There is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.
The Venerable David Stanton Canon Treasurer and Archdeacon of Westminster
Sunday, 29th April 2018 at 11.15 AM
8 years ago, at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth II, a new three hectare vineyard (with 16,000 beautifully manicured and ordered vines) was created in Windsor Great Park to revive an ancient tradition of wine production at the castle estate.
Some 850 years before, during the time of Henry II, vineyards were first planted at Windsor, but over time they became unkempt, produced few and fewer grapes, and were finally abandoned.
This new south facing vineyard, just above the Great Meadow lake, is in an ideal location. Ancient oak trees provide a natural windbreak, the soil is well-drained, the climate’s becoming increasingly moderate, and crucially the vines are being very well cared for. What’s more, its already producing some rather good sparkling white wine.
When Jesus used the metaphor of Judean vineyards, both he and St John, assumed their future readers would understand how Middle Eastern vineyards were cared for and managed.
Then a vine would have been left to its own natural devises and would have grown spreading along the ground. The heavy dews from warm days and cold nights would have produced much mould and fungus.
Knowing this, the first priority for a Middle Eastern vine grower was to keep all parts of the vine from touching the soil. To do this he would wedge a substantial rock up against the vineyard trunk, thus lifting the vine.
This had the effect of allowing the wind (the pneuma, the Holy Spirit) to circulate around its branches and evaporate moisture. This was done before any pruning took place. The words of Psalm 62:2, come to mind: He alone is my rock and my salvation.
We all know what a vine looks like: a mass of entwined branches, winding their way around one another. This makes it virtually impossible to tell where one branch starts or another one ends, and so we know that the vine is an intricate and intimate plant.
Yet if the vine becomes too entwined it becomes unproductive, weakening the link between energy and fruit. So pruning becomes necessary for both healthy and productive vines. In biblical times, when branches didn’t yield fruit, they were cut off and dried on the wall of the vineyard to be used later as fuel.
This morning’s allegory has an intimate tone. Jesus is preparing his friends for growing the kingdom and reminds them that without him they can do nothing. It will be useless to depend on anything other than him.
He is the true vine of which the Father takes personal care. From a vine we look for grapes, and from faithful lives we look for Christ-like behaviour. When we walk closely with God we begin to bear fruit; but we’re also told that even fruitful branches need pruning.
Such pruning may be likened to the cleansing of our selfishness that comes through suffering and sacrifice. Love and sacrifice, as the lives of all the saints witness to, and as Christ himself exemplifies, keep the sap flowing.
They yield the fruit that we long for most: lives that resound with meaning and energy, lives that positively impact on others, lives that changes this world for the better.
So we come to see that God doesn’t prune in order to cause pain; but neither does God protect us from pain that we may have to face. Over the years we come to discover, that often real growth takes place in the face of serious adversity.
In such situations God gives us growth, through his Holy Spirit, and enables us to let go of all those things that are not really important. This is done by letting him humble us and strip away our pride. This of course can hurt, but the pain associated with being humbled by God is key to spiritual growth.
By growing in humility, we grow ever more reliant upon the source of our nourishment, rather than relying upon ourselves, our own ideas and our own plans.
Such spiritual pruning keeps us firmly attached to the vine of Christ’s love, and sets us free to live by his Spirit. And we know that the fruits of that Spirit are lives marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Perhaps you may like to reflect for a moment on what really characterises your life? Often those who are close to us are able see this more clearly than we do.
Jesus reminds his disciples of his love for them and, in turn, commands them to remain in His love. But he also reveals something more about the pruning process when he says, you are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.
His word and commands do the pruning. The pruning begins when we hear his word and allow it to penetrate our lives.
This morning’s second reading from the First Letter of John also includes words related to this life together on the vine. Just before the passage that we heard this morning, the author says: ‘Let us love not in word or speech but in truth and action.’
Living the life of faith and discipleship further includes living disciplined lives (the ordered Windsor vines come to mind) and acting on the word of God, in other words, keeping his commandments. He goes on to write that two are particularly important: believing in the name of Jesus Christ the Father’s son and loving one another, just as he commanded us.
Jesus describes this love in these terms: there is no greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. He also binds the command of love to his other teachings when he says, you are my friends if you do what I command you.
His image of the vine and branches is a powerful reminder to us of the love that binds us together with him, and each other. In union with him we have life, in union with him we are nourished for the journey of life, in union with him we bear fruit.
So he tells us that God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.