Sunday 28th April 2024 ~ Rev Hugh Perry

I have a memory from my time as a wedding photographer of one Anglican Priest who always used today’s reading about the vine in his ‘words of encouragement and challenge.’ to the couple.

He always began by saying that he had been pruning his trees that morning.  After a number of weddings I began to wonder if he had any fruit trees left after such constant pruning.

That indeed is the danger of the vine metaphor because humanity has a nasty habit of strengthening their comfortable ‘in’ group by pruning out those who they see as different.  That’s perhaps not surprising because much of our popular entertainment is about doing good by getting rid of the bad guy.  Putting troublesome youths in boot camps is much easier and cost affective than feeding the hungry, housing the homeless, and loving both friend and stranger as ourselves.

Not surprisingly therefore faith-based groups set out to oppose people and lifestyles different to their own, but they also purify their own ‘in’ group by pruning out difference.  That gives power to leadership and in turn opens the temptation and opportunity for leadership to exploit the group for their own gratification or profit.

By some strange coincidences my recent TV watching has involved watching ‘Escaping Utopia’ about the Gloriavale community, ‘Testify’ a drama series about a family run evangelical church which had a brutal murder in the first episode and new sins in each episode. 

Then we had ‘Mr Bates vs The Post Office’ which was about a purely secular corporation that preferred to prune out its loyal independent postmasters  rather than admit its computer programme was faulty.  All this while Destiny Church was vandalising rainbow crossings. 

So, in frustration I abandoned the television and picked up a Robert Galbraith novel which I had purchased in the middle of last year, called The Running Grave

As Robert Galbraith is actually J.K. Rowling I hoped there would have been a bit of magic to free me from depressing television.

But the coincidences continued.  The two detectives were investigating an interfaith cult focused on fraud, mind-bending, sex and murder. 

All these stories involved pruning away people with alternative worldviews and lifestyles to make the core group feel secure but also vulnerable to exploitation.  The magic of stories asked the question if exploitation and profit was perhaps the motive for creating the cult or sect in the first place. 

That was neatly highlighted in a piece of dialog in ‘Testify’ where the head paster tells his youth-paster to stop trying to rescue lost souls and trans gender youth from the streets because it upsets their more conservative and regular giving members. 

But the vine metaphor is about the interconnectedness of Christians rather than exclusion.  Any pruning needs to be a self-discipline that removes any inclination to exclude others or to exploit others.

Like any tangled vine the interconnection within the Christian community is complicated.  Not only are Christians connected to each other they are also connected to Christ. 

Another helpful feature of the metaphor is that vines produce unexpected results.  Anybody who has ignored the small ivy plant that a blackbird has unthinkingly planted, where it has grown unnoticed until it requires four trailer loads of tangled vine to be taken to the tip, has learned that vines easily get out of control. 

Of course, the vine in the metaphor is likely to be a heavenly cultivated grape vine that is carefully pruned to remove the growth that does nothing but rob the fruit of nourishment.  Furthermore, fruiting branches are pruned at the end of the season to encourage the re-growth of even more fruiting branches.

But all metaphors have limitations so we should not be trapped into excluding church members who are different.  The vine metaphor is about growth and nourishment not excommunication. 

The pruning in the metaphor is best understood as cultivation of this metaphorical vine rather than any slash and burn policy that indulges our inclination to exercise judgement on God’s behalf.  

But we should not abandon the seed carrying blackbird I mentioned earlier because that can be a metaphor for our Acts reading.  The seed of the vine carried to new soil by a chance encounter. 

Philip meets the Ethiopian slave who, as a non-Jew, had been to Jerusalem to worship.  This was a person that, despite his enthusiasm for a relationship with God, was unacceptable to the Judaism of his time because of race and a damaged body.  However, Philip baptises the Ethiopian eunuch into what had begun as a Jewish revival movement and was evolving into the Christian Church.  

