The Fifth Sunday of Easter (5/6/2012)
Lessons:Acts 8:26-40 Psalm 22:25-31 1 John 4:7-21 St. John 15:1-8
Prayer of the Day: O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
15:1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
St. John 15:1-8 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Pruning the Vine
I love the way Jesus teaches. He’ll throw out a parable — often a shocking or disturbing story — and after it rolls around in your mind for a time, you get what he means. Because of the vivid nature of the images, the message stays with you for a good, long time. All someone needs to do is mention the title, and you remember the point immediately. The Good Samaritan… it doesn’t matter what side you’re on; what matters is whether or not you demonstrate love. The Workers in the Vineyard… it doesn’t matter how long you worked; what matters is the owner’s generosity. The Unforgiving Servant… forgiveness is not intended to get you off the hook; it is intended to transform you, and cause you to become a forgiving person.
Or he’ll make use of a metaphor: I am the Good Shepherd… one who loves the sheep, watches over them, and leads them to wellbeing. I am the Light of the World… one who illumines the way for his followers through the darkness that surrounds. Like the parables, these images stay with us, and inform the way we understand Jesus.
I wish this week’s metaphor was as clear and compelling. Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.” He then goes on to say that every branch bearing no fruit is removed from the vine, thrown away, gathered and burned. He adds to this declaration that every branch bearing good fruit is pruned. Here is the irony: in making these claims, he uses two forms of the same Greek word: “airew” and “kathairew” — removed and pruned. If the branch bears no fruit: “airew.” If the branch bears fruit, “kathairew.”
The image of the vine being pruned is a brutal one. Vines that are left to themselves become thin, weak, overgrown and unproductive. Vines that are pruned regularly become thick, healthy, sparce and vibrant. But the more fruit a vine produces, the more it needs to be pruned back. Every bit of growth is hacked away to make room for next year’s produce.
So what do we do with this strange teaching? Surely the meaning is not that we are to bear more fruit: the vines that produce more fruit are treated every bit as harshly as the ones that don’t. Surely the meaning is not that as “bearers of fruit” we will grow larger and more productive year after year. That kind of unpruned growth — that kind of exclusive focus on the externals — leads to the death and destruction of a vine — a lack of health and wellbeing at the core.
If the fruit Jesus imagines is the fruit St. Paul describes (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control — Galatians 5:22), then it could, in fact, even get in its own way. In other words, when our lives become so focused on the fruit we produce, we can lose sight of the fact that it all comes from the vine in the first place (sola gratia, sola fide!).
Perhaps it is enough to say that God produces the growth, not us. The more connected we are with God, the healthier our lives become. This will include more pruning than we might wish, perhaps, but also more fruit than we might imagine.
A mysterious saying, indeed, but one that lifts up God’s good care of us, and God’s desire that we all bear fruit. May that be so among us.
David J. Risendal, Pastor
Exploring This Week’s Gospel:
- In what ways is a vine unique? (How is it different from a tree or a plant?)
- What is the relationship between the vine and the branches in a healthy system?
- What did Jesus want his listeners to learn from this teaching?
Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:
- When has my life shown signs of bearing fruit that comes from the Gospel?
- How can an over-focus on externals become harmful to the life of faith?
- What core strengths are present in my life, that keep me strong in faith?