On this page:
• Week of Prayer for Christian Unity
• New Year Greetings
• Support for Black Lives Matter (BLM)
• Worship during the “Lockdown”
When I moved house three years ago, I was delighted to find that the previous tenants had been skilled gardeners. Not being particularly green-fingered myself, I waited to see what might appear during the year and hoped that I wouldn’t accidentally kill anything! One of the surprises towards late summer was that what had looked to me like a dry, dead, gnarled trunk growing close to the outside wall of the house transformed over the summer into a fantastically vibrant and incredibly tall grape vine! It was incredible to watch the shoots of the vine springing up and out, bearing huge clusters of red wine grapes, surrounded by vibrant green leaves. Due to the gardener’s attentive care and pruning before I arrived, the vine was healthy and flourishing. What a powerful image for us of the church being rooted in God’s loving presence and shaped by God’s attentive care.
John 15.1-17 is the passage selected by the community of Grandchamp, Switzerland, as a focus for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity (observed this year from 19th-25th January, for further resources, see https://ctbi.org.uk/week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity-2021/ ). It may well be an overly familiar passage to you, so I hope that by looking closely at the image in Jesus’ words you will see something new that will bless you and inspire your prayers this week. It is the last of Jesus’ bold ‘I am’ sayings, here spoken in the company of his disciples at their last supper, enjoying bread and wine.
The vine image would have been familiar to the disciples, not just from their agricultural experience, but from their own Scriptures. In the prophets, Israel is often compared to a vineyard that has been carefully tended by God (e.g. Psalm 80), yet hasn’t produced the fruit of justice and righteousness that the vine-grower intended. For example, in Isaiah 5: “My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines… he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.” The image of the vine would have been an emotive one for the disciples, precisely because it was so often associated with warnings of judgement: Jeremiah 2.21 “Yet I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?”
What is so striking, then, about Jesus calling himself the true vine is that he is an individual, and this image has previously been used to describe the whole people of Israel! How can he represent the whole of Israel? Jesus doesn’t say “I am the trunk and you are the branches”, but “I am the vine and you are the branches”. Such is the nature of the unity and indwelling that Jesus talks about if we abide in his love. Through Jesus’ faithfulness, he fulfils Israel’s calling to be God’s vine. We, as the church, are grafted onto that vine (Romans 11). We need to be so careful, as a church, not to see ourselves as the vine: “The Church cannot fulfill Israel's destiny without Christ. Apart from Christ the Church is nothing but dead twigs.” (Jirair Tashjian , 2018 http://www.crivoice.org/vine/ )
If you look closely at a vine, it is astonishing how intertwined all its branches and shoots are, an image of real interdependence, so different from the individualism that dominates our 21st century Western world. You may have experienced yourself how challenging it can be for Christians to ‘dwell’ together like this. The image of the vine calls us back again to the roots of our faith, that we are grounded in the love of Christ, and that we can only exist as healthy, living, fruitful branches if we abide in that love: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (John 15.10-11) Let us then renew our efforts to love one another, to welcome those who are different from us, to walk closer towards one another (metaphorically!), in order to walk closer to God.
Dorotheus of Gaza, a monk in Palestine in the 6th century, expressed this in the following way:
Imagine a circle drawn on the ground, that is, a line drawn in a circle with a compass, and a centre. Imagine that the circle is the world, the centre is God, and the radii are the different paths or ways people live. When the saints, desiring to draw near to God, walk toward the middle of the circle, to the extent that they penetrate its interior, they draw closer to each other; and the closer they draw to each other, the closer they come to God. Understand that the same thing applies conversely, when we turn away from God and withdraw toward the outside. It then becomes obvious that the more we move away from God, the more we move away from each other, and the more we move away from each other, the more we also move away from God. (Churches Together booklet ‘Abiding in Christ’, 2021, p.7)
As we contemplate on the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, may this image of the vine and its branches bearing fruit of the Spirit of love, righteousness and justice, inspire us to pray boldly for Christian unity and reconciliation throughout the world. Above all, may the church be united as a witness to God’s love in the world. Let us pray especially for those Christian brothers and sisters who are persecuted for their faith, that they would be able to find refuge, courage and freedom in the True Vine. Let us pray also for those in America who are so sharply divided by their political views, that they will remember who they are when they abide in Christ: branches that are called to bear the fruit of love towards one another. May we abide closely in Jesus’ words, and find nourishment and health and life, dwelling in him.
