Although I am not very good at gardening, I do really appreciate gardens. For example, as a member of the National Trust, I really appreciate visiting places with lovely gardens to explore. I also appreciate visits to other famous gardens like Alnwick Gardens in Northumberland, which is one of my favourite places. In my last home, there was a large rose bush in the front garden, and I employed someone to tidy up the garden – something I rarely had time or even energy to do, what with working 6 days a week. When he had finished, he showed me the rose bush and I was quite shocked because he had pruned it back so heavily I wondered if it would ever recover. Not only did it recover, but it also looked better than it ever had done before.
I have said before sometimes something needs to die before new life can take place. I also said last week that sometimes the body needs surgery. In today’s Gospel reading we once again encounter one of Jesus’ I AM sayings – “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.”
I thought it might be helpful to share some context to Jesus’ commentary, which he shared with his disciples after a Passover meal. It is quite likely that they would have had mixed emotions hearing these words; they would certainly have been familiar with Israel being pictured as a vine or as God’s vineyard which is depicted in Psalm 80. In verses 8-9 the Psalmist says to God, “You transplanted a vine from Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it, and it took root and filled the land.” They would know how God brought Israel out of Egypt and planted it in the Promised Land. Maybe in the Synagogue they will have chanted the words of Isaiah: “…my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill…He expected it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes” (5:1-2). Or they would remember the words God spoke to his people through Jeremiah: “I planted you as a choice vine, from the purest stock. How then did you turn degenerate and become a wild vine?” (2:21). In the Old Testament, grapes symbolized Israel’s fruitfulness in doing God’s work on earth. The prophets had written of Israel as God’s vine, carefully planted and cared for. But the vine was a disappointment because it yielded only rotten fruit; that is, they refused to give him love and obedience.
Jesus however is ‘the true vine’, faithful and perfect bringing true fulfilment of God’s plan for his people, in contrast to Israel who became the unfaithful, imperfect ‘vine’. ‘True’ can be used to describe what is eternal, heavenly and divine. Israel was the type, but Christ was the reality. Jesus is communicating to the Jews that salvation comes through intimate fellowship and faith in him – the Messiah – not by being a Jew/part of Israel, but by being branches joined to him, by being rooted in him.
At first glance, the act of pruning can appear to be quite harsh. Most Israelites will have been aware of the vine dressers job – to cut off fruitless branches which took sap away from the fruit-bearing branches, and constantly trim shoots away (prunes) from the fruit bearing branches so that the sap is there for fruit-bearing. The vine dresser cuts back the lush, growing branches just as they are about to flower. The wise gardener knows that good must sometimes be sacrificed for better. Grape branches or tendrils can grow very fast and very long (twelve to twenty feet). But as they develop length and size, they use resources that could be channelled into making fruit. Pruning focuses the growth and energy of the plant. A lush vine with little fruit has failed its purpose; at the end of the day, wild vines are unproductive. The Greek word for ‘prune’, ‘purge’ or ‘cleanse’ is ‘katharoi’. In John 15:3, Jesus said to his disciples, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” The word translated ‘clean’ in this verse is the same word used in verse 2 to describe the pruning process.
God’s pruning of our lives can be painful. He may limit or remove achievements, objects, and abilities. These may not be wrong in themselves, but God knows they will detract from our fruitfulness. We must not resent God’s pruning. Instead, God’s discipline should cause us to turn to him with renewed desire to be fruitful.
Jesus then instructed his disciples to remain in him. John uses the word ‘remain’ (or abide) 43 times throughout the books of John, 1 John and 2 John. It is used as a command, a warning, an invitation to a deeper love relationship, as an assurance and as an exhortation to godly living. To “remain” is to be immersed in and connected with the very source of life and love – Jesus Christ. The command Jesus gave is in the sense of something we must keep on doing – if we are to bear fruit, we must keep on remaining in Christ.
Jesus said “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.” Judas, the betrayer, was not clean and therefore he was pruned.
Many people try to be good, honest people who do what is right. But Jesus says that the only way to live a truly good life is to stay close to him, to be rooted in him, like a branch attached to a vine. Apart from Christ our efforts are unfruitful, and apart from Christ we cannot possibly know his will and purpose for our lives.
So often in life we fight find ourselves confronted with fear – fear about whether we are good enough, fear about whether are loved, fear about our future, fear about our past, fear about our present – so often we are paralysed by fear. But if we are rooted in Christ, we are overcomers and “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” One aspect of being fruitful is if and how we love one another. We love because God first loved us. No wonder we are told “since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.” There is a condition and a warning: “If we say we love God yet hate a brother or sister, we are liars. For if we do not love a fellow believer, whom we have seen, we cannot love God, whom we have not seen. And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love one another.”
In our reading from Acts, we are told “Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?”” How can we understand unless someone explains it to us? God wants us to write his Word on the tablets of our heart. He has shown us the way through his Holy Word, through the birth, life, death, resurrection and exaltation of his son Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit. My brothers and sisters in Christ, we are called to abide or remain in Christ, we are called to bear much fruit, we are called to love one another, and we are called to be obedient to Christ – to have the mind of Christ and be clothed in his truth. We must be gentle with each other as we are pruned, and we must do all that we can to love each other to life and spur each other on to good deeds. Forgive, be reconciled, be loving, be fruitful and remain in him. Amen