You’ve got to admit that in some ways the bible just wasn’t written for you and me. The prophets weren’t thinking about you and me when they were writing their sermons and denunciations. The Psalmist wasn’t thinking about us when he crafted his poetry and his songs. Even Jesus wasn’t thinking about you or me when he crafted his parables or when he taught about the life of God’s children. You have to admit that the bible just wasn’t written for you and for me.
Now if that sounds a little heretical to you, perhaps that’s a good thing. After all, a basic claim of our faith is that God speaks to us through the words of the scriptures. That through these particular stories and these poems and this history God speaks to us about himself and about who we are. That’s our basic confession.
But it remains true to say that in some important respects the bible wasn’t written for us. And what I’m focusing on this morning is the very simple fact that the bible is written in languages and in cultural contexts and with imagery that is in many respects distant to us. The various writers of the bible didn’t know the world we inhabit, and it shows. In our passage for today from John 15, this simple point is evident in the agricultural imagery used by Jesus.
The Old and New Testament were written in cultures that were agriculturally based – so it will come as no surprise to us their everyday language and imagery was often built around agricultural realities and activities. And so it is that Jesus uses images of pruning in our passage for today.
I’ve mentioned before that one of my uncles operated an apple farm for many years. As kids we loved visiting Ome Jan’s apple orchards. And when I was a little bit older, a teenager, I also worked regularly for my uncle — picking apples, packaging apples, selling apples at local farmers markets. And from time to time one of our tasks was to help in pruning the trees. Now I wasn’t an expert on pruning apple trees then, and I’m no expert now. Pruning fruit trees of any kind isn’t a straightforward task. There are different types of pruning that happen at different times of the year, or at different stages of the tree’s life, and for different purposes.
The only pruning I did was the pruning of suckers – long, shoots that come off of the main trunk or from larger branches. On an apple tree, the apples themselves will grow on what is called old wood – the apples grow on long-lived stubby branches on the tree. But during the growing season, you get these suckers growing – long, straight, green shoots that draw energy and nutrients away from the branches that produce the fruit itself. And so you prune back the suckers with sheers, so more of the trees resources would go to fruit production. That’s what we did, pruning suckers from tree to tree to tree – leaving behind a pile of branches that would have to be hauled away for burning or to be dumped way in the back of the farm.
As I’ve said, the Old and New Testaments are full of imagery taken from agriculture. And for many of us in a western, urban, technologically developed society – that agricultural context is increasingly distant. In a world where apples appear in neat piles in an atmosphere-controlled supermarket, the notion of the notion of the apple tree – never mind the pruning of it – is an increasingly distant reality.
Here are the words that Jesus speaks: “I am the vine, and the Father is the vine-grower… Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been pruned by the word that I have spoken to you.”
These words of Jesus are part of his farewell discourse as in John’s gospel – a series of teachings and prayers that from John chapter 14 through John chapter 17. This farewell discourse represents the final words of Jesus to his disciples before his betrayal and his arrest. And that’s actually an interesting bit of context for understanding what Jesus is saying to the disciples through this particular agricultural image.
Here’s what Jesus says: “In the life you have shared with me these past years, God has been pruning you. In walking with me, God has been slowly removing from your lives and your identities those things that would have prevented you from living faithfully in his kingdom. And when I am gone from you, that process of pruning will continue.”
The image of pruning is an almost violent one – at least it is imagery that is rough and sharp. The idea of pruning implies that there are things in our lives that need to be cut off or removed. The idea of pruning carries with it a realization that the process of change and transformation in our lives can be a painful one. Pruning, in fact, always leaves a wound on the tree that must be healed over time. If we are living as disciples of Jesus, in the way of his kingdom, we simply will experience this pruning in our lives.
Now keeping in mind that this idea of pruning is perhaps distant from our experiences today, I asked myself what image from our culture might make the same point Jesus’ is making. Is there something in our modern, western, urban, and technological culture that might make more sense to us than pruning?
Well, here’s one attempt at that: When we follow Jesus we are like the operating system on a smart phone. When the operating system on a smart phone is updated to the most recent version, some of the older apps you had might not work so well any more – but at the same time you will now have access to new and better and faster apps. So being a follower of Jesus means constantly having your operating system updated – it means letting go of attitudes and behaviours that don’t match his kingdom, so that you can embrace new ways of living and being that fit in the kingdom of God. As you walk with Jesus, your basic operating system is being constantly updated so that it matches his kingdom.
Well, it’s not a horrible metaphor, but it’s rather feeble for a few reasons. One of the reasons it’s feeble is that it gets us thinking about our lives in terms of some of the worst aspects of modern culture. When we think about God’s work and our lives as the process of updating your smart phone, then we’re thinking about faith in terms of a culture
where the latest thing is the superior thing,
where faster is always better,
where we are afraid being left behind,
and where devices are built to be redundant, and thrown away after 4 years.
