This morning’s Gospel reading is John 15:1–8:
Jesus said to his disciples:
“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. You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you. Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me will be thrown out like a branch and wither; people will gather them and throw them into a fire and they will be burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask for whatever you want and it will be done for you. By this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
I’ve never been much of a gardener, despite my parents’ repeated attempts to teach me about the subject. I’ve never enjoyed the work, although I can certainly appreciate the results. My wife, for instance, has a green thumb and makes sure the house has a beautiful display of flowers every spring. We have plants inside the house all year long, and her biggest job is to make sure I don’t accidentally kill them. This week, the plant that usually sits next to me in our family room gave up the ghost, and she’s been looking at me suspiciously ever since.
(I expect that a full CSI: Minnesota or ID Channel episode will shortly be forthcoming. They’ll interview my old friends, who’ll shake their heads into the camera and say, “He seemed like such a nice guy, but we did see him once with a pair of shears, and …” Well, you can imagine the rest.)
In an odd way, though, the metaphor at the heart of Jesus’ Gospel really does speak to me in a particular manner. The vine-and-branches description of salvation is one of the more easily pictured and has been captured in numerous works of art over the last two millennia. One doesn’t need to have a green thumb to love that imagery, perhaps best captured in today’s front-page image of the apse mosaic in the Basilica of San Clemente in Rome. It depicts how not only salvation comes from Christ crucified as the vine, but all of creation. It connects each of us to everyone and everything else, making us an integral part of the whole as well as the focus of the Lord’s blessings and abundance. The cross sits at the heart of all, the one sacrifice by which all of creation is lifted up, linked, and lives.
However, Jesus also makes it clear in His metaphor that this is not an accident or something that just happens naturally, at least not when it comes to humankind. One particular statement stands out for both what it includes and what it excludes. “He takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit,” Jesus tells the disciples, “and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.” Jesus then adds, “You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.”
What does it mean to be pruned? That process involves cutting off dead branches that bear no fruit and that sap life from the rest of the plant, channeling energy to the parts that can thrive. That tends to cut against the grain of people who are more interested in a non-interventionist natural state of the world (as well as those of us who don’t like gardening in the first place, to be honest). We look at the world and tell ourselves that trees, bushes, and vines managed to produce fruit without pruning for eons before humans entered into the equation. Why do these now need pruning, cutting off what is a part of the plant, in order to improve?
And in some ways, we like to think the same thing about ourselves. What about ourselves do we want to remove, to cut off? If God loves us, why would we need pruning in the first place? Just like the plants, He made us as we are. Shouldn’t that be enough?
If we want to live our most fruitful lives, the answer is no. We have to shed the parts of ourselves that weigh down the rest of us, those branches that lead us to sin and self-absorption. And first, we have to recognize that which needs to be pruned away. The Word helps us recognize sin and selfishness, and it prunes those from us — a painful process at times, especially when we become so attached to sin that we mistake it for fruitful branches. Formation in Christ’s Word is a pruning, a shedding of attachment to sin and vice so that the energy needed to sustain those addictions can be redirected into God’s work of salvation.
The life of Paul provides us an excellent example of the results of this pruning. As Saul of Tarsus, he persecuted the early Christians as he arrogated to himself the judgment that belonged to the Lord. He led the stoning of St. Stephen, one of the first deacons of the church and one of its first martyrs. The risen Christ then dramatically revealed Himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, stripping from Saul his self-righteousness while revealing to him his sinfulness. Shorn of all his pretenses and blinded by this revelation, the living and fruitful part of Saul begins to thrive and is directed in the service of salvation.
What happens then? Afterr Ananias heals Saul’s sight, Barnabas brings him back to Jerusalem in our first reading, where the apostles don’t trust in his conversion. Saul, now Paul, impresses upon them that his formation is genuine by the fruit of his work in Jerusalem and the energy released by his conversion. After drawing the enmity of the Hellenists, the apostles send Paul out to convert the Gentiles elsewhere, where Paul spreads the vines that emerge from the Cross throughout the region, eventually leading to Rome in parallel with Peter.
It’s amazing what a little pruning can do, especially by the hands of an experienced and loving Gardener. This speaks to the need to form ourselves in love to Christ rather than in isolation to our own notions of “nature” and “perfection.” We cannot see ourselves from a good enough perspective to know what bears fruit and what drains us of our eternal life and spirit. John writes of this in our second reading today, explaining that “God is greater than our hearts and knows everything,” and that the commandments of Christ need to be our guiding light toward allowing that formation to take place.
And his commandment is this: we should believe in the name of his Son, Jesus Christ, and love one another just as he commanded us. Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.
Losing our attachment to sin, to self-righteousness, and to our own stubborn desire to usurp God can certainly be painful. Pruning away years dead branches takes a lot of time and patience as well, but in doing so, we become more ourselves by shedding the carbuncles that blind us. In that new vision, we eventually find that we are not our own vine but part of a whole, connected by Christ to all of our brothers and sisters and to Creation itself.
As for that potted plant, though … no comment.
Update: My apologies — it was Ananias who healed Paul, not Barnabas. Thanks to David L on Facebook for the kind correction. I’ve fixed it above.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.