St Bride's: Sermons

Love, Joy, Fruit

John 15:9-17

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As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.

10 If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love.

11 These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full.

12 This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.

13 Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

14 Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you.

15 Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you.

16 Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.

17 These things I command you, that ye love one another.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, a group of us from St Bride's returned from an amazing eight day pilgrimage to Italy.  The most recent occasion on which I celebrated Holy Communion was deep underground, in an ancient burial chamber, in one of the Christian catacombs just outside Rome.

It was an extraordinary and powerful experience on all kinds of levels, but most of all because being there - particularly in the context of worship - connected us very directly with the very origins of the Christian faith.  Some of those early Christians who were buried in that section of the catacombs had been martyred for their beliefs; many of them were extremely poor.  And yet, as was pointed out to us by our guide, although there are many distinctively Christian symbols in the catacombs, they are invariably symbols of hope and resurrection: the dove; the peacock; the palm branch - surprisingly, the one symbol that is absent is the symbol you would expect to see in abundance - that of the cross.  So those early Christians, whose lives were so dangerous, and so challenging, and so precarious on so many levels, surrounded themselves with signs of hope and celebration.

Shortly after our tour of the catacombs, we visited the basilica of St John Lateran, the Cathedral of Rome.  It is a vast, magnificent temple, filled with marble and gold and mosaics, every aspect of which shouts wealth, opulence, and power.  The contrast with our experience of the catacombs could not have been more stark.  I was not alone in finding myself reflecting on the question: how on earth did the faith of those first Christians turn into that?

So it was a curiously appropriate (but unintended) feature of our travel schedule that the following day we left Rome for Assisi, famously the home of St Francis, who actively turned his back on wealth and privilege - including the wealth and privilege of the Church - to embrace a life of the most stark simplicity in living out his commitment to Christ.

It is as if there is a kind of cycle at work in the history of the Church, in which success, paradoxically, can serve to weaken its connection with its Gospel roots - because with success comes wealth.  And when that happens, it takes a man like Francis to recognise the need to shed all of that stuff, in order to get back in touch with the true message of Christ.  The life of faith can very easily become distorted by the priorities of the world, particularly where wealth and power are involved.  And when that happens, something absolutely essential can easily be lost.  The Basilica of St Francis in Assisi is marvellous, and filled with the most stunning Giotto frescoes - but one cannot help being struck by the irony that a man who deliberately embraced a life of poverty as the hallmark of his discipleship, should be venerated in that particular way.

So, what is it, then, that we need to ensure that we keep in focus, to ensure that we do not lose touch with the original message of the Gospel?   A large part of the answer to that question can be found in today's Gospel reading, in which Jesus leaves his disciples with a very important message, which has three key components to it.

The first of these is the new commandment that Jesus gives his disciples, to love one another, as he has loved them.  Some of you will have heard me observe before what a bizarre instruction this is - in the sense that we do not normally think of love as something we can be commanded to do - any more than you can command somebody to like jellied eels.  But that is because we tend to think of love as being a feeling that happens to us (or doesn't), and so remains basically outside our control.

But what Jesus is talking about here is not feelings but conduct - how we behave towards one another: we are charged to behave lovingly, regardless of how we happen to be feeling towards a specific individual.  The point being that, if we get in the habit of behaving like that, then that will begin to affect our relationship with the world; which in turn can begin to transform the kind of person we are.  Jesus is requiring us to think about how we relate to one another (particularly those whom we find most challenging) as a fundamental imperative of the Gospel.

And the consequence of that, is the second thing of which Jesus speaks in our reading today - which is joy.  Joy is not actually the same thing at all as pleasure: at Christmas we can sing 'Joy to the world' perfectly happily - but to sing 'Pleasure to the world' would seem extremely odd.

The reason being that pleasure is basically to do with personal gratification: we may derive pleasure from doing something utterly self-indulgent (enjoying a cream cake, or a particularly fine glass of wine) - or from doing something that is entirely generous and praiseworthy - as in the sense of satisfaction you can feel when you know that you have helped and supported someone who was in need.  But because it is personal in that way, pleasure is by its nature, fleeting and transitory.  By contrast, it seems to me that joy, properly understood, is something that is much greater and more profound than that.  Because joy is not ultimately to do with specific experiences that are personally gratifying; rather it is a state of mind - a state of being.  And whereas pleasure is essentially inward-looking, joy is by its very nature something that we communicate outwards.

One of the very best illustrations of the true nature of joy can be found in St Francis's famous 'Canticle of the Creatures': a hymn of praise to God for all the wonders of Creation.  Part of it goes like this:

Praise be to you, my Lord

... especially for Brother Sun, who illuminates the day for us, and is beautiful and radiant with great splendour, and from you, Most High, brings meaning.

Praise be to you, my Lord for Sister Moon and for the stars. 

In Heaven you have formed them, shining and precious and fair.

Praise be to you, my Lord for Brother Wind, for air and clouds, clear sky and every sort of weather by which means you sustain all your creatures.

Praise be to you, my Lord for Sister Water. 

She is useful and humble and precious and pure.

Praise be to you, my Lord for Brother Fire. 

Through him you enlighten the night. And he is fair and merry and vital and strong.

Praise be to you, my Lord for our Sister Mother Earth, who nourishes and sustains us all, and brings forth divers fruits with many-coloured flowers and herbs ...

And so it goes on.  That, it seems to me, is what a life filled with joy looks like.  A life that discerns and proclaims the goodness of God in all that is around.  And we may find ourselves surprised that Francis extends his hymn of praise even to death:

Praise be to you, My Lord for our Sister Bodily Death,

from whom no man can flee

...Blessed be those who are found in your holy will,

for the second death will not harm them.

There is a quality of living manifested in this testimony, which so far exceeds any of the things that secular life automatically associates with pleasure - wealth and prosperity and status - that we can perhaps glimpse why St Francis chose to turn his back on all of those things.  And it is a quality of living that has its roots in love.  Not love the emotion that comes and goes - but love as a way of life.

Love and Joy.  And thirdly, as Jesus explains to his disciples in our gospel reading, the reason why he is commanding them to love, so that they may know true joy, is in order that they may go out and bear fruit - fruit that will last.  Love, Joy, Fruit.  A very simple equation. 

Would that it were as simple to embrace that as a way of life.  It isn't.  I am the first to admit that I myself am pretty rubbish at it at times.  But it is that that Jesus asks of us.  It is that that we must strive to do, mercifully with the help of God's love and grace. 

The late Russell Harty used to divide people into two categories: 'radiators' and 'drains'.  Radiators communicate warmth and bring comfort; drains suck the life out of you.  St Francis of Assisi was undoubtedly one of life's radiators, which is why he brought life and hope and joy into the lives of all around him. 

I wonder how we would be categorised by those who know us?    


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