This will be my first sermon back after the sabbatical. I wrote this at the end of January (hence some of the references!). It will appear on the blog Monday 4th May, to be preached on Sunday 10th, the latter being the date I start back.
Text: John 15:1-8
One of my favourite stories is the one about the little girl who asked her mum whether all fairy stories end with the words, ‘And they all lived happily ever after.’ “No,” replies her mother, “Some end with, ‘When I became a Christian, all my troubles disappeared’.”
Jesus’ teaching in John 15 explicitly refutes the idea that the Christian life may be lived without suffering or difficulty. In the image here from a vineyard, each branch is either cut off or pruned. I am no gardener, but neither procedure sounds painless!
Whatever the joys and pleasures of our ultimate destiny when we are raised from the dead to life in God’s new creation, life now unavoidably includes uncomfortable and painful seasons. Some of those times, says Jesus, are actually brought by God for our good.
As Adrian Plass has put it, “Each day is a choice between what you don’t want to do and what you really don’t want to do.” The challenge for Christians is to make those hard circumstances count positively for the kingdom of God.
To do that involves grasping two things mentioned in these verses: what God is doing (pruning) and what we need to do (abiding in Christ).
I am no gardener. I can think of few things that bore me more than gardening. So metaphors in the Bible like this one of God pruning the branches of a vine don’t sit easily with me. Give me a pair of secateurs and I’m more likely to injure myself than accomplish anything worthwhile.
But I do realise that an image of pruning has something to do with cutting away in order to promote health. And on that simple level, I can understand the notion of God pruning us in a spiritual sense. Much as we might prefer God not to, I believe it’s often God’s way either to cut something out of our lives in order for us to grow in the life of the Spirit, or to allow something to be removed from us, so that we are challenged to focus on those things which are truly important.
We may protest about the difficult seasons of our lives – well, I do – but they may sometimes be seasons of the Spirit. Sometimes a bad experience is something to resist and protest against, but not always. God works for good in all things with those who love him, who are called according to his purposes, as Paul says in Romans 8:28.
Whenever an adversity comes into our lives, we have a choice as to whether we will seek the purposes of God in it. Endurance and perseverance are character-building qualities. I do not mean that we should embrace injustice or seek out bad times – that would be perverse – but I do think there is a call not just to look for easy ways out but seek what God is saying and doing in that environment.
So a pruning experience can be a stripping away of things that get in the way of our faith. It can be the removal of hindrances, or of accretions that are weighing us down.
I said in a sermon elsewhere just before my sabbatical that the atheist bus campaign with its slogan, ‘There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life’ looks a bit sick at a time of economic recession. To tell people whose jobs and homes are under threat or even disappearing just to ‘stop worrying and enjoy [their lives]’ is unbearably smug. We Christians are not exempt from the economic downturn, despite what the odd prosperity gospel idiot might say. And without in any wanting to minimise the pain for those who are feeling its effects, the differences for Christians are these: our sense of worth is not in our job, but in being loved by God. Our security is in God, not our ability to generate wealth.
Back in January, Debbie spent a weekend away at the annual Children’s Ministry conference in Eastbourne. I juggled preparing and conducting services with childcare that weekend. We fitted in various fun things, including visits the children wanted to their favourite shops – Claire’s Accessories in Rebekah’s case, Waterstone’s bookshop in Mark’s, and Millie’s Cookies for both of them. But nothing really made up for the absence of Mum, even though she rang each day to speak to them and say goodnight to them. On the Saturday tea-time when Debbie phoned, she told Rebekah that she had bought some presents for them. Rebekah’s reply was devastating and moving:
“Mummy, I love presents, but I’d rather have you.”
When God prunes us, not only is it a time of removing sin from our lives, it’s a time when he pins us back to that question: would we rather have him than all the goodies? The writer to the Hebrews calls us to ‘lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely’ (Hebrews 12:1), and sometimes the ‘weights’ are not sin. Good things can weigh us down. When God prunes us to make us more holy, he is sometimes asking us whether we want him more than the goodies.
It isn’t that God is a killjoy. The same passage in 1 Timothy where he tells the wealthy not to put their hope on the uncertainty of riches, he tells them to trust in God ‘who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment’ (1 Timothy 5:18). God not only understands we may enjoy certain things, he made them for our enjoyment. But he will not permit these created things to be his love-rivals for our affections. And for that reason he will sometimes prune us of good things.
