This week's lectionary text is John 15:1-8.
I Am the True Vine, Jesus says.
Vines are plants that have a growth habit of trailing or climbing stems. While remaining rooted in the ground by the vine, the stems/branches are able to grow and expand over large areas very quickly. The vine itself is anchored in the roots, these serve as the conduit for nutrients to flow through the plant. The vine is also a storage reserve of energy for the branches as it grows and spreads.
Jesus is the vine, the life-giving center. We are the branches. Only the branches that are connected to the vine are healthy and growing and have the chance to bear fruit.
Jesus also says that his father is the vinedresser. God the Father sees those who are not bearing fruit and takes them away. Have you ever tried to clean up vines on any of your property? The stems and branches grow intertwined and different vines grow together. If you try to tear them out you end up with what seems like a never-ending tangle. It gets worse if you're actually trying to save some of the vines and clear out the rest! Where does one end and the other begin? Sometimes a branch on a vine can even be severed from the vine but it is caught in the other branches and looks like it is still attached until time goes by and you notice that it isn't flowering like the other branches and it's dying.
Often times people's lives can be like this. They can intertwine their lives with things that look like Christ. From a cursory glance they look to be planted on the vine. But it becomes obvious when the rest of the vine is beginning to show fruit that these other ones aren't connected to the life-source. Jesus says that the Father sees this and he takes these branches away and they are destroyed. There will be a time when they cannot hide in the appearance of being a Christ-follower and they will be removed.
You'd think that's maybe the end of the work for the vinedresser. He's removed the dead branches, his work must be done! But it's not. The branches without fruit aren't the only ones that require attention. Jesus says that branches that bear fruit are pruned, so that they can bear even more fruit. In this way, pruning isn't an act of discipline (as sometimes we are tempted to see it), so much as an act of cultivation.
Grapevines usually only produce fruit on shoots that came from buds that were developed during the previous growing season. So, one of the principles behind pruning the previous years growth includes shoots that have turned hard and woody during the winter. These branches will be pruned either into a cane which will support 8 to 15 buds or to a smaller spur which holds 2 to 3 buds.
Just like the grapevine, we can't rely on past growth. We may look like we're growing to an untrained passerby but the Father, just like a trained gardener with a vine, sees what areas are unable to keep producing fruit and prunes it off. We all have things in our lives that hinder our growth, things that God wants to prune. Sometimes it's outright sin. Sometimes it's just circumstances that might be clouding our vision or weighing us down.
I think sometimes there are seasons where the Lord prunes us down to a smaller spur (holding 2-3 buds). Maybe there is a whole lot in our lives than needs to go. I've had these seasons. It can feel like your whole world is coming apart, that you are losing things you didn't know you could possibly live without. You might even be tempted to question what in the world God was thinking allowing so much pain and loss. But it makes you cling to the True Vine and with all of the life-giving nutrients flooding into the concentrated area, soon new buds are forming.
Or maybe you're in a season where smaller and more precise cuts are needed and you are pruned into a cane (supporting 8-15 buds). But, even in seasons where the pruning is more limited and precise, it can be painful. It is the act of putting things to death in our lives that don't bear Christ-like fruit, which often can be as fun as it sounds!
But we are reminded over and over in Scripture that death brings life for those abiding in Christ. The good news is that even though this is hard, we are assured that while death for the branches that aren't connected to the vine is final, death for the branches that are part of the vine is an opportunity to display our resurrected life. Death for the resurrected isn't really death! And something I find encouraging from this image of the vine and branches is that when pruning is done correctly (as we know God always does) it actually has the ability to multiply the growth of that branch. It’s not that we just lose something and gain something in its place. Anything God prunes from our life will allow opportunity for even more fruit to grow than we were capable of before.
Being pruned is a necessary part of growth, but if we aren't also receiving life from the vine at all times, the potential for growth is lost. And so Jesus reminds us to abide in him...the True Vine...the life source. In fact Jesus makes a point about abiding in him 5 times in this very short passage. Almost to the point where I'm like, OK already, quit repeating yourself! Anyone who knows me knows that one of my pet peeves is the inefficiency of repetition--having to say it or hear it! But, Jesus doesn't repeat himself because he is inefficient. I think he repeats himself because he knows this is a concept that we have a hard time holding on to.
Intellectually it's not difficult to understand but it's so easy for us to lose sight of the bigger picture when life happens. And all of a sudden we aren't abiding in Christ—the vine— we're abiding in our own little branch. In times of pruning our fleshly reaction is to focus on the loss. It's easy to think, but, God, I had great plans to grow over in that direction, or, just give me a little more time, I planned to take care of that later. We focus on ourselves, defining ourselves by what we have or don't have and finding our self-worth in the way our branch used to be or the way we think it should be. When we SHOULD be focusing our energy on the vine, the place where our health and purpose flows from. When we focus on receiving Christ's life and energy and renewal in the things he has placed before us, exponential growth can happen. But this is something that doesn't come naturally to us, so we need to remind ourselves, sometimes every minute, to abide in Christ.
I know this is true for me. This is something I struggle with, even in this season of motherhood, and all the wonderful things that it brings, I still find myself focusing on the things God has pruned instead of the things that remain. I get caught up in the direction I thought I should have been growing. You know, the things I want to do in ministry or the way I want to be seen. Instead of looking to Christ in these times, I’m so guilty of focusing on my own little limb and the pruning shears that just lopped off something that was a little too dear to me and wailing WHHHYYYYYY???? When I find myself in these moments I need to remind myself AGAIN--abide in Christ.
While we are so inconsistent in living this out, Jesus is consistent on his end. He reminds us that when we abide in him, he abides in us. There is no question. We never have to worry that he won't provide everything we need to live fruitful lives with what remains. We only need to concern ourselves with remembering our place in the whole picture.
Jesus said I Am the True Vine. He is the source and life and purpose. We are the branches. When we draw our being from the Vine, we produce fruit in kind with the Vine. In all of the difficulties, challenges and complexities of life—it really is that simple. He is the vine. We are the branches.