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50 years since the beginning of women’s ordination – Sermon of Archbishop Urmas Viilma at the Conference „Celebrating and Challenging Reformation“ on 7 September 2017 in Tallinn Cathedral

Sermon – John 15:1-12

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already made clean by the word which I have spoken to you.  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. They who abide in me, and I in them, it is they that bear much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If one does not abide in me, they are cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my 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. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” (John 15:1-11) 

In the year 1967, on November 16th at 18.30 in the evening after the opening liturgy and the service of ordination, Laine Villenthal rose with Bible in hand to this pulpit here in the Tallinn Cathedral. She began her sermon with the words: ”It is only because of the grace of Jesus Christ I stand here!”, and she continued: “We two, who were just ordained, were not made pastors for the church by our parents, though we owe them for the burden of raising us up, nor did school, where we received the necessary knowledge needed for daily life, prepare us for our vocation as clergy. There is no reason to give credit to the church government for this, though there the decision was made by them for this to happen. It was only by the grace of God revealed through Jesus Christ’s seeking out sinners that made this happen. So it is, that both of our lives belong in the service of this grace. We wish to witness to this through word, deed, with all our life. We begin right away.”

Laine Villenthal had by this time served in our Lutheran Church already for ten years as a lay-preacher. She was ordained together with Harri Rein.

None of us stands before the face of God in our own right. We stand as sinners, who are sought out by God’s grace. God in his grace has found us, called and sent us out. God’s Spirit makes us Christians. Christ himself calls us to be His servants, stewards and shepherds. Just like Laine Villenthal in her autobiography’s title page writes: “God made of me the person that I had to be for Him. It was not my doing, but God’s venerable doing.

This thought is expressed also clearly in Jesus’ words: “For apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:4). In Jesus’ words the Christian’s life must bear fruit. Our ability to be fruitful, is realized with Christ being near, with our being next to Him, dependent upon Him and drawing strength from Him. A self-centred life at best produces leaves and flowers and the person becomes a branch that does not bear fruit. A life dedicated to God and the service of neighbour bears fruit. Especially this applies to church workers as Christ’s disciples.  “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me,” says Jesus (John 15:4).

Today in the reading that we heard from the Gospel of John about Jesus as the vine, is one of Jesus’ “I am” sayings. Jesus’ assertion “I am” is mirrored by each of His disciples’ assertion “I am not.” Without Jesus we are nothing! Likewise our call (vocatio interna) to serve in His vineyard as His servants – clergy, does not depend on ourselves.

When we begin to centre on that, which we ourselves are – as persons fit for the work of clergy, educated enough, well prepared, and many other things which we deem necessary for our clerical office – all this is based on our human “I am”. The person’s “I am” that is founded on our own right leaves no room for Jesus’ “I am” to function. About this says Jesus:  “If one does not abide in me, they are cast forth as a branch and withers.” (John 15:6).

Trying to answer Christ’s call by examining oneself through Scripture and prayer, every disciple of Jesus finds an irresistible pull toward Christ. It is something that cannot remain unanswered, although none of us think that we in reality have somehow earned this trust. Jesus’ assertion “I am” needs to be echoed by a person’s “I am not” and this is the measure that determines the true quality of one’s vocation to service as clergy.  To block Jesus’ call with human excuses or to justify it with human arguments, means to ignore God’s will.

Jesus uses us in the work of his kingdom, but on one condition: We have to bear fruit. “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he (the Father) takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit,” says Jesus (John 15:2). This is to confirm and to warn us all. Our call to begin work in the church may be strong and we may be entrusted with this work, however, this is not enough. Jesus expects of us to be the branches of His vine that bear fruit. In Jesus’ words, the Father prunes the fruit-bearing branches, so that these branches are clean and bear fruit. In the opposite case these branches are cut away.

In washing the feet of his disciples says Jesus: “You too are clean but not all of you.” (John 13:10). Judas serves as a warning to us! Some outwardly good intention, idea or plan may turn out to be a fulfilment of the personal ambition “I am”. Likewise, even in the church!  This danger lurks after all of those who follow Christ. The church is not the place for self-realization, though everyone who is called by Jesus to work in His vineyard realizes himself or herself through Jesus’ Gospel.

In this year as we recall the Reformation, the church is encouraged to reform and be constantly reforming itself. I too have been asked, without being specific: Will the church change? When will the church finally change? Yet we all are the church! As the Body of Christ, as its members. This means that every change with us changes the church – Christ’s Body. In order not to change the church at such a rapid pace and with zeal that Christ is no longer visible, we need to hold Christ always before our eyes. When a vine only produces leaves so it becomes, when looked upon at a distance, grand, proud and powerful, yet has no fruit between the leaves, then something has gone wrong. It is no longer a vine! Changes that forget or overshadow Christ, that do not come from that which allow Christ to be in the centre of everything, guide us onto the wrong road.

Sometimes we hold changes pertaining to form to be real changes. These changes may be needed to bring out freshness and new momentum; yet, at the same time they may have just as well not have been made. The main thing is that we ourselves do not become entangled in these changes nor make them the most important issue, upon which depends the survival of the church.  Be it the increase in the number of bishops or the decrease in their number in the church, the amalgamation or separation of congregations, the increase or decrease in the percentage of fees paid to the church.

But there are things that need to be done which help one reorganize and reform so that we can more fully fulfil Christ’s task given to us. Every vine needs to be pruned and cleaned so that it is able to increase the amount of fruit that it bears. For the church this means focusing on that which creates better conditions for proclaiming the Gospel as well as serving the neighbour and God. To arrange the service of the church so that Christ’s work is not hindered by human means, is the way in which the church has been able to keep itself in perpetual renewal. This is the cultivating of fruit-bearing branches of the vine and making them to bear more fruit. More fruit means for the church better organized proclamation of the Gospel and the broadening of the scope of the message of love.

Jesus says to his disciples in the gospel that we heard today: “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love.” (John 15:9) Jesus’ proclamation in his time foretold changes of new quality. We, as a church need to constantly strive at achieving that quality which is centred on Christ’s love. For this we need to be constantly creating conditions for constant renewal in the church, for reformation; yet, at the same time at all cost avoiding deformation. This would be a situation in which we no longer allow the Father to prune fruit-bearing branches and cleanse; but allow the world to change the church. This means that we tend to do things that many like and no longer care for that which is Christ’s given assignment and His will.

Therefore, when we speak of changes in our church today, then every change, also in form, must follow the goal of keeping Christ before our eyes so that more and more people may reach a personal faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.

For this we are all called and ordained and need to rally together our strength – as we use to say in Estonian – as “one man”!