Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Easter, on Jesus’ words to the disciples after the Last Supper from John’s Gospel when he told the disciples that they must be rooted in him, the true vine.
My parents were both keen gardeners, and would spend hours, days even, out in the garden, planting, weeding, pruning. The passion for gardening never rubbed off, and I tend to take a more theological approach – I allow God to look after my garden in his own way. But one thing I remember from my childhood is the constant pruning or cutting back of rosebushes, fruit trees, and other plants.
As every gardener knows, many plants appear to be dying, overgrown, weak – no longer able to bear fruit or flowers. Like the pear tree that the School Governors gave me two years ago for a significant birthday. It was duly planted in the vicarage garden and last year and over the winter gave every appearance of being dead – more of a bare twig than a tree. No sign of life at all. I was all for digging it up. But suddenly, in the last couple of weeks, it has sprung into life and is sprouting leaves all over. It’s positively blooming.
And as the gardeners among you will know with careful pruning, cutting back in the right way, bushes and trees can produce spectacular flowers and fruit. The newly pruned plant is given strength as the weaker parts of the plant receive nourishment from the stronger central stem. Pruning can seem a very drastic thing to do, and the nervous gardener may not have the confidence to cut back as much as is needed. It’s hard to cut off all the old growth but it is essential to do so if the plant is to continue to be fruitful and beautiful
Today’s gospel reading, and those for the two remaining Sundays in Eastertide, come from the farewell discourses and prayer of Jesus in the Gospel of John. These are Jesus’ final words to the disciples, after the Last supper, and before his death and resurrection. And these answer, for the writer of the Gospel, the question: What does the risen and departing Christ have to say to his church? And what we find is teaching that is deeply challenging to us all.
In today’s gospel Jesus starts by saying to his disciples, “I am the true vine…” He speaks of himself as the living, growing vine with us as his branches, living and growing – in more than just a physical way. We cannot exist in isolation from him, he says: Abide in me as I abide in you … whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers … if you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. I am the vine – you are the branches.
Jesus is at the centre. Jesus is the vine from which we grow. And without Jesus at the centre, without Jesus as the root and the support for all that we do and all that we are the Church is powerless, impotent – we can do nothing unless we abide in him. The Church is fruitless and hopeless unless it has a relationship with Jesus, and with Jesus at the centre of its life. The purpose of that relationship with Jesus is to bear fruit.
Now, what that fruit might be Jesus does not say, but if we bear in mind the emphases we find elsewhere in the gospels, it would seem that the kind of fruit we are called to bear is that of preaching and witnessing to the good news of Jesus to all people – and showing that the good news of Jesus has made a difference to us by the way we live and the way we relate to other people.
But we shouldn’t overlook the second part of Jesus’ opening sentence, “… My Father is the vinegrower”. The vinegrower comes into the vineyard with a knife, and every plant is severely cut. Some are cut away because they are fruitless. And some are pruned in order to be more fruitful.
But a perennial problem for the Church is how to know the difference? In either case pruning can be painful, but how do we know when we are bearing fruit and can be helped to bear more fruit, and when we are not bearing fruit at all and our Father, the vine-grower, needs to be ruthless in his pruning. And bear in mind that this is not general teaching from Jesus to the crowds who have been following him – this is Jesus speaking directly to the disciples who have been with him at the Last Supper – and if they needed to be told they would be pruned, how much more do we?
Well – we need to recognise that the imagery of this passage poses a direct challenge to the modern idea of individuality and individual rights over and against the idea that community is important. If we see ourselves as individuals who happen to go to church, rather than seeing ourselves as being an integral part of community which is church – we’ve completely missed the essence of this passage. That doesn’t mean we somehow become non-entities, a kind of homogenous group of people all the same – but it does mean that the current mania for putting self first is not an option for Christians.
And this piece of teaching, more than any other, emphasises that if we follow Jesus we must accept that we must look outside of ourselves to see ourselves as part of a whole, part of the community rooted in Jesus. For it is only in so doing that we can truly discover who we really and truly are in God’s eyes, and so bear fruit for him.
Sometimes people say, “I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” Jesus says very clearly here that there is no such thing as a solitary Christian – either we are rooted in the vine together or we are not. And when the Father, the vinegrower, comes he will cut away the branches that are not bearing fruit.
And so we need to look to Jesus, the vine that bears us all up as the branches, and recognise that all that we do must have him at the centre. And we must be prepared for the Father, the vinegrower, to prune where necessary that we might bear fruit. Because Jesus makes one thing very clear – every branch is pruned. There is no escape from the pruning-knife. The Father will remove every branch that is not bearing fruit, and every branch that is bearing fruit is pruned to make it more fruitful. So we must all be prepared to be pruned – whether we’ve been a Christian for four weeks or forty years – whether we’re 17 or 70 – whether we’re ordained or whether we sit in the pew.
For Jesus wants his disciples to be a living, vibrant fruitful presence in the world. For the followers of Jesus fruitfulness relies on their dependence on the vine. We are the branches, we can’t bear fruit by ourselves – we have to rely on Jesus.
And we also have to rely on each other. Vine branches are all interconnected, part of each other, feeding off the same stem, out of the same soil, but growing in different and unique directions but none more important than another.
It is the vine itself – Jesus – that is at the centre – and all the branches grow out of that central vine. We share a common life, and within that we become our own unique, distinctive selves. But we all share a responsibility in making the whole church community live.
We all must play our part as a part of the body of Jesus Christ If one branch of a vine were left to do all the work on its own, there wouldn’t be much fruit grown – it takes the whole vine to produce enough fruit for a respectable and useful crop.
Jesus invites his followers to make their home in him – to trust in him, to rely on him and to draw nourishment from him in the way that branches are nourished from the central vine. With such dependence and trust we are invited by Jesus to ‘ask what you will and you shall get it.’ A deep trust and faith in the person of Jesus will bear fruit in our lives and the lives of those around us. But this passage this morning leaves each of us with the deeply challenging question which we must all answer:
How are we bearing fruit for Jesus?