“Every branch that bears fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”
Look at the stained glass windows around you this morning. They’ve been given at various times for various members of the community, and as any chorister will tell you, they’re a symbol of how God’s light shines through each of us. As we look closely at the passage from the Gospel of John this morning, I want to offer these to you as a metaphor for God’s work in us as we consider what it means to be pruned, and where exactly the Good News is in the revelation that we should expect spiritual amputations.
The more pure the glass, the more light it lets in, of course. But if you study the glass, you’ll start to notice that there are little bits of grit lodged in the glass and maybe in the corners there are years of accumulated dust and grime–these things may come to seem like they’re part of the glass, just harmless bits of matter that really don’t matter at all. Over time, they seem to become one with glass, just part of the scenery, but the truth is, it doesn’t belong, and it’s not part of the glass. The grit and the dust aren’t essential, even though their presence has become expected.
It is the same with pruning, and it is the same with us. Not all growth is good, it’s not all beneficial. It may very well feel like losing a piece of ourselves, like an amputation, but we can trust that nothing essential is stripped away; Jesus, the vine, is the essential bit, and as our Scripture tells us, as we abide in the sap of that vine, we will bear fruit.
Having not grown up in the south, I’ll never forget the first time I drove by a freshly pruned crepe myrtle tree; it was the pair that stand by the front doors of Shandon Methodist, and I was driving up Devine Street toward work. My first thought was, “My goodness, what must have befallen those poor trees?” Then turning my attention again to the road, I didn’t notice them till weeks later on the same trek–now they were covered in blooms. I’d been convinced they were being cut up and taken out, having not survived the winter, but it was actually the severe pruning that had enabled their gorgeous flowering. As you all probably know, crepe myrtle shrubs produce flowers only on new growth, and so for fruit to be profuse, pruning must be merciless.
Have you ever thought about what it means for us to be pruned; for us to be cut back so much that we look like we’re dead and ready to be made into firewood? Aside from sounding painful, there’s something that doesn’t quite sit right–why should pieces of ourselves be cut off? Why wouldn’t God just re-train my vine-y-ness instead of actually amputating? It seems to make sense that growth–even leggy, disordered, frenetic growth–must be good and useful somehow.
The truth is, some of the ways that we’re wont to grow are bad.
Our country is suffering some pruning right now. Errant branches that have grown for centuries, which were pruned by the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King are flowering again, and the results are frightening to say the least.
People and societies need constant pruning to avoid being thrown into the fire. My friends, we’ve seen some fire this week in Baltimore and maybe you’ve noticed it elsewhere too.
This is our hope–that ours is a God who prunes. We’re given examples of throughout all of Scripture which show us time and again that God the good gardener snaps off the pieces of people which are keeping them from doing his work. He takes Abram from his homeland, challenging Abram’s understanding of his identity, indeed, God gives him a new identity and through pruning, he becomes the Father of Many Nations: Abraham. God cuts off Moses’ protests and sends him back into the land he’d fled to be the leader of God’s own people. Isaiah and Jeremiah, and all the other prophets of our Scripture are separated from society, ostracized and alone because of the message they’d been given to deliver.
The Apostle Paul is pruned as he is blinded and made to rely on heretics for his healing—the Christians he’d been persecuting are exactly those who bring him back to wellness. Paul’s pride is cut to the quick, and what does he discover through this terrifying transformation but that his Lord, Jesus Christ, is the only true and essential thing about himself. “Apart from me, you can do nothing,” Jesus tells us in verse 5.
This pruning God is the one to whom all creation will bow, as declared by Psalm 22 which we prayed together this morning. It’s a song that ends in hope and triumph, proclaiming that hungry bellies will be filled, that those who are oppressed will be heard and lifted up–that the Lord our God will do all of this.
But do you know the first verse of that psalm that we sang together this morning? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus spoke these words from the cross, in the midst of the greatest pain a person could ever experience. The psalm that begins with some of the most famous words of horror ends with triumph and joy.
You see, the fruit-bearing, the triumph, the joy of filled bellies and heard voices and reconciled relationships doesn’t start on Easter morning. It starts on Good Friday. It starts when the very unity of God is tested in the amputation that the cross causes; the wedge that sin drives between me and everything else. The fruit of the tree in the Garden of Eden brought sin and death, but the fruit of the tree on which Jesus died brings life forevermore.
No matter the pruning, Jesus is our source of life.
God the good gardener hacks away at vines that entangle and branches that block and undergrowth that trips us up. As long as we are attached to the vine, we need not fear any pruning, though it may feel like an amputation and it may seem as if there is nothing left of us to prune. Our hope is in the promise we’re given: pruning brings more fruit. What we may now sew with tears, we will reap with songs of joy.
If you’re feeling like a shorn crepe myrtle today, certain that everything you are has been stripped away, and that there’s nothing left of yourself to give, remember: Jesus, the Way, the Truth and the Life is flowing through your veins, his nourishing, life-giving blood fills you. Claim this promise, my brothers and sisters, know that new fruit is coming by God’s constant care and by his grace.