To think of discipleship in terms of updating a phone’s operating system, instead of the pruning of a tree, gets us thinking about our lives in just the wrong way.
Your life is much more like a tree that grows slowly over time than like a machine that need constant updating.
Your life is much more like a tree that reaches deep for nutrients and reaches outward for light than it is like a machine that reaches for nothing.
Your life is more like a tree that produces rich and nutritious fruit than a machine that produces little of enduring value.
Your life is much more like a tree that can be pruned and scarred and healed than a machine that simply does not grow.
Our lives need pruning – and as we walk with Christ, our lives will inevitably be pruned. That’s just what happens in relation to the risen one.
Selfishness needs to be cut back to make room for service.
Fast growing suckers of jealousy needs to be clipped off to make room for the flourishing of others.
Manipulation needs to be sheered off in favour of conversation and honesty.
Autonomy needs to be trimmed in favour of our reliance on each other.
Green shoots of self-preoccupation needs to be sheered off in favour of the old wood of worship and prayer.
Perhaps it is better to try and get our heads around an ancient and still contemporary agricultural practice than it is to try and update that image for our culture. Jesus may not have had modern, urban, technological culture in mind when he spoke, but maybe we do best when we enter his world and learn from it.
There are two concepts that lie at the heart of our passage from John 15, and we’ve spent some time on the first one. Pruning. The other concept is one that we might have equal difficulty with – though for different reasons. It is the concept of abiding.
In a way Jesus is mixing his metaphors. In the first instance we are the tree, and we need to be pruned in order to flourish. But now all of a sudden, he is the tree and we are the branches that must abide in him. He says to his disciples: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus goes on to add: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
The word “abide” is a word that means
or to stay
or to dwell
or to sojourn in a particular place.
We are invited to remain with Christ, to sojourn with Christ, to stay with Christ, to dwell with Christ. “Abide in me,” Jesus says, “just as I abide in you.” You cannot bear fruit – you cannot grow in the way of the kingdom of God unless you dwell with, remain in Christ.
With this word ‘abide’ I’d like to come back to the technological challenges of modern culture. Because what we see in our culture is an increasing inability to abide – an increasing inability to dwell with others, to remain with others, to sojourn with others.
This week I listened to a TED Talk that was given by Sherry Turkle in 2012 – she is professor of the social studies of science and technology at MIT, and in 2011 wrote a book entitled Alone Together: Why we expect more from technology and less form each other. In the book and in the TED Talk she explores the many ways in which social media and social media devices are cutting us off from deep and meaningful relationships with other people. There are so many directions we could take her ideas this morning, but here is one theme she focuses on. She argues that social media – twitter, facebook, instagram, texting, pinterest, and whatever comes along next – more and more, these social media platforms give the illusion of companionship, without the demands of friendship – social media give the illusion of companionship, without the demands of friendship.
So Turkle says for example that people can’t get enough of each other – we can’t get enough of each other’s lives on our social media feeds – can’t get enough of that stream of photos and thoughts and shares.
We can’t get enough of each other – as long as it’s at a distance – and as long as its in amounts we can control. She uses the language of Goldilocks to explain what we want from our social media friends: Not too close, not too far, just right. I want my “friends” in amounts I can manage and control – all the while strictly managing how I am perceived by them.
Turkle points out that there is a deep and difficult irony here. We need others. Increasingly we can’t spend just a few minutes alone without ‘connecting’ with others, without checking in on some social media platform. We need to share and update and text and tweet. We find it harder and harder to be silent with ourselves. But at the same time, as much as we need others – and can’t be alone with ourselves – we are losing the ability to engage deeply with others –
to learn from them,
to discover who they are,
to get close enough to enter the zone of risk that relationships imply.
The irony is that we can’t be alone – but aren’t able to deeply connect with others. We are slowly losing the capacity to abide with others, to dwell with them, to sojourn with them. We hold them at a distance: Not too close, not too far, just right.
Jesus says: “Abide in me as I abide in you. I am the vine, you are the branches… As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.”
Here, perhaps, is the point at which we can make a link between the two concepts at play in our passage for today. Perhaps some pruning needs to happen in our lives – perhaps we need to prune back that reliance on social media – to sheer off that need for constant social media attention – to cut back on devices that demand our attention. As we are so pruned, perhaps we may discover again what it is to be alone. But not merely alone – rather, alone with the living God.
To be alone with the risen Jesus – to abide with him in prayer and reflection – to rediscover in him our life and our identity and our worth and our calling. And in dwelling alone with him, to rediscover strength and grace to enter into relationships with others that are more than superficial – relationships in which we may love and learn and serve and be served – to rediscover the strength and grace to enter into the inevitable difficulty and risk and beauty of relationships with others. To go deep with Christ, and then to abide with others.