Today, we hear a lot about grape vines and branches. It takes a lot of time and work to produce grapes. A new grape vine may take up to three years to produce fruit.
According to the Arbor Day Foundation, pruning a grape vine is not a little thing. “Pruning maintains the vine's form, size, vigor, and next season's fruiting wood. Grape vines produce more wood than necessary. Typically 70-90 percent of the new growth is removed on a mature vine. Balanced pruning involves only wood produced during the previous growing season. Wood two years and older is not counted or pruned annually in this system.”
I am not sure that I am the best one to discuss gardening skills. After all, Jan and I have tried from time to time to grow different vegetables in our garden but not often with a great deal of success. It seems that we are pretty good at growing plants but we are not usually very good at getting vegetables to produce fruit. There are many in this congregation who do a much better job. I am sure that it has to do with skill and I also think they put more time into their gardening. I am also certain that they know much better than I how to coax their plants into producing the most fruit possible. That is what Jesus does for us.
In the gospel Jesus spoke about pruning. Jesus told his disciples that he is the vine and we are the branches. Let’s pay attention to the message that Jesus is the true vine. It means that Jesus is our God and the one that we follow always. It also means that Jesus provides us with the Word of God. It is the word of God that feeds us and helps us to bear fruit. As it says, without Jesus we can do nothing that is worthwhile.
In the story, the branches that bear no fruit are cut off and thrown away. Notice that Jesus said God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. It suggests that some people have left Jesus and they must be destroyed. We think of the pruning as painful to us but Jesus must have been pained by those who left him. Those that do bear fruit are pruned regularly. Yes, we are the branches, we need to bear fruit every season. And when we are successful at bearing fruit, our branches are pruned so that we may bear more fruit. This idea of pruning our branches sounds pretty painful. I don’t think that is what Jesus meant.
I think a better way to think about this message from Jesus is that Jesus wants us to always be healthy. Healthy comes in several different ways. It means healthy in our relationship with God. It means healthy in our relationships with other people. It means healthy in body, mind and spirit. For me, then, being pruned is more like having your nails cut than it is like having a finger cut off. The reason pruning would help is not that we should be punished, but that pruning promotes health of the whole person. It is more about taking away the growth that we have done and going back to basics. It reminds us that we are not able to produce fruit on our own, rather it takes Jesus to help us produce fruit. It means staying close to Jesus as our source of nourishment. We need pruning because we may have started to think that we can do it all on our own. We may have forgotten that we need Jesus.
Jesus feeds us with the words of scripture and Jesus feeds us in the communion service. Jesus also feeds us by sending the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort us.
In the 19th century, there was a Dutch Reformed missionary named Andrew Murray who was sent from Scotland to South Africa. Murray ended up writing about 200 books, one of which was called “The True Vine”. It was a book about today’s gospel reading. Murray matters because he believed that Christians were free to experience the grace of God. I like that. He wrote this about Jesus as the vine. “Christ Jesus said: I am the Vine, ye are the branches. In other words: I, the living One who have so completely given myself to you, am the Vine. You cannot trust me too much. I am the Almighty Worker, full of a divine life and power. You are the branches of the Lord Jesus Christ. If there is in your heart the consciousness that you are not a strong, healthy, fruit-bearing branch, not closely linked with Jesus, not living in Him as you should be—then listen to Him say: I am the Vine, I will receive you, I will draw you to myself, I will bless you, I will strengthen you, I will fill you with my Spirit. I, the Vine, have taken you to be my branches, I have given myself utterly to you; children, give yourselves utterly to me. I have surrendered myself as God absolutely to you; I became man and died for you that I might be entirely yours. Come and surrender yourselves entirely to be mine.” I would say that Andrew Murray’s words fit nicely in our thinking in the 21st century. I would say that the most important message in today’s gospel is about Jesus as the one. Jesus feeds us and comforts us and gives us strength. That is what I hear Andrew Murray wrote.
But the gospel is never just about comfort and sustenance. It is always about what we are called to become. Jesus told us that we are called to be fruitful.
During this Easter season we have been reading from the gospel of John but we have also been reading from the letter which is called 1 John. It is not nearly as well known as the letters from Paul. As with many scriptural books, we don’t actually know who wrote it. It may have come to be called 1 John because it does mirror in some ways the gospel of John.
The clear message from 1 John is about God’s love which is the basis for salvation. It was out of love for us that God sent Jesus to live among us and to sacrifice his life for us. It connects so well with the image of Jesus as the vine and we are the branches, doesn’t it? This passage from 1 John, is like a reprise of what Jesus himself said, that we are to love one another. 1 John adds that we love because love comes from God. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And later, “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” Isn’t it wonderful to think that when we love others then God lives in us.
So we are fruitful when we love one another. When we love one another, then we do things for other people. Loving one another means that we help those who are less fortunate, we take care of people when they are sick, we console others when they have lost loved ones. We come together to show hospitality to each other. We make sure that someone who is alone is not forgotten.
Andrew Murray offered these words, “How can we glorify God? Not by adding to His glory or bringing Him any new glory that He has not. But simply by allowing His glory to shine out through us, by yielding ourselves to Him, that His glory may manifest itself in us and through us to the world.”
I am sure that when Jesus was telling us about pruning, he wanted us to get rid of the sins in our life. Whatever has come into our life that separates us from God needs to be gotten rid of. But when we listen to 1 John, I think pruning is more about bringing ourselves back to Jesus, perhaps going back to the word of Jesus for sustenance. I would say it is about trying to do as Jesus did, to love others and to show our love in the way we talk to others and care for them. Let us allow Jesus to feed us so that we may feed each other. Amen.