The True Vine

Sunday 14th May 2006
Year B, The Fifth Sunday of Easter
St. George's, Hurstpierpoint
Psalm 80
John 15:1-8

When I was in my mid teens I had a passion for Virgil and Beethoven and I remember my classics master, who was also a great music connoisseur, telling me that as I grew older I would grow to love the gentle Horace rather than the bellicose Virgil and the serene Mozart rather than the turbulent Beethoven. I also remember being told, but I have forgotten by which teacher, that I would grow to prefer string quartets to symphonies. Well, I understand the theories, I know what they meant, but they were wrong. Although I have grown to recognise the merits of Horace, Mozart and the string quartet I am still a passionate adherent of Virgil, Beethoven and the symphonic form.

What my teachers meant was that the deepest explorations of the human spirit can be represented by apparently tranquil creations. There is a world of difference between, for example, Wagnerian heroines throwing themselves off cliffs and Purcell's Dido Lamenting. I suppose the happiest of us learn to love new ways of self understanding without losing our love for the old ones; and I think that is where my teachers were wrong. They proposed a hierarchy of appreciation as an alternative to my own teenage hierarchy; and now I see no hierarchy between Virgil and Horace, Beethoven and Mozart, the Symphony and the String Quartet. I suppose if there is any irony at all it is that they never mentioned those works of art now closest to my affections, the poetry of Dante and the Cantatas of Bach.

Such thoughts always surface when I consider the synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke with the Gospel of St. John. The first three have often been depicted as telling relatively simple stories with little theological muscle while John was supposed to be all theology and not much story. Thankfully, as we have learned more about the Jewish origins of Christianity, we have learned to see the depth and complexity of theology in the Synoptic Gospels and this has helped us to see John in a more earthly light.

Today's reading from John is a perfect example of how a smooth surface conceals a more turbulent reality. We have heard Jesus say that He is the true vine and we are the branches. This sounds very cosy indeed; Jesus is the firm vine stem and we have all pleasure of being the leaves and blossoms and, ultimately, the grapes.

But the Gospels are immensely complex textures woven together seamlessly from the Old Testament and the life of Jesus Himself, not with the new material superimposed like tapestry on an already woven piece of cloth; the story of Jesus is woven into the cloth at the same time as the tradition and the Prophesy. When he wrote about the vine and the branches John must have been thinking about this passage from Psalm 80:

Thou hast brought a vine out of Egypt:
Thou hast cast out the heathen, and planted it.
Thou madest room for it:
And when it had taken root it filled the land.
The hills were covered with the shadow of it:
And the boughs thereof were like the goodly cedar-trees.
She stretched out her branches unto the sea:
And her boughs unto the river.
Why hast thou then broken down her hedge:
That all they that go by pluck off her grapes?
The wild boar out of the wood doth root it up
And the wild beasts of the field devour it.
Turn thee again, thou God of hosts, look down from heaven:
Behold, and visit this vine;
And the place of the vineyard that thy right hand hath planted:
And the branch that thy madest so strong for thyself.
It is burnt with fire, and cut down: and they shall perish at the rebuke of thy countenance.

So being a vine isn't such a comfortable existence after al; but whatever made us think that it might be?

The image of the vine, like many of the other metaphors of Jesus which John records, is fundamentally incarnational, that is, the metaphors express the reality that the being of Jesus fuses the divine and the human in one person; and what this does is to cast a completely different light on our humanity because there is a two-way reality which we must recognise: because Jesus took on human flesh as one of us, we, therefore, share the humanity which Jesus took upon Himself; and so, in a profound way we are like Jesus and therefore part of God in a way which we could not have been if Jesus had not been born of Mary, if our relationship with God was like that between the Chosen people and Yahweh.

The metaphor of the vine and the branches therefore makes perfect sense as another way of describing the Incarnation; but, by extension, we must understand it with reference to the Psalm in two ways: first of all, to be children of God and to share in the common life with Jesus requires faithfulness. The Psalmist recognises that the vine which God planted in Canaan after the liberation from Jesus was a vine which was polluted by unfaithfulness and idolatry and therefore deprived itself of the nutrition of God; time and time again the people of Israel turned from God and time and time again God forgave them and relented of his anger.

Secondly, because the incarnation and the Crucifixion are as one, so being a branch of the vine means being part of the suffering of Jesus. We shall grow in the chilly Spring and we shall bring forth pretty blossom and then lose it; and then we shall bring forth grapes and they shall be harvested and crushed and made into wine which is the blood of Christ; we will never be free of growing for Christ and suffering; we, who caused the shedding of His blood will, in the central mystery of our sacred being, both be that blood and receive it from Him in the Eucharist He instituted until the end of time.

Like the metaphor of Jesus as both the Lamb and the shepherd, so the metaphor of Jesus as the vine is balanced by Jesus the vine keeper, the master who let into His vineyard all who were willing to work, no matter what the hour.

There is, then, no contradiction between the turbulence of earthly struggle and divine serenity; they are joined in Jesus as we are joined to Jesus; we must rejoice and suffer in the human cycle of growth and sacrifice; we cannot have one without the other.