It’s so good to be with you for this Holy Week. It’s such a special time, a real opportunity to prepare properly for the greatest of all our Feasts. I’ve had the privilege of sharing Holy Week with folk I think of as fellow-pilgrims many times, and I do hope you’ll be able to be part of the fellowship this year, and do catch up on-line if you can’t always come in person.
I’m going to be walking with you in the steps of St John, as he himself follows Jesus to the Cross and beyond. I have to say that after being a Mark man in my youth – Mark’s Gospel is all action and believe it or not I was once like that too – I’ve become more and more fascinated as my dotage approaches by the gentler, more relective pace of the Gospel of John.
I take the traditional view that John son of Zebedee was the beloved disciple and either the author of the gospel or the principal witness for it – and quite possibly John of Patmos as well. That means that in his gospel we could have the memories of a very young John – perhaps only say 17– caught up in the excitement of following Jesus, and discovering his identity as he does so. Plusthe written-up memories of a major apostle of the early church. Plushere and there the measured reflection of a saint looking back on those days and adding his deep reflections as he does, when – we are told – almost all he would preach about was, “little children, love one another,” just as he has been taught that fateful night as a young man himself. There is something for folk of all ages here, and I want to speak heart-to-heart with you about the heart of the matter: about our Lord and what it means to follow him.
It was an adventure that began by the Sea of Galilee, in small-town Bethsaida, where John’s family were in partnership with the Zebedees catching and supplying fish for the Jerusalem market. The high priest was on their customer list, and they were doing well. But then John’s cousin Jesus came into the picture. (If you work out the geneaology, you’ll see that their mothers Mary wife of Joseph and Salome wife of Zebedee were sisters.) The Bethsaida lads had gone over to Bethany where the Baptist was at work, had seen Jesus baptised and heard that heavenly voice for the first time, and decided to follow him. It can’t have been great for business, but perhaps young men going off and following a rabbi for a year or two, probably seasonally, wasn’t so different from our young going off to university now. John was the youngest of them, and I can imagine Salome and Mary telling Jesus to keep a special eye on him.
And what a roller-coaster it was going to be: from the heavenly voice at the Baptism of Jesus and the Baptist’s declaration that here was the Lamb of God, to the Transfiguration, to the death and glory of the Passion that we are going to follow now.
Today is Palm Sunday of course, and we had the chance to follow that part of the story of this morning, but this evening the Old Testament reading takes us to Isaiah’s love-song about the vineyard and its vines. So I’ve jumped right into the middle of the story and paired it with John 15 – the passage about the Vine – which despite its importance to John doesn’t come up otherwise in the Holy Week lections (which also jump around quite a bit to fit our liturgical needs). Only John records the incident, and that and the deep way in which it introduces us to the very heart of his faith make it certain that it was one that had a major impact on him and stayed with him for the rest of his life.
In fact, it also made a profound impression on me when I was on retreat as a I prepared to be made a bishop, and it has stayed with me ever since, so this for me really is what is all about.
But now, let’s open the good book, and get into the story. We find ourselves just after the Last Supper, when Jesus and his disciples are walking to Gethsemane. The location of that Last Supper is not certain, but a likely route to Gethsemane, which lay beyond the Kidron Valley, would have taken the group through the Temple precinct, and past the main entrance to the Temple, an entrance which was marked, the historian Josephus tells us, by a great golden vine. This was and remained a symbol of some significance. For the Jewish people it was one of the key symbolic ways of speaking about them as a nation, God’s vineyard, God’s vine – alongside such images as God’s flock. That was why it was shown on the Temple. For John and the Christians who followed him it combined that theme of being God’s people with a reference to the wine of the Eucharist, and if you look around the surviving Saxon preaching crosses of even these far-distant parts you will see the vine scroll there to this day.
The key link from our point of view was that Jesus boldly offered himself as the new way of being and becoming incorporated into the people of God. Just as he spoke of himself as the Good Shepherd of God’s sheep, and as the new Temple of God’s presence among his people, so he said “I am the Vine, you are the branches”: in me God has re-planted his people; by being in me you are part of that people; abide in me.
How this must have gripped St John. Here was a picture of who he was called to be, where he was accepted, where he could belong. All the questions that fill the mind of a young adult, and perhaps adults who are not so young as well. He was called by Christ as his beloved, to abide in Him, be rooted in Him. He was called into a company of many others also beloved, also shooting with life from that same root. And he was called to bear fruit for Christ with them, fruit that would last. As one writer put it, the rest of his life was to be a reflection on the extraordinary discovery that he was beloved of God.
And what was more, and what was new, is that love is the root and it is love all the way. As we will hear again on Thursday, this is the new commandment, the one that rewrites the rule-book: “love one another as I have loved you.” It’s like a great river of love flowing down from heaven, through Christ, through us, and out across the whole wide world. God has so loved the world that he has sent his Son, his Son whom he loves. He shows us that he has that same love for us too, and lays down his life, God’s life, for us as the active demonstration of that love and the effective remaking of our relationship with him. And he commands us to do for others as God has done for us, loving one another, loving one another, and even loving our enemies too.
This is at heart the lesson of the Vine. When we were far off, all of us, God has shown his love for us, sinners though we are, and done for us what we could not do for ourselves, restored our bond of belonging and love with him. “O God,” we pray, “forasmuch as without thee we are not able to please thee.” We cannot and dare not rely on our non-existent ability to rebuild the bridge; but God in Jesus Christ has done it for us. And John’s great gift to us is to underline that this is best seen not as an act of judicial forgiveness, or a trick played on Satan, or a fee due to him, but as an act of pure love. And what is more, the only deep-down requirement laid on us is to love in return.
What is set up is a powerful, beautiful, organic pattern of life and growth. The same love in which the world was conceived and created moves God to show that love to the world to the uttermost so that it may have the life that he planned for it in all its fulness, despite all its failings. That same love if accepted creates an echoing love in the hearts of the created, of us, of whom nothing more is asked than to abide in, to be faithful to that love and to Christ in whom it was shown.
That same love is intended to be the hall-mark of the Christian community, the totus Christusor whole Christ uniting Jesus himself, his body the Church, and the Eucharist in which they meet. It’s as if the ordinary DNA of our humanity, with all its selfishness, has another strand added into it – not as an extra but at the very heart of its being – something of the self-giving not self-grasping love of God. The DNAand purpose of the church is to love others as Christ has loved it. So, the mutual life of love of those who call themselves Christians is not an optional extra to be aspired as long as everything else has got sorted and all the really awkward people have gone away, but the first call on us if we are to be truly God’s people.
And then finally, it is quite clear that if our roots have to be in Christ or we perish, and our shoots have to be one vine together or we cease to be in Christ, then also the shoots are meant and purposed to bear fruit, fruit that will be given away unconditionally so that others may have the same life that we have found for ourselves. That is Amazing Grace; that is the DNA of the church, the family business if you like of God, and it is into that family, that Vine, that flock, that people, that God invites us afresh now this Holy Week. To walk with him, to wait with him, to watch with him, to go with him to the Cross … and beyond.