We continue in the time after Easter to discover together how Jesus’ resurrection impacts our life of faith here and now. In John chapter 15 Jesus is speaking before his impending death, and encourages his disciples again and again to remain. Other English translations of this word are abide, dwell, stay. Because Jesus is about to be taken into custody, unfairly tried and killed, they will have many reasons to abandon this whole project of what he has been showing them about God, as indeed most of them will -at least temporarily. He uses language that has a sense of permanence to it, a long-haul vision, to help them hang on through this immediate trial and challenge they will go through as well as any others they would come up against later. Don’t let all of this wither away and crumble to dust, he almost pleads, keep at it. Keep going with this mission of abundant life and loving one another. He says he is the vine and his disciples are the branches, they just need to hang on. In the image of the vine he also speaks of pruning away what is not giving fruit, as well as pruning so that more fruit can come; he speaks of making sure they were bearing fruit to be sure that they were remaining in him.
The reading goes on starting at verse 9 to be a little more direct; Jesus is speaking about love. In case there was any doubt about it; the fruit his disciples (those gathered with him on that night, and us today) are meant to produce is love. Whatever keeps us from loving- loving God, loving our neighbor, loving ourselves, is the dead branch that needs to be pruned. Whatever that might be, is not what remaining in Jesus looks like. Today is a day to do some careful reflection within ourselves as individuals, and as a church. Those gathered here have a coloring page of a vine. I encourage you to look at it, to imagine as we go cutting or growing fruit, perhaps even draw or write on the page as you feel led. Those of you at home might find a paper and pen to doodle a vine or write some thoughts out. The first question for us is, what needs to be pruned?
In other words, what keeps me from loving, from acts of love for others, from heartfelt love of God and myself? Think about this for yourself for a moment. On the song sheet its worded: what needs to be pruned from me or us? You might write or doodle on your vine page.
I came across an account that might help us think about this in a little bit different way than maybe we usually do. Because yes there is sin in us, and we continually want to repent of that sin. But there are ways we might have adopted, even just how we have learned to cope in a sinful, painful world that might be getting in God’s way. Madena Burman, a seminary student, has shared how she came to a pruning moment in a recent commentary. She is Black, but grew up in all-white places, went to white schools and college and married a white man. She came to a point where she poured her heart out to God- saying, I don’t want to be in all-white spaces anymore. She was tired of the ongoing micro aggressions, little comments and looks that continually made her feel judged or less or like she had to defend herself in a racist society. But the very day when she had prayed this prayer, acknowledging to God her desire to change that environment, she heard the testimony of a Black person who was working in a white community with a history of racism, and was trying to bring healing and change in that place. Madena told a small group later that she felt the spirit well up in her, and she thought, she could do that same work; but less than an hour before she had prayed not to be put in exactly that situation. A wise person in her circle said, I don’t think that was the holy spirit, I think that was your trauma speaking.
I’ll now share in Ms. Burman’s own words: “This statement landed in a way that I knew she was right and it has taken me on a journey of discernment regarding my call and my call in relation to trauma. I began realizing that throughout my life, I have consistently chosen places and spaces that were the most difficult and most familiar in regards to previously experienced trauma.
“I was conditioned to believe that the more suffering the opportunity provided, the closer I was to God, not literally of course, but in an over-spiritualized way.
I was conditioned to believe that it was my duty to choose suffering. While it is true, suffering is part of life and is especially true for truth- tellers, I no longer believe that I must choose toxic environments and I don’t think choosing those environments is a self-loving act. It was time to prune that conditioning away and stop letting a trauma response masquerade as the Holy Spirit.”
Do you see how it was a whole understanding of herself and God’s call that needed pruning? What was familiar was also hurting her soul.
Now you might resonate somehow with Ms. Burman’s story, or not. But I think many of us can have some kind of similar experience, where what we have been around and in isn’t healthy, isn’t life-giving for us, but we’ve been in that situation for so long we get it confused with the Spirit’s calling, or what we’re supposed to be. Careful pruning can happen when we try on another perspective, or when we are honest with ourselves. This isn’t something that we can necessarily all come to right now, here today, because the spirit has timing we don’t control. but over time, abiding in Jesus and love, we can have our paradigms change, on what the spirit says, how the spirit works. God never wants us to suffer for suffering’s sake.
Like I said above, Jesus starts making it clear that it’s all about love. It includes love of God and love of neighbor and as Ms. Burman found, love of self as well. Jesus names something else in this passage: he wants us to have JOY. Living with unhealthy expectations does not often bring joy.
Pruning can be hard, but with God as our vine-tender, it will always be for our good.
On the contrary, whatever helps us to love is what is helping us to remain in Jesus. The best fertilizer and nutrient to produce love, is love itself. That is why remaining in Jesus is so important; he is the source of our love.
Pause to reflect a second time: what encourages me in loving ways? What does our fruit look like, how is love made manifest? On the sheet the wording is, What kind of fruit do I/we produce? Take a moment to consider, write or think about it.
Today is Mother’s Day, a day we give thanks for those in whose wombs we grew, the first home we had and our first dwelling place, those who, in the best of situations, loved us well and taught us to love. (This is not always the case so if it was not for you, know that your situation is valid and think instead of someone who has taught you to love well.) In the best of cases, mothers reflect the divine love God has for us and have been our models for living out that love. Whether we had a great mother or not, are mothers or fathers ourselves or not, we all have ways to remain in Jesus and live out his love.
Often we read this passage and it becomes very personal, about each of our own faith journey and connection to God. We do all need that connection, that sense of abiding. But let us not forget that Jesus was not talking to one person that night, he was talking to his disciples as a group. You all- remain in my love, you all, produce fruit, you all, love one another.
We need one another to abide in Jesus. Having one another helps us to better abide in Jesus. Having examples and encouragement and opportunities to practice love is a big part of what Christian community, also known as the church, is for.
What it means specifically to remain in Jesus and what our fruit of love looks like will be different for each of us and different through the changing seasons of our lives. However the traditional ways we have known God are always a good place to start (or come back to): reading God’s word, praying, fellowship with other disciples of Jesus, giving and doing good.
What are the things you do that truly help you to remain in Jesus’ love? Pause and reflect again. How do you dwell in the love of God? What does remaining in Jesus look like for me/us?
Jesus encourages his disciples over and over again here- I have chosen you, I have called you friends, I want you to have joy that is complete. He wants the best for them, and knows that what is best is to stay with the loving community and keep practicing loving one another. He is about to undergo violence and they will be shocked and traumatized by that- he prepares them for that harsh time with these loving words, they don’t need to do a lot, but just hang on to him. A branch on a vine does not need to make a lot of hard decisions. It remains attached to the vine, and naturally the cells multiply and the leaves open and the flowers bloom and when it is time the grapes come.
It is so for us, beloved. We are invited to reflect today; what might need pruning, how we might love better or more deeply, how we can abide and dwell in Jesus’ love well. But so much of this is gift, the love that chooses us and gives everything for our sake. Our life of faith includes careful reflection and adjustments, but almost all of it is freely given.
Today we see Resurrection faith is like being a branch on a vine: life remaining in Jesus, receiving, bearing, and sharing the fruit of love. Jesus wants us to keep at this long-haul project of loving one another and wants to keep being our source and our model of how we live out that love, even through the worst of trials.
Let us abide always in Jesus and bear this fruit of love, Amen.