The branch cannot bear fruit by itself.
The branch cannot bear fruit by itself.
Today’s Gospel text reassuringly reminds us that God neither wants nor expects us to change the world single handily. It does this by painting a picture of collaborative ministry; ministry that is constantly gathering momentum; an organic ministry that is set against, and relies upon, a continuous loop of Father, Son, and humanity. Within this text God is the prime motivator, being symbolically likened to a vine grower. His Son, Jesus, as the symbolic true vine, is the gateway that provides access to the Father. However, those like you and I, who acknowledge and embrace Jesus as their Lord and Saviour, are much more than passive observers to this ministry. As our text lovingly points out, just as the Father and Son are united together with one unbreakable bond, this same bond lives and breathes within each one of us, as Jesus doesn’t simply watch over his followers from a distance, he abides deep within their very being. According to our text the only real problem, the stumbling block that prevents this bond from reaching its full maturity, is the presence of unproductive, metaphorical dead wood which, if left untreated, can slowly erode this true vine from within.
All powerful stuff for us to process first thing on a Sunday morning, so let anyone tell us being a Christian is lame and boring, as what could be more exciting in life than taking an active role in the building up of God’s Kingdom in this world and the next? Nevertheless, taking up such a life-changing task is not going to be without its challenges. However, thankfully returning to the comforting theme of this reflection, we are not an isolated branch relying solely upon our own abilities, or sense of self, but part of a much bigger, well-established tree. All of which begs the question, how do we ensure that our spiritual sap is always topped up, always keeping us going from strength to strength?
Well firstly, and despite our apparent ever-increasing secular world, a world in which so many aspects of life are done online, isn’t it marvellous to note how the Bible continues to outsell any other book by miles, so much so that it is no longer included in the list of the top ten bestselling books of the year. Now, granted scripture, as with many worthwhile things in life, is not always easy or straight forward to grasp, for it can raise as many questions as it answers, but it is one of those God-given resources, freely available for us feed upon. How we choose to consume the blessing of scripture can and will vary from person to person and also at different stages of a faith journey. Sermons, both those offered here at St. Mary’s and within our communities, can ignite and invigorate the spiritual sap in our faith branches; as can daily Bible notes, pod casts and online Biblical presentations, such as the one currently being offered to us by Dr Alan Falconer and facilitated by his son, our very own occasional preacher Andrew.
Prayer, whether this be within the context of our homes, amongst work colleagues, or corporately, like scripture is a tried and tested means of creating valuable time and space through which God can set about cultivating that inherited yearning we have to be spiritually nurtured. To receive the kind of guidance and encouragement which helps our faith branches mature, to such an extent that they become robust enough to provide warmth, shelter and protection for our fellow travellers as they, like us, explore what it means to walk with the risen Lord Jesus.
Of course, by its very nature, faith is a deeply personal experience. Having said that, if something such as an ongoing two-way relationship with the divine, the creator of the universe, is so special, so transformative, shouldn’t we make every effort to share this with others? Consequently, the sense of growth experienced during acts of communal worship is the backbone of Christianity, as physical witness ensures that our spiritual branches don’t merely grow upwards towards heaven, but outwards in fellowship, integrating with others whom God has called together at this particular moment in his plan for human salvation; a sign and glimpse of an eternal hope in a world looking for security and inner peace.
And of course, given our heritage here at St. Mary’s, a tradition rooted in the Sacrament, it will come as no surprise that encountering the risen Christ upon the altar in the Eucharist, this heavenly mystery that invites us to receive God’s presence as it physically and spiritually abides deep within our soul, flowing through every section of our bodies, is a missionary fuel, a ready and constant supply of heavenly food which, as Christians, we can never have too much of. And so, having had our spiritual branches nurtured and strengthen by God (the divine vine-grower) Jesus, the true vine, reminds us not to be too hasty, speaking too early and, as such, damaging ourselves and others in the process, and therefore the art of pruning is required; a process which any gardener will tell us builds up resilience and ultimately produces hardy, longer lasting fruits. Nevertheless, necessary as it may be to have our spiritual branches pruned, the whole experience can often be an emotional period in our lives, as it involves a stripping back as we recognize and come to terms with our own self-vulnerabilities, our complete dependence upon God.
For no matter how empowered and self-assured we feel inside, life will undoubtedly throw challenges in our path which God, and God alone, can help us weather the storm. The frailty of our existence, both in terms of health and being financially solvent, the day-to-day stresses of human relationships, are all lived experiences that, if we are not careful, the devil will jump in and use to his own ends. These and others forms of spiritual pruning can be really difficult for us to get our heads around, to make sense of, let alone willingly embrace and accept. In our own eyes, being faithful followers of God, it can almost feel counterproductive, especially in our inward-looking culture that constantly appears to worry and focus about the success of number one. Surely, we may ask ourselves, is this pruning so necessary to encourage resilience, to stimulate growth amongst those under the pastoral parental care of God? In answer to this age-old question, and speaking from my own personal experience, there is a huge difference and greater empathy to be gained by actually undergoing a life-changing pruning event. Yes, there are plenty of well-meaning, well-researched self-help books around but none of this ever gets close to the spiritual, emotional and physical nourishment we receive when God has set about pruning our own lives for the greater, longer benefit of his Kingdom, a Kingdom which bridges the gap between heaven and earth. Isn’t marvellous that, in addition to having the foundation of God and his Son to keep our spiritual branches healthy, we also have the lasting legacy, the eternal gift of the Church, Christ’s living Body here on earth, His gift that creates and promotes a firm vine with deep roots, a united family that loves, cares and ultimately shares the highs and lows of life together. Let’s not be fearful or resentful when throughout our lives we experience heavenly pruning, for through His grace God will ensure that our branches will emerge more robust, they will not bend and snap when the winds of this world challenge our very existence, when the devil does his level best to throw us off course; instead our branches will produce all types of missionary fruits, fruits which are a delight to behold, fruit to be savoured, to be enjoyed by all; fruit whose primary purpose is to allow humans a foretaste of heaven. Fr Gerard Mee, May 2021.