So when we enter a season of our lives when the good life seems to be disappearing, we need to seek God in prayer about it. Is this something evil that should be opposed, or is God pruning us so that ‘we may perfectly love [him]’?
Just as ‘pruning’ was a difficult image for a non-gardener like me, so ‘abiding’ is an awkward one for somebody who was never good at Biology or Botany at school! For Jesus is using an image here of the branch remaining on the vine. He’s talking botany.
One one level, it’s absurd: how can you tell a branch to remain or abide in the vine? It just happens. Well – it happens, provided the flow of sap to the branch remains. In the physical world, neither the branch nor the vine are conscious beings, and so cannot be given commands or expected to choose certain actions. The idea of a branch choosing not to remain connected to the vine is ridiculous.
And it’s similarly ridiculous for the Christian disciple to contemplate not being vitally connected to Christ. Yet Jesus urges his followers to remain, to abide. Of course, the analogy is limited, but maybe that’s the point: we humans are foolish, and easily detach ourselves from the source of spiritual vitality and health. When the flow of sap stops, the branch falls off, or needs cutting off.
As I said near the beginning, the choice is being cut off or being pruned. Each is painful. But assuming we have chosen pruning and are willing to endure that for the sake of greater spiritual fruitfulness, then how do we ‘abide’ while God ‘prunes’?
Not surprisingly, this comes down to a disciplined approach to the spiritual life. Regular habits of prayer and meditation on the Scriptures are essential parts of this. Yes, it can be difficult to find time, but we make time for food even when we have to eat on the run, and it’s critical that we make time for these habits, without which we shall starve. We don’t all need to do them first thing in the morning, as some books tell us, but we do need a time.
The disciplines are not merely personal and private, though. Even prayer and biblical meditation need not be solo practices. Often they are helpful done in fellowship with others. The ‘sap’ doesn’t always come to us directly; sometimes it arrives through others.
Then, there are those practices which we are used to conceiving of in a corporate form: worship and the sacraments. We don’t sit in private cubicles at worship and Holy Communion; we are deliberately together to encounter God within us and among us, and to build each other up.
But we can’t even stop there. Abiding in Christ involves not only receiving the sap, it means allowing it to work. So prayer, Bible reading, worship and taking the sacraments are not simply passive practices. They are meant to lead to action. Spiritual nourishment is designed by God in such a way that it is health-giving when put into practice. It decays without use. We need to respond to what we are given. This means there are both public and secret disciplines.
The public practices are by nature fairly obvious. They involve every way we demonstrate the love of God in Christ to others. So pastoral care within the church, when done in response to God’s love, is a spiritual discipline. So is care for the poor, praying and campaigning for justice. Evangelism, too.
Then there are the secret responses we make, the ones where Jesus condemned those who did them for show as having already received their reward in public adulation. Giving to someone in need. Or fasting as a sign that something was so important it was worth going without the basics of food in order to underline prayer. And some forms of prayer itself are best done secretly rather than showily.
Abiding in Christ is everything we do to keep in tune with him and sustained by him. Sustenance involves taking something into us, and some of the disciplines I’ve mentioned are blatantly ones where we put ourselves in a position to receive from Christ.
Others, though, are about the outworking of what we have received. Jesus expects much of those to whom much is given. Some Christians emphasise prayer, others action, but both are priorities. Abiding in Christ is a matter of both receiving from Christ and giving back to him and others.
Both the receiving and the giving are practised in easy times and hard times, when life and faith are going well, and when we are facing opposition and even undergoing pruning. They are, after all, disciplines, not just activities we engage in because we feel like it.
Many are the ordinary routine actions of life that we maintain regardless of whether we feel like doing them, but we continue with them for the sake of our well-being and the flourishing of others. So are the spiritual disciplines of abiding in Christ, too.
I’ve heard some people speak about marriages as if marriage ‘didn’t work’ – implying that marriage was something that happened to them. But relationships take work and effort, and our spiritual relationship with Christ doesn’t just happen, either. It does happen to us in the sense that God makes the first move towards us. Furthermore, his approaches are sometimes of a ‘pruning’ nature.
But it then requires faithful response from us, through good times and bad. And that’s what abiding in Christ is all about.