A Sermon for the Covenant Service in Woodstock, 2017

The Third Sunday of Epiphany 2017
preached at Woodstock Methodist Church

The Rector

Are you struck by the frequency with which the imagery of wine, vines, vineyards, vine-growers and vine-dressers can be found throughout scripture? A vine or vineyard was a common metaphor for the people of Israel in the Old Testament: passages in the Psalms, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Hosea all carry this imagery. Jesus used it too: in Matthew 20 we find the parable of the labourers in the vineyard; in Mark 12 we find another parable set in a vineyard, the one where the son of the owner is killed by the tenants. In Luke 13 there is a short parable of a fig-tree growing in a vineyard. But, especially and vitally, in our reading today from chapter 15 of John’s gospel. I am the true vine, says Jesus. He says it again, and this time develops his saying to include you and me – 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. 

I think the natural conclusion of this passage is not, in fact, verse 10, but verse 11; and from this vantage point we see that that lovely word abide comes 9 times in 11 verses. 

Jesus is the true vine, the real vine, and we are called to abide in him, draw our life from him, to be grafted into him, to belong to him. 

And this abiding in Jesus is all about relationships, about love, about the sharing of life, and strength, about the bearing of fruit, fruit, as verse 16 says, that will last.

It has struck me with some force that this image, this metaphor, is, potentially, a wonderful one for our town. For the flourishing that goes on can be seen in a rich vintage produced by the four churches of this town; such delicious, beautiful fruit. Fruit which can be tasted in so many different ways.

But the vine that is this Christian community, this town, is ultimately dependent on the grace of God. And that knowledge brings with it a need for us to heed Jesus’ commandment, so clearly set out for us at the end of this reading – to not take in verses 9, 10 and 11 is to miss the glorious punchline:  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. 

Now I’m no biologist, but I understand that the health of the branches of a vine are pretty dependent on the way nutrients can flow through the vine to the branches. Osmosis I think it’s called. It’s the flow of water that helps the vine blossom and grow. From water to wine, you might say. 

And that love in which we are called to abide is that which keeps the vine and all its branches healthy. That love which is the very water, the life-source of our everyday living, as a church and as individuals.

So how do we apply these truths to ourselves? Jesus’ commandment to love means that we need to be faithful to the God who is love, faithful to this calling, and faithful to each other. 

Prayer lies at the heart of this endeavour, listening, learning, discerning, caring. These branches, this delicious, beautiful fruit, in the Christian church in this town, all so good. But without the love, without the giving, without the abiding, it is nothing. 

Jesus said: I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in my love. 

It’s by doing just that that we play our part in the health of the vine: love becomes fruit. Water turns into wine. And it is no ordinary vintage. 

In the days leading up to Pentecost, the churches of Woodstock will be participating in a nationwide, even global, initiative, called ‘Thy Kingdom Come’ http://www.thykingdom.co.uk/  In the same way that we renew our Covenant with God in this service, so I hope that that week will be, for all of us, a time when the relationship of our churches one with another, and our individual relationships with God, are renewed, reaffirmed, resealed – and that many will find themselves drawn into the mysteries of God, and the delicious, intoxicating new wine of the Kingdom.

And I use such language deliberately. For that time of prayer for growth and renewal ends at Pentecost, the day that the Church began. On that day the disciples were infused with the Spirit of God to such an extent that they were accused of being filled with new wine. We too need to be intoxicated with that new wine which is Christ's gift to all those who thirst for the Kingdom of God.