Updated: Jul 31, 2022
Easter 5B, May 2, 2021
Text: 1 John 4:7-21 & John 15:1-8
The Rev. Cameron Partridge
When I was in high school, I used to spend time on weekends helping my grandfather with yard work. My grandparents’ yard had a large lawn, about the size of a tennis court, perfect for playing catch or kicking a ball around. There were numerous carefully placed trees, many taken from my grandfather’s own cuttings, that he had planted years before when my grandparents were building this house. A loquat tree by his bedroom’s sliding glass door. Several fruit trees—two apple and two pear – and grape vines. These were in semi-annual need of pruning, and this is where my assistance came in. As a teen, I remember sometimes wondering why this pruning was necessary. Especially with that loquat tree, it felt to me like he trimmed it within an inch of its life. I would ask him about it: “it looks fine—why do need to cut it back?!” His brief reply – “gotta keep it under control, Champ!” (he always called me “Champ”) – has become something of a family joke. Anytime something needs pruning or containment, it’s just a matter of time before someone pops out with that line. To my teen self, control is primarily what these pruning efforts looked like, seemingly in danger of choking back the wild life that wanted to keep going, to grow into potentially fantastic forms. Who cared if the loquat tree got a bit bushy? Were trees meant to be tamed? Are we?
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus declares in our passage from the Gospel of John. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (15:5). I love this image Jesus uses of himself in John’s Gospel, one of several “I am” statements, as Amy referenced in her sermon last week. “I am the Good Shepherd” (10:11, 14); “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (14:6); “I am the bread of life” (6:35), as we will hear over several weeks this summer; “I am the light of the world” (8:12); “I am the resurrection and the life” (11:25); and my favorite: “I am the door [or gate]” (10:7, 9). These statements use the Greek phrase eigo eimi—not just “I am” as in “I am hungry,” or “I am a human being,” but a kind of intensified form I’ve sometimes heard rendered as “it is I who am…” There is a powerful flow in these statements, an uncontainable life that extends to us from Christ the source. To return to our image, for Jesus to say, “I am the vine” or, again, “the true vine,” is to say “I am the source.” To say that we are the branches of that vine is to say that our very life flows from that source. The vine in this passage evokes the tree of life in Genesis, as Bruno Barnhart points out in his commentary on the Gospel of John. In Christ we have returned to the garden, to the origin and source of our life.
But as branches of this vine, we are to do more than just exist. We are to abide. Meno, one of my favorite verbs in John’s gospel, again, has an abundant meaning. It can be rendered to “remain” or “stay,” or to “dwell.” This last translation especially resonates in the passage “in my father’s house there are many dwelling places” (John 14:1-3)— the shared verbal root of monoi can match the meno verb. In our vine passage the verb emphasizes life-rooted connection. We are the branches flowing upward and outward from the source of our life. We are asked to embrace that flow, to be connected and rooted in it. And as our passage from the Letter of John emphasizes, that abiding is expressed in love. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (4:16b). The vine, the source, we might say, is love. And our abiding takes the active form of loving. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God,” the letter of John puts it. In loving, we abide, we remain, we dwell, in love. Or, again, as the 1st Letter of John expresses this connection: “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God” (4:7). We are to abide as branches of the vine from which we come, and we do this through love. As we love we flow, we grow, we reflect the very love of God.
But then what is all this about pruning, my sixteen-year-old, yard-working self wants to ask Gramps-God? What is this cutting off of wild, abundant life? Even my early twenty-something self has a bit of a reaction to this language, recalling a college friend (not a particularly close one, thankfully) who jokingly referred to “pruning” people in her life that she didn’t especially want to be in touch with any more. “That person? Pruned!” I remember her quipping. I remember thinking at the time, I wonder when you’ll prune me? It’s hard not to hear this language as disconnecting, which could seem opposed to the fundamental language of abiding, connected love in which the vine image is rooted. But of course, there is more to it. The vine grower “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit,” Jesus explains. And then, “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”
Back in Gramps’ yard in the rainy season of, I want to say, 1990/91, I remember pulling on big, unwieldy boots and clomping out into the mud surrounding the apple and pear trees. Gramps wanted help pruning the branches. Why? So they could bear more fruit. I can recall him explaining to me how certain branches were clearly fruiting ones, while others were “suckers.” How can you tell the difference? I remember asking. He showed me. I vaguely saw what he was describing, but honestly, I was glad I wasn’t in charge of the operation. I remember walking around, trying not to let the mud yank off my oversized boots, gathering up these very straight branches. We piled them into a tarp and pulled them to a dumping area in the corner of the yard. They weren’t burned, as the memorable image in our gospel passage envisions, but they might as well have been—in another yard, they would be. It had become clear to my teen-self that this was not a mere exercise in overweaning control. I knew that come fall, Gramps’ basement pool would be covered in apples, and that bags and bags of pears would result, as they had for decades, from his careful efforts. Pruning is consonant with abiding. It channels the flow of the vine’s, or tree’s, life into its effort to bear fruit. It collaborates in a sense with the flow of the plant.
Flash forward a number of years—maybe fifteen?— the next time I was able to spend time in Gramps’ yard in my late twenties. I walked up to those trees to observe an overwhelming sight. Nets had been thrown over the trees. Pruning seemed to have taken a back seat to the war Gramps had declared at some point in the intervening years on creatures that were eating his fruit before he could pick it – deer, I think, but perhaps also squirrels, and maybe birds? He’d written dramatic, though also self-deprecatingly humorous, letters about it along the way (I still have some of them). He was so mad at the animals for getting his crops. As I recall, he also seemed to know he was probably overreacting with the nets, but he couldn’t quite bring himself to stop. Now I stood there staring at the trees thinking, where to even begin? How could you even get at any fruit, if it were to grow? They were an unwieldy mess. Maybe the trees could be salvaged, I remember thinking, but I wasn’t sure how. It was suddenly clear to me that if pruning was not, in the end, mere control, but a wisely discerned collaboration with the tree’s own life, this netting was not. At some point the scales had tipped and life was being stifled, not cultivated.
“I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly,” Jesus says in one of John’s Good Shepherd passages (10:10). We are called to embrace and cultivate that life. Resurrection life it is, life that bursts the very bonds of death. Unruly and wild is this life, unable to be contained by any of our structures or strictures. Yet we are also called to embrace it in our life and practices. Pruning is not contraindicated. We can never control or even fully predict the flow of God’s loving life as it makes its way in our world. Yet we are called to actively abide in that life, to express it in our love. To abide is to dwell, to remain, indeed to rest in God’s love, to root ourselves in the very source of our life. It strikes me now, decades removed from my formative, if resistant, efforts with my beloved grandfather, that pruning in our lives is meant to identify areas where our efforts may be thwarting or choking the flow of God’s loving life in our midst. Undoubtedly we will discover – perhaps sometimes with humor, as Gramps tried to do – where we have let things get a bit overgrown. Maybe sometimes we will need a little help identifying when that is the case. But if and when we become overwhelmed at the challenge of it all, how to even tell the difference between what is life-giving pruning and what is overzealous control, hear Jesus’ words: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” Already, abundant life is showing us the way. Loving vision is opening up possibility, casting out fear, washing the mud from our clompy boots. Together in this moment, we are invited to accompany one another, to share our wisdom, to lend a hand, to laugh, to learn, to make mistakes, to make new decisions, to step into new chapters. God is glorified in this, “that [we] bear much fruit and become [Jesus’] disciples.”
 Bruno Barnhart, The Good Wine: Reading John from the Center (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1993), 127.