I am the vine, ye are the branches. Abide in me and I in
you, for without me ye can do nothing.
How do vines know to cling to what is firm and unmovable? How do
plants know to grow toward the light, and how do wild animals understand
they must flee burning fire? Why do birds fly north in summer and
south in winter, and not contrariwise? Nature teaches them, we say.
God has planted into each natural thing such good instincts as enable it to
avoid, put away from itself,” all hurtful things and to seek “those things
which be profitable for it.” But what about humankind? How does
the never-failing good providence and care of God so arrange things for us
that we shun the hurtful and seek what is good for us?
This season of the Christian year, like the natural season, is concerned
with growth. This is why the colour of the season is green.
Indeed, our Lord goes so far as to compare himself to a living thing:
I am the vine, my father is the husbandman, every branch in
me that beareth not fruit he taketh away; and every branch that beareth
fruit he purgeth it (prunes it), that it may bring forth more fruit . .
. . I am the vine, ye are the branches. He that abideth in me, and I in
him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do
nothing. (John 15. 1,2 and 5)In
last week’s collect, we pray God to “graft us” by love into Jesus, the true
vine, to make us grow up filled with his life, “increasing us in true
religion.” We ask him to nourish us with the strength and goodness
which rises through Jesus into us, and to keep us in that same vine safe
from storms and disease until we yield the fruit of everlasting life.
Our new life begins, according to this image, with grafting: cutting a
branch out of the tree or vine which produced it and making it grow from a
new tree. The grafting is, in our case, cutting us out of the tree of
our weak and diseased human nature. The tree of human nature is so
weak and diseased that it does not know how to grow toward the light, its
roots are so shallowly planted in good soil that it cannot properly nourish
the grapes on the vine, therefore they are bitter and sour. If a
branch on the human tree is to produce full, sweet, good fruit, it must be
cutout of the tree of the old Adam and be grafted into the new human nature
of Christ, pure and strong. Of course, grafting requires cutting not
only the branch, but also the new host tree. Jesus is cut open for us on the
cross; we are grafted into his wounded side from which flowed water and
blood. The water is the baptism of a new life; the blood is the
nourishing strength of this holy sacrament of the altar, the communion of
the cup of everlasting salvation.
But what has all this to do with today’s collect, with the providence of
God by which we avoid hurtful things and seek what is good and profitable
for us? The difference between humans and the rest of material
creation is that we humans cannot live by instinct. As psychologists
say, our behaviour is learned. Our consciences warn us against evil,
and nudge us toward the good, but our consciences are often confused.
Humans have so many ways and habits of life — what we now call life styles
—that discriminating the good directions from the bad is so difficult as to
be impossible by human power.
Today’s Gospel and Epistle are about the two aspects of discriminating
and choosing the way to grow straight and strong and fruitful. First
there is the theoretical aspect. We must know the good direction and
be able to distinguish it from all the false ways which are only apparently
good. “Beware of false prophets,” says Jesus, which come to you beautiful
and innocent in sheep’s clothing but inwardly they are ravening wolves who
will eat you alive. And when we do know the difference, we have still
before us the second aspect, the practical. The will must be trained.
We have the problem of training the vine to grow toward the warm light of
the sun. We have still the long, hard, practical work to do. We must
turn from the ways of the flesh to those of the spirit. Our bodies and
our minds must be changed in all their habits and associations. We
must kill, mortify, eat away what is evil and turn and cling to what is
good. This is the way to come home to our heavenly Father, home to
where we are heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ, branches of his vine.
Branches who, because with him they have died unto this world and its
habits, will also be glorified with him by a new and endless life.
The good is hard to attain. To discern the difference between the
apparent and the real good and, having distinguished the two, to cut
ourselves away from the hurtful and grow bit by bit toward the true good, to
live by its strength and nourishment, to be filled with the good and nothing
else until the great harvest, all this is impossible for human nature. Most
of us have been raised in such a way that our consciences, or moral
instincts, and habits of life have been formed and shaped by Christian
society: a society that regarded the marriage as a permanent union in, which
husband and wife could entrust themselves, a society that regarded innocent
life as sacred, violence and cheap destructive thrills as evils to be kept
away from all, a society that stopped work on Sunday to thank God for his
goodness. All this is now past or passing. We make divorce easy,
abortion accessible. Violence in music and television is the stuff on which
our children are raised. Drugs and cheap thrills are our
entertainment, and commerce consumes our whole lives. Think how such a
society forms the conscience.
The society in which the post-war generation was raised was the moral and
ethical remains of two thousand years of Christian civilization. We
have now spent almost that whole capital. And now our only hope lies in
returning to that Christian vine from which we have cut ourselves off.
Our hope is to be so firmly grafted into Christ by love, that we will daily
grow up in his religion and be nourished by nothing except his goodness.
Our prayer is to be so well fixed in Christ, our vine, that the habits of
his life will keep us from all things hurtful and make us cling to all that
will enable us to become heirs of everlasting life with God. Amen.