REFLECTION I am stumped for hymns on this lesson. The text for today is a fundamental image of Jesus, one of his great I AM statements--stating that he is God, the great I AM. The vine and branches image is redolent with Old Testament passages as well. Strange, then, that there are so few hymns with the image. This text was not in the old lectionaries as far as I can tell so, for example, there are no cantatas by Bach on this text.
However, more hymns have been written on the text recently given that it is now in the series B of the lectionary. John Michael Talbot wrote one of the more popular versions of the text, "I Am the Vine." In it he weaves together the imagery of John 15, Psalm 1 and Matthew 11.
Jaroslav Vajda, one of the more esteemed Lutheran hymn writers of the past generation, wrote a hymn on the text for the LBW, "Amid the World’s Bleak Wilderness” using a Dantean sonnet form, meaning stanzas of four rhyming (tercets) as did Dante in his Divine Comedy. It imitates the vine as it connects all four stanzas and then is held together by the couplet at the end. A hard form to set to a tune, but Richard Hillert’s tune seems up to the task.
While there are thousands of hymns on the Bread of Life, another I AM passage, and thousands on the bread and wine of the sacrament, there are few on this passage. Why, I do not know.
Mindekirken, my church, was finished in 1930. It has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows I have seen in a church its size. The artist would later work with Tiffany and one can see that in the brilliance of the colors. There are two stories of Jesus on each window, from the Annunciation to his Ascension. They are told with clear references to the traditions of the painters of Christian scenes: Mary wears blue and red, the annunciation has her reading a book, the angel bears a lily, etc. But the windows over the altar have no scenes to portray, only symbols for the church. At the very top is the Word from which flows everything in the Christian life. Then below are Alpha and Omega and then the sacraments, the font and the cup with wheat for bread. The feature that holds them all together, however, is the imagery of the vine and the grapes. It is a beautiful, rich purple window in some contrast to the rest of the windows which tend to be bright blue and red. One sees the grapes reappearing all through the windows.
It is not just a communion image. It is an image of our relationship to the branch that gives life. While the fruitage of the vine is the luscious grapes, delicious to see and taste, none of that would be possible without the rich juices flowing into the flower and fruit from the trunk, or vine, of the plant.
It is easy for us to think that the way we have grown, bloomed and borne fruit is our work. But without the life of the vine, there would be nothing but dry sticks worthy only to be thrown into the fire for kindling.
To live we need to be tended by the gardener in his nursery. He is not only the gardener, he is the vine, the one who delivers life to us through his word, he is “the source of all that lives.” What a richness to know we are nourished by the life of Christ flowing through us, helping us grow and bloom, producing rich and luscious fruit as we were intended to do by our creator. Over the year of confinement, many have felt disconnected from the vine because they have not been able to be with other Christians. We have been able to see and hear each other through Zoom, but it has been a deprivation not to be able to gather together physically. In the gathering we gain strength and are fed God's word by each other. We need to be tended in the nursery of grace, by the gardener who gives life.
Here is my sonnet on this text from my book of sonnets Jesus the Harmony--really, sermons or bible studies in miniature. (Available now on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other on line book companies, either as a book or ebook for your Kindle!)
I AM THE VINE
The root of all, the source of all that lives.
Through him comes life, all the food we need
Coursing through our arteries to give
Life to our spirits, bodies, fruit, and seed.
His words cleanse the lines to make a place
Where he abides, and we abide with him,
A home, comfortable and filled with grace,
Where the juices fructify the limbs.
Without their cleansing, the branches wither and die;
The gardener throws them in the fire to burn.
Even tender shoots he prunes away
For richer harvests; helping us to learn,
The Father readies this house to dwell with us,
A nursery of grace that he will tend with love.
John 15:1-8; Romans 11:22-24; Revelation 3:20
Gracia Grindal from Jesus the Harmony Gospel Sonnets for 366 Days
Copyright Fortress Press 2021
Knowles Shaw/the old 19th century chestnut
John Michale Talbot
Arvo Pärt’s I am the True Vine/Ars Nova Copenhagen
Danny Daniels and Randy Rigby
You are the Vine and We are The Branches