Fifth Sunday in Easter B
Preached at Faith Lutheran Church in Three Lakes, WI.
1 John 4:7-21
We long ago established that I am not a gardener. Yesterday, Debbie went out into the garden to tend to her plants and flowers, and I dutifully stayed away while she worked, so that I wouldn’t accidentally kill anything.
The truth is, when Jesus talks about being a vine and producing fruit and pruning, I don’t always pay attention. I know what pruning is, and why it’s important—by cutting off growth in certain places, you allow new, better growth, to flourish—but I couldn’t tell you about any of the techniques involved, or how you know what to prune when, or any of the details. Plants are not my thing.
So let me approach this metaphor from another angle.
High school, college, and seminary are all four year programs. You enter as a first-year student, and assuming everything goes smoothly, without interruption, you leave four years later. I’m not saying anything shocking or revolutionary, am I? Good.
We see this system every day, so it seems only natural, the way it should be.. As the older students leave, newer students come in.
Now, imagine for a moment if, after you started high school, college, or seminary, you never left. Four years go by. Five years. Eight years. Every student who enters never leaves, but more students keep entering.
Is this a healthy schooling model? Will the school be able to support all of these students? And worse, are these students, who never leave, becoming the people they were meant to be? Probably not.
In order for schools to function properly, and to continue producing good, graduated students, students have to leave. There’s no choice. They can’t stick around just because they want to. They’d become too much of a burden, the entire system collapses, and now, there’s no students learning and no good graduates being produced.
This sort of cycle, this action, is inevitable. You can’t just keep adding and adding, holding on to anything and everything, and expect new growth to happen. This is why a gardener has to prune a vine or a fruit-producing tree. The tree has to let go of some of its bulk and weight and make room for new growth if it is to continue producing fruit.
This is one of those times when Jesus comes out and tells the disciples what his metaphor means. “I am the vine,” he says, “YOU are the branches.” The gardener, in this case, God, cuts off any branch that doesn’t produce fruit—it’s dead weight, and useless.
But even the good branches, the ones that produce fruit, need to be cut back. They need to be pruned, having some of their unnecessary parts cut away so that they can continue to grow new life and produce fruit.
So the branches, the disciples, the many followers of Christ, need to produce fruit or be cut away. But even those that do, even those who react to the presence of the Spirit in the vine and who take that nourishment and turn it into good, powerful action; even they need to be cut back every once in a while, or else they, too, can be become dead branches.
This is not an altogether cheery or happy metaphor, Jesus. Because whether or not we are good, fruit producing branches or bad, dead branches, being a part of the vine of Jesus involves cutting back, stripping away, and losing something we were holding onto.
This is a terrible message for churches. Churches hate letting go of anything. I’ve told the story before of the church I worked in that attempted to throw away a ton of junk, but slowly, a lot of it ended up back in storage because somebody just couldn’t let go of each piece of useless junk.
It’s not just items. Church programs are famous for this. Programs continue on long past their expiration date, long past when they are doing any good, because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”
We build more buildings, even though gathering in a meeting hall works just fine, because that’s what churches are supposed to do. And then we hold onto those buildings at all cost, because, even though they no longer serve our needs and are killing us, we can’t let them go.
We continue programs like Sunday School, First Communion, Confirmation, Children’s Church, Youth Group, Men’s and Women’s Groups, large numbers of committees, even when they don’t serve any theological or practical purpose; we’ve just always had them.
We see the world and the environment changing around us, necessitating a reorientation of the church, but that means leaving behind old ways of doing and being church, and so we can’t.
Churches are so afraid of what pruning might mean, of what cutting away might bring, that instead of seeing the new life that such pruning will bring, all they can see is the loss. It’s why there are parishes all over made up of three congregations in three different buildings, and between the three of them, they can’t afford a Pastor—yet they insist on having three services on Christmas, one at each congregation, because they absolutely must have their own.
Churches are so afraid of losing any little bit of themselves to let new life grow that they’d rather become dead branches. At least they’ll be big and whole; but still dead.
What are we afraid of? Have we forgotten that a branch doesn’t exist on its own? That wherever a branch is growing, it is attached to something else, something that nourishes it and provides it with life?
“I am the vine,” Jesus says, “you are the branches.” You see, I’m grateful for that. A branch doesn’t have to worry about getting roots down deep. It doesn’t have to worry about taking in enough sunlight for the vine. It doesn’t have to worry about feeding the other branches, or managing the whole affair of being a plant. It’s just a branch.
The vine itself, the one putting out the branches, that’s where the life comes from. That’s where the branch gets its water, and gets the nourishment it can’t get itself. When it produces fruit, it’s because the vine has given it the strength to do so. And when it’s pruned, when it’s cut back, it’s the vine that makes it grow new life.
That’s what pruning does—it makes room for new life. A properly pruned plant produces MORE and better fruit than a plant that’s never been pruned, that’s never had to let go of anything. It will be continually renewed, flourishing, giving its fruit in abundance precisely because it has room to grow again and again and again.
Some people, like me, are terrible gardeners. A plant that relies on me will surely become one big dead branch. But the church, a branch of the vine of Jesus, is not gardened or cared for by human hands. It is cared for by God’s hands, the very same hands that created the vine, grew the branches, and produced the fruit.
Watered in baptism and fed at the Lord’s supper, the church grows and produces fruit wherever it let’s itself be pruned by God, making way for the good news, the good fruit, good works. But it has to let go. It has to realize that a dead branch is no branch at all, but a piece of wood good for little more than fuel.
We are a branch of the vine, grown out of the good news of Jesus Christ. We are not alone—we are connected not only to other branches, but to the vine itself, given life by the Holy Spirit. This is not of our own doing, but is the gift of God, who tends the vine and rejoices in the fruit it produces.
We are not a dead branch, but a living, breathing part of the body of Christ. We live and grow in spite of our efforts, in spite of our best intentions. We are all clothed in Christ. That is who we are; not lifeless wood, but living products of God’s loving care, care that does involve cutting away to allow room for the Holy Spirit to produce new life.
It’s terrifying. It goes against everything we tend to understand about growing. But by letting go, cutting away, we grow and flourish and produce abundant fruit.
“I am the vine,” says Jesus. “You are the branches.” Cut it out, let go, and get ready to produce good fruit.
Featured Image: “Winter Pruning Complete” by Jim Fischer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.