“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit ... I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (RCL John 15:1-8) This has become one of the most encouraging images of the spiritual journey to me, but it has not always been so. Indeed I once hated the image of God as one who prunes – who cuts deep and burns what is not fruitful. I once found it frightening but now find it a very healing and hopeful image.
That might be in part because I came from the wheat-belt of inland Australia and there is so little green that you do not cut anything still green off. Or more likely I am a bit of a spiritual coward and the image of being pruned, being corrected and reshaped, seemed harsh and judgemental rather than loving and healing. Now I live among vineyards and a sprinkling of orchards and seasonally see the value of pruning in summer fruit to be enjoyed. Also now as one with more life behind me than in front of me I know the necessity of being pruned, cut back, corrected, shaped and refined by fire. I still don’t enjoy it but I trust it more than I once did.
Certainly it would have had many rich connotations to the people of Jesus day. Not only because they were an agricultural people living close to the earth but because the image of the vineyard was central to their faith. Israel is frequently represented in the Hebrew Bible, or Old Testament, as a vine or a vineyard. So when John’s gospel proclaims that Jesus said “I am the true vine” it is making another messianic claim that Jesus is the longed for one who will fulfil the promises of God’s kingdom, as with “I am the good shepherd” and “I am the living water” and all the other “I am” sayings that are to be found only in John’s gospel.
This story is also told in the context of Jesus’ farewell conversations with his disciples in his last days and so he is reassuring them that whatever is about to happen to him, and to them, they will continue to abide in his love, and that if they remain in his love then all things - including those pruning and painful experiences – will work toward ultimate good and bring them eventual joy. And so across the eons this image also speaks to us of the promises of God that if we remain on the faith journey, if we remain rooted and grounded in the love of God, if we continue to abide in the Christ then all that happens to us will be part of our growth.
Now I need to say that there are different ways of reading this metaphor. One traditional way is that God sends certain experiences, including disasters, so that we will learn, that we will be pruned, that we will be cleansed and refined. I have major difficulties with this reading as it does lead us to notions of predestination and limited free will, and it does suggest that a good God does bad things – even if for an eventual good outcome. For myself this does not make sense.
Rather I understand that because everything is in God and God is in everything, that all events – good and bad, pleasurable and painful, life and death itself – all have the capacity to be part of our growth and development and our eventual joy making. As St Paul says in his letter to the Romans, toward the end of his own life and often read at funerals; “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I am likewise convinced that no thing or event need separate us from the love of God when we remain abiding in God’s love and that all experiences can lead us deeper into the heart of God and lead to our flourishing.
Now only a fool or a very disciplined and brave person would actually go seeking terrible experiences so that they could grow. Although one might consider that many of the rash and daring things we did in our youth, and that our children love to frighten us with, is a form of seeking experiences that will form us through joy and pain, through exhilaration and fear, through feats of daring and vulnerability. In ancient cultures there were often ritualised ways of engaging in experiences likely to test, to punish, and to build one up. Our society does not have many of these rituals left, although remnants remain. Some of the things maybe we did in youth groups such as those trust exercises when we allowed ourselves to fall backward off a wall into the arms of friends, or getting up and performing in front of others when timid, or joining a political or religious movement. But even if we didn’t seek out these experiences then life is sure to visit enough experiences upon us that we will have plenty of opportunity to be pruned and cleansed, humbled and wounded, reformed and recreated.
Those big and small losses and griefs in life – the loss of a friendship, a much sought after job, a physical capacity that has left us, the life of a loved one – can all initiate us even deeper into the love of God. Loss often reminds us of what we really value and thus re-orientates us toward what really matters. Other losses teach us reliance on God when nothing else seems to be reliable or of help. Loss and suffering can open us up to great humility and compassion. As St Paul, again in the letter to the Romans, expressed it: “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” It is the presence of God that makes these wounding experiences life giving rather than destructive, pruning rather than decimating, and that helps us bear fruit of the spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. It may help if we think of pruning as a lightening of the load, of the removal of dead weight, of what anchors us in the too small present, rather than random loss (although it can be that too). And in that great and ultimate pruning – the dying process itself – let us trust that this too is for our completion in joy so that we may travel lightly home.
So as we go about our autumn pruning and planting for winter crops here in the southern hemisphere, and tending spring growth in the northern hemisphere, let us reflect on the loving work of the spirit in us, in all of life’s experiences, knowing that God’s intention for us is joy.
Even so, come risen Lord Jesus Christ and make your joy complete in us.