Fifth Sunday of EASTER - 10th May 2009

Holy Communion – Address

Preached by David Fuller

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Collect for EASTER DAY
ALMIGHTY God, your Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life.
Give us grace to love one another and walk in the way of his commandments,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

In lieu of Old Testament lesson: Acts 8, Vv 26 - 40
Epistle: 1 John 4, 7 - 21
Holy Gospel: St John 15, Vv 1 - 8

In his Gospel Saint John recorded six so-called predicated ‘I am’ sayings of Jesus. Some say there are seven and separate the ‘I am the Good Shepherd’ from the ‘I am the Sheep-gate’ – both found in chapter ten. These sayings are called ‘predicated’ to separate them from other verses that contain the words ‘I am’, such as Saint John the Baptist who said, ‘I am not the Christ’. The predicated part offers the reader some aspect of Jesus’ role among his disciples, and, indeed, within the church. Sometimes they are called ‘ego eime’ sayings, from the Latin language, and all of them can be linked back to the identity of God, from his announcement of it to Moses, recorded in the book called Exodus. In chapter three of that book we may read, ‘Moses said to God, ‘If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you”, and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?’ God identified himself to Moses as ‘I am who I am’. Thus, this use of ‘ego eime’, ‘I am’, by Jesus tells his listeners, and, of course, us, albeit some two thousand years later, that he has divinity; he is God’s equal; he is part of the eternal Godhead; in fact, he is God.

   Imagine for a moment that you are living as a Jew at the time of Jesus, in first century Palestine. As part of your religious obligations you would go to the Temple to attend public worship. The first thing you would see on entering the Temple area would be a vine made of gold, with clusters of golden grapes as tall as a man. Flavius Josephus, the Roman historian, tells us that this vine extended twenty-five cubits from north to south and that its top was seventy cubits from the ground. In modern measurements that’s about forty feet from north to south and a hundred feet above the ground. Later, but not, of course, on the Sabbath, you might visit your local shop. The currency that you would use would also be engraved with a vine. All of this symbolism was a reminder to the Jews that Israel was the Vine of the Lord. One example of the imagery of the vine is to be found in Psalm 80, where we may read, ‘You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea, and its shoots to the river. Turn again, O God of hosts; look down from heaven, and see; have regard for this vine, the stock that your right hand has planted’.

   Jesus did not simply make a reference to the vine. Did you notice his words in our Gospel? Jesus said, ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. Everyone listening to Jesus knew exactly what he was saying and what he meant because they knew what the Hebrew Scriptures said about the vine and its association with God. Jesus was contrasting himself with Israel. Jesus was saying that he succeeds where Israelites had failed. Jesus says he is taking Israel’s place as the vine of the Lord. He says that he bears the fruit that Israel never did bear or could bear. Jesus says he alone fulfils the Father’s expectations so that the Father is never disappointed when he looks for fruit on the vine of his Son. When Jesus says, ‘I am the vine’, he is declaring himself to be the culmination and fulfilment of all the Old Testament prophecy, language and imagery about the vine. The vine of Israel had been planted in a good land, but it failed to produce and therefore had to be pruned. Whole branches had been cut off and thrown away. Much had been burned. But, in the midst of all this destruction, Jesus comes, directly from God, the true vine!

   In verse five John records Jesus saying, ‘I am the vine and you are the branches’. Let us make sure we properly understand this. Often we have the wrong idea and think of Jesus as the trunk and of ourselves as the shoots and branches that grow out of, and get their nourishment from, that stock. But Jesus did not say, ‘I am the stock,’ or ‘I am the trunk’. Rather, he said, ‘I am the vine’. What is the vine? The vine is the whole plant – roots, stock, branches, fruit and leaves: the whole plant. ‘I am the vine; you are the branches.’ Do we realise what Jesus is saying to us here? Perhaps I can draw three things to our attention.    First, Jesus is saying we are wholly and fully part of him. The vine/branch imagery means that we are: ‘with Christ’; ‘united to Christ’; ‘one in Christ’. Between the Saviour and his people there is a unity, a bond of fellowship and love. Secondly, the vine/branch imagery means that we have replaced Israel as the vine of the Lord, in and with and through Christ. Thirdly, the vine/branch metaphor means that when Christ, the vine, produces the fruit that Israel never did, he produces fruit through us, full members of that vine. In other words, when we bear fruit, it is Christ’s fruit we are bearing and it is Christ who is bearing fruit in us. So, when the divine gardener, God the Father, walks through his vineyard looking for fruit, he looks for it in us, in your life and my life and in the lives of all those who are part of the vine that is Christ. Being in Christ, ours is the joy and responsibility of bearing fruit, visible fruit, fruit that the whole world can see.

   A few verses after our reading concluded, Jesus says, ‘You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last’. It is not through our own endeavours that we become attached to the vine that is Christ. He chose us – before the foundation of the world, if you are a believer in predestination – and has grafted us on to that vine. But, of course, we can only bear fruit as Christians while we remain grafted on to that vine, and remain part of that vine.

   If John’s sense of chronology is to be believed then Jesus made this statement about the vine after he had had his Last Supper with his disciples, after Judas had gone off to betray him, after he had predicted Peter’s denials and after he had told them of his departure from this earth and the consequent coming of the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit of God. Scholars often refer to chapter fourteen as the first part of what they call the Farewell Discourse. Chapters fifteen and sixteen are the second part of that Discourse. The verses we heard about the Vine are the important introduction to that second part.

   Finally, let us remind ourselves that the fruit of the vine, certainly in viticultural terms, is the grape and from the grape we get wine. Wine is, of course, one of the two ingredients of the Holy Eucharist. Saint John in his gospel, in an earlier chapter, recorded Jesus saying that he was also the Bread of Life. Here we have the other connection with the sacramental life that Christ came to bring us. Extraordinarily enough, John’s is the only gospel that does not give us details of what are called The Words of Institution; those words that are at the heart of the Prayer of Consecration, or the Eucharistic Prayer. Some scholars have used this omission to suggest that John and the community for which he wrote, probably as late as the end of the first century, was not a sacramental church. On the contrary, my reading of this gospel shows clear evidence that not only are the two Dominical sacraments of Holy Baptism and the Holy Eucharist clearly defined but that a basis for the five so-called minor sacraments is also to be found there. Jesus is the bread and he is the source of the wine and he claimed to be both of those elements while in his incarnate existence. He did not say that, after his death and resurrection he would be the bread and the wine. He used the words ‘ego eime’ – ‘I am’. I am those things here and now. You, my faithful disciples, will still have access to those characteristics of me after my death, if you keep the faith that I have taught you.

   Through episcopal sanction warranted to our priests at their ordination they have the authority to implore the in-pouring of the Holy Spirit into the common ingredients of bread and wine (in that part of the Eucharistic Prayer called the epiclesis) such they become in a very real way the Body and Blood of that Saviour who has declared to us that he is that bread and that vine. Thus we have, here in this service, two millennia after the events recorded in Holy Scripture, a direct connection with the Son of God who said that he was the bread and the vine. In a very special, sacramental way we have the life of the risen, ascended and glorified Saviour made available for us. Through grateful acceptance of these singular gifts we are kept attached to the vine and are nourished by the vine. Thereby we are able to understand more fully what it means to be a baptised person as we continue on our individual Christian pilgrimages.

Copyright © David Fuller 2009

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