Sermon Preached Durham Cathedral Eucharist 5th Sunday of Easter 6th May 2012

6 05 2012

Like New Year’s Resolutions for Preachers, posted January 2nd 2012, this  is not a sermon starter. It is an ‘extra’. This time however the extra is the text of a sermon.   It might make a welcome change.

It’s the Fruit that Count but the Roots that Matter  (John 15.1-8)

‘I am the vine,’ said Jesus. ‘You are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.’

Jesus expects his hearers to know something about plants. But we do not need to know very much. We soon get the idea of cutting out the dead branches so that the live ones can get some sunlight and produce leaves and flowers and fruits.  And we like the imagery of the bonfire of dead branches. The worthless dead stuff proving its dryness by crackling in the flames. It seems to make sense – tough sense, but sense nonetheless. You are either fruitful or you burn.

I have never grown vines.  But I have grown blackcurrants and gooseberries.

My relationship with these summer fruits got serious when we bought a few plants in the early 1990s.  We planted them in some freshly cleared area of the garden and they thrived.  A couple of years later we moved house, so I dug them up and took them with us.  In the vicarage garden they thrived once more. Eight years later we moved house again. They were bigger now but dug up a couple of the blackcurrant bushes and then planted them in a lovely sunny spot and, once again, they thrived.  And so happy did they seem that we did not think it fair to uproot them again and bring them to Durham. They seemed a bit too old for that sort of thing.

About three years ago we bought one blackcurrant bush and one gooseberry bush and planted them in our garden here. I have to say that they have not done at all well.  The gooseberry has fared worse than the blackcurrant and so this winter I moved it again and fed it a bit. ‘One last chance’, I said, having almost forgotten the taste of gooseberries.

You might think that the gooseberry bush is lucky not to have been put on the bonfire.  In a way it is, but it seemed to me that it warranted a second chance.  And in any case it was not dead. It was just struggling a bit – and probably because I had planted it in the wrong place.

Looked at negatively, our gospel reading today is about judgement and disposal. We think of the dead branches being pruned and incinerated. But looked at positively it is about bearing fruit, fruitfulness.

We read this passage in the Easter season and that perhaps is a clue to some of the spiritual meaning we can get from the text; for in Easter death is not what it once was.  The dead are no longer the dead.

The Choir have been singing Vaughan Williams’ anthems which use the words of George Herbert’s poem Easter.  The second verse draws our attention to the material of which string instruments are made: wood and string.

Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part

With all thy art.

The crosse taught all wood to resound his name,

Who bore the same.

His stretched sinews taught all strings, what key

Is best to celebrate this most high day.

The wood of the cross. We are invited to behold it on Good Friday.  And we should think of it again in Easter. All wood comes from tress, and by the time it is a cross it is dead. The cross is dead wood and those pinned to crosses are as good as dead.  The cross is not a place of living but of slow dying. Not a place of life but death. No wood is even deader than the wood of a cross.

And yet, as Herbert’s poetry shows us, the cross has a lesson for all wood; all wood – both alive and dead.  ‘There is more’, says the cross. ‘What seems like death is not death in the sense that we have come to understand death.’

And music, for Herbert, is a sign of resurrection. Musical instruments are made out of unpromising things, wood, gut and horsehair, but fashioned and deployed with skill they speak a new language.  It is the language of new life, the language of heaven. It is not for nothing that the angels are instrumentalists.  Their only activity is the making of beautiful praise from unpromising raw materials.  And such is our task too – but for us earthbound people – we would be saints who know we are sinners – the task God sets before us is not only the making of music and beauty and praise; it is also the making of justice, the speaking of truth and real deep heart work of compassion. And it also the mission work of reaching out in love to the lost and bringing them home to the community of music making, justice seeking, truth speaking, compassionately living people who are the followers of Jesus otherwise known as the church.

All these ingredients of the faithful living are important. It is not enough to say I am an ethical Christian so I won’t bother with the spirituality or I am an aesthetic Christian so I am exempt from the compassion bit.   Christianity is a spiritual package deal.  The menu is set. There is no à la carte in heaven, or for that matter on the path to heaven.

And so there is no escape for any of us from the question of spiritual fruitfulness or bearing fruit. It is not just an option which some may take up. The questions asked at baptism do not have more than one correct answer. There is never the chance of deciding between fruitful and unfruitful discipleship.

