On the subject of pruning, Mark and I didn’t do much gardening at all last year. We mowed the lawn every so often, trimmed the front hedge back a couple of times, and had a lot of good intentions for deadheading the roses and other flowers and bushes. The problem was that the longer we left it the more work was needed and the less we wanted to put the effort in. This summer the cats are really enjoying jumping around in the field that’s grown in the back garden, the brambles we’d almost got under control are starting to encroach on the lawn again, the hedge is looking straggly and the rose is about six feet high but not flowering. So you can tell there’s plenty of life in our garden but it’s not pretty and a lot of it is spiky and unpleasant and out of control. So this year we’ve saved up and invited a gardener to come and sort out the mess. Great stuff! Now all I need is someone to come in and sort out the rest of my life. Now there’s a thought worth following up!
Jesus uses just this sort of image to describe his relationship with his Father, and ours with him. God is the vine-grower to Jesus’s vine and we are branches on that vine.
Jesus says: “[God] removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” What kind of fruit is Jesus talking about? The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – the signs of Christ’s life in us. He’s looking for Jesus’s life to be expressed in you and me – for signs that we are being Christ and bringing Christ to our community or sphere of influence.
And just as an unpruned vine won’t produce as much fruit or as large or tasty fruit as you’d want, so, if our lives get cluttered with things that get in the way of our relationship with God, so we won’t produce the fruit God wants from us. When the PCC went on an away day at the end of last year, one of the things we did was an exercise that pictured this church as a tree, with the branches representing areas of ministry such as prayer, outreach, children’s ministry, and the leaves being actual activities within those ministries. We were asked to colour them: red, for activities that were taking a lot of energy but not achieving very much; orange, for activities that broke even in terms of activity and return; green, for activities which bore fruit in spiritual or material ways in the life of All Hallows church and parish. During the exercise we realised that we were colouring most of the leaves green, there didn’t seem to be anything at all in the red. Not because we’re prefect and we never make mistakes or take a wrong direction in any activity. But because, generally speaking, we don’t waste our energy on things we can see are not useful to us in building ourselves up or building God’s kingdom – we engage in active pruning throughout the year, not just waiting for the annual PCC away day to do this kind of spiritual tidying up.
He goes on: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” He says this as the disciples are walking with him towards Gethsemane, towards his capture, torture and death. He is trying to prepare them for what is coming, for the fact that he is going to ask them to continue the work he started, even through their own persecution, torture and death. He has spent three years with them, teaching them about God through the scriptures, through parables, through experience – they have heard the word of God, they have been in the presence of the living word of God. This phrase about cleansing also harks back to a more recent conversation, earlier that evening Jesus had washed the feet of his disciples and Simon Peter had asked Jesus to also wash his head and hands. Jesus had told him “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.”
But Jesus knows that even though a change has started in their lives, the disciples will not be able to continue his work on their own, with their own strength. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” Being a Christian is not something you can do on your own. You can do good deeds of your own free will, you can be a nice person if you want to be, but you can’t be Christ-like without some help from him. We need him.
“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” At the beginning of John’s gospel he tells us that “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.” He is the creator, he is the source of our creative energy, he is the one who gives life to our creative endeavours. We need him.
What fruit should we be bearing? The fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. First and foremost is love. John says in his first letter that we should “love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” But again, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” We need him.
“Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars”, not loving your neighbour, you can’t therefore be loving God, and if not loving then not abiding – these things go together. And “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Let that not be us, especially when a little pruning can help us bear fruit.
So, how can we know that we abide in God, in Jesus, in the true vine? In his letter, John gives us some pointers: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God”. Also, “God is love… Love is perfected among in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.” As he is, so are we in this world – again we’re reminded that we are his hands and heart and voice in our world. Then, also, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment”, which is part of the old covenant legal system but not Jesus’s system. And finally, show the fruit of love to your brothers and sisters – to your neighbours, not just to those who love us because we are called to be Christ-like and Christ loved us before we loved him. These are things we can only do with his help. We need him.
In verse 7 of today’s gospel reading, Jesus gives a slightly different emphasis – “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you”. To John, words and, specifically the Word, are very important. He sees that God spoke the world into being – in Genesis “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” and so on. John sees Jesus as the Living Word, saying, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. We have God’s word in the scriptures, we can know him better by reading and studying the scriptures – I often use study notes from the Bible Reading Fellowship, especially if I’m busy or unfocussed, I find they help me do ‘quality reading’, taking in the meaning of a verse or chapter when I might otherwise go for ‘quantity reading’, skim reading without necessarily understanding.
We can also become familiar with God and his message through studying together, speaking about God amongst ourselves, listening to each other’s experiences, hopefully through sermons! Through sharing communion and by praying together, by which I mean talking with God and listening to his answers. By praying together and sharing our answers we encourage each other, we remind each other of God’s continued presence and his work in our world, and we become part of that work.
Jesus says that “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” When Jesus says this, he means it as a conclusion following from all his previous words – if we are in him and he in us, then we will be asking his Father to do the things that Jesus would have asked, and that God wants to give. Later this morning I am going to be part of the prayer healing team, and we will have the chance to put those words into practice during that time.
But let’s not keep it to Sunday mornings. Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” When we go out from church today, let’s remember to pray for each other, pray for opportunities to glorify God, to bear the fruits of his Spirit, opportunities to love each other and those around us – opportunities to be Jesus in our communities.