have all had times and seasons in our lives when we have been far from God and know what it is to wither.

‘Abide in me and as I abide in you’ says Jesus. Ben Quash, an Anglican priest and Professor of Christianity & the Arts writes, ‘the challenge of the finding the right ways to be an abider in such a world is huge. It’s the challenge of finding the source from which all life flows, the springs of our own being, the grain with which we are meant to live, and which it damages us to go against. It means being part of communities for whom ‘abiding’ is a watchword – above all, for Christians, the Church.’

We can see from this that Christian abiding is not keeping things are they have always been, nor it is about gritting our teeth and staying the course. Abiding is dynamic, it has a sense of full and personal commitment. As Christians we are to be part of churches who abide. That is what Jesus does for us when we let him abide. Can we do the same by abiding in Him?

The beautiful hymn ‘Abide with Me’ provides an excellent discourse on what it is to abide. The writer of that hymn, Henry Francis Lyte, died of tuberculosis 3 weeks after its completion. ‘Abide with Me’ was apparently played on the deck of the Titanic as it sank and it has been played in Remembrance Services across the UK and the world today. At the opening ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics, singer Emeli Sande performed ‘Abide with Me’ to a universal audience and introduced this fine hymn to a new generation – but even in that there was a haunting sadness and beauty to it.

It is a call to the ‘help of the helpless, thou who changest not’ abide with me. It also speaks to the time when heaven’s morning breaks and earth’s vain shadows flee.’ Better times are coming, stay close! Jesus abides in his Father’s love and we are to abide in Jesus’ love. We are called to be a part of this relationship. Abiding gives us a deeper experience of God’s love. As we experience that deep and full love, we should be able to love those around us deeper and better. People are always God’s priority. He first loved us and created us to be in relationship with him and each other.

As this Easter season continues to unfold around us, we have been given the opportunity to study the early church and how they became a contemplative, compassionate and courageous church. They did this day by day, one person at a time – always listening for the voice of God to guide and direct them, so they could be courageous and obedient in the spreading of the Good News. May we be courageous, obedient and so full of love for others that we can do the same.