Listen!Psalm 22:25-31 | John 15:1-8
One of the many memorable moments during our recent holiday, came while we were staying with my parents. A few of us, including my mum, had just started to play a board game, when my dad slipped out into the garden, muttering something about “going to prune those bushes”.
While obviously not wanting to disturb the game, my mum, it must be said, looked just slightly concerned. “I don’t really like him pruning things when I’m not there,” she admitted. Pressed on this, she admitted that he does actually have a very good track record; “but he does cut things back a lot further than I would.”
And indeed, the bushes that had been selected for the day’s pruning were indeed very much smaller by the end of the day. They looked, in all honesty, as if great violence had been done to them.
But at the same time we were surrounded by the evidence – lots of other plants, which in their turn had been pruned just as hard, and had looked just as close to death, but which were now thriving, full of springtime flowers and the promise of summer fruit.
Because, of course, that’s how pruning works (when you know what you’re doing, that it. When I prune things, they mostly give up in some combination of disgust and despair, curl up their leaves and die).
The parable of the vine and the branches, taken from Jesus’ farewell discourse is perhaps best known for the wonderful image that Jesus offers to his friends – those who abide in me, and I in them bear much fruit. And I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard a lot of sermons on this passage which go along the “let go and let God” sort of line – the whole Mary and Martha story, telling us to stop working so hard all the time, that the branch doesn’t have to do anything to bear fruit, it just has to stay connected to the vine. There’s a great children’s’ book in the “Lost Sheep” series called “Basil the Branch”, in which Basil (a branch) tries really really hard to push out grapes, with no success, finally to give up, only to discover, the next morning that while he’s a been asleep, fruit has been growing.
To which I want to say – as I often do – “yes, but”
And the but in this case is simply this: Jesus did not say “you don’t have to do anything, I’ll do it all through you”.
He did say “apart from me you can do nothing”. But not “with me, you don’t need to do anything”.
And that’s quite an important difference.
And the other importance difference is the whole pruning part of the story. The bit that we tend maybe to gloss over a little. “my Father is the vine-grower … Every branch that bears fruit he prunes”.
Now if it were me, that is so not the approach that I would take. Because, let’s face it, it’s not easy to get anything to the stage where it bears fruit. Whether that be a project that you are involved in, or a skill you are learning, or any investment of time, or money or energy – it’s hard to get to the point of payoff, the time when all your effort seems to be rewarded, when your work bears fruit.
And for the incompetent gardener like me, it’s the same – it’s rare enough for me to actually get a plant to the stage where it bears fruit – when that does happen, I’m really not about to cut it back.
When something is yielding results, we don’t interfere. If it’s not broke, we don’t fix it. If it’s fruitful, we leave it well alone.
But of course we all know what happens when a fruitful plant goes untouched (if you don’t, come over to the manse someday and check out the curry tree which is supposed to be a shrub, but has kind of taken over a little bit).
And in our wiser moments we know that the same is true of all our successes – that when they go unchecked, unchallenged, unpruned, slowly, subtly, they go wrong, or bad, or just stale.
In the business world, of course, it’s the Kodak story – so successful, so profitable, that no one would dream of cutting back… until it was too late. Or move on a couple decades and talk to Blackberry, or Nokia. Fruitful, but unpruned.
Fortunately, God is a better gardener than we are.
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit
And just remember, as I mentioned in passing, that this conversation took place during the last few days of Jesus’ life. If there was ever an example of the fruitful branch pruned back, wasn’t that it – the end of Jesus’ ministry, the ultimate pruning back of the fruitful branch.
Jesus’ disciples have, I guess, been on something of a high – sure, life following Jesus had it’s ups and downs, but it was certainly fruitful. Why, they surely asked themselves, in the dark days of the trial and crucifixion, would God allow Jesus’ ministry to be brought to and end – and such a sudden and violent end?
And so to prepare them, Jesus gives them an answer: so that it might bear more fruit.
It’s almost as if Jesus is telling his friends – telling us – that when something that seems good and worthwhile and effective and fruitful gets broken or cut back or taken away, it might not be the disaster that it seems.
There is a rhythm to nature: the seed that dies to grow, the branch that is pruned to be fruitful; and so it is too with our lives, and our spiritual lives.
It’s as if there is a sort of natural cycle: times of abiding, resting, reflecting, in Jesus, times when we pause and think and pray, times which are a gap, a space.
And times of abiding lead into times of growth, of work, of planning and executing, of building.
And then there are times of fruitfulness, times to see results, to celebrate success, to enjoy the fruits of our work for the kingdom of God.
But – much as we wish it might – it doesn’t stop there – for the fruitful branch is pruned; things die, are lost, fail.
And when our successes and glories and fruits are gone we are thrown back to the only thing that remains: to abide, rest, reset, in Christ.
Until the time comes to start the circle again. To grow something new, something which will be more fruitful still.
And I guess at any time in our lives, we probably find ourselves in more than one place in this cycle. Parts of our lives are resting, parts are growing, parts and fruitful, parts are being painfully cut back.
And perhaps it’s worth asking ourselves where we are – for this parable, this image, has something to say in each stage.
Where we are resting, abiding, waiting: the promise is that there will be growth.
And where this is growth, that it will not be in vain.
Where there is fruit; rejoice in it, but do not trust that it will last forever.
And where there is the pain of pruning – have faith; that the gardener prunes only so that there will be fruit next season.
So it is in the vineyard – so it is with us.