My primary 7 teacher wasn’t very tall, but that didn’t make her any less imposing. On the rare occasion that someone dared to do something wrong she took an interesting approach to discipline. She would stand very close to you and as she poked you in the chest with her finger she would ask what I think was a rhetorical question… ‘Who do you think you are?’

Once someone replied, why miss, have you forgotten? He regretted it instantly.

But it always seemed a strange question. Why not ask the usual what or why questions? ’What do you think you’re playing at?’
‘What on earth possessed you to do that?’
or ‘Why did you think that was a good idea?’.

But no… she always asked the same question…
‘Who do you think you are?’

The accompanying frown and poke in the chest made it pretty obvious that she meant the question as a reminder that she was in charge. That our part in all of this was to do what she said and to behave. The end of her question was unspoken… who do you think you are… misbehaving in my classroom. Causing problems. Daring to question my authority.

But as we grapple with this passage about a vine where Jesus is telling us about who we are, I wonder if my teacher’s question wasn’t actually the best question of all because what we do, how we behave, what we value and what we respect are very much a reflection of the answer to her question… who do you think you are?

We should probably start by reminding ourselves that we are in John’s Gospel today, not Matthew. I say that because this feels like a Matthew passage with it’s pruning. It sounds like Matthew’s stories about wheat and chaff and burning. Or refining silver. Or stripping out impurities with the fuller’s soap. This isn’t that. Not at all. It’s something quite different…

But here’s the thing… we’ve changed.
All of us have changed.
We have changed because we have all experienced a traumatic event,
an event that continues to shape the world around us,
an that event and many others we have experienced together and on our own have changed us all.

And that’s a similar context for today’s passage from John’s Gospel. The trauma of Jesus’ trial and execution is just hours away and it will be awful, both for Jesus and for his friends. These are words of comfort to them. Words for them to find hope in for the dark moments to come.

Abide in me.
I am the vine.
Stay connected to me.
Rooted in me.
It is only in me that you will be fruitful.

But the next few days of the story aren’t the only ones that will be difficult for the disciples. They will face hardship, controversy, expulsion from their religious communities, difficult decisions, big calls on the way forward, persecution and even arrest and death. Things won’t be easy for them, just as they haven’t been easy for any of us over the last months.

The word we so often use for getting back to normal is ‘recovery’. But we all know that while recovery might mean healing, it doesn’t ever mean everything will be the same. We know that we might have scars, we might have different or limited abilities, we might have pain, both physical and emotional, and we might have to change all kinds of things about our lives because of what has happened. At the very least we will have the experience of living through the problem, the injury or the event. That changes us. There’s an old proverb that says you can never stand in the same river twice. The water that you stood in the first time has gone, but also the plants on the bank have grown, the stones on the riverbed have been worn over time. The change may be slow, but it is constant.

As we are recovering the world changes around us. We age. We experience. We learn. And so does everyone else. A colleague of mine was always keen to remind us that not changing isn’t an option because even if we stay the same everything around us changes, so our place in the world is changed, whether we want it to be or not.

When we use phrases like ‘new normal’ we’re talking about that reality of what recovery really is… that we can never go back to the world as it was because that world doesn’t exist any more.

There’s a lot going on in today’s passage in John’s Gospel. It’s the last of the I AM statements, I am the true vine. It’s part of the long farewell discourse where Jesus tries to explain what is about to happen both to him and to his disciples so it’s an intensely pastoral moment. But in the middle of all of that Jesus talks about something I think we find really difficult to get our heads around, both in out own lives and in the life of the church… fruitfulness.

When Jesus speaks in this way it seems clear that he’s not just being pastoral, not just showing concern, but he’s also issuing a bit of a challenge.

Remain fruitful.
In fact… be more fruitful.
Despite all that is about to happen…
Actually, because of all that is about to happen…
remain in me and bear much fruit.

We’ve become almost immune to the litany of statistics that tell us what trouble the church is in… how many members have left this week… the point at which we just won’t be viable as a congregation or a denomination anymore.
It’s depressing.
And so we just don’t pay any attention to it.

And to a certain extent the numbers are pointless.
Numbers aren’t everything we tell ourselves.
Fruitfulness is about more than counting heads.
And, yes, ok, that’s true. There are many ways to be fruitful.

But numbers are something…
Pruning is about promoting a higher yield of fruit.
Branches that don’t produce fruit are cut off and thrown in the fire because they just use up energy that could be going into the growing of good fruit. More fruit.
Quality and quantity are both desirable, and preferably both together.

So, why is it that we we get so worried about conversations about fruitfulness?
Is it because we feel the judgement is about us?
What if the thing we need to stop, the branch we need to cut off is ours?
I mean, who wants to be thrown away, or worse, thrown in the fire?
I don’t want this thing that I have worked so hard for to be taken away.

Oddly, we can be much more attached to that kind of idea than we are about doing some pruning in our own lives. We all know that there are bits of our lives that aren’t what they should be. We could all do with a bit of gardening to get rid of the things that are unhelpful or take our own attention and energy away from serving God as we know we should.

So why is it so different in a different context?

Just three years before this conversation recorded in John’s Gospel Jesus was alone as he set out on his ministry. He went to see John for baptism by himself. He went out into the wilderness alone. And then, when he was ready, he starting to gather disciples. 12 of them. So, sure… numbers aren’t everything. At least that’s what we tell ourselves when they are low. But it’s also true.

I visited Cuba some years ago and met a minister who met with one member of his congregation each week for worship for years because it was just too dangerous for others to join them. We might have closed that church saying it was unviable. That it hadn’t grown. That it had no plan for mission. But they met. And they prayed for those who could not meet and pray. And the people of that community knew they were loved, knew they were prayed for, and when the time came they were able to return safely they did. They returned to what is now a thriving church. The fruit from those two faithful people was, and still is, bountiful.

What marks out the disciples is their fruitfulness. That’s the evidence of their connection, their dependance on Christ. They, and we, can do nothing without him as our root. If we are not bearing fruit then surely we need to ask ourselves some serious questions about how connected we are to Jesus?

Here’s the thing… we know what good fruit looks like. And we know what an empty branch looks like too. We know that some plants like sun and others like shade. Some like dry and other need damp conditions. The right kind of plant in the right place makes all the difference. Sometimes it’s just that the plant needs more food or water or that the sun hasn’t shone or it has shone too much. Or the fruit has spoiled because there were no workers to gather it in.

Our role in all of this, I think, is about discernment. Working out prayerfully what God wants from us. Finding out where God is at work in the world and joining in. After all Jesus tells us that God is the gardener. He’s the one who does the pruning. But sometimes he needs us to help.

Pruning is painful. Our church building has been closed since the first lockdown, and that has been hard on many people. But by being thrown into creating online services we have reached others who have never been in our church building or who can’t ever get there. New growth. Fruit from something that was a painful cut and one we would never have made willingly. It certainly makes you think… doesn’t it?

One final thought… when we complain that others should mind their own business and tend to their own plants we are failing to recognise that we are all part of the same vine, rooted in Christ. We don’t have separate vines. In fact, vines only grow and bear fruit if they are grafted onto good roots.

So, go and be fruitful. Put all your energy into the places that God is bringing growth. And don’t be afraid to prune. To relocate even. But to always… always be grafted into the root that is Christ.


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