Sloppy Pruning

John 15:1-8

Let me begin today by saying I’m glad I’m still new here.

I’m glad I’m still new here at St. Paul’s because this means I don’t really know you very well yet.  And that, you see, is a sort of protection for me; because today’s passage is a bit of a doozy.

Today’s passage from the Gospel of John says that we’re all branches; and that some branches have been cut off from the true vine that is Christ; and others will be pruned and cut by the vinegrower—by God the Father—himself.

In other words, there’s an element of judgment attached to today’s passage.  And if I, as your preacher today, bring this judgment to light—if I bring up specific attitudes or actions that might suggest God’s judgment—specific attitudes or actions you might practice—then I run the risk of stepping on your toes.

But I’m new here.  So, if I happen to bring up something that makes you a little squeamish, some attitude or action that you’ve had or done before, or that you might even be practicing now, remember, I’m not singling you out.  I don’t know you well enough yet to single you out.  I’m new here.

In other words, I can get away with saying a few things today I won’t be able to say later on, like a year from now.

Okay, then, now that I’ve got that off my chest, there’s this list of grievances I’ve brought with me today handed to me by the interim rector.  Names have been omitted from the list, he assures me, but. . . .

All right; just kidding!  I know it doesn’t really work that way.

But we do see another rich metaphor today in John’s Gospel, as we did last week; a metaphor pregnant with suggestion.  So there’s a chance that all of us will indeed see some of our own attitudes or actions in this passage.  It just might get a little uncomfortable, like being pruned—just warning you.

“I am the true vine,” Jesus says, “and my Father is the vinegrower . . . I am the true vine, and you are the branches.”

Do you remember the story from the Gospel of John about the man born blind?

Jesus is walking along the road with his disciples.  They see a man blind from birth; and the disciples ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus says, no, you’ve got it all wrong.  And to show them, he stoops down, spits on the ground, makes a little mud, spreads the mud on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go to the Pool of Siloam and wash.  Once he does, he comes back seeing.  Incredible!

That’s the part of the story we usually remember anyway.  But there’s a lot more to it.

Next, some of the man’s neighbors see him walking around with his sight restored.  So, naturally enough, they ask him, “What happened?  How is it that you now see?”

So he explains that this man named Jesus made some mud, put it on my eyes, and told me to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.

Well, in disbelief, the neighbors bring the man before the Jewish synagogue leaders, a. k. a. the Pharisees.  And after he tells them his story, curiously, the Pharisees are divided.

It happened on the Sabbath.  So some of the Pharisees say, “This man Jesus cannot be of God, for he healed on the Sabbath.”  Yet other Pharisees say, “How can a man who is a sinner perform signs?”

The Pharisees go to the man’s parents.  “Is this your son?” they ask.  Yes.  “Was he born blind?” they ask.  Yes.  “Do you know that he can see now?” they ask.  No.

“Well, you should.  How is it that he can now see?” they ask.

“We don’t know,” the parents answer.  “But he is of age.  Why don’t you ask him yourselves?”

Do you remember what the Gospel tells us next?  It tells us why the parents say this.  Suddenly we are removed the drama of the moment and get a view from 10,000 feet up.

This should grab our attention.  This is a very important detail we need to consider closely.

So, what does the Gospel say?  “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.”

Followers of Jesus were to be cut off from the synagogue: excommunicated.

By the time the Gospel of John was written, followers of Christ were no longer viewed as a Jewish sect.  This is not the same impression we get from the other three Gospels.  In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, there are some unkind Jewish leaders who confront Jesus and his disciples, sure!  But the followers of Jesus are everywhere assumed to be a Jewish sect, something like a denomination.  But by the time John is written—in the early second century—Christianity is no longer a sect but a separate religion, distinct from Judaism.

To finish the story, then, the Pharisees call forward the man born blind a second time.  Now they charge him with a solemn oath to give glory to God and tell the truth!  “We know this man is a sinner!” they exclaim.

“Whether he’s a sinner or not,” the man replies, “I don’t know.  But one thing I do know: I was blind, but now I see.”

The exchange lasts a little longer.  But to cut to the chase, the story ends with these telling words: “And they drove him out.”  The Pharisees drove the healed man out of the synagogue because he trusted in Jesus.  Which is as much as to say the Pharisees cut him off from their community’s source of life, the synagogue, a branch of the vine Israel.

Yeah, the vine Israel.

Israel is often described as a vine in the Old Testament.  For instance:

Psalm 80 says: “O LORD God of hosts . . . you brought a vine out of Egypt, you drove out the nations and planted it.  You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.”

