Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 5, 2002
The Gospel: John 15:1-8
Sermon: "Pruning the Grape Vine"
The Rev. William D. Oldland
Pruning the Grape Vine
Sixth Sunday of Easter - May 5, 2002
As I started to prepare for this sermon, I realized I did not know a great deal about the process of growing a vineyard. I know a little bit about gardening. I can grow beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and such, but I don't know a great deal about grape vines. In fact, I kind of hate to admit it, but about the only definite thing I know about grape vines is the various uses of the fruit. Some of the fruit is served as grapes. Some of the fruit is dried as raisins. Most of the fruit, about 80 percent, is used to make wine. I do know how to consume all three of those products in moderation, of course.
In addition to knowing how to consume the fruit I now know a little bit about vineyards. Almost every country has some sort of grape production. Of course, the most famous areas are those in Europe. A vineyard is begun by taking cuttings from vines and planting them in rich soil. These cuttings grow a root system and will be transplanted in the spring. These plants are nurtured and given trelliswork to climb. They will not produce any fruit until the third or even the fourth year. As they begin to produce fruit, branches that do not produce any fruit are cut off. Branches that do produce are pruned in order to increase fruit production. One of the goals is to produce as much fruit as possible. Another goal is to produce the finest, best tasting grape possible. Growing a vineyard is not a simple process. It takes time, patience, and the vinedresser is never finished with the work.
With all of this new information I began to look at the lesson today with different eyes. The lesson speaks of three different roles. The first role is the vine grower. The second role is the vine. The third role is the branches. God is the vine grower. God has chosen the spot for the vineyard. God nurtures the soil of the vineyard. God plants a cutting. This cutting is the true vine, Jesus Christ. Attached to the true vine are the branches and folks, the branches are we.
We might want to look at the role of the branches more closely. Some branches bare fruit and some branches do not. The branches that do not bear fruit are cut off. They are removed. Those that do bear fruit are pruned, so they can bear even more fruit. Does the fate of the branches raise some questions in our minds? For example, are we branches that are bearing fruit or not bearing fruit? If I am a fruit-bearing branch, what does it mean to be pruned? Either way it sounds like we are going to be cut, and that sounds painful. So, what does this mean for us?
Let's look at our first question. Are we fruit bearing or non-fruit bearing branches? I remember years ago a very fundamentalist youth minister asked me how many kids I had saved in the last year. I was a little shocked by the question, but I turned to him and said, "none. I don't save anybody, God does." He was playing a numbers game. He was judging the fruit of his ministry by the number of people who came in the door. In reality, numbers is only a part of the equation in this lesson. This metaphor of the vineyard is also found in the fifth chapter of Isaiah. Jesus knows the disciples will catch the connection. In Isaiah, God has planted a vineyard. The vineyard produces an abundance of grapes. However, the grapes are sour. They are no good for anything. In Isaiah's time, Israel had turned away from God. They were making alliances with other nations. They were allowing worship of other gods in the kingdom. In other words, they had lost their connection to the true vine. Therefore, God, the vine grower, allows the vineyard to be destroyed. Jesus' metaphor is slightly different. The branches are people. They are people who have heard the words of Jesus, been with Jesus and/or they have seen the miracles of Jesus. The branches that are not bearing fruit are those who have had one or all of these experiences with Christ and yet, they do not believe. Because they do not believe in Christ, they cannot bear any fruit. Please note we are not talking about people who have never heard about Jesus. This metaphor is not intended for people outside the church. It is intended for people inside the church for you and for me.
This metaphor can be preached in such a way that the hearer is scared into believing. If I don't believe then I'm going to Hell. Notice the words Jesus uses to describe the relationship between God, Jesus, and the branches. Jesus is talking about abiding. Jesus invites us to abide with him as he abides in us. We are invited to abide with him in the same way he abides with God the Father. The word, abide, means to live with, dwell, remain, to stay. We are asked to dwell with Jesus. We are asked to remain in relationship with Jesus as he is in relationship to the Father. Their relationship is one based on love. Jesus is not trying to scare us into believing. Instead we invited into a loving relationship with God. We are invited to stay connected to God. If you have ever noticed a vine and its branches, they are intertwined. They are wrapped around each other. Sometimes it is difficult to tell the vine from the branch. We are invited into that kind of relationship with Christ.
Once we begin an abiding relationship with Jesus then we find ourselves as fruit bearing branches. Here we are at our other difficult question. What is it like to be pruned? Pruning sounds like it hurts. Actually, when we prune a branch often times it is to prevent the tree or plant from incurring injury. We trim a limb back because it is getting too heavy and might break. We cut some branches off because they draw food and sustenance from the rest of the tree for no benefit. We trim off parts of a plant that are diseased. I believe the pruning we undergo, as people are similar. Sometimes we try to abide with God and we are too heavy. We carry all of our burdens with us. We carry so much stuff with us that instead of seeing God in us, all others see are the baggage. We bring our overstressed, burdened, workaholic lives to God and say we want a relationship. I'll talk to you when I'm in trouble or I need you, OK. How do we begin to abide with God when we are so overwhelmed we don't know where to start? We might ask God to show us what is important first. Sometimes like the limb that draws sustenance without producing fruit, we are involved in areas where we don't need to be. Our gifts and ministries lie in other areas. Someone with great computer skills is delivering meals. Or someone who loves people and cares deeply for those in need is balancing the books. All of these ministries are important. When we move opposite our gifts we use a great deal of extra energy. This energy negates the abundant production of good fruit. We might still produce fruit, not just in abundance. Finally, like the limb that is diseased there are some parts of our lives that need to be trimmed. Whether we like it or not we are sinful people. We do and say things we shouldn't. We are called to repent, reconcile, confess, forgive and be forgiven. That is the spiritual process of pruning our sinful nature. Like a grape vine this aspect of pruning goes on continually. The result of good pruning in our lives, trimming our tendency to overburden ourselves, wrapping our gifts and talents with the appropriate ministries, and cutting away the sinfulness of our lives through confession and forgiveness, is an abundance of fruit. This fruit is sweet to the taste, juicy, and rich in color.
I mentioned earlier that pruning sounds like it hurts. Some of the pruning we have discussed might indeed be painful. After all we don't like admitting our sinful behavior. However, when we allow ourselves to be pruned by God, we open ourselves up to wondrous possibilities. Who knows what ministries await? Who knows how our burdens might be eased? Who knows what fruit might be produced to the glory of God? By allowing ourselves to be pruned the possibilities are endless.