Sermon - 13th January 2013
I am the vine, you are the branches
Scripture - John 15:1-10
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
The Covenant Prayer which is at the centre of today’s worship service is an interpretation of the relationship which God has with all who would proclaim that Jesus is Lord. It’s an interpretation which dates from the middle of the 18th century, and it reflects the vigorous language and spiritual energy with which the early Methodists reacted to what they saw as the dull, weak and uninspired theology of the mainstream church of the day.
Just like those first Methodists who were fighting mediocrity and lack of commitment, it’s an interpretation which is bold and challenging, and it pulls no punches. In its own way, it is a manifesto for what was a radical, new way of following Jesus on a journey into the Kingdom of God.
The bible tells us of various covenants which aimed to set down the terms on which God would bless, guide and support a chosen race in return for their faithfulness. The Jewish faith, out of which Christianity was born, upholds its belief that it is a chosen race based on the covenant forged between God and Moses on Mount Sinai, which was symbolised by the giving of the stone tablets inscribed by God’s own hand with the words of the Ten Commandments.
And over the millennia since the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai, human beings have looked for ways to interpret the ‘what’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. Later today we will share with John Wesley in his interpretation of that relationship.
But today’s reading from John’s Gospel also uses the imagery and context of its day to explore that relationship between God and humanity.
The symbol of the vine, and its fruit, and the wine which comes from that fruit, are intricately bound up in the church’s understanding of our relationship with God. Only John among the gospel-writers places the words ‘I am the true vine’ into the mouth of Jesus. And yet the image of the vine as a sign of God bearing fruit in the world has a long history within the Jewish understanding of God.
John the Baptist came out of the heart of the Hebrew tradition even though he knew that revolutionary change was coming; and both Matthew and Luke record his words when challenging the Pharisees and Sadducees, and he says:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance…Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
In Psalm 80, the poet looks back to Moses’ delivery of the Hebrew people from slavery with the words:
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.
When the prophet Jeremiah is rebuking the people of Israel for their faithless behaviour he says:
Hear the word of the Lord, O house of Jacob…
Long ago you broke your yoke
And burst your bonds,
And you said ‘I will not serve!’
On every high hill
And under every green tree
You sprawled and played the whore.
Yet I planted you as a choice vine,
From the purest stock.
How then did you turn degenerate
And become a wild vine?
The prophet Isaiah has an extended section in chapter 5 where he uses a vineyard as a symbol of the House of Israel. He asks:
What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it? When I expected it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes?
Hosea describes Israel as “a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit”.
Ezekiel warns his listeners how the wood of the vine is good only for putting on the fire to be burnt.
It is against this deep cultural background, and with a powerful religious understanding of what it meant to be planted by God as a vine destined to bear fruit, that John depicts Jesus telling his followers that he is the true, authentic vine: the one which supersedes all previous plantings which had become wild, unmanageable, and so no longer true – a not-so-subtle hint that the Judaism of Jesus’s day was wild, unmanageable and no longer true to its core beliefs.
Here, in this new vine of Jesus, is God’s new beginning, destined to bear much fruit through the branches which take their life from the core of the vine, but which must be pruned to remain fruitful.
And certain ideas keep recurring::
- The importance of remaining connected to, and nourished by, the core of the vine;
- The need to undergo pruning in order to cut away unproductive offshoots
- The expectation upon us to bear fruit and to improve our output season by season.
These are the challenges if we are to be productive parts of God’s vineyard.
So how fruitful are we? Many of us have been required to recognise our own authentic self within a confusing tangle of thorns and weeds which society has wrapped around us. Embracing the deepest truth about our identity, and cutting away much of the remaining undergrowth is clearly a process of pruning; and it can be a harsh and difficult experience – indeed we can all think of occasions when it has been so traumatic that it has killed the plant. But we can also recognise that, for many of us, our true and authentic lives really began when we cut back the fear, and the lies, and the self-doubt, and became ourselves.
One of the tasks that this church most frequently performs is to reconnect the newly liberated branches to the core of the vine, to reinforce and reaffirm their own profound knowledge that they belong, that they are loved, that they will be nourished, and will bear fruit. This remains, for our church, an image of everything we do around self-esteem, around inclusion, around healing, around positive images, and around our celebration of the unconditional love of God for all.
Encouraging growth in the vineyard is an image of everything we do to develop the ministries of all people; our investment and focus on education, learning and personal growth; our emphasis on the discovery, discernment, and rediscovery of our gifts; and our core messages around our relationship to Jesus. This is basically what we call ‘discipleship’ and is something we regularly revisit, season by season, because we are challenged to seek better and better harvests of fruit.
But things which are growing and flourishing are also undergoing changes: changes of shape, and place, and capacity, and energy, and reach. And one of the great paradoxes of our human nature seems to be that we often resist change and struggle to remain within the comfort and familiarity of the status quo.
We will all have our own experiences of new starts following major change. This is not only a natural part of life, it is one of the ways in which our lives are stimulated to produce new growth – it is how we blossom and flourish. And just as we recognise this in God’s wider world of creation, and in the life-changing actions of our daily lives, so we must recognise it in our faith lives.
But it’s not always a comfortable experience.
An absolute, unchanging, literal or tradition-bound faith is a wonderfully warm and reassuring comfort-blanket within which to wrap ourselves when we are called into new experiences, particularly when those new experiences might lead to radical change. Yet whenever we are tempted to wrap that blanket tighter and tighter around ourselves, are we not at risk of ignoring the intentions of the vine-keeper?
- What about the vision that the vine-keeper has for the shape and direction of the vine?
- Are we so tightly wrapped in our comfort blanket that the sap of new life from the core of the vine cannot get through?
- Are we growing close enough to the core of the vine to receive the nourishment and stimulation we need to bear fruit – which is, after all, our purpose?
- And are we responding to the passing seasons - the calendar of the vineyard - which regularly prompts us to clear away the dead wood and put forward some new shoots to increase our fruitfulness?
Our present culture no longer uses images of vines and vineyards as working examples of God’s actions in our world. But we still experience a world where living things grow, and change, and need tending and shaping and refreshing, and pass through seasons when they blossom, and seasons when they decline in preparation for new shoots.
I can see that model of the cycle of life as a reflection of the comings and goings of my own journey in the footsteps of Jesus. In my own reflections about faith, it brings forward recollections of where I have been, places where I have experienced growth, places where I have experienced parched ground, times when I have experienced hunger for nourishment from the vine, and times when I have had to cut away dead wood in order to change.
And I suspect I am not alone in recognising some personal truths in the gospel’s image of God’s vineyard, as it interprets how we are all challenged to travel with Jesus through the seasons of our lives.