This morning, we have a different agricultural image to consider. Last week, it was sheep farming; this week, it’s vine growing, which is somewhat more familiar to us, here in this part of the country. In today’s metaphor, Jesus says that he is the vine and his disciples are the branches, and by extension so are we, who have been brought to life by him.
One way to read the gospel passage we heard this morning is as a primer in maximizing productivity. Bear fruit, and as much as possible, or you’re in trouble. The language about unproductive branches being removed and used as firewood is unnerving. Even the branches that do produce fruit are put through a painful-sounding process of pruning to increase their yield.
There is another way of reading the passage, though. I’m told that the word the NRSV translates as “removes” in referring to branches that bear no fruit could perhaps better be translated to say that the fruitless branches are lifted and propped up, trained and tended, so that they can bear fruit in the following season. Similarly, the word for “pruned” in the original language could also be translated “cleansed”, so less about cutting and more about washing, at least when the metaphor is applied to people.
Maria Boulding, in Gateway to Hope, says the following:
“Though God is an almighty lover, he can find himself shut out, and he longs to find an open door of vulnerability in us. It is extraordinarily hard for us to realize this, conditioned as we are by a secular ethic of success and a religious ideal of moral perfection which may owe little to the gospel. God calls us, implants his life in the deepest centre of our being at baptism, and loves us into growth. [God] does not propose to us some lofty, rigid ideal to which we must attain by our own unaided human resources. We are more sinful than we know, more deeply flawed than we can recognize by any human insight; but grace works in us in the deepest places of body and spirit. … When we can stand before God in the truth of our need, acknowledging our sinfulness and bankruptcy, then we can celebrate his mercy. Then we are living by grace, and we can allow full scope to [God’s] joy.”
God loves us into growth. If we can apply the image from the gospel to the epistle reading, then the life-giving sap which flows from the vine into the branches is God’s love for us and for the world. God will do all that can be done to clear away the blockages and distractions within and between all of us that can prevent us from receiving God’s love and sharing it with one another and with the world around us.
No one has ever seen God. We who have in some way experienced God’s love in our own lives are expected to make that love visible to the world. One of the most powerful ways this can happen is when the communities we live in become communities of mutual love, witnessing by our lives together to the presence of a loving God in the world.
This world is wounded and hurting, and too often so are we, and there is much that can produce fear in us, fear that can express itself in frustration, suspicion, anger and sometimes even hatred of those who are different from us, that can separate us and cripple our lives together. If we can allow God’s Spirit within us and among us to free us from such fear, then God’s love can flow into and reach through us, gathering us all into one.
The fruits of such spiritual invigoration, as we learn to embrace and perhaps even enjoy one another’s differences, are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Not only is there “no law against such things”, as St Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, the world can never have too much of them. These fruits are not the product of our own efforts, but rather the inevitable result of an openness to the abiding, transforming presence of Jesus through his Spirit within us and in our communities.
Philip the Evangelist, in the reading we heard from Acts, was formed in such a community of love. He was one of the seven who had been commissioned to bridge the divide between growing factions in the early church. While we might initially be struck by the supernatural leading and empowering of Philip by God’s Spirit, I think there is perhaps something even more significant to consider. The Ethiopian eunuch would have been very different from those in Philip’s natural community, and he and Philip are encountering one another in a desolate place. However, Philip has become supple under the direction of the Spirit, and so is able to respond generously to the eunuch’s invitation to accompany him into more of life.
Isaac Villegas, writing in the Christian Century, says, “The gospel of Christ’s peace happens in our touch, in which gentleness is made flesh. To trust in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe in the transfiguration of all flesh, to believe that God comes to us in our encounter with the other.”
To return to the imagery used by Jesus, Villegas also says: “I want a world transfigured with Christ’s peace, with resurrection pulsing through our bodies.”