Each year I am freshly amazed at the way my husband takes his pruning shears to our trees and bushes with great gusto to cut away the dead wood and some of the growing branches, to allow greater growth with flowers and fruit in the new season. I know why he does it, but I am always surprised at the extent and impact of this work. I am no gardener and have to trust his judgement that he knows what he’s doing.
Similarly, I’d like to reflect with you on the word ‘abide’ which is used both in the gospel John 15:1-8 l and in 1 John 4:7-21 and our willingness to trust God we think about the act of pruning.
In our world today, what do we know or recognise about the word ‘abide’?. We commonly use it to refer to laws, rules and traditions. We ‘abide by the laws of the land, we abide in the Protestant Anglican tradition. To abide, for most of us, means to obey by staying within an established system, limiting ourselves and being limited.
Jesus helps us to see the word differently. ‘Abide’ for Jesus, means to endure, dwell, or be present in loving, ‘heart abiding’. He is not saying ‘abide – or else’. There are no threats or consequences to coerce us into staying close. Rather Jesus is offering comfort and a relational environment in which we as disciples can thrive and flourish as branches on the vine.
If we misunderstand this, we might end up thinking some of us may be branches not bearing fruit who will be cut away and cast into the fire. We think abiding is only about bearing fruit. If we can’t see our lives being productive in this way, we imagine we have failed and we will be pruned. However, this is not what Jesus means.
There is advice here for those who are truly dead to the gardener’s labours. However, the rest of us listen hard to Jesus, and by that very act alone, we are connected to the vine of Christ, despite moments of doubt and fear about our faith, and we need to be comforted.
Jesus tells us we will be cared for and nurtured, by a God who knows how to develop each and every one of us, who knows exactly when to prune, when to wait and when to harvest. The skilled gardener, the vine-grower knows the difference between a dormant plant which needs extra care and attention and a dead one. Those of us who have borne fruit, will do so again in God’s own time. Our job is to trust and abide.
As Jesus prepares to die, the night before his arrest as he talks to his disciples during their last meal together, he prepares his disciples for the time when he will no longer physically be with them. ‘Abide’ he counsels. Remain with me, as I remain with you. Continue with me, as I continue with you. Dwell with me, as I dwell with you. Endure with me as I endure with you. Be present with me as I am present with you in love.
This was Jesus’ chance to say at the last supper, ‘when I am gone, don’t forget to talk about me, do the things we did together, healing, serving the poor, and spreading the good news. Jesus’ final words aren’t simply a to-do list, though. Instead, he says, ‘abide’. Stay, be present, remain, dwell, endure, be patient, love. Abiding has to do with seeing, hearing, serving with deeds of love for others.
And this cannot be done on our own, autonomously. Our temptation is always to be busy, be proving our worth, thinking and working on the to-do list as though God can’t manage without us. We think we have to earn our way into heaven by proving our love, our worthiness and showing ourselves in the best light.
Jesus says, again and again: ‘Abide’. Not because the kingdom work is finished, not because everyone knows I am the way, the truth and the life; not because there is nothing else you could be doing – but because abiding is the best thing for your relationship with me. This is profoundly wise and generous. It shows us our priorities and the proper balance we need in our lives and relationship with God.
No matter how tempted we are to be busy for God, Jesus calls us to reject the idea constant activity gives us significance and importance. Jesus invites us to recognise both our salvation and position in Christ are a gift from God, cultivated and nurtured by the vine-grower, and absolutely not the result of our own work. The branches do not bear fruit apart from the vine and vine-grower. We do not live without them.
We are not the authors of our lives and ministries. We do not own our successes or failures. We are not responsible for knowing how everything is going to work out in the end. We are called first and last, simply to ‘abide’.
And in abiding, we recognise through prayer and reflection, Christ’s community is shaped by hardship as well as joy. This community is the basis for all that can and should be done in the name of Christ.
To be a member of the community, John reminds us we should expect to be pruned.
God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit (15:2).
The difference in being outside of the community, is not the experience of pain because of exclusion or joy due to inclusion; rather, whether you believe or not, you are going to be pruned by God.
As Christ’s followers this means living in God’s promises will include times when we experience the cutting away of what might have seemed to us to have been vital. Pruning involves taking off not only dead, lifeless branches but also those stems that still have life but may be inhibiting the overall strength and production of the larger vine and the branch.
It’s worth thinking about what conclusions we draw from this reflection. Very often, it is taken as a universal interpretation of ‘theodicy’, that is, the belief that suffering brings growth, or worse, God makes suffering necessary for growth. And that is not true.
We are dealing with a metaphor here, trying to make sense of the historical experience of suffering as a follower of Christ.
The Gospel writer is challenged by the idea of how can it be God allows the faithful to suffer? The answer is it must be willed by God for the benefit of God’s people. This is the meaning the Gospel writer gives to the experiences of rejection suffered by the disciples.
The meaning the writer makes MUST NOT automatically be translated into a universal theological intent. That is, the meaning we make of difficult situations is simply the meaning WE make at a given time in our lives.
Conflating OUR meaning-making with God’s intent runs the risk of idolatry. We can see the implications of such understanding when we hear grieving parents of a murdered child, or someone with a disabling condition or dying young, saying this must be God’s will. Making sense or meaning of the situation, does not mean God is the cause.
What it means in practice is when we face the suffering of others, we must not impose our interpretations of their lives onto their experiences especially with the name of God attached. Suffering happens. God abides.
Then in 15:5, Jesus says, “apart from me you can do nothing”. This call from Christ is both a caution and a promise. It reminds us all Christ’s mission should always be the reality shaping us. No matter what pressures the world exerts, we should remain faithful to Christ. In such faith, we will never be alone in dealing with whatever comes. Christ is always there as the foundation in our lives. Christ abides. It is an extension of the misseo dei, the mission of God and we are never an independent entity.
We are one church, and we are not on our own. Whatever we accomplish as members of the church, depends on it being done together, and such accomplishments are possible only by the grace of God, the source of our mission and the wellspring of our persistence. Understanding and joyfully accepting our dependence on God always, enables us to keep abiding in Christ, dwelling in Christ, enduring in and with Christ, being present in Christ and loving in Christ. As 1 John wrote:
God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. (4:9).
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (4:16).
The Lord be with you
And also with you