April 29, 2018
Easter 5, Year B
Donna G. Joy
Jesus says, “I am the true Vine; you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Jesus is using what would have been, in that part of the world, a well-known gardening metaphor in order to help his disciples understand what care and conditions are necessary in order to grow the Kingdom of God; the care and conditions that are required for the Kingdom of God to flourish. But, of course, in order to understand his point, we need to first understand what it takes for a grapevine to flourish; that is, to produce excellent fruit.
To bear fruit, the branches must remain attached to the vine. Obviously, if it is removed from the vine, it loses its life source and therefore shrivels up and dies completely. And, of course, to bear good fruit the vine must be fed and watered.
But another important step in the care of the whole vine is pruning. Jesus says those branches that do not bear fruit will be pruned and thrown onto the fire and destroyed. Pruning is an essential skill for a successful crop; the non-productive branches are to be cut off completely at the stem, and the fruit-bearing ones are pruned so they produce more, and better quality, fruit.
Left unpruned, vines will get straggly and tangled. They may produce grapes, but they will be hard and sour; second rate, for sure. Vines need to focus their energy on producing good quality grapes, rather than lots of second-rate ones. Vines also need to grow towards the light rather than turning inward and therefore getting caught up in a tangled mass. Without adequate care and attention, they produce a lot of superfluous growth which must be cut away if the vine is truly to be what it’s capable of, and produce what it is capable of producing.
So, in the end, a well-tended vine can produce vast quantities of good quality fruit. A poorly tended vine’s fruit is small, hard and sour.
And so it is, says Jesus, with the life of his followers. Within the Jewish tradition, the vine was a picture of Israel. God brought a vine out of Egypt, and planted it in the promised land, where it experienced many dangers; many prolonged time periods when it produced wild grapes instead of healthy ones. (A number of the prophets used this metaphor and language.) And now, here, Jesus is saying that he is the ‘true vine.’ This can only mean that he is, himself, the true Israel; the true vine. He is the one on whom God’s purposes are now resting.
Jesus himself is the vine. We are the branches. We are to abide in him as he abides in us. We, the branches, are intimately – and must remain intimately – connected to Jesus, the true vine. And we, as Jesus’ followers, are known by the fruits that we produce.
I think this image is captured effectively in the Baptismal Covenant. Through our Baptism, we become the branches on the one true vine that is Jesus. And this is how the growth process works. We are rooted in our belief in the Trinity: God the Father, Son, Holy Spirit. These are the very roots in which this vine is planted, and from which it grows.
As branches of this vine, it is made clear through our Baptismal Covenant that we are nurtured and fed in very particular ways: continuing in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship (that is, reading Scripture in the company – the fellowship – of the church; it is impossible for followers of Jesus to flourish in the absence of other Christians); we are nurtured and fed as we continue in the breaking of bread (that is, sharing the Sacrament of the Eucharist, which feeds us with the body and blood of Jesus, keeping us intimately connected to him, each other, and all the saints on earth and in heaven), and continuing in the prayers (that is, continuing to pray as individuals and collectively as church). As branches on the vine that is Jesus, we don’t always weather the storms of life in the best possible way; and often the consequence of this is sin. Through our Baptismal Covenant, we are reminded that repenting and returning to God is another way our rootedness remains solid; another way in which we, the branches, are further fed and nurtured.
So, rooted in the Trinity; nurtured and fed by the gift of Scripture in the company of each other, the Eucharist, and prayer, along with repenting and returning to God when we sin: this is how we become strong, healthy branches on the vine that is Jesus.
As Christians, when we are strongly rooted in the Trinity and regularly fed and nurtured in these ways, we will then produce the fruit that we are called to produce. These good, rich, top quality fruits are clearly identified within the context of our Baptismal Covenant in these ways: (1) Proclaiming by Word and example the good news of God in Christ (key words here, Word and example); (2) Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving one’s neighbor as one’s self; (3) Striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being; (4) Striving to safeguard the integrity of God’s creation, and respecting, sustaining, and renewing the life of the Earth. Proclaiming the Good News, loving unconditionally, striving for justice and peace, caring for God’s creation: these are the fruits that we – the branches – are called to produce.
