My headmaster in Secondary School, Mr Denis Jones, left me in no doubt of his high expectations. He said so often, in Welsh tones that brooked no argument.
He never said precisely what great things he was expecting, but as a committed Christian and chapel preacher, I think he would have been pleased to learn that I am now spreading the Gospel across the UK and wherever technology will carry it!
God also expects great things of us. In the Parable of the Talents we’re told that we are expected to make a profit for God, not of money but of souls. Today, St John’s letter questions whether our love is real and active, and whether our conscience is clear. But how do we know what great things God is asking of us?
We are to “live in Christ” – he is the vine, and we are the branches. Why does a vinedresser prune a grapevine? Left to itself it will grow lots of small grapes. But the master doesn’t want small grapes, he wants fewer but larger grapes. So he not only removes dead branches, but he also removes some of the perfectly healthy buds which would have formed new leaves, new branches and new fruit. In that way, all the available goodness is channelled into what’s left. So we are to look at what is already bearing fruit in our lives – through the gifts we have been given, and the doors which God has opened around us. Then we must ask how we can ripen this fruit – and what must be pruned to do so?
St Paul experienced a most severe season of pruning. As soon as he had become a disciple of Jesus, he took all that zeal which he had previously invested in persecuting Christians, and preached openly and strongly. This was not at all helpful to the church in Jerusalem! So they sent him home to Tarsus, and there he stayed for more than a decade until Barnabas went to fetch him for what become Paul’s famous missionary journeys, powered by preaching incubated in those years of pruning.
Sometimes we hear lots of place names in our Bible readings, and they mean little to us. It might be helpful to know that the Holy Land is about the size of Wales. So if we superimpose Great Britain on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean, we could, loosely, say that Saul of Glasgow was converted on the road into Liverpool, and caused great trouble by preaching in Cardiff, so they took him to Aberystwyth, sent him home to Scotland on a boat, and then the Church in South Wales, North Wales and Mid Wales enjoyed a season of peace. It was only when I visited the Holy Land in 2013 that I realised that the journey from Bethlehem to Jerusalem was a local hop, like Newport to Cardiff, but the journey to the capital from Nazareth was like coming down from Wrexham – on a donkey!
It seems strange to think about such travel while living in lockdown, but we now find ourselves in a time of change. For the last year, our lifestyle has been disrupted. Now we look forward to a reversal of past restrictions, an opening of new opportunities. Many things are becoming possible for us. But perhaps God is inviting us to use our freedom wisely. “Do a few things well!” Maybe our families or our circumstances are making it difficult to do something (like Paul being sent home to Tarsus) – if so, am I angry with God for closing that door, or grateful to God for pruning me in order to make my “one thing” clear? But perhaps I’m in full control of my own actions, and in this case the responsibility falls on me and my conscience. Where does God want me to invest my energies in this coming season? Which of my fruits has the best potential to grow, and which must be sacrificed to achieve thus? What choices do I now have to make? Pruning is never comfortable, but there is joy in seeing fruit become ripe for the harvest.
Pope Francis reminds us that we should rise to this challenge because this is what makes us beautiful! If we live in Christ to the best of our ability, we will “appear as joyful messengers of challenging proposals, guardians of [the] goodness and beauty…” If we listen to the message of Jesus, we will have great wisdom on tap. If we follow his way, we will discover a “life to the full”. If we open our hands before God and truly pray for the help, the grace, which only God can give, we will be enriched. Last week we celebrated Jesus as the good shepherd – but a literal translation would be, “the beautiful shepherd”. This week we rejoice in our call to be beautiful sheep – or rich, ripe, juicy fruit.
So stay connected to Jesus! As our rhythm of life changes again, how important will it be to pick up our Bible and read something daily? How important will it be to make time for prayer, at least at the start or end of the day? Two of today’s readings contain wild promises which seem to say that God will answer every prayer we make – hard for us to believe when millions of Christians have been crying out to God for an end to the pandemic – but these promises come with a catch. First we must “abide in Christ”, we must be so connected to Jesus that we can see what the Father is blessing as clearly as he can. The Lord is expecting “Great Things” from us – indeed, he promises that we ourselves have the potential to do greater things than Christ himself – but first we must abide in him, and when the time is ripe – perhaps, like St Paul after many years – we will bear fruit in abundance. Until then, keep on growing!