Those of us who manage gardens are aware of the need to prune plants and trees to keep them in shape and to maintain healthy, strong growth. Fruit bearing plants need this particularly if they are to produce a good crop. God knows all about gardening of course, having planted the first garden! He works in our lives to prune and cleanse them, making us fruitful in the service of his kingdom. The process of being pruned is not necessarily very comfortable; it could be very painful. It also continues in every season of our lives; maturity in the faith does not protect us from God’s attention as he helps us to continue to grow well.
The reflection that follows was given at the noon SLT service in the Cathedral on 6 May. The readings were Acts 8:26-end, Psalm 22:25-end, John 15:1-8.
I woke this morning to temperatures below freezing point with ice on our bird bath – no drinks for thirsty birds first thing this morning! It certainly doesn’t feel like Spring if you base your judgement on the early morning temperatures. However, if I look around me I see lots of evidence to say that it is Spring. When the water had melted a young blackbird took a bath – we seem to have so many baby birds being born in our garden. Also, the birds are singing in a different way and VERY early!
Another obvious sign of Spring is all the new growth on the plants. A few weeks ago our loganberry was just a rather sad collection of branches tied to the front wall of our bungalow. I had cut away all the old woody stems and just left the new ones. Now as I look out of my window I see the plant covered in luxuriant leaves. There are so many new stems growing off the ones I tied up that I shall have to spend some time carefully tying them to the supporting wires to protect them from breaking. The blossom is beginning to develop – I saw the first open flower yesterday. I have hopes for lots of fruit later in the year.
The story is much the same for our plum trees in the back garden which I see every day when I wake up. Their blossom has come and gone, lots and lots of it. Now the new leaves are covering the branches. However, I foresee a problem. At the end of last year we pruned the trees to keep them in better shape. For some reason we didn’t finish the job and I now see some very long, thin branches on the tree which will need cutting off. If we were to leave them to develop fruit later they would be too flimsy and would break under the weight. We made that mistake one year and lost many branches and the fruit they carried.
“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower” is the last of Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements which are spread throughout John’s Gospel. The others are:
“I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger.” John 6:35
“I am the light of the world; he who follows me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life.” John 8:12
“I am the gate; if anyone enters through me, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.” John 10:9
“I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.” John 10:11
“I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me shall live even if he dies.” John 11:25
“I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through me.” John 14:6
This final saying portrays Jesus as the true vine. The vine and the vineyard are common pictures of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sadly Israel was unable to fulfil her calling of blessing the world. Jesus on the other hand did exactly as he was called to do and so is the true vine, not just a poor imitation of it.
Pruning is the key point Jesus was talking about to his disciples. Fortunately the vine-grower he talks about is God who is much more thorough than I am, not leaving a job half done! He never gets distracted or too busy to do what needs to be done. God decides what to do on the basis of the potential to produce good fruit. He looks for the branches on the vine which are fruitless and removes them as they cannot contribute to the crop. It might be nice to think he would leave the fruitful branches to grow but Jesus makes it plain that is not the case. The aim is for them to produce even more fruit and the way to do that is to prune the branches. Pruning branches cuts away long, spindly bits leaving stronger more compact branches which are able to produce a large crop without breaking under the strain.
Of course, Jesus isn’t talking about God wandering in some Garden of Eden doing a bit of light pruning to the plants to tidy the place up. Jesus has us in mind when he talks about pruning. I imagine you may have come across the idea that cabbages ‘scream’ when they are pulled out of the ground. I believe their distress was measured by the electricity they produced. I feel quite cruel when I cut parts off my plants and trees. I don’t know if they scream also, but there is no way to hide from the fact that I am inflicting damage on them. Likewise, God’s pruning or cleansing of us (the words are from the same root in Greek) can be painful and unpleasant at the time.
I have often struggled with the verse in Hosea which says “Come let us return to the Lord, for it is he who has torn, and he will heal us.” It seems to suggest that God is an enemy who wishes to damage us, but at least it goes on to talk about healing. I don’t believe God prunes our lives, probably causing pain, while remaining impassive. The very fact that Jesus lived on earth as a human being means he knows how it feels to suffer as a human. God looks towards the result of the pruning and knows it’s for our own good and the good of his kingdom.
Jesus told his disciples that the means of pruning or cleansing is his word. I’m reminded of what the letter to the Hebrews says of God’s word: ‘For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.’ Just as the secateurs I use for pruning are sharp, so is the word as sharp as a sword. The word cuts away thoughts and attitudes that are not worthy of Jesus’ disciples. In doing so, as it is allowed to live in us day after day, the word brings us more and more into the likeness of Christ. There is a mutual indwelling – Jesus in us and us in Jesus – so that whatever we do, whatever fruit we produce, is not done in our own strength and whatever prayers we pray will be in line with God’s will.
A sobering thought is that pruning is not something that is done just once; it happens every season. It is the experience of the young plant and the mature plant. It will be the experience of Christians at every season of their lives. Each pruning has the aim of helping us grow stronger, more vibrant and more fruitful than ever. The ultimate aim is the glory of God. As St Irenaeus said, ‘The glory of God is a human being fully alive.’
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor