NOT everything about the Bible is difficult. When scripture speaks straightforwardly, we sometimes shrink from the plain sense, like St Bernard reading the Song of Songs as depicting the love between God and his Church; 1 John 4.12 is as clear as it gets: “If we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”
Calling God a “vinegrower” (NRSV) or “husbandman” (AV) suggests that he is like a farmer — typically (because, being God, he has to be in charge) a landowner. RSV is more cautious, translating as “vine-dresser” (a “dresser” is employed to tend crops). The Greek word georgos (our name “George”) means someone who works the soil: possibly still a farmer, but definitely one who is prepared to get his hands dirty. This tells us that God, like his creation Adam (Genesis 3.18), knows what hard work is. A professor of Hebrew pointed out, in long-ago lectures, the oddity of Genesis 1-3, in which human beings lounge at their ease while God does all the work.
Repeatedly in the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, God’s people are pictured as a vine, or vineyard. Wine has not changed its character that much since then, although it was common in the ancient world to drink it diluted with water. It is still an everyday miracle, changing plain fruit into a substance which “maketh glad the heart of man” (Psalm 104.8).
There is a parallel with the mysterious leaven that turns flatbread into a lighter, tastier food. In fact, we find a trinity of mystery in these miraculous blessings of our existence, as Psalms 104.18 and 4.8 bear witness (depending on the version); for oil, yielded by a tree (the olive), is also a mystery defying understanding.
John’s Gospel lacks standard parables, but in the seven “I Am” sayings of Jesus we encounter parables in a new guise. Exegetes will talk of “symbol” (a pearl; a mustard seed) and “referent” (the Kingdom of heaven; faith). In the “I Am” sayings, the symbol varies (one is human; six are not), but the referent is always the same: it is always Jesus.
Not that John the Evangelist is making the same mistake as the legendary Sunday-school teacher whose every question had the same answer (it was always Jesus). The “I Am” sayings begin with Jesus, who is the referent (“I am”), and work their way back to symbols (“the True Vine”), which help us to understand him. If Jesus is the True Vine, that means that he stands for fruitfulness, happiness, community, and (to believing Christians) communion.
With teachings like the True Vine and the Door we come close to that prophetic mode of behaviour, familiar from the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, which characterised John the Baptist, and sometimes Jesus, in the New Testament. This is a way of teaching which reveals divine guidance in things as mundane and unglamorous as grubby underwear (Jeremiah 13.1-10).
Every such image has its limitations, though. The branch of an actual vine — unlike us branches of the True Vine — does not have a mind or will to choose to blossom. Nor is it responsible for its own fruitfulness. Jesus says, “No good tree bears bad fruit, nor again does a bad tree bear good fruit” (Luke 6.43); a saying that the late Jim Cotter put to prophetic use 40 years ago in his little book Good Fruits (1981).
The Acts reading is a rare opportunity to encounter a person of minority sexual identity (albeit not one that they chose for themselves) in scripture. Some argue that “eunuch” is a synonym for “homosexual”, but this is wishful thinking, not exegesis. When I visited Egypt and the Sudan, decades ago now, I remember the pride with which Coptic Christians identified the Ethiopian eunuch as the founder of their Church. If we needed reminding that Christianity is an identity that we must accept for ourselves, rather than one that passes on through offspring, here it is.
The measure of all our Christian actions must be 1 John 4.21: “Those who love God must love their brothers [and sisters] also.” We could apply that measure by making baptism easy and welcoming, not a hoop-jumping exercise: “Do you believe in God? Do you accept the good news about Jesus?” The next step would be immediate: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent my being baptised?”