Is this passage of Scripture familiar? The quote, âI am the vine and you are the branchesâ does stand out and feels like a message that really fits in this season of Easter. It seems especially appropriate when you think of it as preparation for the approaching feast of Pentecost as wellâespecially in the sense of the vine sending out branches, as we read in Johnâs Gospel. But we canât get ahead of ourselves. We are still trying to understand what Easter means to us at this time and in this place. We have heard stories of an encounter with Jesus on the road to Emmaus. We heard the story about Jesus as a âgood shepherd,â and the beautiful prayer of Psalm 23 reminding us that we are on a pilgrimage but we are not alone. Jesus is with us. And you also know that we are getting close to Jesus saying good-bye to the disciples. Jesus really wants to be sure they/we know what to do next. So, hearing a sermon with an interpretation of such a familiar text might tempt us to say, âwe already get it.â But, do we? Letâs âgo down the garden pathâ together and go into the vineyard and take another look.
You donât have to be a gardener to understand the language in this passage. We know that grapes, raisins, and wine come from grape vines. Thatâs the easy part. But what does the vine grower do to produce a plentiful and healthy harvest? Just for a moment, picture a vineyard in the late fall or early winter. It is time for pruning: a vine growers walks into his vineyard with a very sharp knife. Beginning at one end, and working his way down the rows, each plant is pruned; no plant is ignored. There are obvious dead branches sucking away the life-giving force of the vine. They must be pruned to save the vine.
Other branches are pruned back too so that they will bear more fruit in the next growing season. Then there are the branches that are just not strong enough to hold the weight of the fruit. It is better to prune those back now rather than to let the inevitable break happen.
Some of the vine branches just donât seem able to hold up to the early appearance of heat or the dryness of the season. Or maybe it was the moisture of the increased rain in the spring that stressed the vines. These vines need some extra help. The vine grower may cut into the vine and graft another more viable variety onto it to make it stronger and hope for the new fruit that will come from the joining.
It does not seem like an easy job to be a vine grower. You have to know what a healthy vine looks like and when to prune. You canât prune in the spring or summer because pruning causes bleeding and weakens the vine. If you make a mistake and prune too late you know there is no cure for the sap bleeding that occurs, but the problem will decrease when the leaves finally emerge. What do you think? Could you do this job? And what might all this mean for understanding the Gospel today?
In our reading today, John describes God as the vine grower who has planted a vine, Jesus. The Father removes every branch that bears no fruit and prunes the other branches so they will bear more fruit. The branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine and John tells us that neither can we bear fruit unless we abide in Jesus just as Jesus abides in us. And here is where the familiar phrase comes into the text. Jesus says, âI am the vine, you are the branches.â Jesus tells us that by abiding in him we will bear much fruit and that apart from Jesus we can do nothing. Those of us who do not abide in Jesus will wither and be thrown away, just as withered branches are thrown into the fire and burned.
This part of the Gospel is really thought provoking. You may well have never thought about God as the vine growerâbut certainly God is the Creator. And God did plant Jesus into our lives. Through the Gospels, we are invited into a more intimate relationship with Jesus. The four stories give us four different perspectives of what it might have been like to be living as s a disciple of Jesus. By reading them and engaging with them in our lives, we become intimately involved in the messages and embody the role of a pilgrim accompanied by Jesus. That also means there is something in this story that might help us to understand our relationship with Jesus and prepare for what is coming as we remember where we are in the church season: approaching Pentecost.
God is the vine grower and Jesus is the vine. Our roles are to be the branches. This so clearly describes our roles in Godâs mission. God planted Jesus in our lives and that vine produces branches. If we are the branches then we are also going to have to deal with the cutting part. Remember the vine grower is pruning each branch so that it might bear more fruit. That sounds like it is going to hurt. And every branch is cut even if it is bearing fruit now, because by cutting it will bear more fruit. If we are the branches, then what is being cut or pruned?
You might be thinking of some things that are obviously in need of being cut away and maybe some things we wish someone would cut away. But what about those things that are weighing us down and, as branches, we are at risk for breakage from the weight? It might actually feel good to have some of that removed. Think of what it might feel like to lose some of that stuff. Might we be better able to be a good strong branch bearing fruit if we were not so loaded down and on the verge of breakage?
It seems as if there might be many things that fit easily into this category of âneeding to be pruned,â and some not so obvious things, as well. One way or another, though, we know that pruning is going to happen and it will probably hurt to some degree. The end result promises that we will be more fruitful. Our job here seems to be identifying what needs pruning in our lives and letting it go. Our job is also to be open to being pruned of things that we would not have thought needed to go. And our job is being open and welcoming to grafting because it will make us stronger. The hope in this whole business of pruning is the promise of fruitfulness and the assurance that just as Jesus abides in us we abide in Jesus.
We could all probably think of many things that would fit into these categories. A topic on many of our minds these days is about how to be Christians, individually and corporately, and what that means. As an example, we know that the sins of racism and classism and sexismâand all the other âismsââkeep us from being fruitful, because these are all things that set us apart from others. Through Lent and Easter, we have heard the lessons in a context of war, of ecological debates that honor either creation or materialism. And many of us are thinking about what it means to be welcoming and open. In our changing neighborhoods, we are expected to accept the grafting of the ânewcomerâ with the knowledge that the joining will make us better. As we consider these things, we also need to keep in mind that the Gospel tells us that apart from Jesus we can do nothing. He is the vine. We are the branches.
In our personal and corporate lives, there is ample evidence of the need for pruning. What will you choose to prune?