I am the true vine
Easter 5, 29th of April, 2018
Colleen Clayton, Klingner Scholar and Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill
Growing in a glasshouse in the grounds of Hampton Court palace in England, is the biggest grapevine in the world. It was planted in 1768 from a cutting taken by Lancelot 'Capability' Brown. Today, it is 4m around its base and its longest branch is 36.5 metres long. It produces, on average, 272 kilos of black dessert grapes each year.
In Queen Victoria's time, the grapes were sent to the Royal Household at Windsor or to Osbourne House on the Isle of Wight. After WWI they were sold to raise money for soldiers who had been blinded and during WWII, the bunches of grapes were thinned by German prisoners of war.
Let me read to you an outline of the care of this amazing vine;
In February the buds begin to break. A fertiliser is applied to the soil inside the glasshouse and the vine border outside. Once the new shoots are 2.5 – 5cm or so long, it is time for disbudding to reduce the number of new shoots. The remaining shoots grow until they are 30-45 cm long. They then have their growing point pinched out and are tied in with raffia.
The Vine is protected against mildew by vaporizing sulphur. Immediately after flowering the number of bunches are reduced and the remaining bunches are thinned. During the growing season the Vine is given liquid and foliar feeds. Later in the summer some leaf thinning is carried out to allow sunlight to fall upon the ripening fruit. In November and December when the plant is fully dormant, the fruiting spurs are pruned back to one or two buds.
Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower." The outline I have just read to you of the care of the vine at Hampton Court, gives us an idea of the kind of constant and detailed care that a dedicated vine grower puts into a vine in order that it will grow and bear fruit abundantly. It is not a matter of planting the cutting and walking away. Intimate knowledge of the needs of the plant, including soil and air conditions is required in order for it to thrive.
The vine of course is a Biblical symbol for God's people, Israel. But, whereas Israel has often failed to bear fruit for her vine grower, John's Gospel says that Jesus is the true vine, the real deal.
Jesus says these words, "I am the true vine", while in conversation with his disciples on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane. They have eaten together and Jesus has washed their feet in the upper room. Now, as he speaks to them about abiding in him, they are walking towards the garden where Jesus will pray and where, later that evening, he will be arrested. By midday the following day, Jesus will be hanging on the cross and the disciples will be alone.
And yet, in this situation, Jesus says, "abide in me". He extends this "I am" statement to speak, not just about himself, but about the nature of the relationship that God intends to exist between Jesus, the disciples and the God who he describes as their Father. Jesus is the true vine, God is the vine grower and the disciples are to find their life through abiding in Jesus as branches abide in the vine. Jesus tells the disciples that, as they abide in him, they will learn to love God so authentically and truly that they will glorify God through the fruitfulness of their lives.
And fruitfulness is central to this passage. We are not called to abide in Jesus as members of a holy huddle, basking in the love of God just for our own pleasure. We are called to abide in Jesus in order to be fruitful, constantly growing and changing. Jesus' image promises a dynamic life; the vine is not static. Fruitful branches are cut back to increase their productivity, unfruitful branches are cut out altogether, but everything is done so that the vine will continue to produce fruit.
As twenty-first century disciples, we are far removed in time from Jesus the vine but, like the branch on the Hampton Court plant that stretches out 36.5 metres from its vine, we can still have a strong connection that maintains our life and growth. The life-giving sap of the vine, the resurrected Christ, flows to us through our traditions, our worship, our prayer and study, through the great cloud of witnesses, all of which keep us connected and enable us to remain fruitful, abiding in Jesus.
So, as branches, how do we maintain and strengthen our connection to Jesus the vine so that we might bear fruit abundantly?
Well, if we want to bear fruit, we are going to be pruned! Life as part of the vine involves us having parts of ourselves cut away and shaped that we might become more fruitful. Pruning is painful but it keeps us productive. And branches that do not bear fruit still don't avoid the pruning saw; instead of being cut back, they are cut out and thrown away.
The Gospel says that Jesus' word is the means by which his disciples are pruned. For us, this means that we must make a commitment to knowing the words of Jesus. This will involve us in reading our Bibles in such a way that we might, "read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them", allowing our lives to be shaped and directed by their assimilation.
And our cutting and shaping will not just be once. You might remember the many tasks involved in the care of the vine at Hampton Court; at different times the number of new shoots is reduced, the foliage is thinned to let light fall on the ripening fruit and when the plant is fully dormant the fruiting spurs are pruned back to one or two buds.
Our pruning will involve prayerful discernment. Not every shoot will develop to bear fruit. We each have unique characteristics that determine the ways in which we can grow most productively. Someone once said, "Only do what only you can do". We only have so much time and energy. Some possibilities must be let go of in order to allow our most productive shoots to bear fruit abundantly. This pruning is the choice of the vine grower but it is through prayer that we align ourselves with the vine grower's will, learning to surrender some things in order to grow others that will bear more fruit. And, just as grape vines never bear lemons, whatever different things grow in and through each of our lives, while we abide in Jesus the vine, the fruit we bear will always be love.
Prayer is central to this process. Jesus says that as his disciples abide in him and as his words abide in them, whatever they ask of the Father will be done. We are not meant to hear this as an image of God handing out car parks on request! Jesus is saying that, as our prayer is shaped by abiding in love, our desires will become so aligned with the will of our Heavenly Father that whatever we ask will be in accordance with God's will. I suspect that in addition this means that, as we abide in love, we will also be given the wisdom to be able to see and understand those answers to prayer that may not be as we would wish, but that are still according to God's time and God's purpose.
Because God's time and purposes are not ours. Just as vines have periods when they are dormant, sometimes we need to step out of our busyness in order to rest and be restored; to go on retreat, make a pilgrimage, have a holiday, recharge our batteries and allow some intentional space in order to abide more consciously in God's love and to discern God's purposes for us. We cannot give what we don't have and the church is full of people who would benefit from a period of dormancy and a good dose of fertiliser!
Later in this chapter of the Gospel according to John, Jesus tells his disciples that the distinguishing love they are to have for each other will cause the world to hate them. Their love, however, is not to be limited to those inside their community. Although they will be hated, they are to share the love in which they abide with the world because, God so loved the world that he gave us Jesus, not to condemn the world but to give it eternal life. This is the fruit of the vine; love for God, love for each other, life-giving love for the world.
The love in which we are invited to abide is not easy. There is no such thing as cheap grace. We are not called to a life that consists of a clear cut, one size fits all, rule book that makes difficult decisions straightforward. We are not called to just look after ourselves and turn a blind eye to the complex problems of injustice, prejudice and abuse around us. The love in which we are to abide is the love of a purposeful, transforming God; a God who wields a sharp knife for cutting back and for cutting out; a God who continues to call us through the cutting, through death to new life and the bearing of the fruit of love.
- BCP Collect for the Second Sunday in Advent: Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
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St Peter's Eastern Hill, Melbourne Australia.