Updated: Dec 29, 2021
Message for worship at West Richmond Friends Meeting, 10th of Tenth Month, 2021
Speaker: Brian Young
Scripture: John 15:1-11 (NRSV)
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."
Good morning, Friends!
I think I’ve mentioned to you before the black walnut tree that grows in our neighbor’s yard, overshadowing the east side of our house, and how this time of year there is an almost constant rain of black walnuts on our roof and our lawn. What I haven’t mentioned, I don’t think, is the wild grapevine that grows up into one of the lower branches of the tree, right above the fence between our yards. It’s a pretty persistent vine, and it would grow over the fence and overwhelm our forsythia bushes if I let it. Once or twice a season we’ll go out and tear it off the fence, which is already leaning pretty badly, so it doesn’t make that worse.
But we really should get the vine out of the walnut tree, too. I haven’t tried, thus far—after all, it’s our neighbor’s tree, and our neighbor’s vine, and she seems to be content to let them grow wild. Still, it’s not going to hurt the vine to hack it down out of the branches closest to us—there’s lots more of it we can’t get to on our side—that vine won’t be hurt. And it might hurt the tree if the vine keeps getting thicker and longer and more out of control. At any rate, every once in a while when I am standing at our kitchen sink, looking out the window at the vine and the tree and the fence, I think of this passage from John’s Gospel—the vine and the branches.
Jesus, of course, was not speaking of a wild vine growing willy-nilly and overwhelming everything in sight; he seems to evoke the cultivated vineyards of Galilee and Judea. The grape was a treasured crop in the ancient world, yielding abundant fruit without a lot of irrigation. Commentators point out that in Palestine and other semi-arid regions in Jesus’ time, wine was often more to be relied upon than water—water could be pretty scarce at the end of the dry season, but if your vineyard had been productive, you would have plenty of wine. And of course, vines and vineyards show up many places in the Hebrew Bible; one place particularly treasured by us, I think, is in Micah chapter 4, when the prophet uses the vine to symbolize the future peace and security of all peoples, gathered together in the universal worship of the God of Israel: “...neither shall they learn war any more; but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and none shall make them afraid” (4:3–4).
The grapevine is still much treasured today in Palestine and Israel. The one time I traveled there, in 2013, I visited several Palestinian homes in Hebron, in the southern part of the West Bank. I was there as part of a delegation with Christian Peacemaker Teams.What I saw was that just about any family that had a little bit of land would grow grapes—probably the first thing that they would plant (if you had more land you would plant olive trees, but not everybody had enough land for that). In fact, the picture of the grapevines on the front of today’s bulletin was taken in one of these families’ gardens.
God the vinedresser; Jesus the vine; the disciples the branches: by extension, we are branches as well. Each member of the Body of Christ is a branch on the true vine. One remarkable thing about this passage is that alongside this image of the vine and the branches, which evoke the actions of growth and cultivation and pruning (lots of action there), Jesus chooses a verb that may seem a bit more passive: to abide. “Abide in me as I abide in you.. the branch bears fruit as it abides in the vine... abide in my love.”
Abiding can have a wealth of meanings: to stay, to remain, to continue, even to wait on (as Friends, we speak of “waiting” worship, which we could also call “abiding” worship). These are not strictly static words, however; we’re not talking about standing still because you have nowhere better to go. Abiding here has more the sense of having chosen a place to be—or having been called to a place to be—and resting in that place, knowing that it is right for you. I think of what Gretchen Castle shared with us two Sundays ago about being “Already Home”: Gretchen described the experience of finding a home in God, wherever we go in the world, and thus always being at home. That experience of having a home in God is the experience of abiding.
At home in God, abiding in the True Vine, we each have our spiritual basis in Christ. We each branch directly from him. He supports each one of us; anchors each one of us to the ground in which we are planted; sustains each of us by the Life within him as we grow. And in this, we abide, we stay, we remain, having chosen that place, having been chosen for that place. And so our connection to one another as branches is through the Vine. Christ is present in each of our relationships with one another—connecting and guiding.
And, perhaps, also separating. I hope it’s not extending the metaphor too much, but here I think of the way that growth and change, even as we abide, affects our relationships to our fellow disciples. As we branches grow, some of us become more separate, stretching out in particular directions towards the work that the vinedresser intends for us. We may not be in as close contact with one another as formerly we were; and yet we continue to be connected through the Vine, to continue in spiritual fellowship that can be renewed at any time, even across distance. I have a few—a very few—friendships like this, with people who have been significant in my spiritual life at one time or another. They were once branches tightly intertwined with my own; but now I am not in regular touch with them in my present season of life. And yet, whenever we do speak with one another, or exchange an e-mail or a letter, the fellowship is renewed; we are conscious once again of the life of the Vine coursing through us, as we catch up with one another and find out where God has led us both since the last time we were in touch. It’s one of the joys and mysteries of abiding in the Vine.
