This is a sermon I preached several years ago, in the parish where I was a student at the time. But a recent conversation prompted me to dig it out and post it here. The Scripture it references is John 15:1-6.
Jesus said, “I am the vine.” He also said, “You are the branches. Abide” – that is, remain – “in me.” That picture of Jesus as the vine made me think about how plants live and grow; what role in the life of the plant the different parts of the vine have, and what it might mean for us to be a branch of the grapevine.
It also made me think about how we remain in him. Christ is risen and ascended. While I don’t want, in any way, to imply that we don’t each have a personal relationship with Jesus, we participate most fully in that relationship by being part of the community of believers, part of what Paul tells us is the body of Christ. We are the body of Christ; we affirm it week by week; and we need to understand that in that sense, this community is the vine.
But let us take a few minutes to consider the life of a grapevine, and how it functions and stays healthy – starting at the bottom.
The roots of a plant are often not obvious or even visible at a casual glance, and yet as anyone who’s done some weeding will remember, they can be surprisingly big and resilient. If the body of Christ is the vine, then it follows that he is at the roots of our faith. And roots do a couple of really important things for a plant. One is that they draw water and nutrients up from the ground to the rest of the plant – to the branches.
Here we have, I think, no very surprising ideas about Christ. Earlier in John’s gospel, he promised the woman at the well springs of living water, gushing up to eternal life. And he taught the crowds who followed him that he is the bread of life. Water and nourishment – in abundance – are to be found in Christ. Remaining in him, then, as branches of the vine will mean that we look to him for that nourishment. That is serious encouragement to us to consider our lives of prayer and reading, and how we nourish our spiritual lives.
The other thing that roots are really important for, and this function they share also with the trunk or main stem, is support, structure and balance. Without this part of the vine, it would be prostrate on the ground, sort of the plant equivalent of a jellyfish. Not really able to grow or live well. And it occurs to me that we each need these supports in our lives of faith as well – unless we are happy to be the spiritual equivalent of jellyfish! Developing some discipline, and allowing ourselves to be accountable to others in the church, gives us some structure when life is confusing and overwhelming. Carrying one another’s burdens, caring, and being willing to share our own stories for encouragement helps to provide the support and balance that a healthy community needs. These are things which we cannot experience if we try to live a life of faith on our own.
But what then of the branches? How do we see ourselves in this extended botanical metaphor? I think there are two things to say about us as branches. One is that we are the growing edges of the vine. It is the very tips of the branches which stretch out to new areas.
I remember when I was sharing a house with three other students, and none of us really had time or inclination for gardening. I planted a grapevine outside our back door and then basically neglected it. By the time I got round to looking at it a few months later I realised its branches had climbed into the neighbouring lemon tree to a height far above my head. I think my housemates thought it was very funny when I was out there trying to detangle it and encourage it to grow over the fence I had originally intended…
But while that story doesn’t say much about me as a gardener, it does say something about the vigour of growth in a healthy vine. And I would suggest that one of the things we should look for in ourselves, as healthy branches, is whether we are being stretched and reaching out. This stretching can be in the interior life, in the stretching of our personal response to God. And also, at the same time, this stretching means paying attention to the people around us, and looking for the ways to build connections with them.
The other key thing about branches is energy production. It’s in the leaves – on the branches – that the plant produces all the energy that it needs to survive and thrive. Without wanting to bore you all to tears with the chemical details, the water drawn up from the roots, (you remember that living water, don’t you?) with the help of the energy of light, goes into making the sugar that every cell in the plant needs. Well, the intricacies aren’t important. But I think it is very helpful to recognise that something vital happens in us when the light of God in our lives, and the nourishment he provides us, meet. There is energy for us, there is something which keeps each of us going, keeps the church going, keeps the kingdom of God real and manifest in this world, in this meeting of elements, in us. That is, none of it would be realised without us.
Which brings us, finally, to the fruit. It is the energy produced in the leaves – on the branches – which is needed for a plant to produce fruit. The fruits of the plant are its reproductive bodies; they hold the seeds of new life. And again, a bit like the growing edges of the branches, this is true for us both in our interior lives – we remember the fruits of the Spirit; love, joy, peace and so on – but also in the new life that comes about as new people are drawn into and become part of this community, this vine which ultimately is Christ. This is another thing that simply can’t happen in the church without us functioning as we should.
But what, you might ask – and it’s a good question – what about that bit about pruning, withering and burning? That doesn’t sound so positive. It sounds somehow like punishment for failing to reach a high enough production level. But look carefully at what Jesus says. His comments about the branches which whither and are burnt come after his instruction to “Abide in me.”
If we remain in him, we will remain healthy, able to bear fruit, able to be the people we are created and called to be. If we remove ourselves from him, if we deprive ourselves of all that the vine offers – the water, the support, and so on – we should not be surprised to find that we are dried out, lifeless, fruitless, and not able to continue. I suspect that Jesus is simply pointing out the obvious; a branch away from the vine dies, and there its possibilities end.
I hope that by now, you’re starting to see some of the potential each of us has as a branch. Here we are, the gathered body of Christ, experiencing something of life in the vine. One of my teachers is fond of telling us that “the church is the community in which we die and rise.” In this community, joined to Christ by our baptism, joined to him in his death and resurrection, the new life we celebrated not so long ago at Easter invigorates us, filling us with possibility, even to the smallest growing bud. Perhaps my teacher ought to say that the church is the vine in which we die and rise. Nourished, watered, given structure and support, able to be a people of dynamism and growth, able to produce fruit, in Christ we are risen indeed. Alleluia!