Sermon in Ankara for the Fifth Sunday of Easter (2nd May 2021) - The Revd Patrick Irwin
Last Sunday our Gospel reading presented us with Jesus as the Good Shepherd, and today we are thinking about Jesus as the True Vine. Here is another image which is easy to visualise and may help us to explore our relationship with Christ. Once again Jesus has taken his choice of illustration from the world around him. Vines were a familiar part of life in first-century Palestine, and they were also a familiar image in the Old Testament. Vines take time to grow. The care with which vine-growers tended their vines was used as an image for the loving care with which God tended his people, and the sudden destruction of a vine was used as an image of national disaster.
Vines are a distinctive plant, as they grow horizontally and not vertically. A vineyard is quite different from an apple orchard, for example. One does not look up in admiration at the highest branches of the vine as one does at the apple-tree and wonder how one is going to reach the fruit hanging there. No long ladders are required for collecting grapes! This is a significant part of the image, for the picture of Christ as the True Vine is all about connection and nothing to do with hierarchy. What matters is whether we the branches are attached to Christ the vine or not. There are no higher or more prestigious branches. The Jesus Vine is not like an airline’s frequent flyer programme, with different status levels. Connection is all!
Yet nowadays the word “connection” may not be the most helpful for us to use. We live in a world which has never been more connected, with e-mail, Facebook and other social media. So many people can make connections on their computer or are linked in to their favourite networks. Yet it is also a world in which more and more people are lonely and depressed. These social media may facilitate relationships, but they are not actual relationships. What the Jesus Vine offers us, by contrast, is a real relationship, both with the vine itself and with the other branches.
Relationships may not always be easy, precisely because they are real. For all of us there will be good days and bad days in our relationships, and there will be some people whom we will instinctively like more than others, yet real relationships, for all their ups and downs, are much more valuable and satisfying than those virtual relationships that we can close at will by touching the “off” switch on the computer.
As Christians we form the branches of the Vine who is Jesus. We are all linked to the one vine. Last week we were reminded that it is Jesus who decides who will enter his sheepfold. Today we may think of all the grapes happily growing on these Christian branches. Some may look more attractive than others, some may look much more like us than others, but, if we are truly followers of Christ, we are all branches of the same Jesus Vine. It is not for us to criticise the vine-grower’s choice of grape.
One of the key words in Jesus’ portrayal of himself as the true Vine is the little word “abide”. This is highly appropriate in its context, as we know from our experience of flowers. Cut flowers when fresh can be astonishingly beautiful, particularly when arranged with care, but they do not last for long. Their beauty is remarkable but transient. Even if they are kept supplied with ample water within days they will certainly wilt and die. Of that there is no doubt. By contrast a potted plant that is kept complete with its roots in earth will thrive indefinitely. Jesus explains that those of us who abide in him will continue to enjoy a relationship that will last for ever, but those who do not abide in him and do not remain securely attached to the Jesus Vine will wither away as surely as cut flowers will perish.
Jesus has invited us to be the branches of his Vine, but this is not an end in itself. We are to be the branches in order that we can bear fruit. Vines are pruned and cleansed. Branches that wither and die are removed. Remaining branches are cleansed so that they may bear more fruit. This is what all vine-growers do with their vines, and God the Father’s treatment of the Jesus Vine is no exception. Yet we who are the branches, securely bound together by Christ’s abiding presence, would surely wish to bear fruit. That is after all the purpose of the Jesus Vine as of all other vines. It is for us the branches to bear fruit in service to the world. The apparent severity of pruning vines is balanced with the intimacy of the image. God the Father and his Son Jesus are no distant judges but the vine-grower and the vine themselves.
Indeed Jesus is both the one who invites us to abide in him and bear fruit and the one who enables us to do so. Because the Father has raised Jesus from the dead he continues to dwell among us, sustaining and strengthening us as a vine does its branches. This presence is abiding, permanent, and it has already begun.
Jesus is not speaking solely of the future, either in his picture of the Vine or in his promise to be present with us. Both are in the present tense. He is the True Vine now, and we are his branches now, and he is present with us now. This presence, however, will last for ever. We who are the branches of the Jesus Vine are to bear fruit, because that is what vine branches were created to do, and we will do so because we are securely rooted in Jesus the True Vine. In a world of multiplying connections and virtual friendships, this real relationship, described in the simple and memorable imagery of the vine, is the one relationship that really matters.