As branches of the true vine we cannot be relaxed if the sap stops flowing, if the leaves and the flowers and the fruits stop appearing. Christianity is a dynamic faith. It is about life – new life and abundant life, generous and life-giving life..  There is no desiccated form of Christianity. Lifeless Christianity is not Christianity at all.  The same can be said about joyless Christianity. But also self-important and pompous Christianity.  Nor can there be boring Christianity, Oxymorons all.

The parable of the vine invites us to think of the dryness of the branch that is me, its liveliness or its death, its fruitfulness or its desiccation.

However there is trap in this form of thinking.  While it matters that we are fruitful we don’t become fruitful simply by worrying about our lack of fruitfulness.  Christian fruitfulness is not produced by nervous effort or frantic activity.  Rather the cause of fruitfulness if found in that slightly antique word which we heard repeatedly in our reading –the word ‘abide’. ‘Abide in me’, said Jesus, ‘and you will be fruitful’.

This promise needs to be remembered whenever we think of the parable of the vine and its surgical removal of branches.  The parable of the summer fruit bushes is perhaps more helpful to us because it tells us that what matters is where we are planted. What matters is where we abide.

And so I want to offer you not a frightening message about judgment so much as encouraging message about spirituality. Christianity is a faith which encourages a humble self-forgetfulness. Our task as would be saints who know ourselves to be sinners is not to concentrate our attention on either our all too real sinfulness or on our incipient saintliness, but on God.

It’s the fruit that count but it’s the roots that matter. Our spirituality, our life in Christ, our prayer life is properly hidden in Christ with God.  It is not a performance, and while we fancy that this person is holier than that person you can never really tell form the outside any more than you can from the inside. But all that is beside the point. The point of faith is not spiritual self-knowledge but trust in God and the faith and hope and love that then begin to flow – together with the patience and the longsuffering, the modesty, generosity and kindness, the self-control and the joy and the peace.

Spiritual fruits –of course – and while we might desire them we should never neither strive for them nor beat ourselves up if we feel that we lack them – we all do.

Our spiritual task, our spiritual priority, is to find the ways whereby we can abide in Christ, rest in the Lord, be open to spiritual nourishment. And this not so that we can be or slip effortlessly into nirvana or to get a short-cut to heaven but so that we can life the new life of Easter in all its challenging, thrilling and dynamic dimensions.

The parables of the vine, the blackcurrant bush and the gooseberry bush return us, like all parables to the love of God and the risen life of Christ. They invite us to open ourselves to the Sprit which sees to it that what is dead and gone in us is removed and that what remains is fruitful in ways which are mysterious to us.

It’s the fruits that count – but it’s the roots that matter.

Third Sunday of Easter 22.4.12 Luke 24.36-48

16 04 2012

Frightened Friends or Joyful Witnesses


This passage from Luke’s gospel follows on from the Emmaus Road story.  It makes an interesting contrast with John’s second behind-locked-doors story (John 20. 26-29).  But there is  no personal interaction here. Rather it seems as if all the disciples are Thomases. They are startled, terrified and not sure what they are seeing. So they are given a series of proofs – logical and physical. And then they are given their marching orders. 


 Luke 24.36-48

While they were talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’ 37They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38He said to them, ‘Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.’ 40And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’ 42They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43and he took it and ate in their presence.

fish & chips

44 Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.’ 45Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46and he said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, 47and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48You are witnesses of these things.

Reflections and Questions


‘why are you frightened, why do doubts arise in your hearts?’ v 38 This is one of those sentences that can sound very different depending on the tone of voice used.


How do you hear it? How do your hearers need to hear it? 


‘touch me and see.’ v 39. Interesting way of putting it! The word ‘see’ here clearly means something deeper than ‘observe’.


How about, ‘touch me and understand’ or, ‘touch me and know’ or, ‘touch me and believe’?


‘In their joy they were disbelieving’. v41 How curious to connect joy and belief in this inverse way.  But come to think of it, both belief and joy are quite mysterious. We should talk more about both.


Why not thow caution to the wind and preach about joy?   (Here’s a quote to get you going.. “I can say that I never knew what joy was like until I gave up pursuing happiness” Malcolm Muggeridge.) (If that does nothing for you, take a look at the picture.)


