5 Easter – May 3, 2015
So, in keeping with the imagery of the gospel reading that we just heard, have you felt pruned by the news lately? The earthquake in Nepal, the events in Baltimore? Or maybe not just pruned, but cut down? Cut down by life’s tragedies great or small, cut down by disappointment or despair, cut down by illness or job loss or other circumstances beyond our control and left to wither and die.
It’s easy to read this passage as one of judgment and threat. But I think the thrust of the passage is promise. Why? It all has to do with context. Jesus is offering these words to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He knows what is going to happen – both to himself and to his flock – and they do not. They are about to be cut down by his crucifixion and death and he is assuring them that it will not be mere, senseless cutting but that they will survive, even flourish.
So what do I mean by a passage of promise?
The verb abide like the phrase bear fruit appears over and over — eight times in four verses here — and will be repeated in part two of the passage next week when we learn that abiding in Jesus means abiding in Jesus’ love.
Abiding is important in John, where love of God means mutual indwelling. One of John’s most famous verses (14:2) – The many mansions in the Father’s house are actually abiding places. As Jesus’ own have places prepared for them in God, so also the Son and Father will have abiding places in Jesus’ own (14:23). And the Holy Spirit will also abide in them (14:17). So the vine image is another way of talking about abiding places – places where one is deeply at home.
So why this image? Because it is an image that intimates profound dependence. Profound reliance. Because life is nothing without belonging, without intimacy, without relationship. We are all connected. Through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The biblical image of a vine conveys a deep sense of the connectedness of our lives. The real measure of our lives is not so much what we believe, but to whom we are connected. The better we are connected the more we are transformed.
Such transformation comes from connectedness, not from effort. Suppose someone were to walk up to one of those vines and yell, “START PRODUCING FRUIT!” Nothing would happen, would it? You see, once the vine growers have done their jobs, all the branches have to do in order to bear fruit, is to stay connected to the vine.
Thomas Merton, in one of his taped lectures to the novices at Gethsemane monastery talked about abiding in Christ this way. “It’s like you’re trying to catch a plane. You’re late. You hop in your car and speed to the airport. Every delay gives you ulcers. You reach the parking lot, grab your stuff and race down the corridor to get to the right gate. You rush onto the plane, flop down in your seat, and heave a sigh of relief. You made it. In one sense you’ve reached your destination. Then the plane takes off, and you’re on your way to other places, going higher, faster than ever before, but now you are not frantic or worried. That’s what it means to be in Christ.”
The pruning metaphor works best if we think of God as a gardener who grieves while watching a violent storm rip through her beloved garden. Afterward, she tenderly prunes the injured plants in order to guarantee survival and to restore beauty and harmony. But we can’t confuse pruning with the crises that overtake us. Pruning has more to do with clearing away the debris those crises leave behind.
And there’s one particular brand of crisis that continually calls for pruning. It’s the self-imposed crisis. It’s when we mess up. It’s when we sin that we need pruned the most (Walter Wink, “Abiding, Even Under the Knife,” Christian Century, April 20, 1994).
So, we bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves but because we are extensions of the vine, pruned by the gardener-God who wants us to be fruitful and to be drawn into the unity of the Father and Son. God’s love, presence, and pruning are gifts. But we do choose the abiding place of our soul. If we want to bear Jesus’ fruit, then we choose to abide in him, which means to abide in his love.
Jesus still invites us – actually, not just invites but promises us – that he will not abandon us but will cling to us like a vine clings to a tree so that we endure, persevere, and even flourish among these present difficulties.
Here’s the thing: if Jesus had only said, “abide in me or else,” that would be a different matter. But it’s not. “Abide in me,” Jesus says, “as I abide in you.” This is more than good advice. More than an invitation. This is a promise, that no matter what happens, Jesus will be with us. That no matter what happens, Jesus will hold onto us. And that no matter what happens, God in Jesus will bring all things to a good end.
No matter what happens, we have God’s promise in Jesus to work for good. Keep in mind, that these words are said just before Jesus goes to the cross. And I would argue that the cross was not simply a part of some larger plan, but the chief example of God’s commitment to wrestle life and hope from the very place that seems most devoid of life and hope.
As my colleague David Lose says: If the cross means anything, I think it means that God chose not to sit back in heaven, removed from the pain and paucity of our mortal, free, and difficult life in this world, but rather came in Christ to be joined to it – the ups and downs, the hopes and disappointments, the frailties and faults of our life in this world – so that we would know of God’s unending commitment to us. The cross was not the instrument that made it possible for God to love us, the cross is evidence and testimony to just how much God already loved us and God’s promise to be with us through all things. Just so, the resurrection is the promise that no matter how much tragedy we endure, these hardships will not have the last word.
Jesus says, “Abide in me as I abide in you”. Stay connected to the source of life and light and love. Find yourself at home in this world bearing much good fruit. Amen.