Finally, it is the time of year when people can get out in their gardens to move out of the season of winter and enter into a new season of spring. It’s even permissible amidst the stay-at-home order. It’s the time of year to pay attention to how the garden plants have fared over the winter. It is a time of discernment.
The gardener can see and recognize branches that need to be pruned off in order that the rest of the branch and the vine can grow.
When you get to pruning things off, it’s tempting to interpret these verses as making some kind of judgement as if one branch is bad and another one is good. It may the case that a particular branch needs to go; but, we need to be careful still to see things from the wider perspective as a full picture. We can be fixated on who’s in and who’s out.
Here’s something quite interesting about that. Something to ponder from William Temple who was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 1940’s. I’ve read that he was one of the most renown Archbishops over the centuries at Canterbury.
He observed that the “Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members”.
Jesus said: “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Jesus was looking at things as a whole. It is through connection to the vine that the branches can grow. And it is through the caring of the vinedresser that the vine and its branches are able to flourish.
Karoline Lewis, a seminary professor in Minnesota explains, “The more-often-than-not meaning of verse 6 is one of those strange readings, ‘Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.’ You don’t abide in me? Well, then, you are cut off, discarded. And if that were not enough, let’s be sure to throw you into the furnace of hell for good measure.
“As if Jesus’ words are a rationale for judgement. As if Jesus’ words justify that we’ve always been a part of the “in” crowd. As if Jesus had only us in mind. We are quite accomplished when it comes to judgement -- so quick to determine who’s in and who’s out. And we seem to get better at it all the time.
“…. The fact is,” she continues, “the community for which the Gospel of John was written was indeed thrown away, thrown out. They were Christians Jews who eventually were thrown out of the synagogue. [This particular verse] is not a verse of condemnation because that is not what Jesus came to do. Rather, it is a statement of life. [For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.]” She concludes, “Without connection to a life source, abundant life is not possible.”
And so, a caring vinedresser, who goes about his task with love, is the one on whom the vine depends. And, it follows that the branches depend on the vine in order to flourish and grow. The branches are connected to the vine and depend on the vine just as the vine as a whole is totally dependent on the vinedresser. The story is one of connection. The story is one of being whole as a person, as a community. The story is one of bearing fruit.
And as far as the fruit is concerned, here’s another interesting thing to notice. Neither the branches nor the vine lives off its own fruit. The fruit presumably is for others. That would be the poor, those in need. Not for the branches. The fruit is not for us.
It all has to do with abiding. That’s a beautiful word, I think. Abiding. “Abide in my love,” Jesus said.
You know the passage, “In my father’s house are many mansions. If it were not so would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?” In the KJV, the word is mansions. In the RSV, it’s rooms. But the actual original word was “abiding places”. So those mansions and those rooms are actually places in which to abide just as the vine is where branches abide. And, as we will read next week, it has to do with abiding in Jesus’ love.
Now love is always a tricky concept. The tendency is to sugar-coat it with a Pollyanna brush that makes it all soft and syrupy. There is a call again to discernment.
A few years ago, in popular child-raising tips was the concept of tough love. It’s like another saying in scripture, “be angry but do not sin”.
Usually, anger, I think, stems from being hurt. And there is another thing about anger: it is a motivation to bring about changes. That’s the healthy side of anger. So, abiding in love doesn’t mean that the insights of human emotions all of sudden disappear. The love that Jesus speaks about has to do with taking it all in. It has to do with discerning what bears fruit. It has to do with making decisions to bring forth more fruit.
That’s what being a disciple entails. And it’s not that we forcibly squeeze fruit out of ourselves. It is through reliance and connection to the vine – Jesus—at the level of the soul which, it seems to me, is the ultimate abiding place.
All in all, the passage has to do with bearing fruit. We can make much of the analogy of the branches, the vine and the vinedresser. But, what does it mean to bear fruit? What is the fruit that is the product of the branches and the vine cared for by the vinedresser? In a community of faith, what are the signs of bearing fruit? How do we know we are indeed bearing fruit?
- A renewal of hope.
- A recommitment to a unity of purpose within a community of faith.
- A looking widely beyond the individualized walls of a congregation.
- Recognizing others for whom the fruit actually exists.
- Striving to discern what abiding in love means, what it looks like, what it feels like.
It’s all a question of human asking and of divine giving. And with that it goes beyond the petitions of prayers into the depths of listening, not just any kind of listening, but listening with an abiding sense of prayerfulness.
That’s how they will know us … They will know us by the fruit of our labour.
O Lord, Jesus, help us to see the wider picture. Help us to see beyond the past and even beyond the present to peer into the new vision to which you are always calling us… Help us to know how things change and how pruning lets in more light so that we can see more clearly how to serve other and to bear fruit in a new season. Amen.
 Karoline Lewis, in Workingpreacher.org
The Reverend W Glenn Empey