– from the song Bird On A Wire, by Leonard Cohen
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit. – John 15:1-2
It is the night before Jesus would suffer and die. Jesus is summing up his teaching, his mission and his very being for his disciples before it all happens. This he does by washing their feet and giving them a new Passover ritual to celebrate – the Eucharist. Then, Jesus leaves his disciples an image of who they are in relation to him. He is the vine, they are the branches. They will live and bear fruit only when they are attached to him. The Father is the vine grower. He prunes the branches so that they will bear more fruit. How does this pruning happen? What will be its fruit?
No matter who we are, we share the same basic calling – to repent and believe in the Gospel. This means a change in our typical way of seeing and thinking. We respond to Christ’s offer of grace and salvation by turning ourselves over to him, knowing that he will mold and shape us into his image. We believe that Christ’s life of self-emptying love is who God is, and who and what we are intended to be. Christ will refashion us according to the pattern of his life, ordinarily, through our being branches on the vine that is him. Or, in the image of Saint Paul, to be members of his Body. It is only by being branches on the vine which is Christ that we can be pruned and can bear more fruit.
Notice what happens with Saul – who will eventually be known as Paul – in the first reading. He has encountered the Risen Lord Jesus on the way to Damascus. He has chosen to believe that Jesus is truly not only the promised Messiah, but also the Son of God. But, Saul instinctively knows that he can’t live this new life totally on his own. He goes to Jerusalem, to seek out those who were believers and apostles, and to establish a connection with them. A new branch has been grafted onto the vine. Saul seeks to be connected to the vine and all its other branches.
Now, by any usual standard, Saul was quite the “catch” for the early Church. Saul, a vehement persecutor on Christians, was now just as powerfully proclaiming the Lordship of Jesus. But, there was more. Saul was quite well-educated in both Jewish and Greco-Roman ways. he later told the Corinthians of how he had been a young Pharisee, eager to know and live out all the traditions of his ancestors as well as, if not better than, anyone else. By all accounts, he succeeded. He was a social media star of his day, an “alpha male”. He and his buddies were instrumental in the lynching of that heretic Stephen (heretic, in Saul’s old way of thinking). Now, he was joining a group he hated and derided. He was becoming a Christian. They should be ecstatic that he was joining them – or so he may have thought!
But it was precisely in becoming a Christian that Saul’s pruning would begin. The Church of Jerusalem didn’t exactly “like” him immediately. Some Christians feared that Saul’s ‘conversion’ was some kind of trick meant to fool them, so that he could find and arrest them all. For the rest of his life, as Paul, Saul would be confronted by other Christians who never fully accepted him as legit, and who often went to places where he had just preached and founded a community – and then undermined him and all he had said and done. Saul’s old Hellenist buddies now saw him as the worst kind of traitor and wanted to kill him.
In other words, Saul’s pruning had begun. He would soon learn that to follow Jesus meant that he had to un-learn his usual self-assertiveness, his need to be the star, and begin to learn what self-emptying was all about. His old self had to die, so that the life of Christ could enter his heart and transform him into the Paul we now know so well through his letters. Indeed, Paul’s ministry could not have borne the fruit it did if he relied only on his own abilities. By being pruned of this reliance, Paul was now open to the power of the Lord now flowing in and through him. Because of this, Paul’s work did bear great fruit .Over and over again in his letters, Paul speaks about his need to die to self, to be crucified with Christ, so that the life of the Risen Christ might also be in him.
We, too, are branches on the vine of Christ. We, too, need pruning in order to bear more fruit. In fact, we are already being pruned, according to the words of Jesus, simply by being branches on the vine. We may not recognize it as pruning, or not right away.
How can we see the pruning that is happening for what it is? First of all, we need to be in the habit of honestly looking at ourselves. We are grateful for the gifts we find, and pray for the wisdom to use them well, in a way that will glorify God. We also see the weaknesses in us, the tendency to self-centeredness, the occasional willingness to hurt someone else if we think we can get something out of it. We see past hurts, fears, guilt, anger, anxieties. We remember people who demeaned us in some way, who abused us or shamed us, and we may feel that we somehow deserved it. The Lord will prune any or all of these things he may find in us, so that they will not be obstacles to his grace, but rather become windows through which his mercy may shine in and through us.
Sometimes, the pruning may take the form of cutting back, giving up, or simplifying in some way. We may find that we are too attached to our status, or some of our stuff, or to being liked or respected. The Lord will prune away the excessive attachments, so that we can receive these things once again, but now knowing them to be gifts of the Lord, to be welcomed, loved, and shared with gratitude.
Sometimes, the pruning may take the form of being given an abundance of something. This may seem strange to our usual ways of seeing. Think of someone who is self-disciplined by nature. Someone who might take some pride in being able to live on less: the person who is a cactus and life is its water. This person takes pride in not needing much. However, asceticism – doing without – is not an end in itself. It is meant to open ourselves to the overflowing abundance that the Lord wants to give each of us. For such a person, being invited to accept an abundance of something – far more than that person thinks he/she needs – is an act of pruning. These people are now invited to rely not on their ability to do without, but on God’s ability to give them more than they ever imagined they needed. They will then see that God knows their needs better than they did, and will be able to humbly thank God for such mercy.
Let us trust, then, in God, the great Gardener. He knows what we need in order to flourish and bear fruit. He prunes us – sometimes in ways we expect, sometimes in surprising and confusing ways – so that we will bear great fruit. Some of us need to ask for less, like the beggar in our opening quote, in order to have room for the Lord’s mercy. Others need to ask for more, like the young woman in our quote, so that they can experience the fullness of God’s mercy and witness to it..
Dear Lord, we are your branches. Prune away!