St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the Feast of St. Mark, April 25, 2021
“I am the vine, ye are the branches: he that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.”
WHAT does God expect of you? It’s all well and good to say that faith in Jesus renders us salvation, but is that all? Can we boil the entire Gospel down to believing the events and getting into heaven? If we say that, then we haven’t read John’s or Mark’s Gospel. There’s a whole lot more.
St. John is the only Scriptural writer to give us the full teaching of Jesus at the Last Supper. It was a rich and important series of instructions for us all. We learn we are dependent on Jesus; we are branches cut off some other plant and grafted onto a living trunk, our tapered bases trust into a gash in that living trunk until its life flows into us and through us. “I am the vine, ye are the branches.” We live because we are grafted into Christ.
This is a grapevine. Vines are lovely, but they have a purpose: to bear fruit. Table grapes and wine were necessary parts of a Palestinian settlement, and vineyards meant life and pleasure for the Jews. In this metaphor, Jesus’ Father is a farmer who inspects the branches of His vines to see which ones are bearing fruit. If a branch is fruitless, it will be cut off, pruned from the trunk.
A faithful life must lead to what He calls fruit: the exercise of spiritual gifts, good deeds, a life lived well, being a witness, a healthy family producing more branches and bearing more good fruit. This measure of our spiritual lives can be daunting, but remember that your life and its fruits don’t originate in you. You are connected to God, and the Son does all these things in you. He won’t do them by Himself: He wants to do them through the branches, through us.
If we don’t “abide” in Him, we lose all power to do anything good. That means we are to stay close to Him, pray to Him, keep ourselves in right standing, and don’t worship other false gods. He wants much fruit from us. The branch that isn’t drawing life from Him will wither and be cut off. But if your life is drawn from His, your fruit will be abundant and the things you pray will be granted to you.
Jesus says that if we love Him, we ought to obey His commands. What are the commands of Jesus? Believe in Him, be Baptized in that faith, eat and drink His Blessed Sacrament, abide in Him, pray often and with faith, pick up our crosses and follow Him, go into the world and make disciples of all people.
And one more: love one another as I have loved you. These are not suggestions, nor can any of us accomplish them by and of ourselves. He clearly says obedience to these commands means we love Him, and disobedience means we don’t. Love is a muscular thing to God, not just a mild theoretical fondness. Love, as He means it, is a cross. It’s sacrificial, all in, unlimited, deep and unconditional. If we love Him that way, our obedience will follow accordingly. When we love each other that way, nothing can stop us.
St. John wrote his Gospel account probably as the last of the four, late in the 1st century. The first Gospel account was by the pen of a young disciple. He is called John or Mark, or John Mark, the son of yet another Mary, a rich Jerusalem resident. He was also cousin to St. Barnabas. Where he first enters the story may be at the arrest of Jesus, where a young man’s cloak is torn from him—a fact recorded only in Mark’s account. His mother’s house became a place of assembly to the new church and Mark devoted himself to the Apostle Peter. When Barnabas and Paul set sail with the Gospel, Mark boldly joined them, but midway turned fearful, and retreated when they landed in Asia Minor. Later Paul would refuse to take him again, causing strife with Barnabas. Mark would eventually redeem himself with Paul, and attended him in Rome during his incarceration. Finally, Mark traveled with Peter in Babylon, and stayed with Timothy in Ephesus. Tradition tells that he went to Egypt and founded the church at Alexandria, suffering martyrdom where one of the greatest early churches grew from his fruit.
That’s Fruit: a branch grafted into the vine of Jesus Christ drew its life from that powerful trunk and produced real fruit in Mark. What better fruit could one have than an inspired record of the life of Christ, read each week throughout the world, attesting what the disciple lived, saw, handled, heard, and witnessed of the Apostles of Christ? Two of the other Gospel accounts relied on the framework of his book for their accounts, and the fourth, St. John, trusted that we already had Mark’s account so he could record other matters, teachings and acts of Christ. By any reckoning, Mark led a fruitful life.
Fruit is not borne out of fear. We may need the image of branches cut off and burned to caution us against what happens when people neglect the life in Christ they have been given. There are those who offend the vine with lives of disobedience, showing no love for Him who saved us and gave us life. We see the end of the path of sin we struggle with. If necessary, we can be dissuaded with a vision of hell, eternal flames, after an old age lived without God. The longer you live, the more examples of this you’ve seen and now remember. But the object of experience is not to live in fear, but in love as the motive for our obedience. The fear of God is just the beginning of wisdom, but the end of that wisdom is love: love of God with all we have, love of others as we love our own lives, and love toward our fellow Christians that is unbounded.
Jesus observes two ways the world may judge the Church by what they see in us. After He gives His new commandment, to love each other, He says, “By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:35 An anxious world looks on, wondering if Christians truly have an answer to their problem of alienation from God. If they look at us and see love, relationships that work despite our differences, respect for one another that supersedes competition, noble acts of service and a willingness to die in another’s place; they will conclude that we are, in fact, Jesus’ disciples. We’re acting like He acted. They will then know that we are His. His first Apostles included fishermen, a tax collector, and a zealot – learning to live in love with each other. We have differences, right here, and with other Christians. And we still love them, rather than pick them apart for what we perceive as their foolish ways.
On that same night, as Jesus prayed the Father for glory to be renewed, He prayed: “that [we] all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that [we] also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me.” John 17:21 The world will watch us, wondering if the claims of Christ were real, if He truly was the Son of God. Then they will see Christians either united by faith and love, or divided by scorn, and draw their conclusion: Christ comes from the Father or He doesn’t.
Our fruits result in more than we imagine. If the world is watching us for signs that this religion is the truth and light for the world, and the world can draw conclusions about Christ based on the lives we lead, then these lives may mean life or death to many. My fruit may be heaven or hell to someone who knows I am a Christian and is watching me to see the fruits of my life.
But you may be asking, Am I a minister? Am I supposed to bring people to Christ? How do I do that? St. Paul, in today’s Epistle, makes it clear that we do not all have the same office, but that the several tasks required by the Church are distributed by God. “He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ…” He gave, I might add, some altar guild women, some ACW officers, some vestry members, some gardeners, some mothers and fathers of children, some good neighbors, some musicians and singers, some chefs, and so on. We each have roles to play and lives to lead and examples to show others. The world’s expectation of us to convince them Jesus was sent by the Father and that we are his true disciples is based on our love and unity. Everyone can exhibit these. Everyone has and may use these gifts.
St. Paul concludes: “we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” We come through faith into unity, and by the knowledge of Jesus into love. Faith should not divide us. We have some differing beliefs from Baptists, Roman Catholics, Adventists and others. But the major truths of every Christian unite us around Jesus and resolve the difficulties through a generous portion of love. And that love is borne out of knowledge of just Who our Savior is. To know Him is to love Him. He said that those who didn’t love Him did not know Him or His Father. If you want to love Jesus, read Mark’s Gospel.
We are branches on a vine. We live by that vine, and we love by who that vine is. It’s one great vine and many branches, but we draw all our life from Him and from no one else. If we draw His life into our own, and welcome His grace, we’ll bear fruit so that others will be drawn to Him by the lives they see in us.