To close, I have included the words spoken daily by the community at Grandchamp, whose “common life is called to be a visible sign of unity in the Church.” ( https://www.grandchamp.org/en/life-together/ )
It is a summary of the Rule of Taize, by which they live as a community:
The Week of Prayer for Christian Unity prepared by the Monastic Community of Grandchamp in Switzerland has drawn to a close. The theme, “Abide in my love and you shall bear much fruit”, is based on John 15:1-17 and expresses Grandchamp Community’s vocation to prayer, reconciliation and unity in the Church and the human family. The Grandchamp Community has its origins in Europe in the 1930s, when a group of women of the Reformed tradition sought to rediscover the importance of silence and listening to the Word of God. Today, it remains faithful to a life of prayer, life in community and the welcoming of guests. Through the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity material it invites people to enter into their tradition of prayer and silence.
Jesus said to the disciples, “abide in my love”. He abides in the love of the Father and desires nothing other than to share this love with us: “I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father”. Grafted into the vine, which is Jesus himself, the Father becomes our vinedresser who prunes us to make us grow. This describes what happens in prayer. The Father is the centre of our lives, who centres our lives.
Abiding in Christ is an inner attitude that takes root in us over time. It demands space to grow. It can be overtaken by the struggle for the necessities of life and it is threatened by the distractions, noise, activity and the challenges of life. We live in a time that is magnificent as well as troubling and dangerous; a time which challenges us with pandemics, wars, violence, poverty, racism and climate change. Yet as Christians seeking reconciliation, justice and peace we also know the value of a spiritual life, are aware of our immense responsibility, and must unite and help each other create forces of calmness and sanctuaries of peace where the silence of people can call on the creative word of God.
In the world we witness the evils of suffering and conflict. Through solidarity with those who suffer we allow the love of Christ to flow through us. When we offer love to our brothers and sisters and nurture hope in the world, God becomes known to us. Spirituality and solidarity are inseparably linked. Abiding in Christ, we receive the strength and wisdom to act against structures of injustice and oppression, to fully recognize ourselves as brothers and sisters in humanity, and to be creators of a new way of living, with respect for and communion with all of creation.
The summary of the rule of life that the sisters of Grandchamp recite together each morning begins with the words “pray and work that God may reign”. Prayer and everyday life are not two separate realities but are meant to be united. All that we experience is meant to become an encounter with God.
Further reflections are available at www.ctbi.org.uk/resources-for-week-of-prayer-for-christian-unity-2021
As I write at the start of the first full week of the New Year, 2021, may I wish you all a good year. As we walk away from the past year with its troubles and restrictions, its stresses and tensions, in order to put things into perspective, we read the Psalm and echo in our hearts the wonder the psalmist expresses at the greatness of God, and we consider anew God’s power and majesty, especially all that the writer associates with God’s voice. Then, let us spend time worshipping God, looking for God’s strength and blessing for our life and the life of the world this coming year.
We realise that the other three bible readings speak of new beginnings, each one associated with the others:
The first verses of Genesis, the very beginning of the bible, speak of the beginning of God’s creation and of God’s first command: ‘Let there be light’. As the light and darkness were separated, so day and night came into being, and they have set the pattern for life ever since.
The gospel-writer, Mark, wrote of the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry which pointed to the beginning of Jesus’s ministry. ‘I baptize you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.’ Jesus’ ministry began with his own baptism and confirmation by God’s voice: ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’
In the book of Acts, we read about Paul arriving in Ephesus and asking some new believers if they had been baptized with the Holy Spirit. No, they said, they didn’t know about the Holy Spirit; they had been baptized with water only. Paul gives them an excellent short explanation and challenge: (from ‘The Message’ translation) 'John preached a baptism of radical life-change so that people would be ready to receive the One coming after him, who turned out to be Jesus. If you’ve been baptised in John’s baptism, you’re ready now for the real thing, for Jesus.' Acts 19:4
With God, new beginnings are always possible and there is hope now for several public new beginnings to do with slowing the pace of climate change, vaccinations against Covid 19 and various aspects of justice, for example. We are, for the present, restricted to our homes again, hoping to avoid illness or to pass it on to others. But our spirits are free, we can pray. We can pray for new beginnings of all sorts – for ourselves, for those we know and love and for the world community.
We can pray in the words of a song from Nicaragua:
Lord, we pray for the health of the nations, for responsible attitudes by all citizens, for the wisdom of leaders, for caring communities.
