03 May 2015
10.30 Sung Eucharist
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Revd Simon Cowling
Acts 8. 26-end; John 15. 1-8
‘Noah, a man of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. He drank some of the wine and became drunk, and he lay uncovered in his tent’. This faintly risqué vignette from the early chapters of Genesis is the first mention of a vineyard, and of wine, in the Bible. The first mention of many. I am told, though I have never checked, that in the Old Testament the Book of Jonah alone has no mention of either vineyards or wine. In an agrarian society, where clean water was not always available, wine was central to daily life – and even to survival.
So it is not entirely surprising that we find vineyards and the vine used as metaphors, as images, for Israel in the Old Testament. Such an image would have fitted comfortably with a predominantly agrarian culture. And of course those who were responsible for both vineyards, and the vines they contained, would have ensured that they were well looked after. After all, do not farmers always value the crops in their care? The image of Israel as a vine or a vineyard, with God as the vine-grower, thus becomes even more understandable: it expresses something of Israel’s understanding of the loving-kindness, the faithfulness of God towards his people; of Israel’s understanding that it is in the type of dependent relationship with God that Psalm 108 expresses so well:
You brought a vine out of Egypt;
you drove out the nations and planted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took deep root and filled the land.
This is the Old Testament background to today’s Gospel reading from John chapter 15, a background with which Jesus’s disciples would have been very familiar. Jesus is with the disciples on the night before his death. He has washed their feet in an act of deep and loving service, and he has then given them the new commandment to love one another. Now, in order to convey to the disciples the depth and richness and complexity of the relationships in this new community of love, he recasts the familiar Old Testament image of vines and vineyards in a striking way: I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. It is now Jesus, not Israel, who is the vine; Jesus, not Israel, who is the subject of God the Father’s careful and loving attention as the vine-grower. From this primary relationship of intimacy between the Father and the Son flows the intimate relationship between Jesus as the vine and the disciples as the branches. Jesus explains this relationship with the almost hypnotic repetition of the word ‘abide’, used no fewer than eight times in the space of four verses. It is only branches that abide in the vine that are able to bear fruit: unless they are part of the vine the branches are functionally useless. Their presence is, quite literally, fruitless and the vine-grower will have no hesitation in removing them. Jesus’s images of vine and vine-grower, branches and fruit, abiding and pruning continue into the next section of John chapter 15, which we shall hear next week. They repay careful study, for through these images Jesus is speaking not only to his disciples, he is speaking also to us. For now let’s reflect on just two ways in which he is doing this.
‘Abiding’. A moment ago I referred to Jesus’s repetition of the word ‘abide’ in this passage as a way of describing his disciples’ relationship with him. At first sight this might appear a rather passive way of describing a relationship: after all, the branches of a vine don’t move around much; and in and of themselves they don’t appear to be doing a great deal. But then we remember that Jesus connects the word ‘abide’ with the word ‘fruit’. It is only branches which abide in the vine, which are connected to the vine’s root system, that are able to bear fruit. So in the context of our discipleship perhaps we should understand the word ‘abide’ in this passage to mean ‘love’. It is only by abiding in Jesus, by loving Jesus, that we are enabled to bear fruit as his followers. Conversely whoever does not abide in me says Jesus – whoever does not love me – is like a branch unconnected to a vine’s root system. It will not bear fruit. It will wither and die.
‘Fruitfulness’. It may seem a statement of the obvious, but it is nevertheless worth remembering, that the fruitfulness of the branches that abide in the vine is of no direct benefit to the branches themselves, nor is such fruitfulness an end in itself. The vine-grower is interested in fruitfulness only inasmuch as it will benefit others, those who eat his grapes or drink his wine. In the same way, our fruitfulness as those who abide in, who love, Jesus, is not an end in itself. It is, or should be, the mark of a community that is, in the words of one writer, ‘up and doing’, deeply rooted in order to be vigorously productive for the one true vine in whom we abide.
We may think that our life as a worshipping community is an indication of the depth of our abiding in Jesus Christ, the one true vine. But before we become too complacent about this abiding, we should remember that our worship is not an end in itself – neither its style, nor its aesthetic qualities, nor even the regularity of our attendance. The measure of our rootedness in Jesus Christ is our fruitfulness as his disciples. So what kind of fruit do we bear as individuals and as a worshipping community? At the beginning of a week in which we shall be reflecting on what our elected representatives might do for us, the least we can do, as branches of the true vine, is to ask what we actually do for others.