Readings Acts 8.26-40 John 15.1-8
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
So, Boris is back, in what proved to be one election too many even for Ken, the come-back king of London politics. Prominent in the thoughts of both men must have been the Olympics: Mayor Livingston was part of the team that won the games in 2005, while Mayor Johnson received the Olympic flag at the end of the 2008 Beijing Games, and held a memorable press conference in which he claimed that table tennis, that sport so much associated with his Chinese hosts, was actually invented on the dining tables of England and was originally called ‘whiff whaff’. His slogan for London 2012: ‘Whiff whaff’s coming home.’ As long as the games go fairly well, how satisfying it will be for him, having sown some of the seeds and watered the shoots, to see them come to fruition. That’s today’s theme, bearing fruit.
From the gospel reading today we learn that the life of faith withers if it does not bear fruit. Jesus gives an alarming warning about those who are not fruitful, the people to whom he gives nourishment but who keep it all for themselves. So his followers are meant to be fruitful; but what is that fruit? What might it look like? Let’s look at the first reading today, from the Acts of the Apostles, a scene – on the face of it – pretty far away from your experience or mine: an Ethiopian government official, who is a eunuch (someone who’s been deliberately castrated), sitting in a chariot reading the Bible. Look at the items in that scene, however, and it’s not so alien to us. Consider.
- An Ethiopian official…. Why did we get the Olympics? One reason was that London today is less an English or British city and more a world city that finds itself in England; the people who pass you in the street (here or at the end of your commute), whether ordinary or powerful, could have roots that go back to virtually any part of the globe, not least Ethiopia. Modern London (as the prophets said about ancient Jerusalem) is a city that has the potential to make the whole world feel at home.
- …in a chariot… The first century’s chauffeured Mercedes, a car not unknown on Richmond streets.
- …who is a eunuch… Not a condition I encounter much round here, but that’s not for lack of variety. If we’d spent yesterday people watching in Richmond town centre, we’d have seen a kaleidoscope of difference in people’s lives and how they live them, by choice, by force of circumstance, because of the culture we inhabit, because of what we each received when we received the gift of life itself.
- …reading the Bible... Use the bus, tube or train, and you’ll be struck by how many passengers use that small Sabbath in the day to read their holy book.
Into this cosmopolitan scene (not so remote from us) comes the apostle Philip, nudged by God to go up to this stranger, but with no instructions about what to do next. Wisely, he doesn’t steam straight in, he listens. The man is reading the prophet Isaiah (in those days people read out loud even when reading to themselves), and Philip’s first words are a question: ‘What you’re reading there, do you know what it’s about?’ Only when the man invites him does he really start to talk.
Philip is offered to us as an example of how to share the good news about God, which is what you and I should do: it is one of the types of ‘fruit’ that should appear among us, the branches of the vine called Jesus. But how do you share that good news? What words do you use? Sometimes you don’t need words at all.
May 15th sees the start of Christian Aid Week, a time in the year that makes me feel good about being a Christian, because it shows the world that the Lord we worship longs for the good of the world – things like clean water, decent schools. If you can spare an hour or two, why not offer it to collecting for Christian Aid? You will be offering sixty to a hundred and twenty minutes of authentic Christian mission: you will be doing a small piece of work for God’s new creation, and you will be demonstrating in flesh and blood that life with God is so much bigger than the world of religious busyness.
You can achieve all that without ever saying a word about God; but the moment will come sometime when, as with Philip alongside the chariot, someone invites you to speak for God. I remember, one May afternoon, doing some door-to-door collection for Christian Aid Week. Someone asked me in for a cup of coffee, then someone else wanted to chat on the doorstep, and I was grateful for both, because earlier I’d been handed back a string of empty envelopes, encountering what war correspondents call ‘pockets of stiff resistance’. These two people were genuinely interested to meet someone who was part of the life of the church of God, and it was a privilege to be asked about it. But – again – what do you say?
In the Acts of the Apostles we see that the Spirit of God offers to each believer the power – the capacity and the authority – to speak about God and for God. And the moment to do that for you or me could be as imminent as this morning in the churchyard, when someone might say, ‘So you’ve just been in there; what’s all that about, then?’ What do I say? I can’t say nothing; and to say, ‘I like the music’ or ‘I work there’ would be to say things that are true, but beside the point. And it will be no good quoting a clever phrase I’ve picked up from somewhere – that will be giving someone else’s answer to a question that has been put to me.
Whatever comes out of my mouth at that moment doesn’t have to be clever, or completely worked-out; it can be tentative, even unsure, but it has to be the child of my own heart. That is all God needs to touch another human heart, and who knows what might come from that? Through those faltering words of yours or mine someone else might begin to discover that ‘new creation’ we shall sing about in Charles Wesley’s hymn at the end of the service. We will be part of what Charles’ brother John called ‘Christian conversation’, in which one person allows another to clothe in their own halting words what God seems to be doing in their life.
Clothing experience of God in words we have made our own. That is part of what our course Exploring Christianity has been doing. Six members of that group are to be confirmed in this church next Sunday evening at half past six. They represent the very best kind of fruit that a church can produce, and they deserve our support in their great step in the journey of faith. Please keep them in your prayers this week, and please be with them at the service if you possibly can.
Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and he promises that we shall bear much fruit. Part of that fruit is bearing witness to whatever faith you and I have; and faith is the first of three themes in the Bishop of Southwark’s Call to Mission for all the churches in our diocese. ‘Faith, Hope, Love’, is an invitation to ponder, over the coming weeks, these three pillars of the Christian life. There should be a named envelope for you with a letter from Bishop Christopher at the back of church. Do pick one up before you go today. It contains no request for money, so it’s safe to open.
You and I, the branches of the vine that is Jesus, are called to be bear fruit, and sharing the good news of God is one of those fruits. For that, though, we need first to be fed, and God will do that for us now, as we gather around the Lord’s table.
Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Love divine, all loves excelling.’ The final verse begins ‘Finish, then, thy new creation…’