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. But one thing I remember from my childhood is my Father out in the garden doing the constant pruning or cutting back of rosebushes, fruit trees, and other plants.
As every gardener knows, many plants can appear to be dying, overgrown, weak – no longer able to bear fruit or flowers.
But 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 Jesus speaks to us about plants and pruning. Today, in our gospel reading, we hear some of his final words to his disciples. Spoken after they had shared their last supper together, this part of Jesus’ last teaching before his arrest and his crucifixion.
And today we hear him say, “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 without him. And his words are a real challenge.
Listen again to some of what he said – this is from the Good News translation:
Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you … a branch cannot bear fruit by itself.
Whoever does not remain in me is thrown out like a branch and dries up; such branches are gathered up and thrown into the fire, where they are burnt.
My Father’s glory is shown by your bearing much fruit; and in this way you become my disciples.
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 useless – we can do nothing unless we abide in him. And only then can we expect to bear fruit.
I am the vine, and you are the branches. We are all joined together with Jesus at the centre. We must be rooted in Jesus, and all grow together so that we can bear fruit. Essentially – we cannot expect to bear fruit for Jesus if we see ourselves as an individual, as a solitary Christian, free to do what we like and when we like and how we like.
Well – we need to recognise the direct challenge that this passage poses to the modern idea of individuality and individual rights over and against the idea that community is important.
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 and rooted together or we are not.
Jesus has no concept of a solitary Christian. ‘A branch cannot bear fruit by itself,’ he says, ‘it can only do so if it remains in the vine.’
He goes on, ‘In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me.’
So whenever someone says to you, ‘I don’t have to go to church to be a Christian,’ show them John chapter 15. And remind them that we are all branches with Jesus at the centre. You simply cannot be a solitary branch off somewhere by yourself. Jesus does not give you that possibility. He never intended it to be an option. Following Jesus means being a part of his church, a part of the local Christian community.
Of course, there will always be some who cannot get to church because they are ill or housebound – but they have been a part of the church and the church continues to enfold them and include them – but that’s different from someone who makes the decision never to be a part in the first place.
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. I find that quite scary. None of us likes having to face up to the bad bits that need to be pruned away. But none of you, says Jesus, are fully grown with no more need of attention – you constantly need pruning so that you will grow more and bear more fruit.
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. I can’t repeat this too much.
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. They grow in different and unique directions but none are more important than another and all need each other. And I can’t repeat this too much either.
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 these words of Jesus that he speaks to us this morning leave each of us with the deeply challenging questions:
How are we bearing fruit for Jesus?
And how are we, as individual branches, contributing to the life of the whole vine?