On 3rd May, the fifth Sunday of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Psalm 22:25-end, Acts 8:26-end and John 15:1-8.
As I sit in my study I can look out of the window and see a loganberry plant. If you have not come across a loganberry, it is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry or bramble. The fruit are big and a very dark red in colour. The growing habit of a loganberry is like that of a blackberry – it develops long branches which need training along some support.
This loganberry plant is important to me as it is the offspring of a plant that grew in the garden of my childhood home and was given to me by my father. I therefore do my best to take good care of it. Once fruiting is completed I cut out the branches that have borne the fruit. By the time they are cut out they have turned from quite flexible green stems into stiff woody stems. Once they are lying in a big heap on the ground I can then begin to deal with the new growth which has already begun. The task is to train the new stems along the supporting wires and hold them gently in place so that they are reasonably well spread out. By the time we get to this time of the year, those new stems are long and full of little branches, leaves and flower buds. A few of the flowers are already open so I expect to see the bees busy around them soon. Later in the summer there will be fruit once more.
In the Gospel passage it is vines, not loganberries, which Jesus refers to. I don’t think there would have been any loganberries in Israel at that time. Vines, however, would be all over the place, part of the everyday life of Jesus’ listeners. No doubt many people had seen vines being pruned or had done the job themselves. They could picture what Jesus was talking about.
Having looked at pictures of newly pruned vines, they look much worse off than my pruned loganberries. They are just the central trunk, with perhaps a couple of largish branches and a few buds. From this, if it’s done correctly, will come luxurious growth and succulent bunches of grapes for eating and for making wine.
The vine and vineyard are pictures of the nation of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures. That vine was supposed to bear fruit, the fruit of being a blessing to the world. Sadly Israel was not able to do what she was called to do. Hence Jesus calls himself the ‘true vine’, true to his calling, bearing fruit as God intended him to do, blessing others by his life and fruitfulness.
Jesus is not just the vine and that’s it. He is like the central trunk up which flow nutrients and water to allow the vine to flourish. However, without branches, there would be very little to see. The branches are essential to complete the fruitfulness and those branches are us! The central trunk of the vine could continue to live without much in the way of branches, but the branches need to be attached to the trunk or they will die. However, being attached to the trunk and growing is not enough. Jesus is interested in how the branches grow, what kind of life we live. It’s possible for vines to grow in a riotous way but produce a lot of leaves and little fruit. That’s not what Jesus wants.
The key point for Jesus is pruning. It’s an expert job which God the Father does for those branches which are attached to the true vine, Jesus. God is not prepared to let the branches head off in any direction or to grow lots of the wrong stuff. Jesus indicates what the divine vine grower does to ensure he gets the crop he wants. Branches that are fruitless are cut out and burnt. Even the fruitful branches don’t escape his attention. 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.
Jesus was talking to his disciples. You could say that they had already had parts of their lives cut away. They had left homes, jobs and family to embark on a risky venture with an itinerant rabbi who was loved by the people and hunted by the authorities. Jesus was preparing them for the time when he would not be around. There would be a lot more pruning to prepare them for the huge amount of fruitfulness that would be needed as they became the Church. The word Jesus used for pruning in the original Greek is one which is very close in meaning to ‘cleansing’ which Jesus uses also. Pruning is designed to take away rotten or dirty bits in the disciples’ lives and leave them clean. The chances are that it felt painful to the disciples and that it will feel painful to us when it happens.
Jesus explained to the disciples that God’s pruning would happen through his word. In the letter to the Hebrews God’s word is described in this way: ‘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.’ The word cuts away thoughts and attitudes that are not worthy of Jesus’ disciples. It achieves transformation in Jesus’ disciples so that they become more and more like him. It means they are also in tune with him.
I suspect it was because Philip was connected securely to Jesus through his experience of following him during his lifetime, and through his connection to other followers in the new Church, that he was able to respond to God’s urging and join the Ethiopian man. Philip did not see the man after that incident as far as we know, but the Good News travelled on to the court of Queen Candace as the result of that encounter. I have no doubt Philip’s obedience to God’s word bore fruit in Ethiopia.
I know from conversations here on Epiphany Island that many of our community have encounters with people in different parts of SL. Sometimes they speak to those they meet about God. They, like Philip, are bearing fruit as a result of being pruned by God’s word, read, listened to and discussed here and in other online and offline churches.
It’s a sobering thought that vines (and loganberries) are pruned each year. Both the young plant and the mature plant experience pruning. Pruning will happen to Christians at all stages of their lives. God does not prune in order to cause pain. He prunes to help us grow stronger, more vibrant and more fruitful than ever. The ultimate aim is that we glorify God. As Jesus said: ‘My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.’ I pray that each of us might be able to keep that ultimate aim in mind when the pain of pruning takes place for us.