‘You are witnesses of these things.’ v48  No comment needed from me. But there is a question.


Are you a witness?




Second Sunday of Easter 15.4.12 John 20.19-end

9 04 2012

Doubt and Faith

At the centre of this brief passage lies one of the most memorable encounters in the Bible. That between the risen Jesus and Thomas a week after Easter Day. Caravaggio has Thomas intently inspecting the evidence. But that is not the picture John paints.  He suggests Thomas’ doubt is very short-lived.

John 20 19-end

When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 20After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21Jesus said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ 22When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio....

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas by Caravaggio.

24 But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. 25So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord.’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.’

26 A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ 27Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.’ 28Thomas answered him, ‘My Lord and my God!’ 29Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. 31But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

Reflections and Questions

‘doors of the house’. v 19 Although much has been made of the stone that sealed Jesus’ tomb, not so much has been made of the locked doors of the upper room. John tells us why they were locked. But our interest is more in their solidity than in the security they afford.

What do the locked doors tell you about the risen Jesus? 

‘he breathed on them.’ v 22. We immediately think of this breathing as congruent with the idea of spirit as breath, and remember the animation of dry bones in Ezekiel’s valley. But maybe should see it in the context of other acts of breathing in John’s gospel.

What happens to your imagination if you compare this out-breathing with that of John 19.30?

‘Unless…’. v26 This is how Thomas begins his utterance. With a demand.

What is your ‘unless’?

‘My Lord and my God!’. v28  Thomas again. Many people identify with Thomas. You might be one of them. There are number of reasons for doing so.  For instance, you might feel like the typical outsider, the one who would be unlucky enough to miss out on something really special. Or you might be someone who knows the keenness of doubt.  Or maybe you identify with this outburst of faith or the cry of reckless discipleship in John 11.16.

Which Thomas do you most easily identify with? What about the people you preach to?

For many people life is lived in different places up and down the spectrum between 100% doubt and 100% faith. Where are you now?

Finally, why not check out my seven tips on ‘how to make Easter joyful’

Easter Day 8.4.12 John 18. 1-20

4 04 2012

Running , Seeing, Telling – but not Holding

John’s account of the resurrection is a mysterious predawn story which sheds wonderful light wherever it is told. It is full of life but also full of curious human and material detail. It puts pictures in our imaginations rather than ideas in our minds. That is why artists have found it so inspirational. The preacher must talk about it, of course. But there are ways of talking that also paint pictures. Maybe the preacher’s task at Easter is to paint a picture so that people can really see.

John 20.1-18

Early on the first day of the week, while it was sJesus and Mary Magdalenetill dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. 2So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ 3Then Peter and the other disciple set out and went towards the tomb. 4The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5He bent down to look in and saw the linen wrappings lying there, but he did not go in. 6Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen wrappings lying there, 7and the cloth that had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen wrappings but rolled up in a place by itself. 8Then the other disciple, who reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10Then the disciples returned to their homes.11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; 12and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. 13They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ 14When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ 16Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). 17Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ 18Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.

Reflections and Questions

‘She ran’ v 2. ‘The two were running together’. v 4 These are two of the very few references to running in the New Testament. The father of the prodigal son also runs to meet him.

What does this running tell you? What makes you run?

‘Then the disciples returned to their homes.’ v 10 This sentence often comes across as the biggest anti-climax in the gospel. But then we often forget that Jesus’ mother Mary would have been at the home of the beloved disciple.

Do you read this going home as anti-climax or as an important part of the narrative? Why might they have gone home?

‘Do not hold on to me’. v17 These poetic and mysterious words of Jesus to Mary, ‘noli me tangere’, have inspired many artists. They can also touch our imaginations. It is about being close – but not coo close. It is about sustaining spiritual desire – but not quite satisfying it. It is about the not-yet-accomplished nature of our discipleship.

How do you picture this scene? How do you deal with the restraint implied?

‘I have seen the Lord’. v18 It is Mary Magdalene speaking to the apostles. This is why she is called ‘the apostle to the apostles’. She is the first evangelist. And notice that she uses the word ‘seen’. Seeing is a primary and spiritual way of knowing.

Who was your apostle? To whom might you be an apostle? Who needs to hear your testimony?

Finally, check out my seven tips on ‘how to make Easter joyful’