Isaiah 5 begins: “Let me sing for my beloved a love-song concerning his vineyard: My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill.”

Ezekiel 19 says: “Your mother was like a vine in a vineyard transplanted by the water, fruitful and full of branches from abundant water.”

No doubt this metaphor of a vine was quite familiar to John’s audience.

John’s audience—those to whom John had initially written his Gospel—like the man born blind, had been cut off from the vine Israel.  And the reason they had been cut off was because they trusted in Jesus as their Messiah.

But even more profoundly, the vine Israel had cut off Jesus himself.  Or, maybe a better way to put it, Israel had cut itself off from Jesus.

Do you see what John does here?  Jesus is the true vine, John says.  He, not Israel, is the true source of life.

Contrary to what the synagogue leaders had intended—to cut off Jesus’s followers from their source of life, the vine Israel—they had actually cut themselves off from Christ, the true source of life.  Followers of Jesus are the alive ones in this story; whereas the members of the synagogue are the ones cut off from the vine, left to languish, wither, dry up, and die apart from the true vine.

And—here’s the gut-wrencher for me—they did it to themselves!  God didn’t cut them off.  God can’t be blamed here.  They did it to themselves.  They cut themselves off from Jesus.

Leading me to wonder: do we cut ourselves off from Jesus?

The Pharisees were divided, remember.  They were praying, reading, and otherwise seeking to interpret their scriptures; but it wasn’t altogether clear to them whether Jesus was the true Messiah or not.  They had to use their heads.  Eventually they made a decision—the wrong decision, we know today—to cut off Jesus.

But, at the time, they didn’t think they were wrong.

Do we do the same thing today?  As a community of Christians, the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are our authority.  But they’re not always cut and dry.  We wrestle over how best to interpret them for today’s context.  And when we reach conclusions, we don’t always agree with each other—or with others who are a part of the wider church.  We think we’re right—oh yeah!  But, like those Pharisees, what if we’re not?

From today’s discussion, three ways surface in which we Christians can do just this: we can actually cut ourselves off from Christ without knowing it.

The first seems obvious to me; I hope it seems so to you as well.  It’s what the Pharisees did to the man born blind and to all the others in their community who trusted in Jesus.  They excluded them.  They ostracized them.  They colluded against them.  They formed an “in” group—a clique—and wouldn’t let the Christians be a part of it.

God help us when we do the same!  When we exclude others we cut ourselves off from Christ.

Second, we value independence highly in our culture.  And rightly so!  The self-sufficient person is not needy; does not take from others, from society.  Wouldn’t the world be a better place if everyone were self-sufficient?

But this vine metaphor is not about self-sufficiency.  In fact, the person who wants to live a life alone—alone from others, alone from Christ—will languish, dry up, and wither away.

Instead, it’s about community.  We are many branches emanating from the same vine, the true vine.  And our purpose is singular: to produce the richest and most abundant fruit for God, our vinegrower.  We strive together in Christ for the same goal.

But when we value our independence so much that community is compromised, we cut ourselves off from Jesus, our true source of life.

And third, we don’t want to be pruned.  God comes at us with his knife.  The vinegrower carefully examines each and every branch.  When he spots an unproductive shoot or a mediocre baby bunch of grapes growing from a branch, he cuts it off.  And it hurts!

“Ouch!” we say; “I don’t want God inflicting pain on me!”

We don’t like pruning—trials, tribulations, hardships; big pruning like facing cancer; but small pruning too like annoying coworkers, whining family members, etc.  So we’d rather cut ourselves off from the vine entirely than endure the vinegrower’s knife.

Yet the vinegrower’s intention is to make us better, more productive, and more mature followers of Christ through his pruning.

And remember this: the vinegrower is never closer to the individual branch than when he is pruning it with his knife.

But we’d rather be in control—that independence again!  We don’t want to let God prune us; we don’t want to rest in the unresolved tension of cancer or an annoying coworker.  We would rather prune ourselves.

So we do!  All too often anyway!  We take matters into our own hands.

But we’re sloppy.  Our cuts are crude and harsh; and—what happens?—we don’t mean to but we end up cutting ourselves too deeply, cutting ourselves off completely, to languish, dry up, and wither away apart from Jesus.

Do you see?  The message here is really quite simple: Don’t try to do the pruning yourself.

You’ll cut others off; you’ll cut yourself off from others; and you’ll cut yourself off from Jesus Christ, the true vine.

Spiritual pruning is best left to the vinegrower.

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