Sunday, May 3, 2015

Pruned or Removed?

John 15:1-8
Easter 5
May 3, 2015
William G. Carter

”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 

I love this passage. It comes up with regularity at the communion table. As Jesus prepares to depart his disciples, he speaks in a figure of speech: “I am the Vine, you all are the branches.”

This is how he speaks of our relationship to him. It is Christ who sustains us and gives us life, and I take that to mean “the Risen Christ.” This is a text that only makes sense after Easter, as Jesus is raised and available to all. He is our Life, the Life of God given for us. When we eat the bread and drink the cup, we receive Christ through our own imperfect faith. The life that goes out through the Vine is extended to all the branches.

And this is how he speaks of our relationship to one another. The branches are connected through the Vine. The same mercy Christ showed in the flesh when he was among us is the mercy we show to one another. We refuse to take advantage of those to whom we are connected. We will not insult or abuse or refuse to forgive, for we are connected through Christ, who holds us in the love of God. This love is patient and kind, never insisting on its own way. Such love what bears all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. It never ends.

Mmm… it would be enough to simply pause and take all of this in. Feels good, doesn’t it? Just breathe in the warm glow of God’s Spirit and know that we are loved.

The only problem is that’s only half the passage. The other half is troubling. God loves the Vineyard,[1] but some of the branches wither and die. Some of the branches are gathered as kindling for the fireplace. Some of the branches have born no fruit and are no good to anybody.

Jesus is the Real Vine, but his Father is the Vine Dresser. And do you know what the Vine Dresser does? He goes after the Vine with a big hooked knife.

Yesterday my wife was the Rose Bush Dresser. She took her snips to the rose bush by our front sidewalk and trimmed away all the dead stalks. She cut it down to almost nothing. At one point, I heard that rose bush cry out. She snipped and the rose bush said, “Ouch! That hurts!” Of course it does. It always hurts when God comes with a big hooked knife.

And it’s difficult to regard God in this way. Maybe it fits, maybe it doesn't. I went to the funeral home to pay my respects. He was 34 years old, three little kids and a bad heart valve. Nobody knew about the heart. His mother gripped the hand of his young widow and wailed, “I don’t know why God took him away from us.” Nobody knew what to say. Some people tried to make sense of it, and they couldn’t. It was a terrible thing, a severe thing, so God got most of the blame. Everybody felt like God cut him away.

Or that little country church by the crossroads. The cemetery out back has long had more occupants than the pews. Once it was filled with the sound of children. There were never very many of them, but they were there until most of them grew up and moved away. They didn’t stay on the dairy farms that circled the little church. The new highway directed newcomers in another direction. So the people in the church decided to have one last reunion, invited everybody back one last time, made plans for a final worship service, and then called a realtor. A small crowd sang, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past, Our Hope for Years to Come.”

Then the guest preacher gave the last benediction and said, “Let’s have one last potluck meal.” They shuffled out, all but one of them. Her legs wouldn’t budge. She didn’t want to leave. Closing that church felt just like dying. Ouch! The knife hurts.

I know there are some people who believe that faith is supposed to make you successful, that every year will bring an increase, that we will continue endlessly to reach further and stretch taller. In rational moments, we know that isn’t true, and a text like this offers a corrective. “My Father is the Vine Dresser,” says Jesus. You know what that means? He cuts away every branch that bears no fruit. And he cuts every branch that does bear fruit, to prune it, to make it bear more fruit. The branches that bear fruit, the branches that bear no fruit – both of them experience the knife of God.

When Jesus says this, he is playing with the verbs. In Greek, the word for "cutting" has the same root as the word for "pruning." They sound the same.  "Every branch that bears no fruit, airei (he cuts away).  Every branch that does bear fruit, athairei (he prunes)." Airei. He cuts. Athairei.  He prunes.  They sound the same. They look the same. And, the truth is, they feel the same. Cutting or pruning, the experience feels the same.

It is hard to like this text. It speaks of a hard truth, which is why we avoid it. We really don’t want anybody to cut us or trim us. We certainly don’t want to be hemmed in, much less criticized. There is the illusion that comes to all of us, that maybe we ought to let things slide, leave them alone, let them work themselves out over time. Do you prefer think that’s going to work?

I remember serving on a committee one time, not here, somewhere else. None of our committees are like this. We had a committee member who wouldn’t shut up. Always the expert on everything. Always the critic to point out what everybody else was doing beneath his standard. The chair of the committee never did anything about it, and figured it would work itself out. Well, it did. People got tired of that guy blathering on, so some of them stopped trying to speak. Others refused to volunteer, saying, “Why bother?” One by one, we all drifted away. Finally the loud mouth alone was left, so he went home.

And the committee was determined to be non-essential, and was eliminated. Talk about fruitless – have you ever been involved in something fruitless?

