I am the vine; you are the branches.
A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity
July 2, 2023 at Holy Communion
From St John’s Gospel: “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Katy and I spent much of this week in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, for the Atlantic Theological Conference. I’m grateful to return refreshed and challenged by worship, friendship, and conversation about the conference’s topic this year, “The Idea of the Parish.”
The preacher at the conference eucharist on Wednesday evening, when we celebrated the Feast of St Peter and St Paul, reminded us of Jesus’ words in John 15: “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” You, the members of this parish, are my friends. And as my friends, you should know what I am doing. So I will pass onto you the word that I heard this week from the Father at the Atlantic Theological Conference.
What is a parish? By itself, that question is abstract, unreal. So I ask instead, if we are a parish, then who are we? What are we? What are we here for? What do we do?
In a very fine paper, Father George Westhaver, a Maritimer who now serves as chaplain to Pusey House at Oxford University, drew the conference’s attention to an image and a word from scripture. The word was John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches.” The image was the one that you see on the projector. It is the 12th-century apse mosaic at the Church of San Clemente in Rome.
Father Westhaver used it to illustrate the theologian EB Pusey’s idea of a “sacramental principle” which draws all things, from the highest and most dignified to the lowest and most commonplace, into communion with God through the cross. It is an image of what life in the church is supposed to be: we gather to celebrate the sacrament of Christ’s death—that is, the Holy Communion—but this act doesn’t just stay in the church. Communion with Christ makes us branches in his mystical vine, and that vine stretches into every corner of life, lifting everything up into God through Christ.
At the centre of the mosaic is the cross. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, dies for the sins of the world. (The two figures at the foot of the cross are, as usual, the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John.) We can barely see it, but the mosaic depicts the wound in Christ’s side, from which blood and water are flowing. This blood and water represents the two great sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion, which join us to Christ in his death on the cross and his resurrection, washing us from sin and strengthening us for life after Christ’s example. There, in Christ’s wounded side, is where the vine begins, spreading out in four directions. The mosaic is telling us that the sacraments are the source and centre of life in communion with God.
The vine spreads, and gathers in all sorts of people. First, the vine of Christ gathers in the tradition of the church. Here the tradition is depicted through the “Four Latin Doctors,” who were early influential teachers of the faith. At the centre of our view right now, the man writing a book is St Jerome, translating the scriptures into Latin.
But there are other figures as well. Between the doctors of the church we see a man engaged in some sort of business or sport, and a group of men in fine clothing, while along the bottom, a shepherd feeds his sheep, a man corrals his cattle, and a woman feeds her chickens. The vine reaches into the ordinary lives of ordinary people, the rich and the poor, drawing them, in their various stations, into one common life in the vine of Christ.
And water flows from the vine at the foot of the cross, where animals and birds drink and are refreshed. The vine is a source of life for all creation. Since Christ came to die and rise for the life of the entire cosmos, the Christian sacraments are also a signs of creation restored to live in communion with God.
This whole vine—flowing out from Christ’s side to encompass the saints, the high, the low, the created order—is drawn up into the life of God. Although we cannot depict the Almighty Father directly, “whom no one has ever seen,” the scriptures do tell us about the “right hand of God,” and above the cross we see that hand. It grabs hold of the cross and the vine which flows out from it and pulls it all upward into heaven. If we are part of the vine of Christ, then, as St Paul says, “Our life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). The woman feeding her chickens, the rich man at his sport, the monk explaining the scriptures: each person’s life and work is included, dignified, and sanctified if it takes place in communion with the vine of Christ.
This is what a parish is. We gather here for worship every Sunday to celebrate our union with the crucified and risen Lord through the sacrament of Holy Communion. We bring our children and grandchildren to be washed in the water that pours from Christ’s side. Then we go about our business, and through us the vine of Christ sanctifies daily work and embraces the community in which we live.
What takes place at this altar is the beating heart of this community—and I don’t just mean the people who attend this church. Shelburne, Nova Scotia is holy to God because the branches of Christ’s vine, we who gather at the holy table, are rooted in this place.
You are invited this morning to live as a member of the vine. You are nourished by the blood and water that flow from Christ’s side. Your daily labour, however significant or trivial it may be, you offer to God in Christ with thankfulness. And the vine extends through you to include those whom you take a hold of and draw in closer to Christ, and those whose burdens and needs you bear and present to the Father in prayer.