“fruit that will last” – Rogation Sunday

Sermons

“fruit that will last” – Rogation Sunday

Published: 14th June, 2024

Acts 10.44-end
Psalm 98
John 15.9-17

In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Amen.

Rogationtide is a traditional time to pray for growth.  At this time of planting and sowing we pray for our farmers, who’ve had rather a tough time of it through this very wet winter.  We pray that crops and livestock may grow, and we pray that the hungry may be fed.  And on this Rogation Sunday we reflect on Jesus’ instruction promise to His disciples in this morning’s gospel: “I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last”.

What does it mean for us to be fruitful as disciples of Christ?

Perhaps the easiest way to unpack this is to start by thinking of some inadequate ways of answering this question.

One possible answer to what it means to be fruitful disciples is to say that being fruitful means being financially successful.  A whole branch of Christianity emerged in the US in the twentieth century devoted to this idea.  It’s sometimes called the Prosperity Gospel, and it has spread out of the US and around the world, becoming particularly popular in parts of Latin America and Eastern Europe, and having some influence in charismatic Christian circles almost everywhere.  It’s easy to ridicule the prosperity gospel: it sits pretty lightly to so much of Jesus’ teaching, especially His teaching about wealth.  And the starting point for the preachers of the Prosperity Gospel tends to be that making generous donations to them will lead to blessings and wealth for their followers, and so we see preachers with flashy watches, expensive suits and even private jets.  And yet we might note that the Prosperity Gospel often comes with quite strong teaching about personal morality – work hard, don’t drink, don’t gamble, don’t take drugs, don’t sleep around – and it is certainly true that sticking to these principles will in many cases tend to the financial advantage of the one who practises them.  Victorian non-conformism worked on very similar principles.

But all of that said, there is one very fundamental problem with the Prosperity Gospel as the answer to the question about the meaning of fruitfulness: it has nothing at all to do with what Jesus is talking about in this passage from John’s gospel.  When Jesus talks about bearing fruit that will last, there is nothing in the context of the passage to suggest that He is talking about worldly wealth.  And elsewhere Jesus says: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  So much for the Prosperity Gospel.

But what, then, does it mean for us to be fruitful disciples of Christ?  Another possible answer could be that we persuade more people to come church.  And of course this is a very attractive answer: we all want to feel that we are popular, we all want to feel that we are a part of something that is popular, something that is growing, something that is going somewhere.  And in this time of secularisation and declining church attendance, there is a very natural focus on church growth.  But there are problems here too.  Both the “Prosperity Gospel” answer and the “church growth” answer show concerning signs of the church having been evangelised by the values of secular society, and specifically by the values of the corporate culture of consumer capitalism, whether it be the attention-seeking devices of the marketing department, or middle-management’s desire to increase customer numbers, or the finance officer’s intense interest in the bottom line.  And once again, if we read this morning’s gospel passage, there is nothing in it to suggest that what Jesus means by bearing fruit that will last is bringing increasing numbers of people into church.

So what does Jesus mean?  The way Jesus speaks in John’s gospel, and especially at the Last Supper from which today’s gospel is taken, the way Jesus’ speaks isn’t always easy to decipher.  There is a sense of human language straining to communicate deep mysteries.  There is an almost poetic sense of trying to paint a picture with words.  This is not an instruction manual or a blueprint nor even a carefully-argued theological treatise.  It is a very different kind of language.

We might notice that Jesus speaks of love.  He speaks of the love the Father has for Him.  He speaks of the love He has for His disciples.  He asks them to abide in His love.  And He commands them to love one another.

We might notice that Jesus speaks of joy.  “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete”.  It’s worth remembering that these words are spoken at the Last Supper.  This is the night of Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, this is the night before His trial and crucifixion.  A strange time to be speaking of joy.

I’d like to take a moment to draw your attention to the fact that we are a growing church.  This is something that is very exciting.  Covid was a difficult time for many people for very many reasons, and it was hard for this church as for many other churches.  We lost an awful lot of people during that time; many died, some became housebound, and our attendances took a real tumble.  But since then we have grown quite considerably.  Congregations at Evensong have grown markedly.  Sunday morning numbers have shown modest but definite growth.  Christmas and Easter have been joyful and well-attended.  There is much to celebrate, and yet also much more work to do.

I’d also like to talk about money.  Covid hit us financially too.  The reasons for this are complex and not all that interesting, but suffice to say that as may be familiar to many of you in your personal finances over the past years, costs have increased, income has dwindled, and reserves have become a little depleted.  We are making some progress in this area too, but likewise there is much work to be done.

Today’s gospel doesn’t talk about church growth or personal or church finance.  It talks about love, and it talks about joy.  And this is really the most important thing.  Of course we want our church to grow, and of course we want people to give generously so that our church finances improve and we can do more beautiful and creative and generous things to manifest God’s love in this community.  But we mustn’t get the cart before the horse.  The point of all of this is not growth either in numbers of bums in pews, nor in numbers in our church accounts.  The point is rather that we might abide in His love, that we might love one another, that His joy may be in us, that our joy may be complete.

The church is wonderful thing.  There is fellowship.  There is music.  There are great bible stories.  There is hopefully interesting preaching.  There are beautiful buildings.  There are all sorts of good and interesting things happening in our relation to our local community, and many acts of love and kindness.  And there are rotas.  But there is one thing, one very big thing, that perhaps sometimes we miss amidst all the other activity; one very big thing that may not be obvious to the casual visitor, to someone just dipping their toe in the water.

What the Church is ultimately about is drawing humanity through the work of the Holy Spirit into the mutual delight and joy of the love between the Father and the Son.  That is what we are for.  That is what Jesus in John’s gospel tells us we are for.  We are here to be drawn and to draw others into the beauty, the love, the joy and the delight of the Holy Trinity.  We are to abide in His love, we are to have His joy within us, we are to love one another, and our joy is to be complete.  This is not something we can work to achieve ourselves.  It is something we can only pray for, and perhaps try to clear out some of the clutter in our lives that gets in the way.  But I can’t help but think that the more we bear the fruit that will last, the more we carry about the divine love and joy within us both individually and in our life together, the more others will be drawn in to share in that love and joy, and the more we will all respond in a spirit of generosity to the One who chose and appointed us, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.  Amen.