ACTS 9: 26-31; 1JOHN 3:18-24; JN 15: 1-8
“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.”
Today’s gospel is not about plants. It’s about people. It is not about vines. It’s about life. The image of the vine and the branches which Jesus uses in this gospel is a way of saying that we as branches will share in Christ’s very life, the life of the vine. If we abide in him, we will have life to the fullest. Today’s reading calls us to have deep relationship with Christ. Shallow relationships enslave us. Deep relationships set us free. When we are dependent on another person in an artificial or extrinsic way, the relationship we have with that person is limited and often problematic.
A motorist with very poor eyesight was frightened to discover that he had just driven into a dense fog. He began desperately to stay within seeing range of the taillights of the car that was in front of him, trusting he could thereby find his way through the danger. While he was squinting and worrying and staying close so that he could direct his car, the car in front of him came to a sudden stop and the two cars collided. The person who was in the front car walked back and tapped on the man’s window. “What did you think you were doing?” he said. The man, who had been following, didn’t answer the question but posed his own: “Why did you stop so suddenly without warning?” “I had to,” said the first driver, “I just pulled the car into my garage.”
When we are connected to a person in an artificial way, when we depend on someone without knowing where they are going or what their intentions are, the relationship with that person is limited and often problematic. We do not relate in this way to Christ. Through our Baptism, Christ has given us a share of his very life. In today’s Gospel he says that our life and his life are united as a branch is united to the vine. The life of Christ within us allows us to know God’s will. The life of Christ within us allows us to discern the direction of our lives. We are not connected to Christ simply by knowing his teaching. We share his very life. To discern God’s will, we do not have to follow Christ slavishly as a motorist follows the taillights in a fog. The very life of Christ within us gives us direction in facing challenges of life. Our connection to Christ is deep enough to give us the freedom to live.
“Remain in me as I remain in you.” Now this is a very positive and exciting image, and yet there is one line in today’s gospel that can stop us short and perhaps even frighten us. The line is this: Father, “takes away every branch in me that does not bear fruit, and every one that does he prunes so that it bears more fruit.”
That line tells us that we who are Disciples of Christ must expect to be pruned by God, that something which belongs to us might indeed be cut off or taken away. This can frighten us, because as much as we want life, as much as we desire to abide in Christ, we do not want to lose anything that belongs to us. We do not want something which is ours to be cut off. Yet, it is central to the teaching of Jesus that this kind of pruning is at times necessary.
A man approached his pastor and said, “My wife is divorcing me.” —“All my life,” he said, “I dreamed of a perfect marriage. I dreamed of someone who would share their life with me for as long as I lived. I wanted a relationship around which we could build a family. It is so difficult to let that dream die.”
We hope for the best in our lives. We make big plans. But when those plans fail and there is nothing that we can do to prevent it, it is still difficult to let those dreams die. This man had been living without love for over a decade. He argued constantly. His wife left him and now divorced him. His marriage was over. And yet it was still difficult for him to let go of the dream of the good marriage he desired. Yet if his life was going to continue, if his life was to have a future, he would need to face the truth and let God prune that dream away.
Dreams not only inspire us, they can at times hurt us. Dead branches in our life not only hinder us, they can at times kill us. That is why, when there is nothing else we can do, we need to let go and let God remove what is dead from our lives. To do anything less would be living a lie. But the good news is this. Letting go, as difficult as it is, is not meant to cause pain, but to foster life. Cutting off what is dead is not cruelty, but an act of a loving God who removes barren branches so that other parts of our life can thrive. Jesus promises us life and joy in its fullness, and he is serious about what he says. We must believe him. If we want joy, we need to trust him. If we want life, we need to let him take what is dead in our lives and prune it away.