If you right now, like me, have had enough of lockdown, but are feeling a new sense of hope that life might just be starting to open up again; if you are looking for new energy and joy in your life, today’s Gospel comes as a real gift. As I prayed with the passage, two words, two verbs, leapt off the page, and seem to be offering us the promise of new life. The first verb is ‘to prune’: ‘Every branch that bears fruit the Father prunes to make it bear more fruit.’ The second verb is to ‘abide’: ‘Abide in me and I in you.’
The first word then, ‘to prune’. I was ordained in the south west of England in the diocese of Salisbury My first job was in Weymouth and Portland. I had a little house with a fantastic view over Portland Harbour, which is the place from which the ships sailed across to France on D Day. But the loveliest thing about my house was the garden. It was beautiful, and full of roses. They loved the soil and the southern English climate: damp and never extremely hot or extremely cold. I still remember especially in the evenings, the sweet scent of the roses mixed with the salty sea air, was incredible. But what my roses really loved was Harry. He was an elderly member of my church who loved gardening, and helped me in mine. I remember him saying to me, if you want your roses to thrive, get your worst enemy to prune them, because he will be ruthless, and cut them right down, which is what Harry did. And the following year they produced these fantastic flowers. Jesus said, ‘My father prunes every branch to make it bear more fruit.’ And of course, we are the vine, or the rose bush, that God wants to prune. As I look back over this past year of pandemic, I think my life has become a bit like a rambling rose that hasn’t been pruned. Perhaps you know something of that in your own life. Lockdown is a disorienting experience. Things we long to do and which give us huge satisfaction, people we long to visit and hug, many of our hopes and dreams, have not been possible. So, it’s easy to lose direction and to feel lost, or to head off in ways which are not life giving, or develop habits to soothe or numb us, but which ultimately make us feel worse. Like an unkept rose, we might feel like we have branches going off in every direction, but not really heading anywhere. When that happens with roses, the energy, the life force has been so dissipated, that when it comes to flowering season the fruit, the flowers, are small and stunted. We too can feel tired and listless, and unhappy. And if we are honest, not bearing much fruit.
But now, I do feel there is a new sense of hope in the air. Just like that urge to start work on the garden, God is I think, inviting us to take a good, hard look at our lives. Maybe God is wanting to prune those branches in our lives which are not or no longer life giving. How might we cooperate, ‘that we might bear much fruit?’ When I helped Harry to prune my roses, he didn’t just cut wildly. He spent a long time considering the plant and asking, ‘How do we want it to grow? Which direction? I used to love standing with Harry in the evening, studying the garden. We’d slowly come to a vision of what the roses might look like next year. But once we had the vision and the plan, he set to work, pretty ruthlessly, cutting off all the shoots that didn’t further the vision. It took courage.
I think Jesus delights in us doing the same with our lives; looking at our lives, in company with him, and envisioning what they might be. So, the second word which comes as a gift in today’s Gospel is the word ‘abide.’ “Abide in me, as I abide in you. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them, bear much fruit.’ Our lives are intimately connected with Jesus. We are part of his body, branches of his vine. We are fed by that vine, nourished and given life by that vine. Jesus is the source of our life, and without that life we wither and die. So, abiding in Jesus means that when we pause to take stock of our lives, we can do it in the presence of Jesus. Just as I used to enjoy standing with Harry, and imagining what my garden could look like, so it can be really wonderful to stand with Jesus, and allow him to help us grasp a new vision for our lives. He will inspire us and give us the strength to be able to prune those parts of our lives which are not bearing fruit. It takes courage. But the courage comes from our faithful abiding in Jesus. Just as the branch cannot flourish and bear fruit if it is cut off from the vine, so our spirits cannot stay strong and joyful for long, if we stop praying. Prayer is our life blood. It is how we abide in Christ and how we receive his strength and courage.
So today, in our Gospel, it seems to me, we have a very clear invitation, a challenge. We are in this wonderful season of Easter. Jesus has overcome death, and steps into our lives with the gift of life, life in abundance. Each time we open our hearts to the gift of life, those hearts of ours must expand to receive this new life. And so, we need to renew our vision. Why not plan a time, maybe this week, to take a good hard look at your life and take stock? Like a gardener surveying the garden at the beginning of a new growing season, spend time with Jesus, just looking carefully and honestly at all the parts of your life. I do this periodically and especially when I am on retreat. I find it helpful to get a big piece of paper and then just write down or draw all the different parts of my life, all my relationships, activities, commitments; gather everything together. Then spend time just looking at it all, with Jesus. This is my life at the moment. It might seem a real jumble, it might even seem a bit overgrown. But slowly, as you look at all the parts of your life, you can begin to ask, ‘What’s my life look like now?’ What do I want it to look like?’ ‘What vision is emerging? What vision does God have for my life? What changes should I make to become more fully alive, and to better glorify God?
Like a garden, your life might be full of plants, growing all over the place, some of which you want to keep; others, well, there’s no longer any room for them. They have to go. So, in our prayers, the first question might be, ‘God, help me see what is really important in my life, what it is that I really long to grow and develop? To do that, you may want to take on some spiritual practices, more focused prayer, a Rule of Life, so that you can be nourished by Jesus, just as the branch is nourished by the vine. So, what do I long to grow? But then the second question, ‘God, help me see what things in my life I need to get rid of? They may be good in themselves, or were good in the past, but are no longer good for me, are in fact stopping me now from thriving and growing, dissipating my energy, preventing me from realizing my vision.’
Name them. Then, with clippers in hand, ask for the courage – or your worst enemy! – to prune, ruthlessly, that you may bear much fruit, to God’s glory.
Year 1: Fifth Sunday of Easter
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