WARNING: CONTAINS RELIGION
“Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” John 15:4b
I want to start off today by wishing everyone a very Happy Easter. The candy and chocolate bunnies have been eaten and we have begun thinking about how we are going to celebrate Victoria Day but we are nevertheless still in the season of Easter. We have a couple of more weeks before we celebrate Pentecost and move into the next phase of the Christian calendar.
Scripture does not record a great deal about what happened during this time, when Jesus was hanging out with his disciples between the resurrection and the ascension. Luke mentions that he spoke about the opened the scriptures and explained the kingdom of God, Matthew does not mention much past a final declarative statement, Mark just ends, and John has the core group going on a fishing trip. To offset this lack of knowledge the church spends this time focusing on the last major chunk of theology and teachings given in John’s gospel. Last year on this day we focused on Christ as the Shepherd, this year we focus on Christ as the True Vine.
The lesson begins with Jesus issuing the statement “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener.” This is not the first time Jesus used the vineyard as a metaphor. Those listening, in this case the disciples, understood what he was trying to communicate. Jesus is confirming once again that he is establishing something important. By using the vine as an image Jesus is drawing on the traditions of Ezekiel and Isaiah. The vineyard is Israel and by calling himself the vine Jesus is placing himself as the reason the vineyard even exists. He is declaring that he is not just a random offshoot from Judaism but the new face of how the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is to be worshiped. His message is neither a sucker branch growing in a weird direction nor a weed growing in a garden. He is the true vine, the core essence of faith.
The verse continues, “He [The Father] takes away every branch that does not bear fruit in me. He prunes every branch that bears fruit so that it will bear more fruit.” Pruned branches, cleansed branches, branches that have had metal blades taken to them and snipped back to their very core. I have not had the opportunity to deal with grape vines but I do understand clematises and rose bushes. Each year you cut them back so that the plant will spend its energy in the most useful areas, that way the plant isn’t spending its time feeding and growing areas that aren’t going to have flowers.
Now this is where I differ in my reading. I know a number of people look at this verse and believe that the troubles and problems that come our way is God’s way of pruning us, shaping us to grow a certain way. I am not entirely convinced of that because of the sentence that follows. “You are clean already because of the word that I have spoken to you. ” We do not need to worry about the pruning process because it has already happened. We have been cleaned. We have been pruned. Through the waters of baptism we were removed from the vine of sin and death and grafted onto the vine of everlasting salvation. When we celebrate communion and receive the Eucharist we are fertilized with the body and blood of Christ. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit we are given a drink from the waters of life. God’s pruning does not come through the harsh things in life. God’s pruning comes through the changes in the spiritual core of our being at the onset of salvation. The trials and tribulations that come at us in life are the hail storms that try to rip off the fruit that comes about as the result of the pruning process, the fruit that comes by constantly reflecting on Christ and bringing forth a Christ-like nature in our lives.
So how do we go about producing that fruit? Verse four, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it remains in the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me—and I in him—bears much fruit, because apart from me you can accomplish nothing. ” Remaining in Christ. Abiding in Christ. This is how the fruit of our life is created. It requires a dedicated focus, a constant returning of our attention from the distractions of this world to Christ.
I was working in Oshawa a couple of weeks ago and stayed in the city after work one night to take care of some things and as a result had an opportunity to attend a service at St. George’s Memorial Church downtown. On Wednesdays they have an evening prayer service from the Book of Common Prayer. Now I like the BCP. I spent six years studying English Literature with a focus on the Elizabethan/Jacobean eras. I understand the what Archbishop Cranmer was trying to accomplish when he picked up his pen and started revising a prayer book until either enough people agreed with him or they were happy about the fact that the other side was annoyed with his decisions. But even knowing the language, understanding how and why the services was structured in that particular way, enjoying the solemnity and decorum of the service I found it remarkably difficult to pay attention. I constantly found myself skipping to different thoughts. How should I deal with this particular issue at work? What should I write in my homily? What is that picture in the stained glass? Why is ahh pay attention! You see even though our core being has been sanctified, we still need to focus our attention on the process of abiding.
“If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown out like a branch, and dries up; and such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, and are burned up.” Yet again, this is not a case of “God will prune us out of the vine and throw us into hell.” If we do not abide in Christ we are like a branch that is separated from the vine. We are like the dead-fall that Kevin and his family picked up off of the lawn this past week. It is just a branch that will not bear fruit because it is no longer attached. We also need to think about the fact that the fire in this case is not a punishment, it is what you do to dead wood that has fallen off a tree, provided you get a permit from the fire department to burn beforehand. You make a fire out of dead wood to make heat. You make a supper. You make sm’ores. The branch is not useless, it just is only useful for acting just like any other piece of carbon-based material. It is only useful for a single purpose where is it ultimately used up. A branch that is still attached is useful for making fruit season after season.
Our reason for trying to remain attached is twofold. “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you want, and it will be done for you. My Father is honoured by this, that you bear much fruit and show that you are my disciples.” We receive benefit from our attachment to the vine. We can ask things of the Father. We can lift our voices in prayer and supplication. We can spend our morning asking for God’s blessing and favour. We also honour God by living a life that can produce fruit. We show our discipleship by our actions.
We spend our time at Easter learning the importance of Christ’s crucifixion. In a few weeks time our focus will change to learning to live the life of abiding. We spend our time in the season of green vestments and decorations, of growth and life. We learn how it is to live the life of the vine. For now, we get to spend some time reminding ourselves why it is such a special thing to have the opportunity to be connected to the true vine. We get to spend some time reflecting on the importance of the Easter season. So I wish you again, a happy Easter with all its implications.