May 2, 2021; John 15:1-8; 5th Sunday of Easter
In today’s gospel, Jesus says ‘I am the vine, and you are the branches.’ It’s a lovely image, isn’t it? It tells us that we are so close, so intimate with Jesus, that we share his very life, like a branch shares the life of the vine. But before we get too caught up in the beauty of the image, we should address the small issue of pruning. Pruning is when a part of the plant is cut off. Because we are the branches, pruning is when a part of us is cut off. Jesus is very clear that this will happen to us. His father will prune certain parts of our life away.
Pruning can happen in many ways. You might be dating a person that you love and hoping that person will be your partner for life. Then, something changes, and the relationship ends. You are crushed. A person that you loved has been cut off from you. Your son announces that he and his wife and two children are moving to Oregon, for a new job. The job may be great for the family, but it will also severely limit your access to your son and your grandchildren. The time that you wanted to spend with your family has just been pruned away. You might have always been an active person, involved in sports and physical activity. But as you grow older, your body begins to fail. The days of your cross-country running are over. Every month or so, new pains emerge that must be addressed. Many parts of your active lifestyle are being removed.
The experience of pruning is difficult. We do not want to lose parts of our lives that we love. Therefore, it is crucial that we understand what the gospel says pruning is about. We can too easily conclude that pruning happens in our life because of our failures. If I had only adjusted more, if I had only worked harder, if I only would have taken better care of myself, maybe I could have held onto some of these things that are being taken away. But the gospel is quite clear that pruning is not the result of our weakness or failures. Jesus says that his Father will prune every branch that bears fruit, so that it will bear more fruit. Pruning happens because we have been successful, because we have produced fruit, because we are faithful disciples. God prunes us, so that we might have more life.
The challenge of the gospel is to believe that the pruning of our lives is not arbitrary or a form of punishment. Rather it is a sign that God is active, preparing us for something new.
When the person we are dating leaves our life, there is an opening for a new relationship. When our son moves to Oregon, we now have more time to explore activities that we never considered before but could bring us joy. As our body fails and is unable to do the things that it was once able to do, it can be an invitation to spend our energy more on spiritual things that never grow old.
The challenge of today’s gospel is to believe that God is cutting us back, to give us more life. We rise to meet that challenge when we are willing to trust the skill of God’s pruning hands. We were fruitful in the past. We can be fruitful again—in the new and deeper way God’s pruning will allow.