“Pruned in Love/Pruned for Love”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.
4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.(NRSV)
Most of us can relate to the image of pruning. Maybe not all of us have pruned grape vines, but many of us have some familiarity with pruning things like rose bushes, azaleas, or crepe myrtles. Or we’ve suckered tomato plants. Or we’ve at least weeded a garden.
It seems to me, too, that when reading and interpreting the image of the vine-grower pruning the vines, the tendency in the church has been to head straight for judgment. The idea that “sinners” are branches to be pruned and burned fans that smoldering ember of resentment within that part of us that wants to see bad people suffer.
Related to that, pruning can also be low-hanging fruit for lazy preachers who would rather scare worshipers into compliant behavior than take the risk of preaching and modeling real faith, hope, and love—that is to say practicing genuine discipleship, which, says Jesus, is what truly delights and glorifies God.
The detail that got my attention this week is Jesus saying that the vine-grower prunes even fruitful branches. He does that, says Jesus, “to make [them] bear more fruit.”
When I look back at sermons I wrote and preached 15-25 years ago, I’m amazed that people didn’t get up and leave. My early sermons so terribly, terribly long. And while much of what I wrote may have been poorly written, it wasn’t bad in principle. It just wasn’t helpful. It did precious little to help proclaim the gospel or glorify God.
Over the last ten years, I’ve adopted a less is more approach to sermon writing. Still, the first draft of every sermon always has way more words than necessary. After finishing a draft, I break out the pruning shears and lop and burn my way through the sentences and paragraphs. Sometimes I grieve the loss of certain things. Every word and turn of phrase meant something to me when I wrote it. But on the whole, those extra leaves and branches did little more than call attention to themselves.
It seems to me that that’s the kind of pruning the vine-grower does to make even the good branches produce more fruit. Even the best parts of us have extraneous stuff that can—and according to John 15, should—be pruned to allow the beauty of our God-imaged selves to shine.
If we step back and look at the broad sweep of Jesus’ ministry, we can see his words clipping away at the branches much like a vine-grower pruning his vines. One of the clearest examples appears in Matthew’s sermon on the mount when Jesus says (six times!) that his listeners have heard that the law says one thing (like exact and eye for an eye, or love your neighbor and hate your enemy), “but,” says Jesus, “I say to you” forgive as God forgives you, and love and pray for your enemies as well as your friends. (See Matthew 5) He doesn’t just turn the law upside down; he prunes it in order to allow all the branches to grow and become more vital.
While Jesus does get frustrated with and speak prophetically to those who continue to live selfishly, judgmentally, and violently, he nonetheless forgives and loves everyone whom he teaches. He claims them as branches.
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” he says. That opens the door to a thought-provoking inference. It is—in part, anyway—Jesus’ own body that he prunes. When he prunes, he does so not to cut off fingers or toes, not to get rid of certain individuals, but to give the whole body, all humanity, new opportunity to grow. In John 10:10, he says, “I came that [you] may have life, and have it abundantly.”
To reiterate a point I’ve made before: Jesus comes not to prepare us to be dead, but to teach us how to be alive, here and now. And the abundant life to which he calls us involves letting go of, being pruned of, those attitudes and practices that limit our ability to love and to be loved by God, and to love and to be loved by one another.
Later in John, when Jesus tries to wash Peter’s feet, the disciple refuses to accept that Jesus should stoop to the level of the lowest servant in a household. Both lovingly and firmly, Jesus prunes Peter of his short-sighted arrogance. “Unless I wash you,” says Jesus, “you have no share with me.”
Jesus seems to know that if his followers think that Jesus is above servanthood, then they will assume that they, too, deserve deferential and preferential treatment. And any attitude or ideology that allows one person or group to assume superiority over another person or group runs counter to Jesus’ teaching about the last being first and the first being last. Being antithetical to Christ, those mindsets must be pruned from all who claim to be disciples of Jesus.
Here’s the crux: Human beings are not pruned from the vine. Human sin is. Our idolatry is. Our selfishness, our prejudice, our pride, our greed, and our affinity for violence are all fruitless shoots to which the vine-grower takes his pruning shears. Being all about restoration and renewal, being all about Resurrection, Jesus wants to prune our spirits of those things because they keep us from living abundantly and loving unconditionally.
The other key image in today’s passage is that of abiding in Christ. When the pre-Friday Jesus says that when he is “lifted up from the earth, [he] will draw all people to [him]self,” (John 12:32) I hear him saying that to experience the post-Sunday Jesus, we must learn to let go of everything that prevents us from abiding in him. Otherwise, the idea of the crucified God will make no sense.
To abide in Christ is to draw our energy and our identity from the vine which is, as Paul says, “rooted and grounded in love.” (Ephesians 3:17) Think of the differences in hydrangea blossoms. Hydrangeas flower in blue, white, and pink. The difference is not the same as the difference between varieties of roses, whose blooms and aromas are genetically engineered. Hydrangea blooms get their color from the relative pH of the soil in which they abide. The more acidic the soil, the bluer the blossom. The more alkaline the soil, the pinker the blossom.
The Christ Vine abides in love. So, when we abide in Christ, we, too, abide in love. Those parts of us that abide in anything other than Christlike love for God, for neighbor, and for the earth, pollute our words and actions with envy, resentment, and self-serving fear.
When we learn to abide in unsentimental, agape love, that love prunes us of fruitless attitudes and actions. Love becomes our way of life. We embody love, because we abide in Christ, who abides in God, who IS love. (1John 4:8)