We are told that the Holy Spirit confirmed the Ethiopian’s baptism.  That not only confirmed Philip’s acceptance of him but confirmed the acceptance of diversity into what was becoming the Christian Church.

This reading also brings us back to the wider understanding of the vine metaphor as we see the network spreading from Philip, one of Jesus’ disciples, to a person of influence within the Ethiopian empire.  The first disciples may well have preferred a nicely domesticated Jewish grape vine that they could prune and control.  But in Philip’s serendipitous meeting with a gentile the Spirit Bird plants the seeds of the emerging faith in new fertile soil. 

Remember the bird that plucks the fruit off the rampant ivy and plants it where it can smother another fence in someone else’s garden.   The Ethiopian Church is a very old church that developed in spite of being cut off from Rome and the West by the Ottoman Empire.

It is a great example of the Spirit’s independence of human structures and the Christian Faith’s disregard of race and ability to adapt to diverse cultures. 

The vine metaphor however stresses that such diverse churches are still fruits of the same Spirit and connected to the Christ vine which in turn is within the vine of divine mystery. 

It is through the vine that spiritual nourishment flows and it is that flow that produces fruit.

The reading encourages us as individual Christians and as a parish to care for the vine as a vintner would care for the grapes that produce unique and highly prized wine. 

As Christians together we must cultivate each other and the readings give a clue as to how that might happenThose first disciples were cleansed by the words Jesus spoke to them (John15:3) and so we cultivate each other through the reading and expounding of scripture. 

The Gospels give us the words of Jesus and in sharing those words, and the words that nurtured Jesus, we find their meaning for our time and place.

Vines are living organisms so just as Philip reinterpreted the scripture for the Ethiopian, we in turn expound the scripture for our time and place.

In that process understanding that is no longer relevant is pruned away and new and relevant understanding that will bear fruit is encouraged.

But the reading goes deeper into the vine metaphor and stresses the connectedness of the vine.  We are to abide in Christ and he in us.  Without the vine, branches cannot bear fruit and the passage urges us to recognise that, without Christ, we cannot bear fruit. 

However, that connection must be more than a loyalty to fallible human hierarchy or ecclesiastical order and discipline. 

No matter how vinelike human hierarchy might seem there is always the option for the cancerous growth of corruption or the protection of a corporate brand at the expense of people’s lives.

The vine, the branches, the connection to each other, and indeed the fruit, must be ‘in Christ and of Christ.’  In some mysterious and miraculous way we are called to live within the resurrection of Christ and be Christ to others.  It is not just in proclaiming the resurrection but in being the resurrection we will bear fruit.

This finally brings us to ask this metaphor what it means to bear fruit.

We have touched on the ivy’s fruit that the blackbird plucks from the vine and deposits seeds in other people’s gardens.  Many Christians see this as the only fruit necessary.  To plant new churches both deliberately, or as Philip did in our Acts reading, serendipitously through unexpected meeting and opportunity.

However, if we read past the gospel text proscribed for today, we find Jesus saying in verse 9&10, As the father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my father’s commandments and abide in his love. (John 15:9&10).

So, we see that the abiding in Christ that makes us part of the vine is love, the sap that flows through the vine and nourishes the branches is love, and the fruit is love.  Part of living in Christ is keeping Christ’s commandments but if we read right through this long farewell speech we will discover that the commandments are also love. 

Certainly, love of God and love of neighbour as the Hebrew Scripture proscribes.  But Jesus well and truly expands the understanding of love to include enemies and in this speech stretches love further to be a love that lays down one’s own life for the sake of others.

The fruit of the vine metaphor is love.  The fruit may well have seeds that find new fertile ground and grow new expressions of the vine.  But it is the fruit not the seeds that is the primary focus of any vintner and so it is with Christ. 

We are part of the Christian vine.  We are fruitful as we live in Christ and Christ lives in us.

The fruit of that resurrection relationship produces a yield of love which is the wine of loving transformation.

The essence of a new humanity.