Many years ago I had a bad experience with pruning. What made it worse, was it wasn't my tree, it was at a place I was working. 'We just need to lop a couple of those over-hanging branches', I suggested – trouble is, when I lopped them off it was obvious I needed to take a bit off on the other side to match. Then it looked ridiculous because the side branches were short but it went straight up in the middle, so I had to get a step-ladder – every attempt to make it look symmetrical meant I had to take a bit more off somewhere else - by the end of the morning the damage was done. All that was left was a couple of bare branches, and a solitary leaf. My boss and I never spoke about that tree ever again – eventually he had it chopped down altogether.
Pruning isn't a job for the faint-hearted. It's a job for realists, for people who know that a living thing needs to be able to direct its energies into areas of new growth, that dead and dying wood needs to be amputated and growth needs to be encouraged in the direction that is going to be most beneficial. It's a job for realists who know what they're doing – you need to be able to look at a plant and see where its energy is being wasted, you need almost to be able to see the currents of life flowing up the trunk and out to the extremities, to be able to visualise how that life can be channelled for the plant's own good and also to suit the purposes of the gardener. It's a job for realists who have empathy and even love for the living thing they are tending – the ability to sense rather than calculate what is going to be for the flourishing of the whole plant.
Actually, Jesus didn't invent the horticultural analogy. All through the Old Testament, God's people are described as a vine planted by God, for example in Psalm 80, that describes Israel as a vine that God has planted and tended, but now has been brutally hacked back by invaders who are helping themselves to its fruit. The image of the vine tells God's people about God's care for them, about their dependence on God, about the need to stay connected with God and in community, but also about their need for accountability. The whole point of a vine is to bear good fruit – our very existence as the vine, and the soil we're planted in and the care we receive are gifts to us from God, but what we produce needs to match the love and the care that God has put into us.
So, this is the first point. This marvellous image suggests to us that we might experience God, the divine energy of life, as something that comes up through the roots, that rises up into us from below – something that flows like groundwater carrying nutrients in the very soil we're planted in. It's an organic image of how our life depends on divine nourishment, an image that probably isn't going to be surprising to gardeners. I guess the way we often imagine our relationship with God is from the top down, as though God's love and blessings are poured down on us from on high – but this image suggests something simpler and more earthy – it's about recognising the ways in which we soak up the nourishment of God's own life through the everyday blessings of ordinary human relationships, through the soil and the water and the sunshine of the world we live in. The sort of spirituality suggested by the image of the vine isn't something rarified or separate from our everyday life, but something that just happens naturally when we attend to what really matters – staying grounded in our relationships with one another and recognising the goodness of the world that God has created.
This earthy analogy of our relationships with God and with each other reminds us that our faith is above all incarnational – that wonderful word that means God's love for us is not just a promise, but grounded in the flesh and blood presence of God's Son and experienced in the concrete circumstances of our daily lives. The way we live our faith also has to be incarnational, not just a set of right beliefs and doctrines, not just rationally known to our minds or felt in our hearts - but woven into the grain of our lives and expressed at the level of everyday reality and human relationships.
And here's the second point that this analogy of the vine makes for us, which is that staying connected to God is part and parcel of staying connected to one another. It's worth digressing at this point, I think, to reflect on the words of the 14th century mystic, Mother Julian of Norwich, whose feast day is observed in the Christian calendar on Tuesday this week. Julian, who lived much of her life enclosed in a tiny cell adjoining her parish church, wrote profoundly about Jesus who she describes as "our true mother, the protector of the love which knows no end … All the love of offering and sacrifice of beloved motherhood are in Christ our Beloved." Julian's words are maybe specially appropriate during the week before Mothers' Day – but the more general point is that it is in our human relationships, in our experience of the love and self-sacrifice that characterise our most intimate human connections, that we come to understand the love of God.
This emphasis on relationship is typical of John's gospel, where the main concern is about how we can be gathered together into the experience of belonging to God and belonging to one another. John calls it 'abiding' – this wonderfully rich word that means living, staying, dwelling – but also suggests something about rest, stability and intimacy. For John, salvation is all about abiding - about the quality of the relationships that make us who we most truly are – the relationship we have with God through God's self-disclosure and commitment to us that we see in Jesus – but also the relationships we have with one another through which we find the security to be ourselves and the courage to grow and explore the world. Our experience of God's grace does depend on our willingness to be dependent on one another, our willingness to care for one another and to work with one another instead of in competition against one another.
But eventually we do need to talk about fruit. Because, when it comes down to it, vines are domesticated plants, the whole idea of a vine is that it bears fruit. I guess most of are thinking about grape vines, but it could be pumpkins, it could be rockmelons or zucchinis – if you've got one in your back yard and it's taking up space without producing anything you're going to pull it out and go down to the supermarket instead. So this image has got a hard edge, it's about accountability. You bear good fruit if you stay connected to the source of nourishment, that's your part of the bargain. God's part of the bargain is to come along from time to time with the secateurs. I don't think the image of fruit is intended to suggest that as Christians we need to produce some sort of tangible output that you can measure – the fruit of a life grounded in God's love and connected in community is most obviously the fruit of love and service. Other more tangible fruit might also result from that – you might be a great evangelist or a tireless worker in the parish kitchen but I suspect that isn't the main point.
I guess one of the ways this passage has been read has been to assume that if we're all branches, then it's the good branches that the pruner is going to bypass, the good branches that escape the pruner's saw while the non-productive branches get lopped off. In which case the trick is not to get pruned. You might find yourself thinking of John the Baptist, and his scary warning about the axe at the root of the trees. Stay connected or you'll get chopped off and thrown into the fire. This is an interpretation that is still especially popular among Christians who are most concerned about what you have to do to go to heaven, how are you going to make sure you don't end up in the other place. Are you in or are you out? Are you still connected to the vine, or have you been pruned and chucked on the bonfire?
But there's another way of hearing this, especially if we remember that it's also the healthy branches that get pruned. Because, unlike my clumsy attempts, pruning is a gentle art, and a loving exercise – you try to see what the plant needs, how it needs to be encouraged in this direction, how it needs to be relieved of having to put all its energy into excess growth. We all do get pruned, in our lives, don't we? And often what we notice at the time is the hardness and the sharpness of the secateurs that cut us off from some possibilities, that limit our growth in some directions – and maybe we don't notice till a long time afterwards that – actually it was the pruning that made it possible for us to thrive in ways that might not have been possible otherwise. You might reflect on the times in your life that the Divine Pruner has lovingly shaped you, and cut away what was not life-giving, letting the sunshine get to where it was most needed. You might also reflect on what in your life still needs to be pruned, where you still need to invite the Gardener to cut away what isn't being fed and nourished by the life-giving sap of the Holy Spirit.
To be the Church, we need to recognise our dependence on God, and on one another. We need to bear the sort of fruit that God intended us to bear. And we need to open ourselves to the loving care of the One who tends us, and who prunes us to stimulate us into new growth. But the image of the vine reminds us - most particularly – that we need to do it not as individuals – but together.