29 April 2018

What Needs Pruning in Your Life?

5th Sunday of Easter 2006
Fr. Philip N. Powell, OP
Church of the Incarnation, University of Dallas

That summer I sat on a five-gallon pickle bucket all day everyday pruning tomato vines*. The hothouses in the field lined up like barracks and buzzed in the heat. Each of the twelve houses, covered in thick plastic, fluttered as a huge fan pulled the air through, cooling the plants. I started at the first house nearest the road and worked slowly each week from the first house to the twelfth house, pruning the suckers that grow in the between the branches and the vine. Cutting the suckers away is a necessary step in the growth of the plant. Suckers drain moisture and nutrients from the vines. They look exactly like the productive branches; however, one bears fruit, the other doesn’t. Cutting the branch that bears no fruit makes the whole plant healthier.

Sweeping up the pruned suckers at the end of each day seemed like confession or bathing, an exercise in cleaning up, unloading, or perhaps a sacrament of clearing away, brushing out the debris, pushing along the stuff of distraction, diversion, and disease. Each day ended in fire—the dried suckers burning at the edge of the field, sending acrid smoke into the trees and making my eyes tear.

Jesus reveals to his disciples that he is the true vine and that his Father is the vine grower. His Father cuts away branches that do not bear fruit and prunes the ones that do. Then Jesus says to the disciples: “You are already pruned because of the word that I spoke to you.” Because I have revealed the Father to you, because I have taught you the way of salvation in mercy, because I have given you to one another as a Body, because I am the Word speaking the Word to you, because you have died with me and will suffer for me, because you will rise again with me and see the Father face-to-face, and because I am the way, the truth, and the life—because I have taught you, given you, shown you, lead you, and because I love you, you are pruned, cut, productively wounded and more than ready to bear the fruit of the Spirit that marks you as mine.

Are you pruned to produce the fruits of the Spirit that mark you as a child of Christ? In his letter to us this morning, John writes: “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth[…]this is how we will know that we belong to the truth[…].” We know that we belong to the truth—to Christ the true vine—when we produce the good fruit of charity, when we not only talk about doing good for others, but when we actually do the good for others. To produce the good fruit of love is to fashion from the Word given you a life wholly surrendered to the service of the truth, to the service of Christ, the true vine. To keep his commandments of fidelity—to believe in his Name, Jesus Christ, and to love one another—this is what pleases him.

Are you wholly surrendered to the service of the truth? Being good postmodern folks, I bet most of us heard a little whisper in our hearts just then, the small voice of Pilate asking: what is truth? Aren’t we conditioned to ask these sorts of questions, trained to a certain skepticism about claims of this or that being true? We know that a truth demands our obedience, morally obligates us to believe, so, eyes askance and lips pursed, we ask what any sensible soul would: what is truth? In his letter this morning, John writes: “Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence in God and receive from Him whatever we ask[…].” The NRSV says that we have “boldness before God” because we believe and pray in obedience to His will for us. The disciples in Jerusalem did not believe that Saul was a son of the true vine. Only after he had spoken boldly, confidently, in the name of Jesus, teaching the faith in truth and love to the Hellenists, only then did they recognize him as a brother in Christ.

Truth, then, is a relationship, the way that we live and move in the love of Christ, the way we witness publicly to him. Truth is that love that the Father and the Son have for one another, the love of the Holy Spirit. John writes: “Those who keep his commandments remain in him, and he in them, and the way we know that he remains in us is from the Spirit he gave us.” Those who surrender their lives to the service of the truth—to the service of the love shared in the Blessed Trinity—are true branches, fruitful in charity, ready to be pruned.
What do you need God to prune? What suckers are sucking the life from your branches, depriving your good fruit of nourishment? What falsehoods have attached themselves to the truth? What lies scar your relationship with Christ? What sins block your roots from receiving the good food of the Spirit? What do you need God to prune?
Do you need God to prune away the false notion that there is another way to Him other than His Son, Jesus Christ? Do you need God to prune away the false notion that conscience decides truth rather than merely recognizes it? Do you need God to prune away the false notion that love is just a warm, fuzzy feeling that makes us cuddly to others? Do you need God to prune away the false notion that loving means unconditional acceptance and approval of any and everything any and everyone wants to believe or do? Do you need God to prune away the false notion that you can earn His love, work for His approval? Do you need God to prune away the false notion that He will condemn you in anger, in righteous fury, or disinterest? Do you need God to prune away the false notion that you can live fruitfully in love without truth? 

We cannot bear the fruit of love without the vine of truth. Cut off from truth, our love withers. Cut off from the true vine, from the vine grower, we find ourselves in the fire at the edge of the field, burning, sending up acrid smoke and puffs of ash. Our assurance that we remain in Christ and he remains in us is our life in the Spirit, our participation in the life of the Body, the Church. How else do we maintain a fruitful confidence, a boldness before God that we are loved? With hearts schooled in the Word, hearts strictly poised for obedience, eager to hear and listen, we are one mind, one spirit surrendered to truth, given to the service of God for one another, and brought to perfection as disciples who greatly please our Teacher. Surely we can look around and see the drying suckers of falsehood pruned from our branches. Surely we can see the suckers that still need pruning. But more surely, most certainly, we know that so long as we remain in Christ—believe in his name and love one another—he will remain in us.

Boldly ask for what we need. Start with what needs pruning. Start with what clogs your roots, what prevents your growth in love and truth. And then in all humility ask to love more, to love larger, deeper, wider, longer, to love in greater truth, to bear much good fruit and to love, always to love, for His glory and His glory alone.

* This is the summer of 1991, the summer after I returned from teaching English in China. These hothouses produced more than tomatoes. . .there was this young lady who lived across from the hothouse field. She took an interest in my younger brother. They ended up married!

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