Sermon for Fifth Sunday of Easter – High Mass Sunday 3 May 2015
Sermon preached by Father Michael Bowie
Easter 5 – the Vine & the branches
As with last week’s image of the Good Shepherd I don’t find the self-image of Jesus as a vine instantly accessible. Just as I (and possibly you) don’t spend much time shepherding sheep or watching shepherds, I also don’t grow grapes. But I suppose most of us have, or have experience of, a garden. So even I, who can just about tell a rose bush from an oak tree, can understand the picture conceptually.
But Jesus is not talking conceptually, philosophically: this was not a beautiful image for his listeners like the illustration of it on our oldest frontal. Shepherding sheep and growing grapes were essential work for them, providing the necessaries of life – food, wool, wine. This was not a ‘hobby’ or the provision of a pretty space to sit in like modern gardening. Wine was (and is) a sign of the richness of God’s creation, something to be shared in festivity, deliberately intoxicating. Jesus used wine in so many parables and pictures (and indeed in the institution of this most holy sacrament) that we cannot fail to see how important a part of life it was to him and his contemporaries. It was also, of course, safer to drink than most water. And, to the ancient eye, it was the outcome of a small predictable miracle: the transformation of something bland to something rich.
So, first, the vine was at the heart of life for Jesus’ listeners; the care of the vine and the vineyard was a socially significant skill.
Second, as is often remarked, Jesus wrote no books; he left no buildings or monuments. He did something far less ostentatious, but, as things turned out, much more significant: he built a new type of community which is still reproducing and regenerating. This vine is an illustration (not a theory) of community, and of the type of community that the church is to be.
While most of us have become less familiar with shepherding and vines in the last two thousand years, the various Christian imagery of community has become, if anything, over-familiar. Many ways of describing all sorts of things in the Gospels and Epistles are now such familiar idiomatic shorthand that they have little force when we hear them from Jesus. The word ‘member’ of belonging to something is from St Paul’s image of the Church as a body. But ‘membership’ no longer suggests that to us when we use it of belonging to clubs, societies, political parties – maybe even Church; it has turned into a concept – ‘belonging’. And the central image today, being ‘fruitful’, is similarly far from striking to us.
Being fruitful is worth thinking about as a parable of Christian life. It is not the same as being successful, a familiar trap for the Church into which we repeatedly fall. Jesus didn’t ask us to be successful, but to be fruitful. Success comes from strength, control and respectability. Success brings rewards and sometimes fame. Fruitfulness often comes from weakness and vulnerability; it always comes from change (as with the vine), or even apparent death (as with the seed in the ground); it often goes unrecognised and unrewarded. It is often mysterious and counter-intuitive. And like the making of wine it is a small predictable miracle, if only we will be faithful and wait.
To be fruitful, this image reminds us, requires ‘pruning’ (a word which also means cleansing). Self-examination and remedial action are regularly needed for each of us, and for the church as a whole. They are needed for communities of any size, including local church communities, like parishes and dioceses.
‘Community’ is now another over-used word. It often means nothing more, as a social end, than some vague ‘good’, as opposed to individualism or division which is code for ‘bad’. But the picture here suggests that community in the church is more than a pious aim. We are only connected to life itself, Jesus says, if we are connected to him like the branches of the vine (and therefore intimately related to and dependent on one another). And we are on the right track in our Christian life as long as we are fruitful; otherwise we need some correction.
So we have an image of ‘abiding’ in him:
4 Abide in me as I abide in you.
Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself
unless it abides in the vine,
neither can you unless you abide in me. John 15.4
Here we make the link with our very familiar second reading:
God is love,
and those who abide in love abide in God,
and God abides in them.
1 John 4.16b
According to John’s catch-cry it is important not to succeed but to love. Success will be judged by love rather than our more familiar measures. God will make our love fruitful, whether we see the fruitfulness or not. We know God if we love; we know that we are doing that if we love those around us.
One concrete expression of that, one way of being fruitful, is to share with the brother or sister in need; material aid to those suffering in Nepal or hospitality to refugees from Syria are proper expressions of love. But there is something else in the foreground here.
This image is about the church; in particular the local church, the congregation or gathered worshipping community in a parish. Building community is not trivial work. As with any building project, as St Paul reminds us, it needs firm foundations, careful construction, regular maintenance and an eye to changing needs. But if we are God’s building as St Paul also says, we are to be, individually and corporately, ‘living temples’, comprising interdependent and mutually nourishing relationships, with Christ at the head – or rather, perhaps, the heart (he is the vine itself and we more than exist because of the core of life which he supplies).
What we do in church services and what we do outside the building are all to be worship, all motivated by love, and all expressive of community. One of our challenges, as for all Christian communities, is to examine everything we do from that angle, and to change whatever falls short of love.