Pruning the Vine
Homily for Fifth Sunday of Easter 2015
‘Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine!’ Anyone who was brought up in chapel rather than church will be familiar with the song. No doubts or misgivings are expressed in the words. But the words of our Gospel reading this morning rule out such complacency. The fruitless branch is summarily severed. God lops it off. It’s as ruthless and unsparing as closure of Woolworths (Mike still hasn’t got over that)! St. John, who is sometimes thought of as a gentle and reflective soul, is actually far harsher than St. Paul here. Paul makes many comparisons between the Church and the human body, but he never suggests that God amputates the bits that don’t work.
So let’s look at this passage a bit more closely. Jesus is the vine. His disciples are the branches. The relationship with Christ and with fellow Christians is about love and service. Without love it doesn’t exist. In our Confirmation Class last week we explored the nature of God, and we found that love is always at the heart of God. The essence of God’s nature and our relationship with Him is captured in our Epistle reading. John writes this when he is old and close to death. You can almost imagine the congregation in the little church in Ephesus leaning forward to catch his last whispered words, ‘Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.’
Many Christians throughout the ages have worried about the fruitless branch that will be ‘thrown into the fire and burned,’ fearing it might be them. Useless branches will be incinerated. It’s an awful thought, but, of course, it will not come to that. The whole passage is lit up, not by the fires of hell, but by the light of glory, by the persuasion that the Father’s love will not let us go. ‘Abide in me,’ says Jesus, ‘as I abide in you.’ As with a partner, or a spouse, or a really close friend, so it is with our Lord. To ‘abide’ in each other, to stay in love, is not a matter of mood or emotion. It is an act of will. Anyone who has been in a relationship with another human being for a long time will know that staying together isn’t just about our emotions – it’s an act of will and a conscious decision to work at the relationship. It’s a task as well as a gift. And it’s a task that Jesus is much better at than we are. That’s why we can live in hope and joyful expectation.
But although we are spared the fire, we will not escape the proverbial knife. To be fruitful we need to be pruned. Poppy had a packet of sweet pea seeds last Sunday that she was going to plant. I don’t know whether sweet peas need pruning, but I do know that, had they been tomato seeds, then she would have needed to take out all the side shoots in order for the plants to thrive and bear fruit. We need to allow God to guide us in pruning those things in our lives that would hinder our spiritual growth.
In reality, the grapevine has two kinds of branches. One is fruit-bearing and the other is not. The non-fruit-bearing branches have to be pruned so that they don’t sap the energy and strength of the plant. It’s the same with those side shoots on tomato plants. The vine won’t produce a good crop without pruning. We are all meant to bear fruit in one way or another. Jesus says that He is the whole vine, and we are the branches. We are not separate from Jesus. We are all part of the same plant. We dwell in Him and He is us, so that His life and His love flows through us and in us.
Tradition has it that the Ethiopian in our reading from Acts went back home and started to evangelise Ethiopia. Certainly the Christian Coptic Church in Ethopia is very ancient, far more ancient than the Church in this country. Through the witness of a few, the Early Church grew in faith and in numbers. So may it be with us.