Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 3 May 2015
Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: Isaiah 60.1-14; Revelation 3.1-13
In the Gospel at mass today (John 15.1-8), Jesus speaks of himself as the True Vine, his disciples as its branches, and his Father as the vinedresser who prunes the vine: the fruitless dead wood being cut off for burning; the fruitful branches pruned back so that they may bear fruit again.
On Thursday evening, I was preaching at Westcott House, the theological college in Cambridge named after one of the great biblical scholars of the Church of England of a century or so ago: Bishop Brooke Fosse Westcott. My collection of commentaries on St. John includes a battered copy of his great work on St. John, which I thought I should consult for that particular sermon, if only as a matter if piety. In fact, it is still referred to respectfully by commentators on John a century after it was written.
Of the True Vine passage, Westcott says: when Jesus tells his disciples: “you are already made clean, by the word that I have spoken to you,” this does not mean that this life-giving bond with the vine is to be taken for granted. The disciples’ life of union with Christ, says Westcott, is “begun but not perfected.” The Greek words for cleansing and pruning are related, as Fr. Michael told us in his sermon this morning. The tense of the Greek for “pruning” suggests an ongoing and repeated process in the life of the Church, as it would be in a vineyard. The instrument for that pruning is the word of Christ.
At Evensong on these Sundays of Eastertide, we are reading through that section of the book of Revelation made up of Letters to the seven churches of Asia to which the whole book is addressed. These letters come after the book’s opening vision of Christ, the “faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth…”, the glorified Son of Man “from whose mouth comes a sharp two-edged sword,”
Tonight we have heard the letters to the Churches in Sardis and Philadelphia. Each reflects the geographical, cultural and religious situation of the particular city, but the note at the end of each: “Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches,” suggests that, like the book, they are meant to be heard by all the churches.
In the Church of England, parishes and other institutions are subject to system of inspection called “visitation.” These are mostly regular and routine, carried out by archdeacons and area deans. Registers, records, accounts and property are checked. A report is then written praising the good and drawing attention to things needing attention. In extraordinary circumstances, when something has gone badly wrong, a bishop or archbishop can carry out a visitation to investigate the problem and find ways of sorting it out.
The letters to the church can be read as reports on visitations of these churches in Asia Minor; with Christ himself as the visitor. In these letters we have one of the ways that pruning, that purification is applied. Addressing the real world of church life, its glories and its problems, the exalted Christ speaks in more straightforward language than the rest of the book with its visions, some inspiring, and some terrifying. They provide a window into the life of the Church in Asia at the end of the 1st Century. This is no idealized picture but a mixture of faith and unfaith, responsibility and irresponsibility, which always characterizes the church in the world.
The letters follow a common pattern.
1. Each is addressed to the church’s Angel. Some think this was an episcopal or prophetic leader or a human messenger? But this reduces the meaning of “angel” to human level while the communication takes place on another plane. For the John of Revelation, earthly realities have their counterpart in heaven and each congregation has its “guardian angel” in heaven. The Church is more than a human institution or a good cause: it participates in the reality of heaven.
2. Each church is in a city. By the end of the first century, Christianity was an urban faith, and many Christians were not simple peasants but sophisticated urbanites. Prominent in the visions which follow will be the contrast between two Cities – Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Christians face a choice: will they orient their lives to the “great city” Babylon (code for imperial Rome, or any other earthly power, or the Holy City – the New Jerusalem?
3. The Letters begin with words like those we heard tonight: “These are the words of him who has the seven spirits of God and the seven stars.”
‘These are the words of the holy one, the true one, who has the key of David, who opens and no one will shut, who shuts and no one opens.”
These are equivalents of the Old Testament prophets’ “Thus says the Lord.”
The letters contain ethical instructions or warnings, commands of the risen Lord for living a faithful Christian life in a challenging situation. Such commands are not general moral truths. Their truth is bound up with the book’s opening vision that the crucified is the exalted Lord vindicated by God and made Lord of all. The Christian life is founded on and shaped by the reality of Christ.
5. The letters are based on divine knowledge. This exalted Lord says, “I know,” to each of the churches.
God is the one who knows all: he knows the suffering of his people; he penetrates beneath the surface to the hidden secrets of the heart. The exalted Lord is like the biblical prophets declaring that God knows the situation of those addressed, and exposing depths concealed in the lives of worshippers. The penetrating eye of the one who says “I know” reveals the true situation of each church,
“I know your works: he says to the Church in Sardis, “you have a name for being alive, but you are dead.”
And to the Church in Philadelphia: “I know your works….I know that you have little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.”
6. The Body of each letter, then, comprises praise or blame, promise or threat. Only two churches, those in Smyrna and Philadelphia, receive unqualified praise.
7. The hearers are called to attention and obedience. As with Old Testament prophecy, hearers are not only to listen but to act on what is heard. “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”
All the churches except Smyrna and Philadelphia are called to repentance, so the church in Sardis is told: “Remember what you received and heard; obey it, and repent.”
Just as pruning is not a once-and-for-all act, so repentance is a constant challenge to the community and the individual. It is more than feeling sorry about past misdeeds when we feel devout: a re-orientation to a new model of life based on the gospel. The call to repentance is not chiding but opportunity. This pruning by the word of Christ, painful as it may be, as drastic as the cut-back stumps of vines which are all there is to see in a vineyard in winter, is meant to lead to new growth and fruitfulness when spring comes. The Church lives under the judgement of the Gospel, of the words of Jesus. The initiative in this cleansing lies with the Father, but this does not mean that Christian disciples and communities are not meant to respond; they renew that initial cleansing by a constant resort to the Christ of the Gospels.
And criticism and condemnation do not have the last word.
8. There is an ultimate promise. Each letter concludes with a promise of blessing for those who overcome, conquer. As each letter looks back to the revelation of Christ at the beginning, so each ends by looking forward to the ultimate glory in the final chapters (20 – 22) of the book: the vision of the new and heavenly Jerusalem. The Christian life called for in the letters is life lived in view of the reality both of what Christ has done and the victory of God in the future.
“If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.”
“If you conquer, I will make you make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from God out of heaven, and my own new name.”
Conquering, winning the victory, overcoming, is a key in Revelation’s understanding of Christ and the Christian life. As the accomplishment of Jesus’ work on earth can be summed up as “he overcame, he conquered”, so the faithful Christian can be summarized as “conquering,” “overcoming.” But, as revealed in Jesus, the Lamb who was slain, the meaning and means of “winning” is dramatically reversed. It is humble and persevering service, not the exercise of power, which follows the pattern of Jesus and which is fulfilled in the new Jerusalem.