Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Sermon preached by Revd Karen Charman for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2nd May 2021, via Zoom.

You can listen to an audio recording here:

Last week, Vocations’ Sunday, we reflected a little on the “I am” sayings, and on Jesus’ clear sense of his identity and vocation, in contrast to our own less certain sense of our identity, and the vocations to which God calls us.  We touched, briefly, on the final “I am” saying, ”I am the true vine,” which we hear in today’s Gospel reading.  I’d like us to reflect on that saying again, in greater depth, today.

“I am the true vine.”  I wonder what images, or memories that “I am” saying conjures up for you?

Any mention of vines immediately takes me back to Vine Cottages, in Cuddesdon, and the two years Martin and I spent in the rather small but much-loved Vine Cottage which was home to me, Martin, Marlowe our dog, and Samwise our cat, for the two years we lived in Cuddesdon while I trained for ordination.

Next, I think of the vine which a neighbour, and fellow-ordinand, gave us as a leaving present, when we left Cuddesdon; and I think of our cottage in Glanton, Northumberland, and the lovely rear garden where we planted the vine.  I think, too, of the vine I was given as a gift when I was ordained priest – that one is planted at the front of our cottage in Glanton.  I wonder how those vines are doing – we’ve not visited our Vine Cottage in Glanton since October, due first to lockdown, and then to damage it sustained over the winter, which renders it temporarily uninhabitable.  I hope the gardener we employ to mow the lawn and trim our hedge will also tend our vines … but I can’t be certain he will.

Next, I recall a Sunday School session I led perhaps eight or nine years ago, during which we decorated small ceramic pots with a vine – look, I still have mine!  It’s survived three house moves so far!  And, when I look at it, I remember the Sunday school children who – a few years later – became founder members of the Youth Group we set up.  Some of them are now at university, or earning a living, but they’ve all retained their Christian faith and abide or remain as branches of the true vine.

Then, I suppose, I think of the vineyards we saw as we drove to Burgundy to visit friends there some years ago, and the wine we purchased in Chablis.  And those memories lead me to pause from my sermon preparation and to pray, as one of those friends is currently in intensive care following surgery, while his wife is underdoing chemotherapy.  Life can seem very unfair at times, and our abiding in Christ does not protect us from suffering and ill-health…

Just that short saying, “I am the true vine,” leads my thoughts and memories in so many directions … and that’s before I even consider it properly as a verse from scripture, and a saying ascribed to Jesus, our Lord.

Perhaps my thoughts are like the branches, or tendrils, which grow from a vine – spreading out in all directions, unless carefully tended and pruned.

“I am the true vine and my father is the vine-grower,” – or, in other translations, the vine-dresser, or the gardener.  Vines prosper, and provide better fruit, when they are carefully tended, watered and pruned.  The product of a vine is, of course grapes – grapes that are generally then used to produce wine or, perhaps, grape juice.  A great deal of care goes into the selection, tending and harvesting of grape vines, to ensure that the wine produced is of the highest possible quality.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.”  We are branches of the true vine, indelibly joined to Jesus – part of his body.  If an ordinary vine grower expends great time, energy, skill, resources, care and even, perhaps, in some cases, love, in tending his, or her, vineyard and vines, then how much more care must our Father in heaven expend on us?  On ensuring we grow, and flourish, and bear much fruit?

I am convinced that God loves each of us, unconditionally, more than we are capable of comprehending.  God loves the world so much that he gave his Son.  But, sometimes, we struggle to receive or accept that love.  Sometimes we struggle to experience that love.  Sometimes, God feels very far away – like the vineyard owner in one of the parables Jesus told (in Mark Chapter 12, 1-12) who “planted a vineyard, put a fence around it, dug a pit for the wine press, and built a watch-tower, then leased it to tenants and went to another country.”

At times, over the past year, I’ve felt a little like that vineyard, fenced in – I’m sure we’ve all felt fenced in at times over the past year – fenced in and then abandoned by a God who (at times) seems to have just left me here while he disappears off to some other, far-away, land.

“I am the vine, you are the branches.  Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

Recently, I’ve realised that that is what I am – what we are – called to do: to abide in Jesus.  To cling to him, no matter what.  To be faithful, and to trust in God, even when he seems to be far away … when we cannot feel him near us, when we cannot hear him speaking, when we cannot see his footprints …

Faith is easier, when we see God in all things, and when we encounter him in all places.  When we hear him speaking, and feel his presence.

Faith is more difficult, when God seems far away.  When he seems to be silent, or ‘on mute.’  But, as I’m beginning to learn, a faith that can endure through the difficult times, when God seems distant, is stronger than a faith that endures only while it is untested.  Perhaps God’s seeming absence, at times, is actually part of the loving care, watering and pruning that will help us grow and bear fruit?  What’s the expression – a watched kettle never boils?

I recently planted some climbing roses and a honeysuckle, and I inspect them every day and look for signs of growth … but perhaps if I were to leave them for a few days, or a week, between inspections, the growth would be so much easier to detect?

Perhaps God appears a little distant at times, rather than hover us like an overly-anxious parent, so that our faith has the space it needs to grow, and so that we can bear much fruit?

“My Father is the vine-grower … Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit … Those who abide in me, and I in them, bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

It’s difficult, at times, when God feels far off, or seems to be on mute – especially this past year, when we’ve also faced the challenges of COVID and been unable to see and hug family and friends.  But – even when we can’t feel him there – I believe that God is with us.  Jesus abides in us.  He promises he is with us always, even unto the end of the age.

God promises – when Zion complains that the Lord has forsaken or forgotten her –

“Can a woman forget her nursing-child,
    or show no compassion for the child of her womb?
Even these may forget,
    yet I will not forget you.
See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands…”  (Isaiah 49:15)

God promises to tenderly care for us, as the best vine-growers lovingly tend their vines, or as the keenest gardeners carefully nurture their seedlings and plants, or – as we heard last week – as the good shepherd lovingly cares for and protects his flock.  God calls us, in response, to abide.  To abide in God’s love.  To abide, even when God seems far off, even when the going gets tough.  To cling to him as the vine tendrils – or the honeysuckle, or the climbing roses – cling to the trellis, or as the ivy clings to the tree.

Jesus is the true vine.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.

Jesus, help us to abide in you, always, and to bear much fruit.