The Vine and Branches

We celebrate the Feast of Saint Matthias today, and we have to begin by admitting that we know almost nothing about him.  We hear in our first reading from the Acts of the Apostles all that there is in the scriptures to hear about him. Matthias has been with Jesus and the disciples from the beginning, “from the baptism of John,” they say, “until the day when he was taken up from us,” the day we call the Ascension.  After Judas betrays Jesus and dies a ghastly death, the Apostles need to replace him, so they call both Justus and Matthias, and they pray for guidance. Then they cast lots and Matthias is chosen. It’s an admirably uncomplicated discernment process even if its origins are a bit grim. But we really can’t say anything more about Matthias for sure.  Some early sources place him in Cappadocia, or in Ethiopia. Some give him a different name. He is known as the patron saint of alcoholics, carpenters, tailors, and Gary, Indiana, among other honors.

But his selection by the Apostles—and in particular their determination to replace Judas and keep following their risen Lord—sets out a vital pattern for us to emulate.  “I am the vine,” Jesus says in the gospel of John, “and you are branches.” And the Apostles invite Matthias to join them in a notably vine-like form of growth. They branch out.  They curl around their future, sending out tendrils that extend their reach. They cling to their support while inching forward into new shapes, sprouting clusters of grapes in unanticipated places.  Just as the root structure of the vine deepens and spreads, so the branches spread, and the vine flourishes.

The sin of Judas is an incomprehensible loss.  The crucifixion is an unspeakable trauma. The resurrection instills in the Apostles an ability to live again, live past, live through, twine around the hard places and grow in the light.  “I am the vine,” says Jesus, “abide in my love.”

It’s as natural as can be, it’s entirely predictable, for a branch to remain on the vine, but to hear Jesus talk about it the process sounds fraught with peril.  His father is the vinegrower, and his father wields the pruning shears with vigor. Did you notice that there is no escaping those shears in the Father’s hand? If a branch is fruitless, says Jesus, it will be cut off and burned.  If a branch bears fruit, on the other hand, it will be pruned. That’s a lot of cutting one way or the other, isn’t it? Pruned or cut off: those both sound like painful options, don’t they? But to be fruitful is to know that losses are part of a shaping and a cultivation in God’s hand.  To be fruitful is to know the glory of abiding in the love of Jesus while the vine twists and curls and climbs, inching forward like apostles who take a new path, send out a new branch, when Judas has cut himself off.

In this case, abiding in the love of Jesus means that the scars from the cutting-off of Judas give way to the growth of a new branch.  The eleven apostles turn to the larger body of disciples and, by the grace of God, discover a new apostle within that body, perhaps somewhat unexpectedly.  Something unexpected whithin reaches out toward the future.

We know many losses in the church and the world today, and we could be pardoned for thinking of some of them in catastrophic terms.  The Roman Catholic Church is meeting even as we speak, determining a way forward after the sustained and systematic betrayal of children, a betrayal so pernicious as to call the foundations of belief into question.  And we know they are not alone in discovering that they had been hollowed out from within by sin and duplicity and excessive self-regard. We are hard pressed in this era to find an institution, religious or secular, that doesn’t feel as though it were teetering on the brink of illegitimacy.  Pruning is everywhere, or perhaps it’s closer to the truth to say that some parts of the world we have known are cut off from us, and burning. What an unshapely vine, the body of Christ in the world. Where is its growth? Where are the tendrils beginning to curl around the new supports as new branches yield new fruit?

Tendrils, I want to say, should be second nature to us, especially those of us who have the joy of worshipping in such a leafy, curly, church.  You may think I’m giving our parish a metaphorical compliment—and yes, I see many ways in which the vines are growing among us as people of God.  And I know that you abide, we abide together, we are rooted, in the love of Christ.

But in truth I just want to talk about what we see when we come together on a Sunday morning here at St. Mark’s and our eyes begin to wander, maybe when the sermon gets a little long and we go looking for something more interesting.  That might ordinarily worry me a bit but this morning I encourage you to look around. I think I can promise you that if you stare in almost any direction your eyes will find themselves resting on some kind of vine. I’ve been looking for them in recent days and it has been delightful to realize that they are absolutely everywhere.  You see them all over the pulpit, right? And on the sanctuary rail and the gates? Look at the windows. Most of them are surrounded by foliage, peeping out around the edges of the holy images in stained glass as though they were growing indoors from the garden. Doors are framed by dark carved vines as though we had to step through the leaves to make our way to coffee hour.  The baptismal font is circled by a leafy ring. In brass and stone and silver and glass and wood, in gold across the St. John’s altar, in silk across vestments and paraments, luxuriant vines circle around us. They were placed there by mad, enraptured Victorians and post-Victorians who couldn’t get enough of a good motif.

Like the apostles who prayed and drew lots, our Anglo-catholic forbears, albeit in a vastly more stylish way, let the body of Christ grow in the world in improbable, tangled, shapes.  They built a medieval church in Philadelphia and then decorated it like a jungle. They planted verdant institutions filled with curlicues. They knew something, just as the Apostles knew something, about how the love of Jesus in which we abide will send us twisting and turning and climbing, until the fruit we bear is abundant and surprising.  High and low, before us and behind us, along our walls and covering our archways, the vines are creeping toward the future, carrying us with them like lovely bunches of grapes. Rooted in the past, maybe, but more importantly rooted in Christ and growing in him and with him and through him toward a future known only to him, our Alpha and Omega.

Preached by Mother Nora Johnson
24 February 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia

Posted on February 28, 2019 .