Guest writer this week, Peter Gilks our Team Rector spoke on John 15: 1-8.
I was listening to Gardener’s Question Time last weekend when I was driving somewhere and the question was asked of the panel “What really high maintenance plant do you like to grow?
Various answers came, but one panellist said A Grape Vine, and he then went through all the various tasks and timings that were needed, right through from October with the major prune, to all the cutting back and thinning out all the way through till the harvesting time. It sounded very time consuming and made me realise why we had always got such a feeble crop off the vine we had in our last garden.
Vines and Fig trees crop up very regularly in the biblical texts as they are used as images for the life and faith of the nation, and for the faith of the church as well. Jesus told some quite puzzling parables about fig trees, (that’s a sermon for another day) and in the reading from St Johns gospel today he uses the image of the vine.
If we look back into the OT we see vines used in lots of ways:
Judges: Samson’s mother is told to drink no wine while she is pregnant with Samson (quite up to date advice really!)
1 Kings there’s a vision of settled peace during Solomon’s reign the people living in peace under their vines and under their fig-trees
Isaiah 24: the vine languishes and the wine dries up &
32: 12 beat your breast for the pleasant fields and the fruitful vine
Jeremiah 2: I planted you as a choice vine from the purest stock, how then did you become degenerate and wild.
Micah 4.4. they shall all sit under their own vines and under their fig trees and no-one shall make them afraid.
And that’s just a few of the references – we could go through and look up other passages about vineyards and grapes too, and we’d be here all morning. But when you chase up references like this a picture gradually emerges about what the vine and the fig tree meant for the people; it was symbolic of the health and well-being of the nation, and of their faithfulness to God. In times of peace well cared for vines and fig trees would grow well and wine could be produced which would cheer everyone up. Life could be tough and wine was a blessing which “made glad the heart” to use yet another quote.
But behind this is the understanding that vines don’t grow productively when left alone. There’s various dark images about wild grapes, which are bitter, and about vineyards being left untended by lazy and irresponsible stewards. There a kind of partnership implied. The good householder will look after his vine, will prune it and shape it and nourish it and give all the care that vines need. Then the vine will flourish and provide the owner with shelter from the sun, grapes to eat as fruit and to make into wine and make his heart glad and, just as importantly, to share with friends. But you need peace and stability to grow a good vine, when there is war there is no opportunity for the time-consuming business of checking and pruning and tying up the new shoots. In the same kind of way, if the owner is careless and neglects his vine he won’t get good grapes and or good wine.
So with this kind of background you can quite see how the vine, which was quite a familiar thing in that culture became used by the rabbis as a very practical image for teaching about peace, about faithfulness, and about careful responsible living. Jesus as a storyteller, used it with the best. With Paul, who writes rather differently, references to wine, vine and vineyards or even fig trees are really quite rare – I could only find one – something in
Ephesians about not getting drunk, miserable man.
I went on a retreat once where the leader based a lot of his talks around John’s image of the Vine, and one day he took us out into the courtyard of the place where we were staying and did a bit of bible study around an actual vine that was growing there.
He showed us that a well-trimmed vine is almost all branches there’s very little actual trunk, you get the time honoured thick branches and the young fleshy shoots. So when Jesus says “I am the vine, you are the branches, he is saying that he and his friends are at one, and so they live in him and he in them, there’s a continuity.
But as the vine grows during the year there will be some new shoots which have fruit on them and others which are just all leaf, and even on the stems where there is fruit there’s also a long bit further down the stem which is just leaf. These bits you have to cut off or the vine will just produce lots and lots of leaf and the grapes will be the size of garden peas.
So we can take this parable to bits and find some messages for ourselves and our church:
Christianity is now an old robust branch that has seen many summers, been pruned extensively, had stages where it grew a bit wild, and over the years has grown new branches and sub divided, and these branches have themselves grown new branches too. The Holy Spirit runs through it all, right down into the tips of the delicate fleshy shoots which are perhaps you and me. If we are faithful we shall produce good grapes and good wine that will make people glad.
The biblical image of the vine gives two functions, one is giving grapes which can be made into wine, the other function is shelter and shade, making somewhere that the people can rest out of the heat of the day. And that, to me, seems to represent the value of traditional church and established forms of worship – they give shelter and they give shade, places to rest and be re-energised at a deep level, to cool down from the heat of the day and rest in the peace of God.
We’re at a stage in the life of the C of E where there is much focus on mission, and rightly so, those ventures are like the new wine that is exciting and bubbly. As it has always been said – the gospel needs to be preached afresh in every generation. But while new explorations are important there is a still room for the established ways of being church – the traditional prayer and the sacraments, for new translations of scripture alongside the old. These things are still meaningful, and while new ways of prayer and of being church are right for many of the people coming to faith now, there is an authentic place for established and traditional. This is perhaps more like sitting under the shade of a vine on a hot day, for relaxation and refreshment.
At the end of this passage the theme returns to the importance of love, Jesus talks about his disciples loving one another as he has loved them. Perhaps love is like the sap within the branches – from the old knotty ones near the root, to the fresh green shoots at the ends. May we all be fruitful branches, open channels of the Holy Spirit, so that the new wine of the gospel may make glad the hearts of the people of our generation, and be able to shelter those who are in need of care and restoration.