Preached as a homily at Croydon Minster on the Fifth Sunday of Easter. Readings: Acts 8.26-end; John 15.1-8
I am the True Vine, says the Lord.
When I was chaplain at the University of Surrey my Roman Catholic colleague would take students preparing for Confirmation to Denbies Wine Estate near Dorking. It was a nice day out, they had something to eat, and drink, and they walked through the vineyard and learnt how the vines were tended and made connections with today’s gospel and what flows from it.
Viticulture, the tending of vines, is what the vine grower does, and it is the image Jesus draws on. He speaks of pruning and grafting and growing and fruitfulness.
Vines grow and are fruitful through pruning. Pruning - chopping off excess growth - focuses fruitful growth.
Then there’s grafting, when almost miraculously the branch taken from one plant grafted into another grows well. The host vine has to be cut into to receive the graft, and, once it does, the host vine gives life to the branch.
So where could we take this image?
The pruning of the vine of my soul is about cutting out the excesses of my ego to allow Christ to be fruitful in me; it’s about pruning the parts of my life that have become lifeless and dry to generate abundant life in me; it’s about pruning out my vices so that my virtues grow and bear the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5.22,23).
The grafting of the vine speaks of the wounds of Christ which his body bears into which we, with our pains and sorrows, are grafted. The prayer Anima Christi speaks of this. In the words of St John Henry Newman’s translation:
Passion of Christ, my comfort be;
O good Jesus, listen to me;
In Thy wounds I fain would hide;
Ne'er to be parted from Thy side;
Or from the hymn, ‘Soul of my Saviour’
Strength and protection may thy passion be,
O blessèd Jesus, hear and answer me;
deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me,
so shall I never, never part from thee.
That is grafting, never being parted from the life-giver.
That is why Jesus can describe himself as the True Vine. And that vine pours out his life for us. The wine of the Eucharist is that sacramental sign of his lifeblood.
The grapes are harvested and then crushed. Crushed to release the juice that becomes the wine. Jesus is crushed on the cross, blood flows from his side, with water: both speak of water and wine; Baptism and Eucharist.
It calls to mind too the miracle at Cana, the first of Jesus’ signs: the transformation of water into wine.
And wine is of course integral to the Eucharist. The norm is that we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. What a deprivation it is not to receive the chalice at the moment.
In the chalice we receive the lifeblood of Christ, poured out for us and for our salvation. The prayer of the preparation of the chalice says:
Blessed are you Lord, God of all creation,
through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become for us the cup of salvation.
The Book of Common Prayer has a prayer known as the Prayer of Humble Access. It prepares us to receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist. It ends by asking that ‘we may evermore dwell in Christ, and he in us’. That is about being grafted into Christ, the True Vine.
Jesus says, ‘I am the true vine’. When grafted in the branch receives life from the host, the true vine. Once grafted in the branch can be said to ‘abide’ in the vine.
We may not use the word much now, except when we sing ‘Abide with me’: to abide is to live somewhere; even more than that, it is to dwell, to rest, to find a home.
We are invited to find a home, a resting place, a dwelling, an abode in Jesus Christ. Abiding with Christ is to be at home with him, receiving his life and giving our lives.
Remember Christ has made his home with us - ‘The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us’ (John 1 14) – and, at the end of our life on earth, he promises that in his Father’s house there are many dwelling places, places to rest, to find our truest home (John 14.2).
And all this abiding is for the point of growing into the full stature of Christ (Ephesians 4.13), bearing fruit. The passage concludes, ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples’ (John 15.8).
As disciples we are being grafted into Christ. The sacraments are the grafting points into his Body for his disciples: water and blood; baptism and Eucharist.
As disciples we learn and grow, we turn away from what is dead and dry, so that we may glorify God in our lives. This is not a competition, not to be measured against anyone else, but a patient, growing, fruitful grafting into Christ, for this is the only goal of the Christian life.
‘As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love’ (John 15.9)