Scripture: John 15:1-11
We’re going to begin today by learning a song. It may even be a song you learned as a kid in Sunday School. It has motions (you can stay seated, just try not to hit each other) and it goes like this:
He’s a peach of a Savior; he’s the apple of my eye
He is pruning back the branches when the branches get too high
He is bearing fruit in season and his love will never die
And that’s why I’m bananas for the Lord.
Glory, glory, we’re the branches
Glory, glory we’re the branches
Glory, glory we’re the branches
And that’s why I’m bananas for the Lord.
I did not actually learn this song in Sunday School. I learned it on a mission trip to Bournemouth, England, that I took in college with my campus ministry. When we sang, “Glory, glory, we’re the branches,” all the British people in the room looked at us in utter confusion and said, “Branches? What are branches?” And we looked back at them, also in utter confusion, and said, “You know…branches? Like on a tree?” And they said, “Oh, the BRAHNCHES!” and we said, “Yes, the brahnches!” and then we all sang “Glory, glory, we’re the brahnches!”
Branches or brahnches, the lyrics of this song are admittedly a little bit random. But they are based loosely on today’s Scripture passage, which includes Jesus’ final “I am” saying in the Gospel of John. We’ve been working our way through these sayings for the past six weeks, asking the question of who Jesus is and letting him answer for himself through his words in John’s Gospel: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the resurrection and the life, and more. And we’ve been asking what knowing Jesus in each of these ways means for us and our lives today.
Last week, where we left off with Jesus and his disciples: it’s their last night together in Jerusalem before Jesus is arrested and killed. They’ve eaten, Jesus has washed their feet, and then Jesus launches into what we call his Farewell Discourse. This speech, which is kind of Jesus’ last will and testament, spans more than four chapters of John, and it’s where we find Jesus’ commandment to his disciples to love one another; it’s where he tells them that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and it’s where he promises them that he is sending the Holy Spirit to be with them.
It’s also where we find this passage from John 15, where Jesus tells his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit, and every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit…Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
I’m pretty sure that almost every pastor who has ever preached on this passage has some great story about gardening to tell. I don’t. I’m not really what you might call a “yardwork” kind of person. Maybe some of you who are into gardening or landscaping can help us out here: Why is it important to prune plants or vines? (To help them grow optimally.) How do you do that pruning? (You remove dead branches and cut other branches back.) And what happens if you don’t? (The dead parts sap life and energy from the good parts, and the plant won’t grow like it’s supposed to.) So, we’ve got the basics down here, right?
But I do find that I still have some questions as I read through this part of John 15. I usually do have some questions, when I read John. Maybe you do too. So I thought we could walk through this passage together and see what Jesus has to say about vines and branches and fruit and what it all says about him and about us.
Jesus starts out, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit, and every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
He starts off by talking about pruning. We’ve already talked about why pruning is necessary, though here I’m a little surprised at first to hear that Jesus himself is a vine that needs pruning. It makes more sense in verse 5 when Jesus says that his disciples are those branches. It’s we that are expected to bear fruit for him; we need help bearing the kind of fruit that God the vinegrower wants from us.
To be honest, I don’t really love the thought of getting pruned.
I mean, first, we have this image of dead branches getting torn off and thrown into the fire. Let’s not be too literal about this: it is part of a metaphor, after all, but still, it doesn’t sound great. But it’s not just the dead branches – even the good branches have to get pruned, because let’s face it, no branch is a perfect branch all on its own. All of us, even those of us who are bearing fruit, have parts that could stand to be cut away to allow that good fruit to grow and flourish. Pruning is not punishment; it’s part of health and the abundant life Jesus wants for us.
And so, perhaps, this is an invitation to think about what God the vinegrower might need to prune in us: maybe our selfishness, or complacency, or self-righteousness – in order that we might bear more and better fruit. How do you think God does that pruning in our lives? (Perhaps confession, other people who point things out to us and challenge us to grow, times when we’re confronted with hard truths.) These things can be rough, which is why we use an image like branches being thrown into a fire. They’re also grace, because they help make us who God needs us to be.
