John 15:1–8 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he is going to cut off. And he prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will bear more fruit.
3“You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4Remain in me, and I am going to remain in you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Likewise, you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5“I am the Vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him is the one who bears much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers. Such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this: that you continue to bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples.”
Pruning is good for roses, vines, and fruit trees. But, most people I know don’t like to be pruned.
Mary was in legal trouble. She had run up some gambling debts and then borrowed from the place where she worked. “Borrowed” – that’s what she called it. The company caught her, and although it didn’t take her to court, it fired her and escorted her to her car.
Mary then sought refuge in the bottle. In fact, she found a lot of refuge in the bottle. Driving after her drinking compounded her difficulties so that she had been arrested twice for driving under the influence. Most recently, she had been arrested for a hit-and-run, during which a child had been seriously injured. From jail, she looked for a lawyer – and a good one.
The lawyer’s visit went well – very well, in fact. He nodded during her story. He asked questions when they needed to be asked. Then he said, “You have the right to an attorney. But, in truth, the best attorney can only do so much. You will probably end up with some jail time. Then, during and after jail, the judge will say you will need to enroll in recovery programs like Gamblers Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous.”
In outrage, Mary shot back, “I need a lawyer, not a lecture.”
Mary is an example that people don’t like to be pruned. People don’t like to be directed, corrected, amended or adjusted. People want to be left alone to do what they want, how they want, when they want, and the way they want. People don't want anybody, God included, to tell them what's wrong with them or how they can be made right.
It's that way today. It will be that way tomorrow. And it was that way at the beginning of time. Way back at the beginning of human history, “God saw all that he had made and it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31). Our first ancestors were given a unique and harmonious relationship with that Maker.
But Adam and Eve didn't like being pruned. They didn't like the one law the Lord had given them – not to eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. God's order seemed too confining, too arbitrary, too illogical, and when you got down to it, just downright wrong for them. They decided they wanted to be free of what they considered to be God's most unreasonable request. They rejected God and embraced evil. At that moment, our ancestors became dead wood. They were good for nothing, other than to be cut off and thrown into the fire.
That’s exactly what Jesus says happens: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit, he is going to cut off. And he prunes every branch that does bear fruit, so that it will bear more fruit. … If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers. Such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
Those who cut themselves off from the Vine of Christ will see their faith wither and dry up. They cannot bear sanctifying fruit because their saving faith is gone. They are spiritually dead. The Gardener will then cut them off to burn them in eternal hellfire.
But cutting off and pruning are two very different things.
The Gardener cuts off unbelievers. They are dead and worthless. Good for nothing, except the fire. But, He prunes away the unbelieving parts of believers’ lives. They are still alive and valuable. They can still be saved and bear fruit. Two similar, but completely different actions.
The Gardener began His pruning work at the font. It was in those baptismal waters where we were first connected to the Vine of Christ and given life. God broke off our unbelief and instilled faith in our hearts. We were cleansed and forgiven and given the new life of faith in the Spirit. Jesus taught: “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, and I am going to remain in you. A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Likewise, you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
The work only began at the font. That pruning was not very painful. Maybe you cried when the pastor accidently got water in your eyes, but other than that, there was no pain involved in the first pruning from the Master Gardener.
The pruning that God does now as a child, teenager, and as an adult can be painful. He doesn’t do this pruning with water, but with words – the words of His Law. When lustful thoughts enter our mind, God prunes us saying, “Keep the marriage bed pure” (Hebrews 13:4). When gossip rolls of our tongue, God prunes by telling us, “No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (James 3:8). When worry fills our day, God prunes by reminding us, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life” (Matthew 6:27). When feelings overwhelm our faith, God prunes by teaching, “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1).
When this pruning happens to us, we often act like Mary yelling at her lawyer. The pruning is for our benefit spiritually, but it hurts temporally. Our feelings are hurt. Our actions are reprimanded. Our hands are slapped down. We are told, “No. You can’t do that. That’s wrong. That’s sinful. That’s deserving of hell.”
So, we can react negatively to the Gardner’s pruning.
But, this pruning is for our spiritual benefit. God prunes us because He loves us. He does not want us to grow wild and uncontrollably – unable to bear fruit. He cuts away our sinful habits, our wrong priorities, our misplaced values, and our wild growth. We are then born again, resurrected, given new life. And, not just once or twice, but over and over again. Forgiveness follows repentance. Healing follows suffering. Growth follows hardship.
So, He prunes us. He cuts us back to strengthen us, that we might produce fruit, better fruit, much fruit. So, He skillfully cuts away at us with His divine pruning shears of discipline.
As students, He prunes and shapes the attitude we have at home and the words we use at school so that we become teenagers that people actually enjoy being around. He may prune and shape our abilities and desires so that we consider becoming a pastor or teacher that our church body so desperately needs. He may prune and shape our time and abilities so that we become involved in the support and ministries as a lay person that our church so desperately needs.
This pruning that God does on us, is nothing compared to what He did to His own Son. On the cross, Jesus became the One cut off in our place. He took all our sins, all our wildness, all our uncontrollability, all our rebellion, all our withering, all our unfruitfulness upon Himself. The Gardner took the pruning blade of death to Jesus.
The words of Jesus on the cross demonstrate Him being cut off:
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Cut off.
“I thirst.” Cut off.
“It is finished.” Cut off.
“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” Cut off. Dead. Ready to be burned.
Except Christ is not burned. This Vine roars back to life in the resurrection! The fires of hell cannot consume Him – He is victorious over them. The bonds of the grave cannot keep Him – He bursts them. The penalty of sin cannot enslave Him – it has been paid in full. The True Vine was cut off and killed, but it is alive forevermore. This True Vine gives life to you.
But, there is only life if you remain connected to the Vine. “I am the Vine; you are the branches. The one who remains in me and I in him is the one who bears much fruit, because without me you can do nothing. If anyone does not remain in me, he is thrown away like a branch and withers. Such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”
Now that you have been connected to the Vine, you need to remain connected to the Vine. This is why you receive email Bible studies and constant invitations to Bible studies at church and to read all the devotions and articles on social media. These are to connect to the Vine.
This is why the pastor and elders contact you about worship and communion attendance. We don’t want your faith to wither and dry up. We want you connected to the Vine.
This is why we have all the email and bulletin announcements of various spiritual activities. We want you to be active and involved in the ministries of Epiphany, WLS, Shoreland, and the WELS so that you may bear fruits of your faith.
Too often, Christians, our members, us, think that being tacitly connected to the Vine in meager worship attendance is enough. We twiddle our thumbs and do nothing during the week to express our Christian faith at home or work or school. We may be Christian, but we don’t demonstrate our Christianity.
That’s not what Jesus says. He says we are branches connected to the Vine … so that we can bear fruit. That’s the whole point of branches! To bear fruit!
These fruits may not look like much in the eyes of the world, but they are of great value in God’s eyes. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Speaking a word of forgiveness to your child who desperately needs it.
Demonstrating patience with a teacher who has a rough class.
Visiting the lonely because they need a friend.
Praying for those who are hurting, because there is nothing else you can do for them.
Taking every word and action in the kindest possible way.
Not repaying ugly social media comments with uglier social media comments.
Looking for opportunities to get involved in work and ministries in our church and school.
Remain connected to the Vine. You do this with faithful worship in God’s house, receiving the Lord’s Supper, reading personal devotions, sharing family devotions, attending Bible studies, and praying. Life flows through these activities from Christ to you. Then we will not be cut off and thrown into the fire.
But, the goal is not to merely survive being cut off and burned. The goal is that we are so connected to the Vine that we are branches that are abundant with good fruit. Amen.