Saturday, May 2, 2015

Life in the Vineyard and being 'a cell of good living'

Easter 5, 2015
Readings: 1 John 4: 7-21; John 15:1-8

Nearly 70 years ago, speaking at a New Zealand writers' conference in Christchurch, 1951, the young poet James K. Baxter argued that it was ‘reasonable and necessary that poetry should contain moral truth, and that every poet should be a prophet according to his lights’. The poet ‘should remain as a cell of good living in a corrupt society, and in this situation by writing and example attempt to change it’. That is a highly principled and socially grounded view of the poet’s calling and how we are called to live for the common good. That is a view that contrasts starkly with our current social context.   

It still surprises me that when I turn on the TV in the morning to find the news I have to go through something called ‘The Breakfast Show’ where, if one misses the very few minutes of sensibly delivered news, one has to endure a string of shrill and faintly hysterical inanities until the next segment of news is due. I can’t recall the context but I vividly remember the words of one recent commentator who triumphantly trilled “I’m such an atheist, I’m such an atheist”. It was the attitude that struck me – here was someone eloquent in banality and seemingly untouched by any dark night of the soul, any agonies of faith or unfaith. This images the social context within which (or against which) we worship this morning: in the beauty and mystery of Eucharist and Choral Mattins we contemplate the scriptures and we offer God our worship; but we do this within a society where such mysteries are incomprehensible and might as well be messages from another planet.  

This morning we are confronted by writings attributed to St John – the Gospel and the First Epistle that bear his name. Are both by the same writer? We are uncertain, but there are great similarities. From John’s gospel you may remember that magnificent prologue that summarises the themes of the gospel and introduces the images of light and dark that run through the whole work. In the epistle we see the same images of light and dark and the same emphasis as in the gospel on the incarnate Word of God, Jesus Christ “which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon and touched with our hands…” (1 John 1:1.)

As a reader I recognise that my response to the gospel and to the epistle is quite different. Where the gospel draws me in by story and images to stimulate my mind and my imagination, the epistle is far harder to engage with so personally, it resists me with its style of sermon and impassable theology.   

For instance, it is barely possible to argue or debate over the exhortation “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God.” The problem is that against the smooth surfaces of that exhortation there is little on which to grab hold and the implications for daily life in our complex present are bewilderingly opaque. What does ‘love’ mean? Further, even if we have a fleeting sense of what it may mean, how does one ever get to love like that? Deeper in the background we might still hear the mindless yapping of that nameless commentator “I’m such an atheist, I’m such an atheist”.   

But deeper still, running beneath the smooth surface of the epistle we sense the otherness of this love the author speaks of, its transforming nature and its source in God: “if we love one another, God abides in us.” During our Thinking Through the Scriptures this week one instinctive response was ‘This is beautiful’ – and so it is! Love is not put off by our human follies – always love recognises the other and sees something to love and welcome. We sense that love behind the composure and authority of the voice that addresses us even if we scrabble to find something to guide us.   

This is where the gospel passage comes to our aid. Here, using the familiar things of our world, its imagery and metaphor shine through the fog of spiritual abstractions and absolutes to guide us. Suddenly the spiritual reality of life in Christ coalesces through the world of a vineyard with a vine and a vine-grower: to follow Christ is to be as connected to him as a fruit bearing cane is to its vine. It is clear also that this life is not for the dilettante; it is not a hobby; not a leisure activity; not a self-indulgence; not a self-improvement course; but a way of being that is all-consuming, demanding, and painful – one thinks of the snip of the secateurs! And yet here is something utterly life-giving.   

But a question worth asking at this point may be how does this change the world? What is the social good of living this radically connected life? Baxter argued that a poet be a cell of good living in a corrupt society and so seek to change it. So it is for us: as we grow in Christ, so we are changed, even transformed – and this change affects everyone about us. It was Catherine of Siena who observed:

“Keep in mind that each of you has your own vineyard. But everyone is joined to the neighbours’ vineyards without any dividing lines. They are so joined together, in fact, that you cannot do good or evil for yourself without doing the same for your neighbours.”

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