Reflection Sunday 2nd May 2021
I know nothing about growing vines. And nowadays I know less about sampling the produce of vines than I once did! But apparently the best grapes are produced closest to the vine. It makes sense, as that is where the nutrients are concentrated. The further away branches are, the less productive they will be – though they will still be drawing from the central vine wasting energy on something that is unproductive. Therefore, branches are pruned and kept close to the central vine.
Jesus drew an apt metaphor for what it means to be a disciple. Jesus is the true vine, God is the grower, and we are the branches. And in this passage Jesus reminds his disciples how two aspects of God’s created world work together – bearing fruit and being pruned.
Once we understand the metaphor, we become concerned about the pruning! Branches that aren’t fruitful do not escape the knife. How does this process of pruning come into play in our lives of faith?
I’ve said before, I am not much of a gardener. But I know it is necessary to prune at the right time in order for the plant to grow and flourish. Whether it is deadheading or more, pruning now results in stronger healthier plants later.
In pruning a vine, two principles are generally observed: first, all dead wood must be ruthlessly removed; and second, the live wood must be cut back drastically. Dead wood harbours insects and disease and may cause the vine to rot, to say nothing of being unproductive and unsightly. Live wood must be trimmed back to prevent such heavy growth that the life of the vine goes into the wood rather than into fruit. The vineyards in the early spring look like a collection of barren, bleeding stumps; but in the autumn they are filled with luxuriant grapes. As the farmer wields the pruning knife on his vines, so God cuts dead wood out from among His saints, and often cuts back the living wood so far that His method seems cruel. Nevertheless, from those who have suffered the most there often comes the greatest fruitfulness.
In this passage Jesus has gathered his disciples around him to prepare them for what the future will hold for them. He knows the trials he will face, including death, he knows what they will face trials too. But rather than sounding a message of despair, he gives them hope.
4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. John 15:4
Or as The Message puts it:
4 “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. John 15:4
Jesus doesn’t sugar coat it. Things will be hard for his disciples – whether then or now. But his message is clear. If we remain in him, we will draw strength. Hard times will inevitably come, but if we abide in Jesus, if we find our home in him, and with God the grower sustaining us, we can endure and even thrive.
C.S. Lewis wrote, "God has designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy without bothering about religion. God cannot give us happiness and peace apart from Himself because it is not there. There is no such thing."
To bear fruit when it counts means we must be attuned to Jesus. We must find our home in him and let him and his word find a home in our lives too, via faithful devotion. If we do this then this will bring about joy. The pruning and abiding are something done together. When we are attuned to Jesus, we remain close to him and he to us then the result is that which is best for us will surely come about.
7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you John 15:7 NRSV
When we do this then what is dead, dying or diseased in our lives is pruned away, with what remains being devoted to Jesus.
In speaking to his disciples like this, Jesus is inviting them to put their trust in him. He is warning them that they cannot go it alone, trusting in their own strength. On their own they will be cut off from the life source. Remember what I said earlier. The branches that are furthest away from the core vine Jesus, are the weakest and the least productive because they are cut off from their life source.
This is an important message for us today. The temptation to do things ourselves is always there. For individuals and churches! It is very easy to think that it is all up to us and our own resources as we try to solve problems and meet challenges. But we can’t.
The Christian writer Max Lucado in his book, When God Whispers Your Name, puts it dramatically and graphically like this. He says:
"Take a fish and place him on a beach. Watch his gills gasp and scales dry. Is he happy? No! How do you make him happy? Do you cover him with a mountain of cash? Do you get him a beach chair and sunglasses? Of course not! So, how do you make him happy? You put him back in his element. That's what you do. You put him back in the water. He will never be happy on the beach because he was not made for the beach.
Indeed, so and the same is true for you and me. We will never be happy living apart from the One who made us and saved us. Just like a fish was made to live in water we were made to live in close fellowship with our Lord and nothing can take the place of that."
John Bell of the Iona Community wrote these words for his song “I am the vine”
For on your own, what can you dare?
Left to yourself no sap you share;
Branches that serve their own desire
Find themselves broken as fuel for the fire.
God as the master gardener offers us a better plan for our lives. Let us find our home in God’s word and place our trust there. If we abide in Jesus and allow him to abide in us, we will be fruitful. But apart from him we are nothing. As John Bell’s song goes on:
“I am the Vine and you the branches
Pruned and prepared for all to see;
Chosen to bear the fruit of heaven
If you remain and trust in me.