We can pray for ourselves in the words of a small song from the Iona Community:
One of Brian Wren’s hymns is concerned principally with justice and peace, but still, each action can be applied to all aspects of life:
I think that even when we cannot be active out and about in the community, we can still be active in these various ways – and if we ourselves know the love and calling of God, as Jesus did, and the presence of God’s Holy Spirit in our lives, as Jesus did, we can be inspired to positive living for God, for others and for ourselves. I remember the minister who was my tutor on a training course once saying: ‘The same power that was available to Jesus is available to you today.’ Obvious really, but somehow those words reached me then as never before. It’s very profound and yet simple: the same power, of the Holy Spirit, that was given to Jesus and to all baptized believers, is available to us, who continue Jesus’ work on earth today.
Can we start something new this year – something we didn’t think of last year – because, let’s face it, we ticked almost everything off our ‘to do’ lists last year, didn’t we? Not expecting to still be housebound right now?
I confess I’ve never read the bible right through – so that’s something I’ve decided to do this year. How about you? Last year I really enjoyed keeping in touch with the older members of the congregation who used to meet monthly in peoples’ homes by writing to them in the week of the meeting not happening. Perhaps this year I’ll extend that ministry to others. How about you?
Prayer for 10th January from ‘Conversations’ the URC Prayer Handbook 2021:
Many of us have been deeply troubled by the events in the US that have led to the global “Black Lives Matter” movement. It is sad that in the 21st century we are still plagued by the ongoing menace of racism. This is not just a remote issue affecting faraway places. Within our own society most people of an ethnic minority background will experience prejudice and disadvantage, purely because of the way they look. As Christians we find this abhorrent and altogether unacceptable.
URC Youth made the following statement: “We hope to affirm our commitment to being anti-racist and will take this opportunity to consciously examine our own practices to see where we can do better.” See https://urc.org.uk/latest-news/3511-black-lives-matter-urc-youth-stands-in-solidarity for the full article and links to resources.
At Melbourn URC we echo this statement, advocating for acceptance of all peoples and reject all forms of action that differentiate based on racial backgrounds. We will work to examine what we can do better and ensure that inclusion is enshrined in our culture within the church. Watch-out for more to come on this topic.
What does the bible say about racism?
Galatians 3:28 NIV
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
John 7:24 NIV
Stop judging by mere appearances, but instead judge correctly."
Matthew 28:19 NIV
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit
We are all used to some worship at home. We may follow something like the IBRA readings and notes, making a quiet time for prayer, maybe first thing in the morning. We may just offer a flash prayer for help for ourselves, or for another during the day. We may say thank you for the way things have worked out. We may commit ourselves to God's care as we come to the end of another day. We may do all these things.
But we are all used to worship together on Sundays. We enjoy a variety of approaches in an interregnum, with different people coming each Sunday to lead the Service and using our basic framework in their own individual way. It includes prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, dedication and intercession. There are readings from the Bible and the gospel is proclaimed.
So what I do on Sundays at the moment is this:
I settle down in front of the computer about five minutes before 11 am. At this time I know that friends in Melbourn and in St. Neots are settling down in their own homes to share worship together at our usual time for Sunday worship. I bring them to mind before God.
I go to the website of the URC in St. Neots where I was a Member from 2006 until I moved to Harston last year. I listen to their Minister Rick with his prayers and thoughts on the Bible passages set for the day.
Then I turn to one of the suggestions on the website of our Melbourn URC. On Easter Sunday I sang the traditional hymns supported by the choir of Kings College.
On the first Sunday after Easter the lectionary readings included John's account of the appearance of the Risen Christ to the disciples. In the URC Prayer Handbook, which I follow every year, the Opening Prayer started:
when we find ourselves behind closed doors .......
come and stand amongst us."
It continued with topics of intercession with the same request
"Where there is fear and anxiety ......
Where there is loss and grief ......
Where there is doubt and insecurity ......"
But it was that Opening Prayer I particularly wanted to share. It had been written months before the Coronavirus crisis and Lockdown. Yet so amazingly appropriate!
So we can worship day by day in the way we always do. On Sundays we can take advantage of whatever the media have to offer on whatever equipment we have.
The one thing we can't do is meet around the Communion Table to share in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and express our fellowship in conversation together.
We look forward to the time when the virus is defeated, and we can meet again.