Friday, 30 March 2018

Holy Week in Chester 5: “I am the True Vine” (Good Friday)

Reading: John 15.1-11
This Holy Week we’ve been exploring the I AM sayings in St John’s Gospel: “I am the door”, “I am the resurrection and the life”, “I am the light of the world”, and last night, at the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday, “I am the bread of life”. 
Today I want to take the three sayings that remain and reflect with you these pictures, these metaphors help us approach the cross of Jesus on this solemn day. But at the outset I want to remind us of one of the insights we have been learning from St John that makes a real difference to how we observe this day. It’s that as St John sees it, Good Friday and Easter belong together, are of a single piece. Throughout the forty days of Lent we have been preparing for this celebration of the Lord’s Passover, the festival that marks how we have passed from death to life. It’s not that today is for mourning a terrible disaster while Easter is the happy ending. St John would say that in Jesus’s crucifixion and resurrection, God is glorified because his Son has finished his work and is going to the Father. 
So I invite you, in this first part of our Three Hour observance, to join me in meditating on this great mystery that lies at the heart of Christian faith, We shall be reflecting on Jesus’ words “I am the true vine”, “I am the way, the truth and the life” and “I am the good shepherd”. Finally, during the liturgy of the day, when the gospel reading records Jesus last word from the cross, “It is accomplished”, I  shall draw together these seven I AM sayings by one that is found in the Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end”. 
********
“I am the true vine.” We are back in the upper room at the last supper. It is the night of betrayal. Ahead lies Golgotha and the cross. Judas has already gone out into the night to do his work. And yet, this is a beautiful feast, this intimate gathering of Jesus with his disciples whom he now calls friends. The talk has been all about service after the example of Jesus who has washed their feet, about loving one another as he has loved them, about the peace he will bequeath to them when he has gone away. And then Jesus introduces this new image. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” 
I said it’s a new image. It isn’t, really. We are meant to recall how the Hebrew Bible plays with the theme of the vine. The vineyard was a familiar picture of God’s people. Isaiah tells a parable about a vineyard that should have produced a rich harvest, but instead proffered only shrivelled up “wild grapes” good neither for man nor beast. What had the owner not done to make sure the beloved vineyard flourished? But it proved to be fit only for destruction. “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel” says the prophet. One of the psalms we sing in Passiontide takes up the picture of the vineyard in trouble. “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it…Why then have you broken down its walls? Turn again, O God of hosts, look down from heaven and have regard for this vine that your right hand has planted.” 
So when Jesus speaks of himself as the vine, he is drawing on a long history of disappointment and failure. But what a contrast he brings! Where once, the vine was a symbol of judgment, on the lips of Jesus it’s become a sign of life and love, promise and renewal. As the true vine, he fulfils all that was expected of God’s vineyard; where once, the people failed their God (a powerful theme in St John’s Gospel), Jesus is the obedient Son who perfectly fulfils the vocation God has laid on him. It’s true that the vine-grower must act decisively, harshly even, if branches of the vine prove unproductive. But that is only so that it may bear more fruit. And that happens as we “abide” in him, says Jesus, live in the closest possible relationship with him, hide ourselves in him if you like. We are to abide in his love as intimately as he himself abides in the Father’s love. In that way we become organically joined to his life among us, just as the branches draw their life and fruitfulness from the root and stem and sap of the vine. We draw the very life of God into ourselves at the same time as we ourselves are taken into the heart of his divine life.
Why am I telling you all this on Good Friday? Because of how the symbolism of wine poured out and blood shed runs right through the Fourth Gospel. The vine and the branches take us straight back to where Jesus began his public ministry and performed his first sign. At Cana of Galilee, he was a guest at a wedding, and turned water into wine. It was there, says St John, that he “revealed his glory, and his disciples believed in him”. Jesus goes on say in the passage about the Bread of Life, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink”. To “abide” in him, to receive into ourselves his flesh and blood is to become one with the crucified and risen Lord, just as the vine and the branches are one organism. 
This is why the end of John’s passion story makes so much of what happened when the soldier pierced the side of the crucified Jesus. “At once, blood and water came out. He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” The Christian spiritual tradition sees a universe of meaning in those words. It sees in them how the salvation of the world was achieved at the cross, our race reconciled to God because of the blood and water that flowed out to embrace every human child. Water of baptism, blood of communion, together bearing witness that in Jesus, God so loved the world. “Blood of my Saviour, bathe me in thy tide, / wash me with water flowing from thy side” says the passion hymn based on the prayer Anima Christi. It goes on: “Deep in thy wounds, Lord, hide and shelter me, / so shall I never, never part from thee’. That’s what it means to “abide” in Christ and find in his cross the source of all that it means to be truly alive. In one of his poems, “The Agonie”, George Herbert concludes a reflection on the cross with a marvellous couple of lines: “Love is that liquor sweet, and most divine / Which my God feels as blood, but I as wine”. There’s nothing we can add.
Except this, perhaps. Today sets before us what our next hymn is right to call “the wondrous cross”. We come to Golgotha to contemplate what it means to respond as best we may to this emblem of the love that loves to the end. The blood that is shed there is our invitation to come back to Christ the true Vine, to find in him our forgiveness and salvation, our lives healed and mended, reconciliation promised for all the world. We abide in his wounded side because our lives depend on him, for he is our life and love. 
But that is more than the truth of Good Friday alone. It’s the truth of Easter too. When in Eastertide, Jesus came to Thomas the doubter and invited him to place his hand in his wounded side, it was to affirm that abiding in him is how people of faith are to be, who believe that he is risen from the dead and who entrust their lives to that truth. On the other side of Easter, it’s the risen Christ we hear promising us, reassuring us that “I am the true vine”. In him we see God’s love summoning us, beckoning to us to find the place of safety and sanctuary where we can “abide” forever in him, find in him the eternal life he promises throughout St John’s Gospel. As we abide in the cross and resurrection, we see the fulness of God’s glory that tells us that all along, “love was his meaning”, “such rich love as makes the poor heart glad”.
Seen this way, Good Friday calls us back from a religion of duty to a living faith in which we discover how our lives are hidden with the Christ in God. This is what the risen Christ the true Vine wants of us and all who follow him: that we bring to the cross our hunger and our thirst, our longing for contentment and happiness, our wish that if only life could begin again. Golgotha proclaims that this is precisely what is ours in this Love laid down, this water and blood that flowed from the side of this life-giving Vine of God. We have only to reach out, drink from the cup that is held before us, and be thankful.
A sonnet by Malcolm Guite once more.

How might it feel to be part of the vine?
Not just to see the vineyard from afar
Or even pluck the clusters, press the wine,
But to be grafted in, to feel the stir
Of inward sap that rises from our root,
Himself deep planted in the ground of Love,
To feel a leaf unfold a tender shoot,
As tendrils curled unfurl, as branches give
A little to the swelling of the grape,
In gradual perfection, round and full,
To bear within oneself the joy and hope
Of God’s good vintage, till it’s ripe and whole.
What might it mean to bide and to abide
In such rich love as makes the poor heart glad.

(c) Malcolm Guite. With permission.

No comments:

Post a Comment