This passage also speaks of pruning:
The pandemic period has been an experience of pruning for many of us, in ways we didn’t expect or ask for... our activities outside the home—many of our interactions with others outside of our immediate families—have been pruned; our sense of safety has been pruned; our blithe certainty about a vast number of things that previously we took for granted—all of that has been pruned. And for any of us who have experienced the serious illness or even the death of a loved one—well, it doesn’t seem right to call that pruning; it’s more like being violently ripped off the vine and uprooted.
So sometimes our lives are pruned by the world, rather than God. God does sometimes work through that kind of pruning, and can redeem it; but I don’t believe that God initiated, or willed, this current difficult period that we are in.
Now, this doesn’t mean that the work of the master vinedresser in our lives will never be painful, or unexpected, or unwelcome at first. But the pruning that God does is for our good, because the end of it is that we may bear more fruit. And there, the primary measure of fruitfulness is our ability to love as Jesus loved.
Something else I find remarkable about this passage is that Jesus seems to say he is also being pruned—in v2, he says that God “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” I wish he had told us a little more about that. (Here I’m thinking of his life as we see it in the Gospels.) Perhaps he was speaking of his experience in the wilderness, led by the Spirit and tempted by Satan; certainly many things had to have been pruned off there. Perhaps he is looking forward to Gethsemane, and beyond that, to the cross. Or perhaps he is speaking of his daily spiritual experience, his regular sacrifice of his own will to God’s will. Regardless, Jesus is the pioneer in this process; he is not telling his followers to go somewhere he has himself not been.
So if Jesus himself knew this pruning, we can be assured of God’s love and care in this. God is not a lazy gardener like me, hacking away at a tangled mess of branches until I’ve got enough off the fence or out of the tree, not caring about where the trimmings fall, leaving some up there to wither and die until the next time... we can trust in God's care for us individually in this process.
Further, God’s pruning work is not only for my good, individually, or for your good, individually, but also for the good of all the branches on the vine. It allows us to grow together in harmony and in cooperation with other branches. Properly pruned, we don't get in each other's way; no branch overpowers the other or crowds another out; God works to arrange our places on the vine so that we each may bear fruit in accordance with the gifts that God has given us.
And we also have a strange privilege: we can consent to the pruning. It of course never occurs in agriculture, but here, the branches and the vinedresser can cooperate in the process. I believe that God wants us to recognize those branches in our lives that are unfruitful, and agree: “yes, it's time for this to go.” As I said earlier, this doesn't mean that God will never prune something away without our asking or agreeing; but God will certainly be faithful to prune those things that we have asked to be removed. It may take time; it won't happen all at once. But I think that's part of what Jesus is talking about when he says, ”ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (v7).
As I’ve said, the purpose of pruning is that we may bear more fruit. What more can we say about that fruit? Some of you may think of that passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, where he writes of the fruit of the Spirit, namely, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22). We each likely have places in our lives where we have seen one or another of these fruits growing, because something else has been pruned away: I have more peace, because God has removed a persistent anxiety; you are able to be generous, because God has pruned away wasteful habits; another is better able to control themselves, because God has taken a particular temptation out of their field of view.
And as Paul says elsewhere, “the greatest of these is love”; our ability to love more should be the primary indication of our fruitfulness, the main measure of our growth in discipleship. As you’ve probably heard me say before, this is not love as a warm fuzzy feeling, but love as an action of the will, choosing the good of the other over our own desires. Jesus calls his disciples to glorify God in bearing the fruit of love. And as he will soon tell them, just a little bit later in this chapter, the greatest love is shown by the ones who lay down their lives for their friends. This kind of love truly distinguishes the disciples of Christ. This kind of love calls us out of the safe circle of our own fellowship, our particular part of the vine, to service to and partnership with the other. When people see this kind of love in action, it causes them to say, “surely, God is at work here. How can I become part of this?” For when true discipleship is being lived out, it serves as an invitation to others.
Jesus’ call to discipleship is a call to be pruned, so that we may bear fruit; fruit that, as we abide in the True Vine, calls others to grow along with us.
As I close, a few queries for our time of abiding worship:
How have I known God’s pruning work in my life thus far? And how do I know that is God, in contrast to the way that the world prunes?
What in my life now needs to be pruned that I may love more fully, as Christ loves?
Photo of Grapes, Brian Young, 2021.