You know I’ve been talking a lot about General Conference lately, and it’s finally here: delegates are meeting in St. Louis as we speak to determine the future of the United Methodist Church. This is honestly a pretty painful time in our denominational life. It’s painful for our LGBTQ members whose lives and relationships and families are literally up for a vote this week; it’s painful for those of us on all sides with strongly held opinions that we claim in some way represent God’s truth and will; it’s painful for all of us who don’t know what the future holds for our churches or what decisions we may have to make. I’m also hopeful that this pain is the pain of pruning: that what is happening now is God working through us to cut back and tear away those parts of us as a denomination that are preventing us from bearing good fruit. I’m not talking about individual people here, as if to imply that anyone who disagrees with my own particular stance should be thrown into the metaphorical fire. I’m talking about God pruning back the attitudes, the assumptions, the biases, the resentment, and the distractions that have prevented us for so long from focusing on our mission to make disciples for the transformation of the world.
Pruning can happen on the individual level, and also on the institutional one. But it has to happen for us to be fully who God wants us to be.
Jesus continues: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Again, I’m not a gardener, but I know enough to know that if a branch isn’t connected a vine, it’s not going to do much. Branches need the nutrients from the vine, their source of life, if they’re going to bear fruit. “Those who abide in me and I in them,” says Jesus, “bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
I want to come back to this word, abide. But right now this piece about “apart from me you can do nothing” stops me in my tracks.
Sometimes I think I get caught in the trap of trying to bear my own fruit, apart from Jesus. Like many of you, I think, I’m culturally programmed to want to define my own worth in terms of what I can achieve and produce. I need to get worship planned and a sermon done, Sunday after Sunday. It’s my job to make sure we’re moving forward as a church in ways the district would approve of, and that if more people aren’t coming to worship, at least not fewer people are. For others of you it might be billable hours or reports or quotas, and my guess is that most of us feel the weight of this responsibility – our accomplishments are our own, as are our failures.
Maybe we’re all trying too hard to produce something that’s not actually the fruit God is calling us to bear.
So – what is? What kind of fruit is Jesus talking about here?
The theme Jesus comes back to time and again throughout his Farewell Discourse is love. Back in chapter 13 he commands his disciples to love one another. “Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another; by this people will know that you are my disciples.” In chapter 14 he tells them, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” “As the Father has loved me, so I love you,” he says to them here in chapter 15, after he talks about being the vine and the branches. “Abide in my love. If you abide in my love, you will keep my commandments.” His commandments, if we go again back to chapter 13, are also to love.
Again, this is true for myself in my own life – I can preach a sermon and bring people into the church and go to protests for holy causes – but if I don’t have love, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians, I have nothing. And it’s also true in our church, and in our denomination – we can fight about the Bible and what’s allowed and what’s not allowed and who’s in and who’s out, but in the end, I believe the fruit that God is calling us to bear is love – for each other, gay and straight, progressive and conservative – and for the world.
But let’s come back to how it is we bear this fruit, because it’s partially about allowing ourselves to be pruned – but it’s also about abiding.
“Abide” isn’t a word we tend to use a lot these days – probably only in churchy contexts like this one. Other translations might use the word “remain” instead. Still, what does it mean, “abide”? Clearly we aren’t literally connected to Jesus and sucking the nutrients out of him, so how do we maintain the kind of connection he’s talking about?
I’m not sure there’s one right answer to that question. It’s probably one we have to all answer for ourselves. Jesus says “abide in my love.” What is it that makes you feel connected to the love of God? For one person it might be singing hymns, for another praying for the needs of others and the world, for another person spending time in nature, for another person serving a meal in a homeless shelter. I’m not necessarily encouraging you to pick and choose among these, but I think it is important to know where we can go to feel that connection most strongly – so that you can abide that way. After all, if you don’t, you begin to wither. And when you wither, you don’t bear fruit.
Love is the nutrient we get from Jesus the vine – the same love he himself shares with the vinegrower. Love is the source of life for the branches, and love, likewise, is the fruit God hopes to see us bear.
For the church (the UMC) my prayer is this: that the vinegrower is and will be at work, as we remember first and foremost to stay connected to the vine, and that the fruit we bear will be good.
And in my life, and each of your lives, too, my prayer is this: that we will continue to go back to that place where we are most connected to the love of God in Jesus; that we won’t try to save the world on our own; that we will let God prune back the parts of us that need to be pruned, as painful as that may be – and that the fruit we bear will be good.
Jesus is our true vine, the source of the love we are called to share with the world. May the fruit that we bear be the fruit of love.