The Revd Margaret Legg
Has it ever struck you as rather odd that at the very centre of our Christian religion is the drinking of an intoxicant? If we participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist, we receive bread and wine – wine, the fruit of the vine.
Wine started out in ancient civilisations as the means to orgiastic feasts and bacchanalian festivals: an intoxicant that stirred communities into ecstatic behaviour. Gradually, under the discipline of ritual, prayer and theology wine was tamed to become first a solemn libation to the Olympians and then the Christian Eucharist, offering a brief encounter with the sacred which has reconciliation as its goal. Wine: a drink just strong enough to cause you to smile at the world and the world to smile at you. Yes, of course, over-indulgence has always happened – but wine, unlike stronger spirits – whisky, vodka, gin – wine brings out the best in people. This is how the Dean of St Edmundsbury Cathedral opened a conference I attended in Lent.
She reminded us that wine is a means of facilitating our entertainments. It often accompanies cultural forms that civilise us: song, poetry, arguments about ideas, wine allows us to entertain ourselves. And wine entertains us as we attempt to describe the experience of drinking. In Brideshead Revisited, for example, as Charles and Sebastian get to know each other, sampling the Earl’s wines, the descriptions become more and more poetic: It is a little, shy wine, like a gazelle, then, like a leprechaun, then, Dappled, in a tapestry meadow, and finally, Like a flute by still water or an Ancient symbol of Israel
The vine had always been a symbol of Israel, pruned and kept pure by the Temple worship, with its festivals and animal sacrifices and by the Law framed within the 10 Commandments. Jesus takes this ancient symbol and casts it in a new mould. Instead of Israel being the vine, 'I, Jesus am the vine.' Furthermore, 'I am the true vine,' he says, 'because I prune and purify in a quite different way. Sin and death, that mar human life, just as blemishes and weaknesses prevent the vine flourishing, I have dealt with once and for all.' The vine that was Israel continually struggled with them. Year after year, on the Day of Atonement they symbolically piled the sin of the people on to the scapegoat and let him loose into the wilderness to meet his death.
Jesus however, crucified and risen, has overcome them, forgives us when we turn to him in penitence so that we can make a fresh start and gives us the hope of life after death in eternity with him. Well, when we accept God’s invitation to be grafted onto the true vine, we can describe ourselves as branches and I have been wondering what sort of wine the fruit on our branches produces? Looking at the staff team:
The Parish Administrator’s branch produces perhaps a cheeky little number!
The Curate’s a stately well rounded aroma?
The Vicar’s well aged, with a touch of lemon zest!
Oh and the Director of Music’s branch, lively with hidden deep notes.
Margaret’s – suggestions to me in writing please. Mark the envelope confidential!
What makes a good branch, a fruitful branch in the vineyard of our lives? 3 points
Forgiveness from Isaiah 5.1-2
'Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard. Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; he built a watch-tower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; he expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes.'
Sometimes our roots stretch into places and people that feed us the wrong nutrients. We soak up stuff that’s not good for us. Even though God gives us all the grace and love we need, we go wild, turn away, are distracted from what God requires of us. Our shoots stretch off towards the wrong sort of warmth. There will be times in our lives when we’ve missed opportunities. Or gone our own wayward way Or, for the hell of it, we’ve gone mad, and lived to regret actions or words. When the fruits of our life have been sour. When we’ve yielded wild grapes. We know our need of forgiveness. The true vine offers that forgiveness.
Thanksgiving from Psalm 80 v8
'You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.'
The psalmist addresses God. He describes the people of God, brought out of slavery in Egypt to the Promised Land. A land cleared and prepared for the vine. The vine is planted and grows and prospers. We might think about our own journeys through life in these terms. God has planted you, nurtured you, and enabled you to grow. You have put down roots in your life - in people, in places, in passions. Then you produce shoots. The connections you make, the skills you have developed. And you bear fruit: the ideas you hatch and develop; your skills that you use to enhance others; your passions that inspire and enthuse. Give thanks, for the ways God has enabled us to develop roots, shoots and fruits.
Reshaping from Hosea 10.1
'Israel is a luxuriant vine that yields its fruit. The trouble was that the more luxuriant and prosperous Israel became, the more the people strayed after the pagan gods.'
Sometimes we are wilful and believe that we are right; we grow complacent; or we get carried away by our own sense of success, of direction. We fail to listen to God; we fail to have humility. Our heart, even though we don’t know it, is deeply misguided, wrong, and false. Sometimes, when that happens, all that God can do is break us down, so we are compelled to start again. We are an old vine that has no more to give. Those aspects of us need to be rooted out. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.
Today 3 new branches are going to be added to the vine. ‘Made clean’ as Philip tells the Ethiopian, not by a good scrub in a hot bath, but ‘by the word that has been spoken to you’. A cleansing inside of what dirties our souls and a fresh start, a start enfolded in the God who loves us and who will feed us and guide us. A fresh start that will not end when our life on earth ends, but will continue in the heavenly vineyard. As branches on the true vine, they will be held in God’s love, and love means not only how we feel but also what we do.
What will the wine from the fruits of these 3 new branches do?
Will you be ‘a prophet in a cave’ as Charles and Sebastian went on to describe more of the wines that they tasted? A bold, robust wine, slightly peppery, stepping out fearlessly to point out the errors of the times, standing up for what is right in the face of danger, mockery, apathy, like the prophets of old?
Or perhaps ‘a necklace of pearls on a white neck’? a clean little number, with a hint of mint underlaid with shades of rose petals, performing beautiful acts of kindness, a pianist whose playing brings joy to others, a surgeon or a lifeguard?
Or ‘a swan’, smooth on the palate with a flowery nose and ripe berry flavours, serenely coping with all sorts of difficulties and problems and assisting others when they are struggling – an IT consultant, a teacher?
Whatever comes your way in life, as branches of the true vine you will always be nourished and sustained by the other branches – the church – and by the God who is love.