Pruning with love…sermon for Adel Parish church, Easter 5, 2021.
John 15: 1 – 10
I’m not a great wine drinker, and know little about vineyards, vintages or grapes…so I was amazed last month to see French vine growers lighting candles and fires under each vine in a desperate attempt to protect them from frost.
This is their livelihood of course, but I found the level of care for each individual vine quite moving. It also gave me a new perspective on God as vine grower in today’s gospel.
Clearly, for the vine grower, the point of vines is to produce grapes. In this passage, Jesus likens his followers to branches on a vine…reminding us we should be producing fruit.
Jesus doesn’t tell us what this fruit is…but we might suppose it consists of lives becoming more Christlike; of acts of love and compassion; of more evidence of the fruits of the Spirit named by St Paul: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.
From this gospel reading, it’s easy to end up with a picture of fruitful Christians going to heaven…unfruitful ones cast into the fire. Like many bible passages, this one can be used to judge others…they don’t show this or that fruit…they aren’t proper Christians; or ourselves…what if I’m not producing enough fruit? How do I know?
As usual though, if we dig a little deeper, we find there are other ways to look at it. Since the first hearers will have been very familiar with grape production…a foray onto the internet seemed a good starting point.
And d’you know…I didn’t find any suggestion the grower shout at their vines, ”Produce more fruit or else!”, or that vines can prune themselves. Ridiculous ideas of course…but perhaps worth remembering as we picture God as vinedresser as some translations put it.
The first advice I found for would be vine dressers said, ‘No matter where you grow your grape vines, you’ll need some sort of support system.’
Grape vines apparently grow naturally in woodlands, climbing up trees. Left to themselves in open places they grow across the ground, producing bushy growth, many roots, but little fruit. So, vine dressers lift them and fasten them to supports.
I struggle a bit with verse 2 in today’s reading: ‘God removes every branch in Jesus that bears no fruit.’ But the word translated as ‘removes’, can also mean ‘lifts up’. So which do we use? Well vine dressers, it seems, focus on the lifting up of branches, so they reach the sun, take what they need from the main vine, and produce grapes.
This fits with what I’ve experienced of God. God for me has been the one who knows how by ourselves we struggle to do what’s right; who tenderly cares for each one of us; who through Jesus offers his grace time and time again. I think the God who does that will also lift us up when we’re unfruitful, into a place where we might begin to bear fruit.
The rest of the advice I found involved pruning. Being cut back, it seems, is the main way vines become fruitful.
And I learned 3 interesting things.
No grapes are allowed to grow on a vine in its first 2 years. The branches must grow strong and healthy before they’re ready to bear fruit.
Grapes only grow on new wood, and vines produce far more wood than they need. So even fruiting branches have up to 90% of their wood removed each year before they produce grapes.
I’m pretty sure Jesus didn’t intend us to get bogged down in tiny details of vineyard management…but these ideas will have been very familiar to his first hearers.
They would know that growing grapes is a long-term project; Jesus’ use of this metaphor suggests that discipleship is too. I’m not suggesting that new Christians don’t bear any fruit, but that following Jesus is a life-long adventure, and bearing the fruits of a Christian life doesn’t always come easily.
Jesus’ hearers will also have known that pruning isn’t just a cosmetic affair, but deep and apparently brutal cutting away of dead wood, and disorganised growth.
Left to ourselves, like vines, we grow randomly, following new ideas and people. We get seduced into putting things other than Christ in the centre of our lives. We accumulate the dead wood of bad habits and grudges we harbour. These things need pruning, sometimes quite severely, if we’re to be fruitful Christians, bringing life to ourselves and to others.
And this pruning isn’t something that happens once…Jesus is very clear that fruitful branches are still pruned.
Sometimes, like grape vines, I think we also need surplus good wood cutting away. Sometimes what needs stripping out of our lives is the one good thing too many. Sometimes we need to learn to say no (even to the Rector!); or ‘I’ll take that on, but need to give this up’, so that we can flourish as the people God intends us to be, putting our energy into bearing the fruit of Christian lives.
My foray into the intricacies of grape production has reminded me of the obvious. Vine dressers spend much time and energy nurturing vines so they produce the best grapes. They don’t expect vines to do it all themselves!
It’s given me a picture of God the vinedresser caring tenderly and patiently for each disciple, gently encouraging us to bear fruit. It’s also reminded me that left to myself I bear less fruit, and that I’m not very good at pruning myself.
But how do I let God prune the unwanted stuff out of my life? Jesus suggests I abide in him. He is the vine; we are only the branches – without him we cannot grow or produce fruit. Christian discipleship starts in spending time with Christ – in prayer, worship and study.
Fruit might not immediately appear – but we will begin to recognise what it is that God the patient, loving vinedresser needs to prune from our lives.