Given by Revd Jan Kearton
The weather has been so cold recently. Too cold for gardening, at least the kind of gardening I like to do. I don’t mind digging when it’s cold, but cutting down the mouldy stems of shrubs that should have been cut down in November whilst the damp and wet drip down the back of your neck is not my idea of fun. But the garden is growing quickly and the old stems have to be cut. If they’re left, botrytis and other horrors will appear on the new growth. I’ve had a stroke of luck though - John was at Carperby on Thursday when the sun was shining and he cut them all down for me, so now I can get on with the weeding that’s needed to give the plants the space, light and nutrients that they need to grow strong and healthy.
In the gospel reading today Jesus speaks about himself as the vine-stem and God the Father as the vine-grower. It’s a powerful image that the medieval church artists loved to paint - Jesus the vine with so many saints and famous Christians as the branches springing off his stem. Being a branch has consequences because the vine-grower is assiduous - he keeps a constant eye on the health of the vine, cutting out branches that don’t fruit and pruning the good growth so that it can produce the best bunches of grapes. The vine-grower is a good gardener and won’t risk leaving the dead or unhealthy growth too long in case the branch becomes infected, infects others, or dies back. November’s work is firmly accomplished before December begins.
By pruning the branches, the vine-grower keeps a healthy connection between the branches and the stem, their only source of nourishment and life. As I know only too well from Pepper’s hasty scampering among my shrubs, branches that break, that separate from the main plant, die. A good vine-grower burns all that he prunes so that the plant is kept clear of pests and diseases.
The reading from Acts reminds us that we’re joined into the vine by baptism, or as the Letter to John reminds us, by a confession that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, which in baptism is in the form of the Apostles’ Creed. Our baptism makes us branches and gives us the potential to continue to be, but we have to allow our faith to be nourished by regular contact with God the Father through Jesus his Son.
Christians subject themselves to pruning as they offer themselves in prayer to God the Father in the power of the Spirit and through Jesus Christ. In the quiet and stillness of prayer, God shows us the ways in which we’re in danger of living without his help and guidance, of separating from the vine, and the ways in which we’ve fallen short of his longings for us and others. As the Book of Common Prayer puts it ‘we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own heart. We have offended against thy holy laws. We have left undone those things which we ought to have done and we have done those things which we ought not to have done and there is no health in us’. Fortunately for us, God graciously agrees to prune out our unhealthy growth, to cut us back to clean, good growth and to give us the best chance of becoming fruitful.
This gospel reading can be frightening but the Letter of John reminds us that we’re not to fear God’s attention, God’s judgment - pruning isn’t punishment, its love in action. As we learn to love God more we must learn to let go of the thought of pruning as correction and learn to see it as a necessary stage towards perfection. When know this we’ll understand that perfect love casts out fear.
Jesus is quite clear that his followers have already been cleaned and tidied up by his teaching, but he knows that we’re still vulnerable. If we loose our connection to him, if we let our faith slip away from us by neglecting prayer and discipleship, if we treat our faith as a private matter, free from consequences and divorced from relationship with him and others, we could wither on the vine. We live in an age in which people can be embarrassed by our faith, can feel threatened by our practice of it and can want to ridicule us because of both. As practicing Christians, we can sometimes feel like a minority in our own culture engaged in something that’s not quite PC. Jesus reminds us in the gospel to place a high value on our rooting and grafting into him, to stay close to him as he’s the source of our nurture, life and strength and to find our true community on the vine in the company of the rest of his branches.
Our fruitfulness is important to God. The vine that we’re attached to is rooted in eternal life and its branches stretch back and forward through time. On its branches are many who have gone before us, and many who have yet to come will discover it’s space, light and nourishment. The kingdom of the vine is growing steadily under the Father’s watchful gardening. In an uncertain age, we need to be strongly connected to the guidance and hope that God offers, ready to be tended and pruned so that God’s life can flow strongly in us. May it flow out from us to his needy world so that others too may come to be grafted and rooted into the vine, so that they can know the joy of the eunuch, the confidence of the writer of the Letter of John and the great love of God expressed in Jesus Christ. AMEN.
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