A Sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson
In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. …I am the vine, you are the branches.
This morning’s gospel reading is from the Gospel of John, that gospel heavily woven with theology, with words about who God is, who Jesus is, and who we are in relationship with God. The gospel opens with the most beautiful poetry set before the dawn of time… In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. As the poetry of the Prologue unfolds, the incarnation is pronounced. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, …full of grace and truth.
As the story of Jesus’ earthly life, this dwelling among us, unfolds in this Gospel of John, insight into Jesus’ identity is found in the signs he performs and in the words he speaks. Today we hear one of the seven sets of words spoken by Jesus that begin with the words “I am.”
The words I am the true vine are taken from the 15th Chapter of John’s Gospel. Jesus has just gathered with his disciples at the last supper, he has just washed the disciples’ feet. He has given them his new commandment about love. And then he begins to speak with them at length. At the supper table he says the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled” that we often hear read at funerals, and at the end of this time of speaking Jesus says, “Rise, let us be on our way.” Just before the words we read this morning, Jesus says, “Rise, let us be on our way.”
Jesus and the disciples are walking now, do you see. They are walking on their way to Gethsemane, the garden where Jesus will cry out to his Father in fear and grief and the garden where Judas’ betrayal will come to light. Let us imagine them walking. And as they walk, Jesus continues to explain, to describe, to help the disciples understand what they mean to him, who he is for them, and his closeness with his Father.
And he uses the words “I am”. Ego ami in the Greek, “I am.”
You probably know what I am about to say, just as the disciples would have immediately thought of what I am about to say. And this matters. Jesus is using all the literary, theological words and stories in his power to reach them, to reach us. And we will think about that in a little while. His longing that they glimpse the truth of who he is and who they are in relationship with him. His longing that we glimpse the truth of who he is and who we are in relationship with him.
You and they know what I am about to say … It’s about the Exodus story … About that foundational story in the Jewish faith. About the Israelites in slavery and God longing to set them free. About God calling Moses and asking him to help bring the Israelites out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. About Moses saying to God, speaking out of that bush that was burning, “Who shall I say sent me?” and about God’s reply, “I am who I am.” “I am who I am.” The God words. No doubt here that Jesus is using the God words. No doubt that shivers would have gone down the spines of the Jewish disciples as they heard what he said and knew what he meant. This is God we are talking about here.
The Dean of Canterbury Cathedral, Robert Willis, also longs that people know the love of God and the presence of God during this pandemic time where for long periods of time many people in England and across the world have been in lockdown. Where so many have been unable to spend much time worshipping with others and enjoying time out in nature. For over a year now, every day, Dean Robert has prayed Morning Prayer in his Deanery garden, with what he calls his online “Garden Congregation”. The half hour times of prayer involve prayers, psalms, readings and remembrances of anniversaries of births and deaths. And woven into these prayers are profound reflections on themes that emerge. A few weeks ago, Dean Robert reflected on the “I am” sayings from the Gospel of John and this is what he said about the words “I am”.
Jesus is saying, focus on me … in the present tense … nothing is more present than the verb “to be” and nothing more intimate than the verb “to be” in the first person singular – in English “I am”, in the Greek “ego ami”, …this takes us back to Moses with the fire of the burning bush and saying to God … who shall I say sent me … and the words “I am” take us all the way back…. takes us not only to the centre of ourselves when we say it, not even to the centre of the human Jesus, but to the centre of all created things and beyond …it’s in that that we have the capacity to reach out for our humanity and to know that life that has no end .
Jesus is saying, focus on me … in the present tense … nothing is more present than the verb “to be” and nothing more intimate …
These words are about closeness with Jesus … it’s in that that we have the capacity to reach out for our humanity and to know that life that has no end .
As Jesus and his disciples make their solemn walk to the Garden of Gethsemane, he uses the image of the vine. He names himself the true vine and his father the vine grower and we, we are the branches. The image of the vine was very significant in Jewish theology. The people of God were often referred to as a vine. When the people of God let God down the prophet Isaiah, for example, spoke of God the planter expecting grapes, but the vine yielded only wild grapes. (Isaiah 5:1-7)
Using this image of the vine, Jesus gives it new meaning. As one writer puts it, “Jesus’ [identity] is lodged in the context of his relationship with God and .., of his relationship with the community of his followers. …All three elements – gardener, vine and branches – are essential to the production of fruit … Jesus [is] the middle ground between God and the community.”
And then, to highlight the relationships he is describing, Jesus uses a beautiful word, the word “abide”.
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.
Vines and the fruit that grows on them are not strange for us, either. Vineyards adorn our state and visiting them is one of the joys of those of us who live here and visitors alike. So the image of the vine, with its trunk and roots in the earth and the image of the branches, utterly dependent on that vine, and the image of the ones who tend that vine are images on which we can ponder. Cedar Prest, who created the stained glass clerestory windows in the nave of our Cathedral was inspired by Jesus’ words and the Northern windows in particular are rich with the vines and vineyards that are characteristic of so many different areas of South Australian settlement.
I guess what Jesus wants us to know is, firstly, our dependence on the vine. There is simply no life for the branch without the vine and without the gardener who tends and prunes. And I guess what Jesus would also want us to know is the thriving of the branches connected to the vine and the bearing of fruit and the joy that this fruit brings. And that this thriving comes from the vine, from the care of the gardener.
As Dean Robert put it:
the words “I am” take us all the way back…. takes us not only to the centre of ourselves when we say it, not even to the centre of the human Jesus, but to the centre of all created things and beyond …it’s in that that we have the capacity to reach out for our humanity and to know that life that has no end .
Thriving. That is what life in connection with God is about. Thriving. As Jesus walks with his disciples on the way to his trial and death he is giving them images to hold onto images to remember, so that when they are almost broken by what will happen and when the resurrection in all its wonder and all its mystery comes, these images will nurture them, remind them , restore them. And when we find ourselves walking, perhaps, at a time of grief, or utter confusion, or awful doubt, these images might nurture us, remind us, restore us.
That we are as dependent on God who we know in Jesus as a branch is dependent on the vine, …that we thrive in God who we know in Jesus as a branch thrives in a vine. And that Jesus longs that we know, even as he faced the most terrifying time of his life, loved his disciples so much that he spoke with such depth and care … that they would know … that abiding in him, we have the capacity to reach out for our humanity and to know that life that has no end.
 Dean Robert Willis, Canterbury Cathedral Morning Prayer Wednesday 14th April
 Gail R. O’Day “The Gospel of John” in the New Interpreter’s Bible, p757.