Sermon at the Sung Eucharist on the Fifth Sunday of Easter 2021

Jesus said, Abide in me… I am the Vine, you are the branches.

The Reverend Dr James Hawkey Canon Theologian

Sunday, 2nd May 2021 at 11.15 AM

Jesus said, Abide in me… I am the Vine, you are the branches.

This morning’s Gospel is all about life and promise. It is about communion, or fellowship. Jesus – as so often – uses an image from the natural world to describe something of his mission to those around him. The image of the vine is a particularly rich one. Full of branches and tendrils, flowers and leaves, the most fruitful of which often grow from old stock, this is a metaphor which is as encouraging and embracing for Christ’s followers today as it must have been for those early disciples.

We are told by Jesus to ‘abide’ in this vine – to make our home here, to take shelter, relax, to see that ecosystem as sufficient-in-itself, whilst there is simultaneously always more to explore. You may know the famous apse mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. Made in the 1130s, it is a feast of gold and green, with a still, peaceful image of the Crucified Christ at the centre of the vine, under which, deer drink from a spring which bubbles up eternally from the foot of the Cross. It recalls the first verse of psalm 42, “like as the hart desireth the water-brook, so longeth my soul after thee, O Lord.” The curling vine-leaves of the mosaic blossom from the cross right across the huge apse in circular motion. One of the notable features of this breathtakingly beautiful piece of art, is that so much everyday life is held within it. Sure, there are small images of monks getting on with copying the scriptures, but there’s also a woman feeding her chickens, someone else tending his herds. There is ordinary day-to-day humdrum existence in this vine, alongside the peacocks which symbolise eternal life and the owls offering an encouragement to wisdom. The abiding we are invited to embrace is one which encapsulates all life, not just what we might think of as the religious ‘bits’, as if our life can be compartmentalised in some way: all of it must find a home in the vine.

Why is this Gospel set for us in Eastertide? On these Sundays after Easter, we reflect on how we receive the gift of Easter, how the fundamental truth that Jesus is alive shapes our life and that of our world. It’s not as if the events of Christ’s passion and resurrection happen ‘out there’ or at a distance. Rather, we believe that through the Holy Spirit we can participate in their fruits now. In fact, we can become fruitful. Christ the Vine offers us this life, a life which will sift and embrace whatever we offer, all our fragilities and infirmities made strong by a life which has trampled down death.  These great events of Easter are present with us now.

In a sermon on this passage, St Augustine wrote, “when [Christ’s] words abide only in the memory, and have no place in the life, the branch is not to be accounted as in the vine, because it draws not its life from the root.” Augustine is particularly referring here to the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Allow this prayer the immediacy it deserves, he’s saying, pray for the Kingdom to come now, for bread for today, forgiveness for this time. The ecosystem of the vine is alive and alert, because prayer is a way of life within it.

Each summer, I used to take students to a small monastery outside Assisi where they would spend a week living alongside brothers of the Italian community of Bose. They would pray, walk, eat, drink, read, relax and work in the vineyards. These were times when faith was always refreshed and sometimes encountered for the first time. Time in the vineyard in the early mornings before it got too hot was particularly memorable. The monk who looked after the vines is a huge character who would teach these students how to cut, twist, and prune the vines. By 11am, we would be wading through piles of pruned branches, long tendrils lopped off to encourage future growth. Jesus assures us in today’s Gospel that the Father ‘prunes’ all those who bear fruit. All of us have habits, dispositions, obsessions, memories, thoughts, behaviour, which need to be cut back so that we can grow again, so that our own life in the vine can become fruitful. That can be a painful and difficult process, perhaps made easier or more manageable, when it happens with the support of others in conversation, spiritual direction, therapy, or just simply knowing someone else is silently there for us and with us. Life in the vine is a communal thing. But back to the pruning. In our vineyard, the monk who taught us how to care for the vines would often make the most ludicrous hats with the very branches we’d lopped off. Sometimes it was just for fun, more often it was a straightforward way of using the slightly absurd to bring into the circle some of the group who were quieter, shy or whom he perceived might be in danger of feeling lonely. In the spiritual life, that which is cut back from us can be re-fashioned into material which helps us grow. A tendency towards jealousy can consciously be turned into gratitude, the energy of anger can be activated in the service of justice and peace. Our own wounds or scarred memories can be placed at the service or healing of others who share the life of the Vine alongside us. In art of the resurrection, Christ is often shown clutching his instrument of humiliation, his cross, as if it were a trophy. The martyrs are depicted with the weapons which took their lives. That which is pruned from us so that we might grow is worthy of our attention before we dismiss it. What must be released is all that would hold us back from Christ.

The point is that if we attend to abiding in Christ, in ordinary life, we can hone our senses to respond to the promptings of his Risen Life. In the words of a sonnet on this Gospel written by the priest-poet Malcolm Guite, “to feel the stir/Of inward sap that rises from our root/Himself deep planted in the ground of Love.” That will lead both to thankfulness and an awareness of what needs to change within us. All of that can be offered to God in Christ, at the service of his love in everyday life, in our work, with our families and friends, in the thousands of little choices we make each day. If we abide in the vine, we will become fruitful, and it is that fruitfulness we offer in the bread and wine of this Eucharist. Here, all that we are, all that we have been given, is re-grafted into the Vine which is Christ, so that our offering may be one with his.

But we should remember that theological concepts and scriptural exegesis only matter when they are at the service of Christ’s Kingdom. Therefore, I’m going to give the last word on abiding in the Vine which is Christ, to a great Jesuit, Pedro Arrupe, who wrote rather beautifully on falling in love, or as we have put it this morning, in abiding.

Jesus said, Abide in me… I am the Vine, you are the branches.