If Jesus walked in a cornfield on the sabbath he must surely have walked amongst the rows of a vineyard too. With friends occasionally in fields of short straw stubble, at other times making a climb along a dusty path, passing a farm house up among the grazing sheep. Birds sing in a scattering of trees, small insects hum and with every step the views increase, spreading wider all the way to the shores of the sea. Perched on a hillside, drinking in the sun, row upon row of short staked vines, trained and pruned to produce a good harvest of fruit for the making of wine.
Jesus and his disciples lived alongside the men and the women who worked the vineyards and amongst their community in synagogue prayers they read from Isaiah 5, a vineyard where, the ground is cleared of stones and only the best vines are planted. In Psalm 80 another vineyard is planted and as an image of Israel, these vine are monsters, taking root and filling the land, stretching from one shore to the next, providing shelter for all.
But in both these Bible songs the fate of the vines is the same: ripped out of the ground and flung into the fire, Israel is the vine, dearly loved but unfaithful and disobedient she is destroyed by the blade and the flame.
This is the picture that the disciples had in mind when Jesus told them, I am the vine. They understood him and they did not understand him, all at the same time. The story they were familiar with is based on sin and punishment but the story Jesus tells has a different focus. In the new story Jesus himself is the vine, God is the gardener and anyone who is listening is invited to abide in the vine like a new shoot, trimmed and trained to grow and bound and inevitably producing fruit.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. John 15 (NIV)
I wouldn’t have noticed the two ways of seeing the vine imagery if I hadn’t visited a vineyard.
Shawsgate Vineyard is on a quiet B road, a few miles from Framingham, a tiny piece of hidden Suffolk that we sometimes visit. It has a castle and a river snaking its way down to the sea. There are farmhouses half timbered, ancient orchards and country lanes where the grass grows up through the broken tarmac in the middle of the road. Suffolk has a vine growing history that is 900 years old and the Domesday book records nearly forty vineyards in the county at the time of the Norman conquest. Shawsgate is a modern vineyard but you can feel the weight of years all around you.
I love being lost in thought between these vines. This is one of my favourite places and as I walked between the rows, thinking on the familiar words of John 15, I sensed a shift in my understanding of what Jesus was saying. Without ever acknowledging it I had seen the text as punishing and harsh. Without intending to I had a adopted a view of ‘my Father is the gardener’ that was all about God doing battle with my sin. In it God comes along with secateurs to cut out the rotten wood and the stems with fungus and blight. I am often on edge, often wondering what I will get wrong and the punishment that will result.
But amongst the lush green canopy of leaves that shade each tear drop bunch of ripening grapes I saw how the pruning work of this gardener is hardly ever the removal of diseased wood. These vines are attached to healthy stock, well watered and well cared for. They do not suffer from fungus and blight. The pruning of these vines is, as Jesus said, the removal of every branch that does not bear fruit because these grapes are always produced on one year old wood. At the end of every growing season the branches that have sustained the fruit are cut out and the plant rests over the winter. Because these branches will not bear good fruit again, their time is done. When the spring comes new shoots appear and these will form the branches that bear the new fruit. In this way the vine goes on being fruitful for as long as there is a gardener there ready to remove the spent wood. This is a process by which the gardener is able to produce one good crop after another from the same vine.
Can you feel the shift? One degree of glory unto the next? Does it speak to your soul?
He does not want to punish you, He wants to love you and to keep you safe. He has a skilful way of producing good things in you. Draw close to him and read his word. Think on the good things of God and let Him heal and cleanse your soul of every harsh thought or fearful response that has ever stopped you knowing his love.
Abide in me, say the old words of the King James. Words of welcome.
There is nothing you can do that will make God love you more and nothing that will make him love you less.
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 15.5 (KJV)
Shawsgate Vineyard is between Framingham and Badingham in Suffolk, on the B1120. It is open to the public.