A sermon preached at Guildford Cathedral on the Fifth Sunday of Easter. (Genesis 22, John 15.1-8.)
Jesus said, ‘Abide in me as I abide in you’. Alleluia.
+ In name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
You don’t have to venture to the hills of Burgundy, Bordeaux or even California to see vines growing. In our own diocese today you could go along the Hog’s Back or over to Denbies at Dorking, just as you could have done during the Roman occupation of this land, and see vines stretching across hills.
Viticulture is ancient and widespread, and is drawn upon in today’s gospel reading: ‘I am the vine; you are the branches’.
Jesus’ declares himself to be the vine and his disciples to be the branches; telling us that we are in an intimate, life-giving relationship with him, so that we may abide in him and he in us.
The vine branch draws its sustaining life from the trunk of the vine; so much so that it is impossible to tell exactly where the vine ends and the branch begins. In one sense they are so united, vine or branch is a false distinction.
This is a relationship of intimacy and life. Perhaps the only other time we know such intimacy is as an unborn child through the umbilical cord when we are grafted into the life of another. In the womb we are held in the waters of amniotic fluid, but now have been reborn through the waters of creation and new creation; of baptism.
Through that birth we are grafted into the source of all life in the name of Jesus Christ, in whom we hope, sustained in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This defines the character of our relationship with God as Christians.
For the Jewish people it is defined through Covenant and Torah; the way of life attends to a covenant relationship with God in which the Jewish people honour their relationship with the God of Abraham, who called them out of Egypt and gave them freedom in the Promised Land. That covenant is the way they remain faithful to God, trusting that God remains faithful to them.
In Islam the Muslim’s relationship with God is through submission to God in prayer, almsgiving and pilgrimage.
The character of the Christian's relationship with God is union with God in the power of the Holy Spirit in the Name of Jesus Christ. In other words, life flows into us from God, and our hopes, expectations and desires are met most fully in him such that we take on God’s character: this is what it means to dwell, remain, abide in God’s love; this is what it means to grow into the full stature of Christ.
Jesus describes this in the image of the vine. As Cyril of Alexandria puts it:
The Lord calls himself the vine and those united to him branches in order to teach us how important it is for us to remain in his love. By receiving the Holy Spirit, who is the bond of union between us and Christ our Saviour, those who are joined to him, as branches are to a vine, share in his own nature.
From a Commentary on St John’s Gospel
Abide in my love. Our first reading explored the nature of relationships human and divine. It is through the relationship of Abraham and Isaac, the relationship of Abraham and God. This is a deeply disturbing passage too. Is this really what God will ask of Abraham to sacrifice his own son? What of the boy’s mother? These questions and more that arise from this passage are important and not to be dismissed.
In relation to the Jesus the Vine the story of Abraham and Isaac points us to contemplate our own relationship with God in Christ and how we abide in his love.
As the Church Father, Origen, reminds us, the passage from Genesis echoes – or, rather, prefigures – the death of Jesus Christ. Like Isaac Christ is faithful to the Father’s word; he carries the wood for his own death as did Isaac; Isaac ascends a mountain as Christ ascended the hill of Calvary; like Isaac, Christ willingly lies down upon the instrument of his death. And that is where the parallels break down, for Christ himself is the Lamb of God, not caught in a thicket, but who does die upon the cross, so that we may abide in his love.
The relationship we are invited into through baptism is not the one that is required of Abraham in which he is put to the test. In fact it is the relationship prefigured by Abraham that the Lord will provide for us. God’s own son becomes the Lamb of God who's blood is shed for the life of the world.
As we abide in his love the beating heart of Christ pumps into us the lifeblood of God.
These rich themes are picked up in our understanding of how Christ’s lifeblood runs in our veins through the sacraments of baptism and Eucharist. A prayer offered quietly by the priest at the preparation of the chalice of wine captures it:
‘By the mystery of this water and wine may we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’
The grapes of the vine come to fruition and then are crushed to extract their juice. This juice becomes life in the Eucharist, connecting us to the life-giving sacrifice of Christ. It’s put beautifully in a prayer at the preparation of the altar in Holy Week:
Jesus, true vine and bread of life,
ever giving yourself that the world might live,
let us share your death and passion:
make us perfect in your love.
So we abide, remain, dwell in God’s love so that we share his life as he shares ours. This takes us on a mystical and wonderful journey of seeking to become the person who God made us to be such that we pray, ‘That we may evermore dwell in him and he in us’.