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Morning Prayer for the 5th Sunday of Easter with the congregation at St Thomas Church.
ALM John’s Talk:
I am the true vine
As a child, in common with many of you, wine was never to be seen around the house, at meal-times, at parties, or special events. My first experience of imbibing came when I was a student at the Sorbonne in Paris in the late sixties when it was often safer to drink the wine rather than the water, and for a poor student usually cheaper. Over many years since through School links in Normandy, twinning visits and rotary exchanges my enjoyment of wine, particularly French wine has grown.
One of the best holidays we had was a trip with the new Brittany Ferries route to Caen from Portsmouth; a journey which took us through the vineyards of the Loire. Spectacular scenery, hillside after hillside of red and white grapes. But however much when we think of wine we think of France, the art of winemaking is thought to have begun thousands of years before somewhere in the triangle between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Galilee.
It was from there that the vine travelled south through Phoenicia and Canaan to Egypt, which became the first great wine culture centre. The Egyptians particularly prized the wine of Canaan. Canaan must have been one of the earliest areas to make wine – over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe.
The Israelites’ interest in winegrowing is a continual theme throughout the Bible. Wine was seen as a symbol of happiness and out of all the books of the Bible, only the Book of Jonah contains no reference to it.
The first mention of wine in the Bible is in Genesis. Noah, after the water subsided, planted a vineyard and then got drunk on the resulting wine. (Genesis 9:20-21).
And when in the Book of Numbers, we read that Moses sent the spies to scout out the ‘Promised Land’; they returned with a bunch of grapes, so large that it had to be carried on a pole, to illustrate that ‘this was a land flowing with milk and honey’.
Isaiah’s song about vineyards (Isa. 5) gives a detailed account of planting a vineyard through to the harvesting of its grapes. He likens God to an owner of a vineyard and Israel to the vineyard.
There is no quality wine producing country in the present day that can boast such a rich history of wine production and wine culture as Israel.
So that’s the story of earthly wine; the wine which we may drink today and the wine which symbolised all that was bad about the Israel which Jesus was born into.
To Jews there is no communal, religious or family life without wine. Each Sabbath starts with an act of blessing over a cup of wine. The association between wine, Israel and Judaism creates a unique bond between wine and the Jewish people. Christian use of Communion wine, stemmed not only from the Jewish faith, but also from the high profile of wine in the Holy Land. The Last Supper was the Jewish Passover meal.
In our gospel reading from John today we come to the seventh and final one of the “I ams” of Jesus. I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the world, I am the door, I am the Good Shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the Way, the truth and the life and now “I am the true vine”.
We read in John’s gospel this morning, “I am the real vine and my father is the vinegrower, the gardener in some translations. He destroys every branch in me which does not bear fruit, and he cleanses every branch that does bear fruit that it may bear more fruit”.
When Jesus drew his picture of the vine he knew exactly what he was talking about. The vine was grown all over Palestine. It is a plant which needs a great deal of attention if the best fruit is to be produced. As we know it is grown commonly on terraces; the ground has to be well prepared; wherever it grows careful preparation of the soil is essential. It grows luxuriantly and drastic pruning is necessary. Vines are set well apart for they creep over the ground at speed. A young vine is not allowed to fruit for three years and each year is cut back severely to develop and conserve its life and energy. Then as it matures it bears two kind of branches, ones that will bear fruit and ones that do not; those that do not are pruned back so that they do not drain the plant’s strength. Jesus knew that unless there was drastic pruning the vine would not grow to be fruitful.
“I am the vine you are the branches; those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit”.
As branches, thus as Christians we can be fruitful or not. We can be useless and not listen to Christ at all; we can listen to him but the not follow this up with deeds; thirdly we can accept Him as our master but when things get tough abandon Him.
However, if we abide in Him; ie develop this intimate relationship then He will abide in us. Not one of us can come to the Father except through Him But in order to abide in Him we have to become fruitful; this can only happen if we are well prepared.
It has been suggested by scholars that as Jesus and his disciples departed from the last supper through the temple yard to the Garden of Gethsemane he told this to his disciples; the temple he had found so unfruitful and at the temple entrance there would have been a large golden vine hung with golden fruit above the large door leading to the inner sanctum. These images led him to point out that He, Jesus Christ, was the only true vine; it was only he who could gather the fruitful branches to him that they should bear fruit. He was telling the disciples, now calling them his friends that they would bear the fruit. He had spent much of his time leading up to the final act preparing them for the ministry they would go out and accomplish after he had risen. They were now rooted in the Word.
“I am the true vine” helps us as we consider the paper Mark has asked us to think about on Missional growth. Those first two Marks of mission; to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to teach, baptise and nurture new believers. We are to be fruitful and to bear more fruit. That is the way for us as followers of Christ but firstly we must develop that intimacy with Christ through our prayers, through developing our knowledge of the Word which is the truth and this will bring us closer to God. Everything that we do has to be rooted in the Word for us to become fruitful disciples of Jesus.
As this mornings gospel reading concludes;
“If you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish and it will be done for you. My father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples”
I’m reminded of a verse from the song “I am weak but Thou art strong” which we used to sing at Baptist Summer camp in Snowdonia.
Just a closer walk with Thee
Grant it, Jesus, is my plea
Daily walking close to Thee
Let it be, dear Lord, let it be