John 15.1-8 I am the true vine, and you are the branches

Fr Alec
Sunday, May 3, 2015 - 9:30am

Do you ever wonder how the Church looks to those who don’t belong to it? What do people suppose that it is? It has been instructive to have spent some years of my life at one remove from day-to-day parish life coming face to face with people’s perceptions of the Church and the various ways in which it is seen.

For many, it is a self-serving irrelevance. A social body existing principally for the entertainment of its aged members. For others it is a cagy, rather sinister institution seeking to exercise power by inspiring guilt. For yet others it is a well-meaning charitable organisation rather like Greenpeace filled with people wearing socks and sandals.


But if it is not any of those things, (and I confess there are times when it comes dangerously close to all of them,) then what is it? If you were put to the test, how would you describe the Church? I don’t mean St Mary’s in particular, neither the building, nor the people. What I mean is the Church with a capital ‘C’, which is the whole body of Christians the world over.


There are various ways in which we might have a go at describing just what the Church is…


We might describe it as a group of people with shared beliefs. Those bound together, for example, by their adherence to the Nicene Creed that we recite here every Sunday. And this is a fine description, as far as it goes. It gives a picture of the Church as being rather like a college or a learned society, where we are trained to believe and understand the things of God, where we are joined together by shared knowledge.


Alternatively, we might understand it as being rather more like an Army or a hospital – an institution bound up with a particular purpose, and having a job of work to do which defines it– whether healing, or teaching, or doing battle with the forces of wickedness and injustice.


Then again we might make Community our focus. We might decide that the Church is a kind of global village, a worldwide body of people called to live together in friendship and mutual affection, exercising gifts of tolerance, generosity and forgiveness.


We might go further and say that the Church is like a giant Noah’s Ark. An institution defined simply in terms of having been redeemed – rescued from the perils and dangers of the world.


Here we have four pictures of the church:  A society based on belief, an army based on action, a village based on community, and an ark based on salvation. None of these pictures is particularly wrong, and you could find ample justification for each in scripture, but I wonder if each of them on its own is rather incomplete. How did Jesus describe the Church?


‘I am the Vine,’ he said, ‘and you are the branches.’


Consider that, for a moment. The Church is defined in relationship to Jesus – a sinuous living plant from which we are offshoots. The branches are an integral, physically connected, part of the vine. This is no club which we dip in and out of. We are sustained and fed by being connected to the vine, and our life depends upon that connection. What is more, we are dependent on each other, we live in communion. A sickly or infected branch affects all the others.


Just as vine dressers in ancient Palestine knew, and as they know today, a grape vine requires careful and continual care for long years before it will yield any grapes at all. It is a work of painstaking devotion to tend a vine, and for this reason it was often used in the Old Testament as an allegory of Israel- God’s faithful people (or, more often, as the prophets suggest, his unfaithful people!) bearing fruit according to their deeds.


St Paul uses a different, but related metaphor, when he says ‘You are the Body of Christ’. Like limbs on a body, or branches on a vine we are completely dependent on the whole body, the whole vine for our health and survival. The vine is an organic structure, a living, growing organism adapting itself to its surroundings, whilst being trained, pruned and fed by an intelligence beyond itself.


But consider this too…as we share, by virtue of our baptism in the life of Christ, we have been given a special dignity, an awesome privilege. Unworthy as we are, weak, inconstant and prone to failure as we are, we are the way in which Jesus makes himself available to the world. Though the vine is hidden from sight, the branches hang down rich with fruit to refresh and intoxicate all creation. With love, and forgiveness, and healing, and mercy, and reconciliation, and peace.


God has called us, his people, the Church, to bear his fruit, to give his gifts to the world, to be the vessels of his grace. The Church is most truly itself not when it is a body of people trying very hard to do things that please God, but when it is a unified body alert to the grace flowing through it from God. As Jesus said to his disciples:


Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.”


Greater works than these! What a humbling and undeserved honour, we have been given.


What remains for us is to be alert to God through prayer. To meet Him faithfully in His Sacraments. To open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit that flows out like sap from the true vine, to refresh us, renew us and build us up. When we succeed in doing that, and we hang heavy with the abundant fruit of God, then the world will taste and see that the Lord is gracious. They will look at the Church, and know that the Risen Christ is present in their midst.