Cutting Off the Fruitless Branch: Part 3
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. -John 15:1-2 (NIV)
In part 1 I addressed the problem as I see it. That a traditional reading of this passage implies that God will cut off people who are not bearing fruit, and give more to those who do. This stinks of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Which is highly unKingdom.
In part 2 I offered a way forward, through the problem, that was more in line with first century viticulture practices and stays true to the Greek behind the English. Namely, that Jesus was saying that branches that don't bear fruit are lifted, or raised up by God, so that they may bear fruit. Not cut off, neglected, removed, left for dead.
Today a couple observations.
A Fruitless Ego-Driven Teen
I turned 17 the summer before my senior year of high school. Shortly after my birthday I went with my youth group to a conference in Southern California called SEMP (Students Equipped to Minister to Peers). It was a week long training for high schoolers on how to share your faith with your friends and strangers. After training us in the morning they would send us out to the beaches, two by two, for random street witnessing.
Admittedly the merits of such an enterprise can be debated, but what cannot be debated was how that experienced impacted my life.
Prior to that week, I was your typical ego-driven teenager who's sole priority in life was to make sure people thought I was awesome. All my energies were spent on beefing up my image, bringing attention to myself.
If and when I went to church it was merely to add one more element to my social badge, because for some circles being the "church-kid" was cool (note: sure, those circles weren't large, but they did exist). And that's what I cared about: being cool.
But at SEMP, when I got back from that first afternoon of attempting to save the souls of random strangers (I don't think I succeeded, by the way), my bed was soon flooded with the tears of a surprised 17 year old who was profoundly moved and disturbed by his day of witnessing.
For the first time I came face to face with the reality that I truly was not connected to the Vine, I had no real relationship with Jesus. Even though I grew up in the church and said the Sinner's Prayer at age 5 (like a good Baptist would), by and large I was on the beaches that day presuming to tell people about a Jesus that I myself was ignorant of.
On my bed that day, in Southern California, in a pool of tears, I sensed a Divine Invitation.
There wasn't a voice. No shaking shutters. No cold chill over my body.
Just a clear as day sense that I was standing at a crossroads. God, I believe, was inviting me to make a decision: either continue on as I had been, or make a radical change and start living for the sake of the Kingdom. Either keep moving forward in a life where Colby was the main character, or jump ship and discover a new narrative where it's all about Jesus.
That evening, I jumped ship. And the shift was total. That week was when I knew I wanted to be a Pastor, and nothing else.
A Fruit-filled Pastor of Worship & Arts
Years after that encounter, after getting a Bachelor's degree in Pastoral Ministry, and after working for two years as an associate worship pastor in Salem, OR, I found myself as the new Pastor of Worship & Arts at an upstart growing church outside Phoenix, AZ.
I've documented the ending of my five years there in other posts, so if you're not familiar with that part of my story I encourage you to read it. It's fascinating.
But for the sake of this series I bring it up because in many ways I look back at that time in my life and I can honestly say that it was a fruitful time of ministry. Both in the exterior sense and the interior sense. In other words, my ministry efforts were touching people and changing lives and generally leading people closer to Jesus, and I was slowly becoming a more patient, kind, gentle, loving person.
Which is why it hurt all the more when I was abruptly fired. Because those were five years of producing luscious fruit like a good branch was supposed to!
What Glorifies God
At the end of Jesus' discourse on vines, branches, pruning, and fruit, he says this,
My Father is glorified when you produce much fruit and in this way prove that you are my disciples. -John 15:8 (CEB)
God is glorified when we produce a lot of fruit.
In other words, you could say that when our lives are characterized by the fruits of the Spirit, when we come awake to the fullness of who we are, when we show love to others, ourselves, and to God, when we are genuinely making a difference in our efforts to break in God's Kingdom to earth like it is in Heaven, then the Creator of the Cosmos is honored and praised. And we, in turn, are shown to be disciples of Jesus.
Which is to say, a fruit-filled life testifies to how the Ways of Jesus lead humanity toward flourishing. Toward Shalom. Toward the way things ought to be.
God's efforts to renew humanity, to reconcile Creation, are vindicated when our lives bear a lot of fruit.
So then, to that end, God is keenly invested in the bringing about of much fruit in our lives. It's a classic win-win: we get to experience the abundant life, and God gets to demonstrate to a watching world what human flourishing looks like.
Moving Toward Greater Fruitfulness
If God is praised, honored, and vindicated when we bear much fruit, and if our own lives are better for it, and if the best demonstration that we follow Jesus is a life of great fruit-bearing, then it should come as no surprise that the Vinedresser is intimately involved with Her branches, helping them each to move toward greater fruitfulness.
Going to SEMP was, for me, a time when the Vinedresser lifted me up off the ground where I was bearing no fruit. My life was on a course of selfishness and pride. So the Vinedresser lovingly raised me up to a place where I could receive proper air and sunlight.
And, as painful as it was, my experience of getting fired was absolutely something that took me from fruitfulness to greater fruitfulness.
It's confusing, yes, and painful. But the Vinedresser knows her branches so deeply that she knows what they are truly capable of. The pruning process is designed to cut back branches that are actually doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing (bearing fruit) for the sole purpose of engaging with a future of even greater fruit production.
So then, if we return one last time to the words of Jesus,
"I am the True Vine, and my Father is the Vinedresser. He lifts up any of my branches that don't produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit"
what we discover is not a system where God rewards the fruit-bearing branches and dismisses the struggling ones. The Kingdom of God is not about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.
"The Vinedresser is never closer to the vine, taking more thought over its long-term health and productivity, than when he has the knife in his hand." -NT Wright
No, the Kingdom of God is about Divine movement to usher and invite people in to ways of peace and love and hope and mercy and grace. To usher and invite people to live life to the full, in every dimension.
Which makes Jesus' words about a Vinedresser who lifts up the struggling branches, and prunes the successful ones, a beautiful illustration of what it's like to be in the hands of a loving, caring, and grace filled God.