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  • Writer's pictureChurch of the Incarnation

Perfect Love through God's Pruning

“Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” These are Jesus’s words to his disciples this morning. More importantly, they are his words to us. So what exactly does it mean to bear much fruit? What fruit is Jesus referring to?

If we go back to Jesus’s analogy of being the vine, and God the Father being the vine grower, we can see that he also refers to branches in him that are supposed to bear fruit, and they bear this fruit because they are pruned by the Father. What or who are those branches? Those, my friends, are his followers. We can confirm this because both the Old and New Testaments speak explicitly about how we are branches of the vine. 

What does it mean to abide in God though? Jesus says that abiding in God involves being pruned so that we can bear more fruit. Throughout Scripture, to be pruned indicates being transformed from what we are, into God’s own likeness. Other ways of putting this are being moved from death into life, of walking through a dark valley where we come face to face with our own broken ways of thinking and behaving, where we work to figure out what motivates what we say and do, where we confess to God where our responses and our actions and words fall short of what God has commanded us to do: to love God and to love our neighbour. 

This is what our baptisms are intended to represent: you have been set free from sin, from condemnation and from death, in order to serve your neighbour. You’re not primarily set free from sin so that you’ll receive salvation. That is too limited a purpose and not truthful to what God calls us to: you are set free from sin to serve others. This is what we hear in John’s letter: “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” Jesus took on our sin and set us free from its consequences. 

But Jesus did this to fulfil his Father’s grandplan: that all people might be reconciled to him. So John continues, saying to those he’s teaching: “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another … Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

Now let’s be honest, on a good day, I have difficulty loving my brothers and sisters in Christ. People just irk me sometimes. And I have difficulty loving people in the community and can easily turn them into enemies as you heard in my dog poop story. No problem, you say, “I don’t have to love people who aren’t my brothers and sisters in Christ.” The problem though is that I am only part of the branch, I am not the vine. And ignorance is not bliss in this case; judging another is usually a scapegoat for not addressing your own sins and for masking your own fears and insecurities. It’s also arrogant because my judgment assumes I have God’s perspective on another’s life and work and so how God might be working with this person. The reality is that I don’t know who ultimately belongs to God or what God is doing with someone. Therefore I have to assume that anyone and all people whom I encounter might just belong to God who is working in and through him for his purposes. 

God knows we all struggle with this and this is why Jesus says, “every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Every person who seeks to act out of love is ultimately, knowingly or unknowingly, seeking to be in Christ and have Christ be in them. This is simply how God made us and no one can escape from this basic order. So those who seek to love another will be pruned by God. To be pruned is to have God get beneath the layers of our defences, defences that generate sin. The sin of judging other people. The sin of engaging others out of anger, frustration, bitterness, jealousy, or envy. The sin of allowing our fear and our inability to handle uncertainty in our personal lives, in our culture, in changing times, to grow into arrogance, condemnation and self-righteousness, or alternatively despair and cynicism. To be pruned is to have these things cleared away. It is to receive the perfect love of God that casts out our fear and allows us to embody, to be, as John says, the place where other people can encounter God’s love. 

Rowan Williams, drawing on the work of Saint Anthony, a desert Monk in the early centuries of the church puts it this way (Where God happens, pp. 24-5, 27]: 

[T]o find my own life is a task I cannot undertake without the neighbour; life itself is what I find in solidarity, and not only in a sense of togetherness but in that willingness to put on hold the perspective I want to own and cling to and possess, so that something else may happen through my presence and my words - the something else [is becoming a place where others can encounter God]. And succeeding is not getting my way or winning so that others lose but about succeeding in connecting others with life-giving reality: God. What if the deepest threat to life together were standing in the way of another person’s discovery of wholeness by an insistent clinging to self-justification, [judgement, condemnation, critique, and cynicism]? … The church points to the all sufficiency of Christ when it is full of people whose concern is not to separate others from the hope of reconciliation and life by their fears and obsessions, clinging to what they want and what mitigates their uncertainty. A healthy church is one in which we seek to stay connected to God by seeking to connect others with God, one in which we ‘win God’ by converting one another, and convert one another by our truthful awareness of our frailty. And a church that is living in such a way is the only church that will have anything different to say to the world; how deeply depressing if all the church offered were new and better ways to succeed at the expense of others - [including one’s own brothers and sisters, other congregations of Anglicans, other churches] - reinstating the scapegoat mechanisms that the cross of Christ should have exploded once and for all.”

Indeed I say again: Beloved, let us love one another, because perfect love that casts out, that prunes away our fear, is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Let us live into this reality and prepare to live out this love with courage not clinging to what we have had, but opening ourselves to where God is calling us to be his presence in this world. AMEN

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