May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be ever acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer…
When I was in, I think, second or third grade, we had a homework assignment to count the trees in our backyard. And as a very fastidious child, I made an elaborate chart of the over 200 trees we had growing in our backyard, and for good measure threw in the multitude of plants my parents grew. They were both agricultural science professors, and so we had not only decorative plants, but large gardens that supplied most of our produce, grapevines, and several fruit trees.
My favourite was actually this big old cherry tree, and I used to love climbing up into its gracious branches when it was in full bloom. It was like a soft pink canopy that could completely hide me from any unsuspecting people below. Usually my little sister. But when I got a little bit older, it started to die, and my favourite hideout had to be cut down. Which was quite devastating for me, but since I had fallen out because a branch had broken out from under me, my mom was adamant. It had to go. It was dangerous.
And that’s the way we often think of this passage from John. When Jesus says “whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” it’s easy to see that as threatening. Abide in me or else. Because the good branches, they will bear fruit, and the bad, dangerous branches will be burned. It’s a very black and white system.
And why not see it that way? I can imagine Jesus talking to his disciples, telling them this story. They came from an agrarian society, and would probably have the same view as my mother with the cherry tree. The simple understanding of cutting away the dead, dangerous branches and throwing them into the fire or mulching them up. They probably made the same symbolic leap we do to see these dead branches as bad people, people not like us.
Because that’s the way we tend to see these things. We read the Bible strangely, because we read it as if we were the point. As if we were never the Gentiles. Jesus’ words “whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fired, and burned” I’m sure throughout the history of interpretation, have always lead people to the meaning of judgement. You don’t abide in me? Then you are cut off, discarded. And thrown into the fire for good measure.
These words become a rationale for judgment, as we, and I don’t doubt the disciples, see ourselves as the ‘in’ crowd, the good branches, bearing fruit. We’re quite accomplished at that; seeing ourselves as fruitful and healthy. It’s our default setting.
And it’s something we’re having to fight against right now. That easy, simple way of thinking. That way of viewing ourselves in the best light. Because here’s the thing: we are both the healthy branches and the dead ones. We all need a little pruning, a little maintenance. And I know, I know, that’s a hard thing to do. To give ourselves an honest look. To be reflective.
I get it. Before my CPE course, I hated reflections. I thought, why do I need to examine this? I was there. I know what happened. But what I came to appreciate was the opportunity to examine myself, and really ask: is this healthy? Is this fruitful?
And sometimes, the answer was no. That is a hard answer to come to, and it came with a lot of ice cream and tears. And the hardest part of that answer is that, no branch starts off dead. It slowly withers, it slowly becomes less healthy. It doesn’t happen overnight. That dead branch was once vibrant and leafy. We can remember when it worked, when it bore fruit.
That is the difficult place we are in now. As we enter into parish conversations about the health of our branches, we are going to have to do some pruning. We are going to have to say goodbye to some branches that have histories of beautiful fruit, we are going to have to let go of branches that we remember as glorious. We are going to have to see the true meaning of this passage.
When Jesus identifies himself as the vine, twice in this passage, he is not giving us this image as a threat, but a promise. It is not a verse of condemnation because that is not what Jesus came to do. It is a statement of life, a statement of our connection to the life source, through whom abundant life is possible.
To put this in context, Jesus is offering these words to his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. He knows what is going to happen to himself and his flock, and they do not. And what an image to balance this against. Christ, who is cut down, crucified, paralleled against the imagery of the cast off branches. The perfect Saviour giving up his life to give life to all. The promise of abiding, the promise of eternal life.
This image of the vine offers a picture of who we are, who Christ is. He first unpacks the image as a description of his relationship with his Father, and then how this image also portrays his relationship with the disciples, and with us. The mutual abiding, the mutual indwelling. This is an image that shows profound dependence, profound reliance. This is an image of life with intimacy, with life-giving relationship.
Amid difficulty, suffering, distress, death, Christ invites us, promises us, that he will not abandon us. That together we will endure, persevere, even flourish. These words, said just before Christ goes to the cross, show that it is not simply part of some larger plan, but is the chief example of God’s commitment to wrestle life from the very place that seems most devoid of hope. It is not the instrument that made God’s love for us possible, but the evidence and witness to just how much we were already loved, and the promise of new life from the dead.
This is a hard passage to preach, to let what is dead be cut away for new life. But, let’s be honest, this is a hard life to live. Bearing fruit is risky business. It requires constant, intentional care and love. It requires time and patience and skill and luck and science and the miracle of creation. It requires connection and interdependence, relationship and origin, belonging. It requires community.
There is fear in bearing fruit. Because bearing fruit makes us vulnerable. It means we are not completely in control. It is sacrificial and self-emptying. Fruit-bearing is cross-bearing, and it is the way we follow Christ.
There are many lessons I learned up in my cherry tree. Washing fruit is a good idea; don’t touch bird nests; gravity is a law and it will always get you; but most importantly, every branch, no matter how far away from the source, no matter how small or big, is beautiful and necessary, and death still comes for it, but it is only the opportunity for something new if we are willing to take the risk.
Hana Scorrar – Student of Divinity