Sermon given at Sung Eucharist on Sunday 6th May 2012
6 May 2012 at 11:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer and Almoner
What do you think about prayer? Is it something you occasionally do in the hope that you might get God on your side in some matter? Certainly there are those who seem to see prayer in such a light. Present them with a problem and part of their solution is to pray, and preferably to get a whole lot of other people to pray, and then hope that by battering on the doors of heaven long enough and loud enough God will finally respond and do what we want him to do. That is a bit of a caricature I know, but it is not that far from some people’s way of looking at prayer. God for them is an external source of power, and prayer is some sort of mechanism for hooking into that power and harnessing it to our purposes.
But suppose that is really the wrong way round. Suppose that prayer is not so much us getting God to do what we want so much as allowing him to mould and make us to be what he wants. It is not us presenting our shopping list to God and asking him to deliver, but rather us presenting him with our needs, yes because we must be honest about our wants, but then letting him modify and remake our understanding of those needs in his light.
That is what one of the verses from this morning’s gospel seems to me to be all about. Taken by itself the last part of verse 7 may point to the first view of prayer I mentioned, for it says ‘ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.’ God there sounds like the ultimate slot machine, but the first part of the verse changes the whole meaning, for it says ‘If you abide in me, and my words abide in you...’ That’s the context for true prayer.
When we pray I believe we first open ourselves to the possibility of having the way we look at the world changed, we don’t just come into God’s presence as a bundle of personal wishes and desires and pour them all out to him, rather we strive with God’s help to look at our needs and the world in a different light, to see the world not with us and our desires at its centre, but to see it as God sees it if you like, with him at the centre, and then we may find that our wishes are somehow modified and changed.
And that will be especially so if we take seriously that notion of letting Jesus’ words abide in us. For what were Jesus’ words? I don’t think St John simply meant the words that Jesus spoke in this passage, but rather all that he said in his life and, what’s more, demonstrated by his life and death. The words of Jesus are not just his spoken ones, but the whole message of his life. And that certainly wasn’t a message of avoiding conflict or pain, or having an easy and comfortable time with all our needs met. His message was rather one of the reality of God’s love, of the possibility that love might have of changing the sort of people we are if only we are open to it, but then knowing that love may lead to a life prepared to engage with suffering and evil, if necessary self-sacrificially, in order to bring about change. That is the message of Jesus, the words that need to abide in us when we pray, and praying is a process of letting those words and that message mould and make us into the people God wants us to become.
And that, I think, is the context for understanding the image St John gives us of the vine. I am not a gardener, but my wife is, and in the house we had for my previous job we inherited a vine in a greenhouse in the garden. My wife told me that in cultivating that vine you had to be quite drastic in pruning it. If you see a branch that goes off the main stem you look to see up to two bunches of grapes growing on that branch, but after that you prune it otherwise the rest of the branch will take away all the goodness. So it is the branches that stay close to the central stem and receive goodness from that which are the ones that bear good fruit. St John’s message is obvious; fruit comes by staying close to Christ, in one sense the central stem of the vine, as that is where the goodness comes to nourish the growth. And that ‘staying close to Christ ‘ means keeping his words there at the centre of our being so that they really do mould and make us, our thoughts and our behaviour, and from that Christian fruit will grow.
For we all need a story against which to live our lives, some picture of the way things are that gives us a framework for making sense of our lives. For some people today it seems that their story is very materialistic one, obtain as much money as you can to buy as many pleasurable things as possible and that will lead to a happy life. I am not sure the conclusion always follows, pleasure is rather slight and passing thing, and it doesn’t always lead to deep satisfaction, but nonetheless that does seem to be the story some live by.
Others may live by a story of humanism, treat other people reasonably and they will treat you reasonably and that will make for reasonable human happiness. That is OK as far as it goes, but I am not sure that it really deals with some of the horrific things that happen in this world.
Yet others may live by all sorts of other stories, the Marxist one for example, or the liberal market one of some on the right wing of British politics. And many seem to live by the so-called post-modern story that there is no overarching story, but you pick and mix from various stories taking the one that works best for you in each situation, although that, of course, begs the question of what we mean by ‘best for you’.
But the Christian faith offers a distinctive story, the one embodied in Jesus’ words and life, a story of forgiveness and healing in the context of God’s love, a story of self-sacrificial living for others, a story of combating evil and engaging deeply with suffering and finding then that it can be redeemed and changed. It is against the backdrop of that story that we are asked to live our lives, and the more we can do that by making it part of us through prayer the more we are likely to produce that fruit of which the gospel passage spoke.
‘If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask what for whatever you will, and it will be done for you.’ That’s not the promise of a slot machine God, but the challenge of a God who asks us to follow him along a demanding and difficult path. Will you, will I, follow that path? That, I believe, is the challenge of this morning’s gospel.