Sermon for High Mass – Easter 5 Sunday 29 April 2018
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
John 15.8 Jesus said: I am the vine, you are the branches.
God’s life is within you. We are not on our own in this life. The Christian insight into humanity, the great teaching you have heard so often, is that the connection between each of us, and God and us, is love. The vinedresser and the vine. That’s the father and the son. The vine and the branches. That’s the son and the disciples. Divine life flows; life is to bear fruit. That’s what a true vine, a living vine, does. Jesus says all this at the Last Supper, just before the world takes an axe to the vine to destroy it. But living as we do in the Easter time, we know that the life of the vine bears fruit in the branches, in the lives and witness of the apostles.
I am the vine, you are the branches. Jesus the True Vine replaces the old Israel, the True Vine in Jeremiah. The vine represents divine wisdom in the Old Testament. Here are images of immense power coming through: the tree of life in the middle of the Garden of Eden; the tree of glory, the Cross, on which the Son of Man is crucified; the True Vine, Jesus himself, pouring out the wine of glory, the Holy Spirit; the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ which was shed for thee. This isn’t biblical research. We are not reading about God; we are listening to Him and we are reading ourselves into the story of Divine love. And here it is, one short sentence, one verse, addressed by Jesus Christ to you and me. The vine says to the branches: Abide in me, and I in you. If that isn’t a declaration of love, like the love we heard about in our second lesson, I don’t know what is. It’s the heart of this passage. Abide. Rest, live, stay with me – and the word St John uses implies loyalty, holding fast to the decision once taken, whatever the world does to us. The Christian life is unthinkable except with Christ the teacher within, and for you and me, struggling on, this means the life of Christ, his relationship with God, his passion, his death, playing over and over again in our lives, in different ways. That doesn’t make us halfway perfect, but we do learn that something good can grow within us. Abide, rest, stay. No exams, no contract, come as you are. This the world will never understand.
I am the vine, you are the branches. The Church of England is a branch of One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Not in the sense that your bank has branches, as in that useful phrase, the universal or catholic church, each branch with its own cashpoint of salvation, but catholic in its other meaning as whole or complete; here is the idea of fullness, in the sense of being fully alive. Our Anglican predecessors, most of whom had evangelical backgrounds, searched for what a church could be; and they looked back, not to the Church of Rome, but to the great English church of the Middle Ages, with its true architecture and catholic piety; and then they went further back in time to the apostles and the Early Church and the Church Fathers, where they saw less division and more faith, close to the True Vine himself. That was their inspiration for the Anglo-Catholic revival in our Church, the Vine from which divine life flowed into the present age, whole and complete, our Church’s authority guaranteed by the apostolic succession of bishops, and known in our hearts now by you and by me to be the True Vine by the fruits of divine love we can discover and enjoy in our lives. Never think that your Church and the Anglican Communion are the free version of a more expensive app, copycat Catholicism. We are a church of the True Vine, not the church of the good compromise. Through the Reformation, through revivals and setbacks, and through the divisions of the present time, the Church of England remains a branch of the True Vine, as she embraces all this quarrelsome and vulnerable humanity, in all the light and the shade of our personal histories, she stays the same, with all the sacraments of divine love, the fruits of that vine, preserved for the salvation of the world, connecting us with the source of life and with each other.
I am the Vine, you are the branches. Be confident in prayer now, because you have the Christ-figure in you, praying to the Father. And with the grace of God’s love, with the joy of his healing and forgiveness, comes the call to human responsibility. The disciples will represent Christ in the world, the branches which have life in them will bear fruit. The fruit of the vine is not missionary success; it is to live the ordinary life of a Christian in whom Jesus lives. By this is God glorified.
I am the Vine, you are the branches. Abide in me, he says. Root yourselves in this space in the centre of life, the sorrows of existence and the joy of being are yours to know; rooted, with the tree of life in the middle of the garden, with the fruit bearing Cross, with the Vine which feeds us the wine of the Spirit. The centre of the action, living the true meaning of life, that is where we are to be. The expulsion from the Garden of Eden is reversed. Rooted now in the Easter Garden, we know that the life of Jesus, the True Vine, that is to say his experience of God, can now flow through us to bear fruit in God’s world.