Easter 5 Year B 2021
As all wine lovers know, the vines from which wine comes all belong to the same species – vitis vinifera – which began to be cultivated by human beings about 8,000 years ago. It is an extraordinarily hardy plant, which can cope with extremes of climate – there are even vineyards in Scotland. Nevertheless, in the 19th century it fell prey to a tiny aphid from America called Phylloxera Vastatrix which feeds on vine roots. In 1862 a French wine merchant imported some American vines and, unwittingly, imported a small colony of Phylloxera Vastatrix with them. In less than thirty years, the little beasties multiplied and spread, destroying all the wine-growing regions of Europe.
The solution to the crisis, for which credit must go to a Monsieur Henri Bouschet, was grafting. Monsieur Bouschet noticed that the American vines were much more resistant to attacks by Phylloxera than the European varieties. He tried making wine from the grapes that grew on the American vines, but found that the results were very disappointing, so he grafted branches from European vines that had not yet become diseased onto American vine roots and discovered that he got the best of both worlds – a vine that was resistant to disease and that produced very good wine.
The grafting of grape vines dates back to well before the time of Jesus. It was a technique with which he and his disciples would have been familiar. In today’s Gospel Jesus likens himself to a vine rootstock, and reminds us that our spiritual well-being depends on our abiding in him:
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
It’s a wonderful metaphor, because it reminds us not only of our complete dependence on Jesus, into whom we were grafted when we were baptised, but also of the need for pruning – runaway vines don’t produce much fruit, and radical and regular pruning is necessary to get a good crop. We too need to be pruned of selfishness, and reminded that we are not freestanding individuals, and that it is only by abiding in Jesus that we will come fully to fruition and have life and have it abundantly.
The fruit that we can bear because we are rooted in him is that love of each other and of all our fellow human beings of which we read in today’s Epistle. The writer of 1 John reminds us that
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Taken out of context, that sounds very demanding, especially that word “must”, but the context reminds us that Christian love is not something that we have or express by an act of will, by our own unaided efforts – not a matter of “I find that person really irritating but I’d better be nice to him or her because otherwise I won’t be a good Christian.” William Temple makes this point well in his Readings in St John’s Gospel:
“Our discipline is not a bracing of our wills to conformity with a law; it is the maintenance of communion with the Lord to the point of immutable indwelling.”
Christian love is something made possible by, fuelled by God’s love of us. These words in the Epistle:
We love because he first loved us.
remind us of what Jesus says in today’s Gospel
apart from me you can do nothing.
If we are grafted into Jesus Christ, we are called to and, by grace, enabled to love in ways which respect the claims of other people to be acknowledged for who they are, persons made in the image and likeness of God.
That’s an important thought in a week which will see elections in Scotland and throughout the UK, important at a time when there is much cynicism about politicians and at a time when groups who suffer from discrimination are justifiably demanding justice. Their demands do not always make comfortable hearing for those whose privilege is being challenged. We are also experiencing the tensions and the divisions that can arise when one group asserts its rights in ways which infringe on the rights of others. We need laws, but conformity to the law, however enlightened the law, cannot of itself build a harmonious and loving community.
Paul Tillich, a 20th century German theologian who lost his teaching post in 1933 because he criticized the Nazis, wrote these words:
Distrust every claim for truth where you do not see truth united with love.
What he said about truth can and should also be said about justice.
Distrust every claim for justice where you do not see justice united with love.
For justice divorced from love all to easily becomes a quest for power to be transferred from one group to another or deteriorates into retribution and revenge.
It is in Jesus Christ, the true vine, that we see the perfect unity between truth and love, and the fruitfulness that makes possible, the fruitfulness that is the source of authentic justice.