Abide in Christ – A Maundy Thursday Reflection for Rural Ministry
This reflection and prayer for Maundy Thursday is the first in a series of Easter prayers for Holy Week.
From Rev Dr Ji Zhang 张骥, Assembly Theologian-in-Residence
There is a large mural in St Andrew’s Uniting Church Mildura. Located in the hallway near the entrance, the painting is about 4 meters wide and 2 meters tall and. The central theme is the grapevine occupying about two thirds of the canvas. Standing before the painting, a viewer would be drawn into the rural context of this Christian community. On the top it is the biblical title: “I am the vine, and you are the branches” (John 15: 5).
This is about the Gospel within culture. The mural was painted over a number of months by Mr Keith Charles, a former member of St Andrew’s Mildura congregation. It was completed for the official opening of the church extensions in 1996.
Recently, we visited the city Mildura in the north-west corner of Victoria. After a difficult year of pandemic, we wanted to go as far away as possible from Melbourne and support rural communities after the lockdowns. Each day we were surprised by this land of abundance as we travelled hundreds of kilometres across the region. The Murry River and the Darling River join together in the town of Wentworth. The irrigation chancels feed water from the rivers to hundreds of farming communities. This is the fruit capital of Australia, producing 80% of Australia table grapes and a large amount of stone fruits.
We travelled on the traditional lands of the Latji Latji, Nyeri Nyeri, Wergaia and Ngintait peoples of Victoria, and also the Barkindji peoples of New South Wales. We even visited World Heritage Mungo National Park and experienced a desert storm during the sunset. Here archaeologists found world’s oldest human cremations, revealing the early existence of Mungo people about 42,000 years ago. The First Peoples were indeed here in the Land, and their civilisation was long before our modern history.
I also visited my friend Rev Jacob Yang at St Andrew’s Uniting Church. Rev Yang originally came from the Presbyterian Church of Korea. After a long period of ministry in Melbourne, he wanted to experience the country Victoria. Arrived in Mildura about two months ago, he has already noticed some differences in the regional city and the challenges in the rural communities. Leaders of a network of congregations are more senior than Melbourne. Many young people have left the country to big cities for their studies and jobs.
Together with his colleague, they travel long distances and visited different congregations each Sunday. Here ministry is also gradually changing, growing a model of one city hub leading many rural congregations. The laity has an important role in the rural ministry. They support ministers locally and cover a range of responsibilities, including pastoral care and preaching. Equipping lay people in ministry is an immediate need.
Rev Yang acknowledges his challenges ahead. It would take a long time and many miles of travel to get know his church members. He is the first Korean minister coming to journey with those small congregations, but he brings with him a Confucian virtue – care for the elderly is the foundation of social good. Here he works cross-culturally with the support of his wife; they live with the Christian communities in joy and share the self-giving love of God in Christ. Now they see the communities as one family and a branch in Jesus Christ.
On this Maundy Thursday, I invite our UCA audience to see this painting through the eyes of Rev Yang and his congregations. The vine occupies the centre whereas the Murray River flows through a corner. But the river of life is present everywhere in this land. It is illustrated through the green grape vine in foreground and the yellow wheatfields to left. The gum trees are clearly visible near the riverbanks. The pumping station on the right was a historical site; it was used to pump the water for irrigation. Behind the vineyards is a typical home with drying racks which were used for drying the grapes.
On this Maundy Thursday I also invite people to reflect on the Gospel passage. ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit”. For a community of grape growers, they know exactly what this parable means. After a year of pandemic, the Gospel speaks to us afresh: “Abide in me as I abide in you”. During this Holy Week, we are reminded a simple truth. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.”
Let us pray:
O loving God
You are the true vine,
we are your branches.
After a year of lockdown and isolation,
we are reminded about your present and promise.
You have never left us, so we shall be faithful:
Abide in you, so you will abide in us.
O loving Christ,
Come and journey with us through this Holy Week.
May we be your worthy followers,
Seeking to abide in the Lord even in the shadow of passion.
Draw us near to you, the source of life,
so we may be your new fruits.
We pray for Rev Yang and his communities this Easter.
Come, the Spirit of life,
Feed the communities in Mildura and its surround areas,
Led the ministry team receive your Spirit of life,
Bring care to the churches through the laity
Sustain the elderly with hope and grace.
We also pray for the Uniting Church.
May we walk in humility and kindness on this land.
Come, the Creator of all,
Nurture us like the sun, rain, and the wind,
Let each Christian community be your branches,
bear fruits of the self-giving love of God.
“Abide in me, I will abide in you”.
Teach us afresh this simple truth.
It is only when we abide in you, O Lord,
we may ask for whatever in prayers,
and it will be done for us
by the gift of your risen life.