Go into any church and there is a strong chance that you will find images of vines. It appears as decoration around screens, in windows, on altar frontals. The weaving foliage, often ripe with fruit, provides a good coverage for large areas and carries the eye along. Here’s a game for you – see how many places you can spot vines weaving around the church. There are quite a lot in St John’s, more than you might have thought. The vine is an ancient image in the bible for the people of God and how they belong to God. Just as branches cannot survive without being connected to the root so the people cannot survive without being connected to God. Isaiah (ch 5) used it to talk about God having a vineyard and dressing it and caring for it, looking for it to bear fruit. So the image is clear, if we are not connected to God in some direct and vibrant way we wither and die spiritually. We need to abide in God, to be connected.
So it is not surprising that Jesus uses this image to talk of himself in our gospel reading (John 15:1-8). He is the vine, the one we need to be connected with, and God the Father is the vine-grower. It is through Jesus Christ that we find our connection with God and that comes through a variety of ways.
It comes through prayer. Without prayer we run on our own strength and lock the world into its own references. This becomes a truly secular outlook. Prayer takes us to the vision of heaven, of the divine and that expands us to all it means to pray ‘your kingdom come, your will be done’. Prayer is the life-blood for us and it brings the spiritual blood that we need pumping round our spiritual system. We need to pray to be in any way connected with God through Jesus Christ.
Very quickly, though, we find this needs a story to be focused through. And this is where the vine being Jesus becomes critical. As we look at his story – at his life, teaching, death and resurrection – we have the lens through which to interpret the world. Being connected to the vine means being connected to the story of Jesus, to the radical challenge and grace in action that he brings. Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christ Church Oxford, was speaking at the Theological Society on Wednesday evening. He described Jesus as ‘God’s body-language’. Through observing him we see what we can observe of God. So those subtle cues we pick up, the actions and presence, reveal to us the character we are to observe and follow. And we cannot abide in him, be in any way connected with the vine of God, if we do not connect with the story of Jesus.
We are about to enter the period of prayer between Ascension and Pentecost. This begins a week on Thursday, 10 May, and runs for ten days. For the past few years there has been an invitation from the Archbishop of Canterbury to use this as a time to pray for God’s kingdom to come. It is a moment to focus on being connected to the vine and wanting to connect others to that vine too. It is a moment to spend in deep prayer to be renewed in hope, in grace and thanksgiving. And these can change the world. Being people of hope and grace and thanksgiving is a radical move at the moment and one the world needs deeply.
There are a number of resources available this year to help us journey through the period of prayer. Two have been produced by the Church of England: a prayer journal and book of reflections. This year the 10 days also coincide with Christian Aid Week and they have produced a prayer booklet with the challenge from developing countries to have our sights and our priorities expanded and deepened. Copies of these three booklets are available in the church. Please pick up which ever appeals to you most and use it as an aid to prayer and reflection on the story of Jesus and how this works out in real life. They have been provided free of charge.
Connecting this with Christian Aid week means that prayer for the kingdom is linked with the cry for justice and relief of suffering and poverty. It comes with a challenge to how we live and how content or otherwise we are with the plight of the poorest people on the planet. Being connected with the vine is no mere comfort zone, it can be disturbing and requiring action for justice, liberation and pursuing the wellbeing of all people.
So look around the church and see how many images of a vine you can spot. As you do remember that this is an image of being connected with the God, with the story of Jesus and the cry for justice. Far from being a comfortable image of rural tranquility it is rather an organic symbol of the growing kingdom of God where the hungry are fed, the homeless find shelter, the lonely embraced and justice is the foundation of our common living.
Sermon preached in Peterborough Parish Church, Easter 5 – Sunday 29th April 2018