Psalm 80

John 15.1-8

In Vino Veritas

Sixth Sunday of Easter

            One bright, sunny, May morning, in fact it was the first Sunday in May, a communion Sunday, I made my way down from the pulpit to the communion table and stood there, Deacons arrayed before me, ready to celebrate the sacrament, when a familiar, yet somewhat out of place aroma greeted my nostrils. I was standing directly over the chalice, and I could tell that that purple stuff in the cup wasn’t the usual Welch’s grape juice, but rather a nice goblet of good red wine. Now I like a good red as much as anyone, but I knew someone was pulling a fast one on me, and as I looked at the Deacons in front of me, two of them in particular had developed a sudden and intense interest in their shoes, doing everything they could to avoid eye contact, and trying not to laugh. No one else was in on the joke, and in that solemn moment, it was all I could do not to bust out laughing myself, so I bit my tongue, broke the bread, and drank heartily.

            I know all the reasons most Protestants use grape juice instead of wine, and I appreciate the fact that here in Chester we are clear in our desire to be sure everyone can participate. In fact, you may be interested to learn that in 1869 Dr. Thomas Bramwell Welch, a physician and dentist by profession, successfully pasteurized the juice of the Concord grape (developed in Concord, Massachusetts) to produce what he called an “unfermented sacramental wine” for fellow parishioners at his church in Vineland, N.J., where he was a communion steward. In other words, the invention of Welch’s Grape Juice was the direct result of the desire for a teatotaling communion table. Yet I still find the exclusive use of juice in so many of our Protestant churches, while understandable, nonetheless curious, considering the ubiquitous use of wine in the Bible.

            This is not a sermon about wine, though by the time we’re done you may be forgiven for thinking otherwise. Rather, it is about Jesus’ use of the vine – and the fruit of the vine - as a metaphor. In this morning’s New Testament lesson, Deb read, “I am the true vine, and God is the vinedresser. Every branch that bears no fruit, is taken away, and every branch that does bear fruit is pruned to bear more fruit… By this God will be glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” In John’s gospel, Jesus makes a series of statements similar to this, each beginning with the phrase, “I am,” and if you recall the fact that when God revealed the divine name to Moses as “I Am,” you will understand the significance of these statements. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus said; “I am the bread of heaven; I am the light of the world; I am the good shepherd; I am the resurrection and the life; I am the way and the truth;” and here, in John 15, “I am the true vine.” His repetition of the phrase “I am” implies Jesus’ adoption of the primary Old Testament name of God, for himself, and then expands on it in everyday terms everyone can identify with: bread, light, truth, life, and here in John 15, the vine and its fruit.

            The image finds fuller flower in the 80th psalm: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you cleared out the nations and planted it. You prepared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land. The mountains were covered with its shade, the mighty cedars with its branches; it sent out its branches to the sea and its shoots to the river.” The picture is a vivid one, and what gives it its life is the fruit that it bears.

            And it is the fruit that it bears, which fills the cup of life we regularly drink from at communion. Many years ago, when my daughter Blythe was in high school, she came to me with a math problem. Now math was never my strong suit, and Blythe in her mid-teens already knew more than I ever would on the subject. But on this particular occasion, she asked me about something I actually remembered from my own high school days: it had to do with the associative and commutative and distributive properties of numbers. Without stretching too much, I think it may be helpful to apply one of these mathematical concepts, namely the transitive property of numbers, to Jesus’ “I am” sayings in John. The transitive property says that if a = b, and b = c, then a = c, or in this case, if a = b, and a =c, then b = c. To put it biblically, if Jesus is the bread of heaven, and Jesus is the bread of life, then we may say the bread of heaven is the bread of life. If Jesus is the resurrection and Jesus is the light of the world, then we may say the resurrection is the light of the world. And, to bring us full circle to our sermon topic this morning, if Jesus is the truth, and Jesus is also the vine, then we may say that in the fruit of the vine there is also truth, or in Latin, In Vino Veritas. Then again, perhaps like Blythe, you’ve concluded by now that I ought to steer clear of math and stick to what I know best.

            But I don’t know very much about wine either, so, in an effort to hone my oenological skills, all in the interests of good preaching, mind you, I found myself roaming the aisles of Shoreline Spirits the other afternoon in search of inspiration. Perhaps I should have gone on Saturday when they give out free samples, but then the sermon would never get done. What I found, though, surprised me, yet at the same time reinforced the drift of Jesus’ words in John’s gospel. For there in the wine racks at Shoreline were selections such as the Portuguese red called Messias, the Portuguese word for “messiah;” an Italian red called Lacryma Christi, or “tears of Christ;” a Zinfandel called “Sin Zin,” which needs no explanation, and a German white with the appellation Himmelreich, or “kingdom of heaven.” I found Jesus’ parents represented there among the varietals as well, by a New Zealand white called Santa-Maria and a French red called Saint Joseph; for your minister in particular there were two Napa Valley wines to choose from, Frog’s Leap and Toad Hollow; and finally, for the tried and true Congregationalist for whom process and protocol are everything, I found a Spanish white wine called Protocolo. In wine there is truth!

            It is probably better, though, to say that in the cup, there is truth.   In the cup there is community, because all of us are invited to drink from it, no matter who we are. In the cup there is covenant, because by drinking from it we declare that we all belong to one another, by virtue of the fact that we all belong to Christ. In the cup there is sustenance, because not only is Jesus the vine whence comes the fruit, but also because it is also Jesus’ spirit which feeds us at the table. In the cup is the life of the one who gave up his life so that you and I could come to this table, to this cup, in the first place. In the cup is the literal and veritable fruit of our faithfulness, when we bring ourselves freely, to this moment of meaning and mystery, this sacrament, whereby God is conveyed to us, and we to God. The ancient church spoke of the trinity in these terms, of God as the root, Christ as the branch, or shoot, and the Holy Spirit as the fruit: the old catechism says, “The fruit from the shoot is third from the root:” that is, the Spirit emanates from Christ, who emanates from God. But however we understand the contents of the cup: as the fruit of the vine, as the presence, real and symbolic, of the resurrected Christ, as the elixir of life or as the feast of the heavenly banquet, we know that in the cup that is poured out for many, is the truth of the presence and promise of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.

            Amen.

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