“Fruitful Branches, Fruitful Lives”
John 15:1-8 (15:4) – April 29, 2018
Spring has sprung! Finally, everything in the garden is starting to get green.
On Friday afternoon, after a medical appointment, my husband and I went to the Chicago Botanic Garden. The day was cool, but lovely and sunny. Since Friday was during the workweek, all of the garden staff was busy planting, watering, pruning, and getting the Garden prepared for spring. Everything was just beginning to bud. We saw leaves on trees and bushes just starting to unfurl, and spring daffodils, poppies and hyacinths showing their colors.
All of this new life is refreshing to see. A joy to behold. It reminds me so much of what Jesus was talking about here in our Gospel reading today. Jesus compared Himself to a Vine, and compared His followers—that’s all of us—to branches connected to the Vine.
Let’s hear again some of what Jesus said in John 15: “I am the real vine, my Father is the vine-dresser. For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful.”
How can the Vine and the branches not be green and growing? Especially at this time of year, in the bloom of spring? At the end of April, we can very well ask that question. How can we not be green and growing, sharing the essence, the life of Jesus? Ah, but there is a complication. A large problem.
In the farming or gardening analogy that Jesus is using here in this reading, Jesus talks about pruning, and about how God His heavenly Father “removes any of my branches which are not bearing fruit and he prunes every branch that does bear fruit to increase its yield. Now, you have already been pruned by my words.”
Now, that is a problem for me. I can follow Jesus when He talks about His followers sharing in His life, and being connected to Him. But when Jesus talks about pruning, and how God removes any branches—or followers—which are not bearing fruit, that is where I have difficulty. Big problems. This seemingly harsh statement does not square with other clear and loving statements Jesus made in other places in the Gospels.
Let’s go back to my visit to the Botanic Garden. As I said earlier, dozens of workers were out planting, watering, gardening, and pruning, all over the huge garden. They were preparing the Garden for the wonderful summer season, when everything is in full and glorious bloom.
As my husband and I walked by one of the large lagoons, we saw dozens of bushes all along the lagoon’s edge. I could see how the bare twigs were just beginning to sprout little leaves. I can’t remember what kind of bush they were, but my husband and I could see about twenty-five or thirty feet of bushes that were cut back to within a foot of the ground—severely pruned. There was a wheelbarrow half full of branches, and no staff worker around. The gardener had taken a break, apparently.
Then, further down the path were additional bushes that had not been pruned yet. My husband and I talked about how we had seen different kinds of bushes, in past years, that hadn’t been pruned, and how straggly and badly managed their growth was. We compared those bushes to the severely pruned ones we were looking at, by the lagoon.
I wonder whether that was the idea Jesus wanted to convey to us in this reading today? Did Jesus know that some wise and prudent pruning from a knowledgeable Gardener or Vine-Dresser might encourage the branches to grow?
Some preachers and some commentators on the Gospel of John say that God is going to prune away the unfruitful branches—or followers—of Jesus, and just throw them away. In other words, be fruitful for God, or die! That is such a harsh understanding of this reading. And, again, I wonder whether this understanding of the person of God is too harsh, as well?
One of my commentators J. Vernon McGee mused “no doubt that the Lord does some pruning. He moves into our lives and takes out those things that offend, and sometimes it hurts. He removes things that are hindering us.” 
Sometimes bushes and branches do need to be pruned. Sometimes—like on Friday, when my husband and I observed those dozens of bushes being pruned—pruning can help the overall health and growth of the whole plant. Sometimes, our loving, wise Gardener or Vine-dresser knows He has to do some pruning in our lives in order to make us more fruitful, and in order to cause additional life and growth in the whole plant—or, the whole family of faith.
Dr. David Lose, another commentator, adds “I think this is less intended as a threat about what happens if you don’t abide in Jesus but more a metaphorical description of what actually happens when you are not connected to the source of life. You end up cut off, withered, useless, like the branches and scraps we clean up from our yard and haul away or burn. Plus, if you’ve ever seen pruned bushes, you know it’s not a pretty picture.” 
With all this talk of pruning and cutting back and unfruitful branches, I am getting uncomfortable. I don’t want to be just a scrap or a branch that is cleaned up from God’s gardens and hauled away, or even burnt. I want very much to stay connected to Jesus, my source of life.
But then, I have never been seriously ill, as an adult. (Yes, as a teenager, but that was quite a while ago, and frankly, I do not have a clear memory of that time any longer.) However, Dr. McGee did have that kind of pruning experience. Let him explain: “I can speak to that subject and confess that it hurts. I think the Lord was pruning me when He permitted me to have a cancer and allowed it to stay in my body. He prunes out that which hinders our bearing fruit.” 
Let me say that I do not think that God arbitrarily makes people get sick, or forces individuals to get cancer, or heart attacks, or strokes. However, Dr. McGee was a beloved preacher and bible commentator who spent decades poring over the Bible, and had a great deal of wisdom and understanding concerning the Scriptures.
I’ll be completely frank: I do have difficulty with this aspect of John chapter 15. I do not completely understand what Jesus was getting at here. That is why I try to read commentaries from wise men and women who spend their lives studying the Scriptures in depth. I try to glean some of their wisdom and communicate it to you all in sermons and bible studies.
I think I have come to a better understanding this week, as I’ve examined this reading. As John 15 says, “For just as the branch cannot bear any fruit unless it shares the life of the vine, so you can produce nothing unless you go on growing in me. I am the vine itself, you are the branches. It is the one who shares my life and whose life I share who proves fruitful. For the plain fact is that apart from me you can do nothing at all.”
What’s the bottom line here? Jesus wants us all to share in His life. Apart from Jesus, we can truly do nothing at all. No fruit, no ministry, no sharing, no giving, no kindness, no love. Without Jesus? Nothing. With Jesus? Sharing His life? Then, we can bear fruit, for Him.
If we share life with Jesus, we have everything we ever need. Including our ability to have fruitful lives, for Jesus’s sake.
 Through the Bible with J. Vernon McGee, Vol. IV, Matthew – Romans, J. Vernon McGee (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983), 466.
 http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1532 “Getting Real,” David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.
 J. Vernon McGee, ibid.