When John Calvin comments on this verse, he says the crop needs “incessant culture.” That is, it needs continuing care from the Vine Dresser. So God expresses love by staying involved with the crop, that he would trim here, cut there, all to make the Vine abound in fruit. The picture of God here is not an absentee land owner, but an attentive farmer, constantly involved, regularly paying attention, knowing right where to cut and when. Calvin says we need this; otherwise “our flesh abounds in superfluities and destructive vices.” So we need to be pruned, which is what the living God will do, provided we are still alive, and Christ is still somehow connected to us.

One of the blessings of this church is the group of people who gather here every morning of the week. They unlock and let themselves in, and they talk about how alcohol has been ruining their lives. Under the influence, they have smashed up cars, demolished relationships, lost their jobs, even gotten arrested. Every one of them comes here because of they got in trouble with alcohol. One of them said to me, “God had to slap me awake. I had lost everything – my wife, my kids, my house – and then I came here and realized God still had a hold of me. I had everything taken away, but God still had me.”

“Man, it hurt to realize the truth, but that’s when life began to turn around. It was God’s doing.”

I think the point is we cannot grow if we don’t allow God to trim away. We cannot live abundantly unless we are regularly pruned. As my wife did her surgery on the rose bush, she pointed to all the new shoots of life down below. “If I don’t cut the winter burn away, the new blooms won’t have a chance.” There is a lot of human wisdom in horticulture.

“I am the Vine, you are the branches, and my Father is the Vine dresser.” It is a promise to all who are connected to Jesus Christ. Life comes with a good bit of trimming. Growth comes when we let God trim away the old stuff, the futile stuff, the extraneous stuff.

Sometimes it is a closely held belief, something we have trusted, something we have clung to. I think of the other text today, of the apostle Philip out on the Christian frontier. And here is a eunuch from Ethiopia, reading out of the prophet Isaiah, and wondering how it applies to him. He is an Ethiopian, so he doesn’t look like Philip. He is a eunuch, a sexual minority, so the book of Deuteronomy (23:1) doesn’t want him around. And he is a Gentile – three strikes!

… except that God is working in his life, and he wishes to be baptized. If God has said “yes,” who is Philip to say no? So Philip baptizes him as a Christ follower, and then he has to go back and explain to the church why he has done a pastoral act for a person that, up until now, the Old Testament excluded. Do you think that was easy? Philip has to let go of a long-held belief because the Spirit of God said, “Go talk to that man.”

Sometimes it is the dreams we carry around in our imagination. If I take the promotion, I can make more money, I can move up the ladder, I can better myself. Perhaps, but if you take the promotion it might destroy your family life. So what are going to do? Maybe it’s our vain dreams that must be pruned in order for something else to grow.

What needs to be pruned? Is it the persistent grudge that we hold against the person we once loved? Or is it some kind of pride that has overgrown the garden and choking out the good crop?  Or it is something even more sinister, like the long-established patterns of hatred or indifference?

When Baltimore erupted on Tuesday night, I was telling our Deacons not to believe everything they see on television. Some of the news stations are lazy; they find a clip of a burning car and keep playing it over and over. Apparently one network found footage of last year’s riots in Venezuela and played it with the caption, “Baltimore is on fire.” (I heard that on the internet, so it’s probably not true.)

I said, “Don’t believe everything the world tells you.” Here’s the truth: most of the Baltimore protests were peaceful. And when they weren’t, over a hundred church leaders marched into one of the worst areas.[2] Unarmed, they confronted the rioters one by one. They put their lives on the line by moving between the rioters and the police, and then kneeling in prayer.

Somebody shouted, “You people are crazy.” One replied, “No, we believe in Jesus. The craziness is believing that violence will ever solve anything or that racism will go unaddressed. Neither form of craziness is worthy of God.”[3]

What is it that needs to be pruned? For those who abide in Christ, it will anything that keeps us from growing in Christ.  That’s the promise of the Gospel in this text. God will come to those who are committed, to those who are connected to Christ, and God will keep working to make them more like Jesus.

So what is it, for you? Consider this to be God’s invitation for you to grow and flourish. Maybe it’s time to undergo that change that you haven’t had the courage to make. Maybe it is time to commit to whatever you have been postponing. Maybe it is time to ask God to trim away the persistent sin or the self-destructive impulse. Maybe it is time to stop hating and start giving. Maybe it’s time to ask God to crucify your pride and to welcome God’s cleansing, renewing love. I certainly have my issues, and you probably have yours.

But the one thing I know: if we stay connected Jesus, we will be changed, and it will be for a greater good than mere self-improvement. It will be for the glory of God that we flourish and bear fruit. And we will have to let go of all the vain things that charm us most, if only because they simply aren’t fruitful in God’s vineyard.

Kind of reminds me of what C.S. Lewis once said about another one of the teachings of Jesus. He said, “It is possible for the camel to go through the eye of the needle. All things are possible with God. The camel can go through the eye of the needle. But it’s very hard on the camel.”[4]

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Undoubtedly Jesus remembers the “Song of the Vineyard” in Isaiah 5. And he speaks frequently of “vineyards,” especially in the Gospel of Matthew.
[3] An anonymous report from the street.
[4] Adapted from C.S. Lewis, Epigrams and Epitaphs

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