Sermon: The True Vine
From Wellington Cathedral of St Paul
10 May 2009: 10am
- Psalm 22:25-31
- Acts 8: 26-40
- I John 4:7-21
- John 15:1-8
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. As I hear these words I can’t help remembering my poor dear father. Abutting the house where I grew up was a greenhouse that contained a sizeable vine, its stem as thick as your thigh, its branches tied to a wire grid under the roof. Totally ignorant of vines, but with a vinegrower’s handbook in hand, my father was attempting to prune it. He got it wrong – the timing, I mean – and the vine bled. So there he was on the stepladder with strips of cloth trying to staunch the flow of sap that was dripping from the severed branches.
From this I learned the life cycle of a vine. First vines have deep roots and need lots of ‘blood & bone’ fertilizer – in the old days they used to slaughter an ox once a year over the roots of the great vine at Hampton Court – ‘blood & bone’ with a vengeance! Then, in the spring, as the vine begins to feel the warmth of the sun, a great rush of sap, starting from the roots, begins to rise through the stem and out into the branches – which are hollow, like the veins of a body. Soon new shoots appear, and leaves, and then little clusters that have to be thinned before the grapes can ripen into bunches – which are harvested as delicious fruit or crushed into juices that ferment into wine. Finally, in late autumn, when this whole drama has been played out, the vine is pruned back radically, almost to the stem, ready for the growth cycle that will be renewed come the spring.
Once we grasp the wonder of the abundant life of a vine, we can see how marvelously adapted it is as a picture (or image) for what John wants to say in his Gospel about Jesus. First, the abundant life, the fullness of life that God is, is the very life that wells up in the person of Jesus. In chapter 5 we read, ‘For just as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son to have life in himself’.
To get what this means, we have to grasp that the image of the vine in John 15 is a commentary on (or a way of unpacking) what is said in John 13:34, ‘I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’. What gives life to the whole vine is the great outpouring of divine love in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. This is at once the ‘blood and bone’ that fructifies the root of the vine; it is equally the life that courses through the vine itself; and, best of all, it is the wonderful fruit offered by the vine. This is the fruit that is freely available, flowing out in love and discipleship; the very fruit that causes the vinegrower’s heart – God! – to leap for joy.
So what can we make of this today? Here are three suggestions. First, we have to pay attention to the flip side of this story about abundant life. Because the life of Jesus is, like a vine, so deeply rooted in the life of God, it stands to reason that if we want this kind of life – so shot through with the love of God – then we have to get plugged into the vine – and that means the openness of faith which is ready to listen to the call of God, to drink from the cup where this very wine is on offer. That’s not to say that there aren’t all sorts of other kinds of love and life available – in human love, in work, in art & in a thousand other places. But how does all this hang together? Does it really add up to anything in the end? Is there a big void, a nothingness, just underneath the surface of all this fascinating variety? Will it fly apart, turn to dust and ashes, when the crisis comes, the applecart of our life upset by tragedy, breakdown of relationship, bereavement? The question is worth pondering.
But then, more positively, the picture of Jesus as the true vine might cause us to reflect on how much life is a gift that we receive at the hand of others – like the life and fruit of a vine. This came home to me a few weeks ago when I had a minor operation. As I walked into the operating theatre wearing my surgical gown – the one that won’t do up at the back – and the weird little paper hat and slippers that they give you, I realized that I was putting my life completely in the hands of others. It was Holy Week and I had my own version of Jesus’ word from the cross. ‘Into your hands I commend my body-self’, meaning into the hands of the surgeons, anesthetists, theatre nurses. But I was also reflecting that in giving myself into the hands of others, at a deeper level I was giving myself into the hands of God, ‘Into your hands I commend my spirit’. But what sort of God? In the days following, I pondered another of the great images of God in John’s Gospel, the picture of God as the generous host at the wedding feast who – contrary to normal practice – always keeps the best wine until last, now and in eternity. So could it be that, for a man like me in the autumn of life, old age, instead of just being a waning of former powers, could be full of promise, like the best wine that is kept until last? In that way we can all reflect on the particular giftedness that we have to offer as our lives unfold.
Finally, and somewhat along the same lines, let’s consider how easily we get seduced into parroting a language which at best only contains half-truths about life. The image of the vine might tell us that life, like any love that is deep, enduring and rooted, grows organically and is not just something we artfully construct for ourselves. For one thing, other people are involved. Love therefore can’t just be an ego-trip. It only flourishes if we are willing to receive love at the hands of another, as well as to give it ourselves.
Here, then, are some wise words from an American Quaker and educationalist, Parker J. Palmer. He is reflecting on whether we base our language about life on the seasons and nature or, alternatively, on manufacturing and technology.
The master metaphor of our era does not come from agriculture – it comes from manufacturing. We do not believe that we ‘grow’ our lives – we believe that we ‘make’ them. Just listen to how we use the word in everyday speech: we make time, make friends, make meaning, make money, make a living, make love… A Chinese child will ask, ‘How does a baby grow?’ But an American child will ask, ‘How do you make a baby?’ From an early age we absorb our culture’s arrogant conviction that we manufacture everything, reducing the world to mere ‘raw material’ that lacks value until we impose our designs and labour on it.
Food for thought. Is this why there are so many hollow people around?
‘The eyes of all look to you, O Lord, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.’ Psalm 145:15-16