True vine, authentic holiness

True vine, authentic holiness

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Christ Church Cathedral, Grafton
2 May 2021

Ripe grapes close-up in fall. autumn harvest.

[ video ]

We are now very much in the second half of the Great Fifty Days of Easter; that “week of weeks” which stretches from Easter to Pentecost.

Over the first few weeks of Easter we listen to the appearance stories:

  • Easter 1 – Empty Tomb & Mary in the Garden
  • Easter 2 – John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas)
  • Easter 3 – Luke 24:36-48 (Emmaus) & John 21:1-19 (Lakeside)

Then the focus shifts to how the risen Lord is experienced today:

  • Easter 4 – John 10 (Good Shepherd)
  • Easter 5 – John 14 (Home with many rooms), John 15 (True Vine), John 13 (New Commandment to love on another)
  • Easter 6 – John 14:15-21 (Advocate), John 15:9-17 (Love one another), John 14:23-29 (Advocate)
  • Easter 7 – John 17:1-11, John 16:16–24, John 17:20-26 (unity with the Father)

The True Vine

Today we encounter a new metaphor in Gospel of John: Jesus as the true or authentic vine. This idea is not found anywhere else in John, and actually is never used by anyone else in the NT. It was not one of Jesus’ regular talking points, but it has been used with great effect about the midpoint of the extended Farewell Discourse in John chapters 13 to 16.

While this is not a common theme in the NT, it draws on ancient biblical tradition. Sometimes the vine is a symbol for the people of God, but most of the time it is a symbol for life going well. A healthy vine with lots of fruit suggests peace and prosperity, while a sick vine that is struggling to survive suggests hard times.

All this reminds us how the ancient symbols of our faith are derived from nature and agriculture, and perhaps also how hard it is to find new ways to speak of faith in our world of silicon chips and urban populations.

This is quite an intimate metaphor. At its heart is the idea of connection with God: of an essential harmony between our spirits and the sacred love at heart of all reality. As such it fits well with the theme of these final weeks of Easter.

The metaphor of the vine takes us beyond belief and action, to focus on simply being who we are as we allow the life of God to be passing through us for the benefit of others.

A misunderstood metaphor

As a teenager this metaphor freaked me out. In my conservative Evangelical church being fruitful meant converting others to believe like us. The pressure was on: to avoid being pruned and burned we needed to go get converts (“bear fruit”)!

BTW, we were not speaking about bringing people to faith for the first time. This was mostly about persuading Anglicans and Catholics to switch across to our little Evangelical sect, renounce their infant Baptism and their sacraments, and start all over again in the Christian life with us.

All that made me very uncomfortable. It seemed my spiritual status in that group was on the line, and that God was always looming with pruning shears and matches. 

Fruit of the Spirit

Yet when a grapevine is fruitful, we are not expecting it to be multiplying vines. Rather, we expect it to bring reflect the inner vitality of the vine in the form of leaves, buds and grapes. We want lovely sweet grapes from a grapevine, not dreams of expansion.

Eventually, I came to see that the result of God’s Spirit in us is our own transformation. Healthy holiness is not persuading others to think like me, not poaching people from one church to another, not converting people from other faiths or no faith. It is simply about being the best version of me that I can be with God’s help.

Paul’s words in Galatians 5 are very helpful, and I deliberately cite them in a longer form than we usually hear them:

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another. [Galatians 5:22–26]

As these Great Fifty Days draw to us a close may we experience a deepening of our own connection with God, a fresh sense of God’s life flowing through us, a transformation of our character and profound inner renewal.

May we remain connected to the Vine and may the Father’s gentle touch help us to be even more responsive to the work of God’s spirit within us.

May we never forget that our task is not convert others, but ourselves.

Postscript: There is a beautiful poem by Malcolm Guite on the Vine, which a friend shared with me after reading this sermon after it was posted online. I encourage you to read that poem and reflect on its significance during the coming week.

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  1. Thank you for reminding me that it’s my task not to try to convert others, but myself.

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