Sermon preached by the Subdean, Rev’d Canon John Patrick, in Lincoln Cathedral at the 9.30 Eucharist on the 5th Sunday of Easter 2012
There is considerable difference between enjoying a garden and enjoying gardening. I certainly enjoy being in a beautiful garden on a pleasant spring or summer day, with family and friends and with a glass of ‘ginger beer’ in my hand! However, and if I am completely honest, I would not be enjoying the day as much if I were on my hands and knees attempting to, as it were, sort out the wheat from the chaff.
Whilst content to mow the lawn –in fact I find that an enjoyable and relaxing task – the bottom line is, I am no gardener. However, I am aware of the principle of pruning. Without being pruned a plant will become over grown, straggly, tangled and in a short while will grow in on itself. It will come to a point when the plant no longer flowers or produces fruit.
What is true of say, a rose, is also true of a vine. Both need pruning in order to flourish, to grow, to develop, to flower, to produce grapes.
The image that Christ places in front of his listeners in our Gospel today is a powerful one: I am the true vine, he declares, and my Father is the vine-grower, …. I am the vine, you are branches.
This image would resonate with his Jewish listeners as the vine, the vineyard, was a picture of Israel. In Psalm 80 we hear how God,
…brought a vine out of Egypt,
[and] drove out the nations and planted it.
But then in Isaiah 5 we hear that the vineyard, Israel, has not been worthy of the creator’s care and love:
I will make it a waste;
it shall not be pruned or hoed,
and it shall be overgrown with
briers and thorns;
I shall also command the clouds,
that they rain no rain upon it.
So, Jesus here presents himself as “the true vine” and therefore ”the true Israel”. And just as Israel was God’s instrument of salvation so that same purpose is now fulfilled in the one person Jesus. And his followers are members of God’s true people – if they belong to him and remain ‘in him’.
So, we are left with far more than a simple gardening illustration but with an image of who Jesus and his followers really are.
It is a profoundly inclusive and all embracing image – it speaks of Christ as ‘the vine’ – not the root, or a stem, or a branch or a bunch of grapes but the whole plant of which we are a part – the branches. St. Paul uses a similar image of the Body of which we are different parts. We are, in another Pauline, phrase ‘in Christ’ – inseparable from him – and called and enabled to bear the fruit of love.
This whole image speaks not only of our being incorporated into Christ and inseparable from him, but also of how we are connected one with another. The love that we have of one another needs to be spread out, and spread out with generosity and love.
That’s the clear and unambiguous message we hear in our reading from I John this morning:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God: everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
So with this powerful image resonating in our minds the question that is set before us is: how can we stay within the vine, how can we abide in Christ?
Well we need to be part of the community of Christ, the family of God, the Church. There is no such thing as a solitary Christian. We have to abide in Christ, we have to abide within the community. I have always had a bit of a gripe about people who say, “Ah, well I don’t come to church but I do watch Songs of Praise”. That’s entertainment not worship. It’s a bit like saying, “Well I don’t eat but I watch Ready Steady Cook!” The result is the same: death. Spiritually or Physically!
Of course, there may be those through illness or other issues cannot join the worshipping community and that’s where we offer pastoral care – when we the wider worshipping community go out to those in need. I hope that you’ll have had chance to read the Chapter Letter this week – preferably not in the last 5 minutes! – where I refer to Pastoral care within the Cathedral community. I make mention there that if you know anyone in need of pastoral care please have a word with Canon Jane Freeburn-Smith, the Dean’s Verger or myself. But also remembering that we all have a responsibility as part of the vine to offer that care and that love to those in need. We abide in Christ and we abide in one another.
There is within all of us the desire to take the easy way, to leave the responsibility to others but that’s where we need to prune away those things that are unworthy of our discipleship. Whether there be laziness or more fundamental stumbling blocks on the way to being what God desires of his people. Following Christ is not a painless experience, it means facing up to our own failings and our own frailty.
We gather therefore around this altar recognizing that we are part of the one body, branches of the vine and that we abide in him: “though we are many we are one Body because we all share in the one bread”.
Through God’s grace may we enable others to know the peace that comes through abiding in God’s perfect love and by the same grace may we offer ourselves in his service – and all to the glory of the one and only living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.