Now, that says something significant about the roots of this grapevine, the watering and nurturing that is essential in making it possible for us – the branches – to produce quality fruit, as well as what its fruits might look like. But what about the pruning process? What does pruning look like. I was fascinated to discover that when the grapevine is pruned, it ‘weeps’ after the pruning takes place; sap drips out like tears, but it is a sign that you have cut properly and life is thriving within the vine. If we reflect on this within the context of our faith, it seems to me that our own spiritual pruning process is likely to cause some tears, as we prune away some of the habits and patterns that have become all too familiar, and comfortable, in order to allow fresh new fruits to appear. Sometimes, letting go of these things is hard, and tears become part of the process. What, in our own individual habits need to be pruned?
I think the Prayer of St. Francis speaks of a kind of pruning process: Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. In other words, allow me to produce the fruits of love and peace. As branches on the vine that is Jesus, where must hatred, offense, discord/conflict be removed – pruned – so that fruits of forgiveness, healing, and unity may be produced. Where must error and doubt, despair and darkness be pruned, so that fruits of truth, faith, hope, and light be produced. Where must sadness be transformed into beautiful fruits of joy.
This pruning process needs to happen within each of us as individual branches on the vine that is Jesus; and it needs to take place collectively within the life of the church. Just one week ago at a parish retreat which included fourteen members of our core leadership team, one of the things we discussed – in a sense - was the pruning that needs to happen within the branch that is St. Peter’s.
We took a long and hard look at the longstanding reality where people attended church because that’s what their family always did. We were reminded – in a sense – that this reality has been pruned for us, and our expectation of people to just automatically come to church requires pruning. As we prune away this mindset, we are confident that new and rich fruit will grow in its place. We are confident that the fruit of growing and educating disciples for ministry will deepen the integrity and the mission of St. Peter’s.
We took a long and hard look at the longstanding mindset which has for decades relied on people just automatically attending their local church, and staying there because it is their local church, and we began to recognize that this mindset needs serious pruning. We are confident that the pruning of this mindset will make room for the rich fruits that come with carefully crafted and intentional, radical hospitality.
As we looked at St. Peter’s branch, we were grateful to see that out of eight areas of parish life that we discussed, six sections scored extremely high. The two primary areas within our branch that require some pruning are growing and educating disciples, as well as intentional hospitality. This pruning will make room for new growth, allowing the life force within St. Peter’s to flourish in new and exciting ways. Indeed, pruning is an integral part of gardening, and it is essential as God continues to grow the vine that is Jesus which includes the branches that are you and me individually, as well collectively through the church.
Branches that decide to make it on their own, to try living without the life of the vine, soon discover death and decay. (I might even be bold enough to say that this is a significant message for an increasingly secular culture, where the gift of this intimate connection with the God who is the source of all life and growth, is replaced with such things as individualism, consumerism, and competition and getting ahead at all costs.) These branches which become removed wither and die; but branches that remain on the vine, and submit to the pruner’s knife when necessary, live with abundant life and produce the richest of fruits.
That is the promise that Jesus holds out to his followers, and to all of us. We are invited to remain connected to Jesus, the true vine: rooted in the Trinity; nurtured and fed by the gift of Scripture in the company of each other, the Eucharist, and prayer, along with repenting and returning to God when we sin: this is how we become strong, healthy branches on the vine that is Jesus. And when all this is firmly in place, God will tend this vine so that we may produce rich fruit: proclaiming the Good News, loving unconditionally, striving for justice and peace, caring for God’s creation. And, of course, always remembering that our branch, individually and within our faith community, will need pruning regularly along the way. Amen. May it be so.