Philippians 3:8-9 and John 15:1-2, 4-6 by Chelsea Page
“I am the vine, you are the branches. We are one.” Dear Jesus, you really want us to hear this. But it’s hard to feel what it means to be one. Thank you for being the kind of person who can look at your church, flawed as we are, and see something united with you. Help us to be that kind of person too who knows how to see the good, and see ourselves like you see us. Amen.
In our gospel story today, Jesus provides his disciples with a comforting, reassuring image. His disciples would have known the image of the grapevine because it’s used a lot in Jewish scripture to talk about how God lovingly tends the people Israel like a gardener.
But then he starts talking about pruning, branches getting cut off and thrown into the fire. That’s a little less comforting. Jesus’s disciples like us in Northern California lived in a region that grew grapes, so they knew what Jesus meant when he talked about pruning. Have you noticed when you drive through Northern California the way the vines go dormant every year? They are pruned over the winter and grow back in the spring. We trust that they will grow back, even when they look dead.
But do we trust that we will grow back, when life has pruned us down?
When have you felt pruned or cut back? Sometimes the pruned feeling is discouragement or fear. There’s been a lot of pain in our nation lately. When I read the news, I always fear that one difficulty happening in one place is a sign that something is wrong more systemically, and that it could happen here. But that pruned feeling I get, the pain and discouragement you may feel when reading the news, happens not because we’re powerless and disconnected, but precisely because we are connected. Love is the nervous system of the universe. We are a vine and connected to each other, meaning we feel one another’s pain and fear.
Sometimes the pruned feeling is disappointment or loss; not bearing fruit, and having to let go. Paul said about his own experience of being pruned, of having to let go of the status he had as a high-status Jew and Roman citizen, in order to become a Christian. To the Philippians he wrote, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” (Philippians 3:4-7) Going through a dramatic change of identity can feel like pruning or like being stuck in a dormant season, waiting for new life.
Jesus says “remain in me” or “abide in me” in this gospel passage. Jesus claims against any possible contradicting evidence that we are one with him. Are there any ways this oneness with Christ can help us get through our inevitable human feelings of discouragement and disappointment?
Why do vine-growers prune their plants? So that they will bear more fruit next year. How do you feel about the command to bear fruit, or the idea that our efforts can be judged by the fruit they bear? I personally have a really hard time with not bearing fruit. I am genetically prone to depression and there are times when it’s biochemically impossible for my brain to focus on the good. So when I’m stucking focusing on the lack of fruit in my life, the lack of beauty in myself, the difficulty I have in growing and being better, I do get to feeling like a branch that’s good for nothing but to be cut off and cast into the fire. I start checking out all the other branches around me in an envious or resentful way. Are they bearing more fruit than I am? If yes, then I deserve to be pruned down. If not, then maybe they ought to be cut a little down to size. It’s a no-win situation.
But that’s NOT the point Jesus is trying to make. What Jesus really wanted us to understand is that as a vine, we are sourced and rooted in Him. I really don’t believe that the point of our Christian life is the performance of one single branch, how well I as an isolated branch can love or not love. The point is what we all are together as a vine, that we are a community rooted in love.
I’ve even found that when I am in pain, I don’t actually need to will myself to love more or bear more fruit, because I have people around me to remind me that I belong, to love me until I’m able to love again. Until I grow back. I hope I can do this for others, too. Not when the other person’s goodness is totally evident; that’s not when it’s needed. When it’s needed is when our relationships have gone dormant and there’s no fruit anywhere and the weather’s gone cold, and we just have to believe in each other and remind each other of our goodness and belonging.
I think it can help if we take the idea of bearing fruit not as a standard, but as an invitation. Jesus invited us to stay rooted in him. This means we can remember that no matter what fruit we are showing, our goodness comes from our connection to Christ. This is what Paul was referring to when he said to the Philippians, “in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
This righteousness is an invitation to goodness, not a standard of goodness to measure up to. Remember, you are not the whole vine, you are a branch. You will go dormant and get pruned, but Christ, on the other hand, is the ever-living vine. At the same time, you are not just any old branch; you are a branch of the true vine—the vine of Christ who is rooted deeply in God’s love. So when you find yourself going through pruning season, may you trust that you will indeed grow back, if not through your own power, then through the power of the One you belong to. Amen.