1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
When I was in my early teenage years, I sort of became obsessed with paintball guns. There was this group of other young would-be soldiers who used to play paintball on this big plot of land in the south part of Ft. Collins, and how I wished to join them. So when I asked my parents about it, you can image my shock and disappointment when I was told that, no, I would not be joining this testosterone-addled would be paint-militia anytime soon. How on earth could my parents turn down something that was of such obvious importance to me?? I mean, a group of sixteen year old boys shooting one another from close range with CO2-fueled guns, what could possibly go wrong? So, I kept pressing. Maybe it was the fact that the necessary gun and equipment cost a lot of money. No problem, I could get a job. Or maybe it was the fact that these paintballs could do some serious bruising. Well, that could be dealt with, as well, by the protective equipment. In the end, I suppose, what was really at stake was that my parents, from that deep primal place of instinct, simply did not think that making a regular habit out of paintball gun fighting would be in my best interest. Now, the specifics of why parents said no to this blooming hobby are, in fact, far less important than the fact that they did say “no.” And every single one of us has had this experience, of being told by someone that we love that our plans are not in our best interest and that we must be told “no,” or in the case of you parents, having to inform your beloved children that, against all their wishes and desires, they cannot do something because it, in the long run, will not be in their best interests, even though the child might not be able to see this at the time. What pain on both sides of this, as a temporary and momentary no is given for the sake of health and wholeness that will outlast the fleeting desires of any given moment. Because I did outgrow my desire for a paintball gun, and I can think of very little now that sounds less enjoyable that being shot through by pain-filled pellets. So, the old cliché actually rings entirely true: in the end, when I had a little bit more understanding, a little bit more maturity, I actually did thank my parents for saying “no” to me.
“I am the true vine and my Father is the vine-grower . . . every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.” Well, how is that for a description of the baptismal life? If we find this to be startling, even a little troubling, I suppose that is to be expected. Our cultural life, you see, has gotten us to a place where we just do not understand spirituality in this sort of way. Instead, we are more prone to think about spirituality, about our life with God and ourselves, as this sort of generic and perpetual affirmation. There is no judgment, no pruning to be had. Instead, what we are asked to unlock some latent potential that is deep within us or to connect to some gooey divine core that has been covered up by years of painful experience. Yes, the message that we constantly receive is that spirituality is matter of finding our true selves and harnessing the power that is there present. What we need, according to these systems, is not someone to tell us “no,” but to begin taking part in some cosmic “yes” that we have too long ignored. Yes, we must find our own truths, whatever they may be, and live into them as deeply and fervently as possible. One must only scan the spirituality section of a local Barnes and Noble to get a sense of what I am talking about.
While this may be true for some of the spiritual projects we encounter around us, it is my hunch that this symptomatic of a deeper, more universal human concern. How deeply we desire to have everything we need within ourselves. You can see this not only in the writings of Deepak Chopra, but also in some of the things that we value most about ourselves and our culture, virtues like expressing our individuality or our myths of self-reliance, and while this sort of spirituality may have the best of intentions and signal a growing need for the spiritual life in our culture and while there is certainly nothing wrong with developing and cultivating our God-given gifts and talents, there is this problem. When we seek nothing but affirmation, nothing but development without critique, absolution without confession, growth without honesty, we always end up in a dead end. For this sort of spirituality will finally reach its dead-end, will cul-de-sac, in the never ending maze that is the human heart. You see, the reason that these sort of spiritualities will never actually work, the reason that they cannot render us unto the living heart of God is as simple as it is painful: there are times when the most loving and kind action that God can take is telling us “no,” which is to say that we are in constant need of being pruned into the life of God. And if you are anything like me, you will run from this “no.” It is very difficult to hear the truth about ourselves, to see in front of us all our fears and insecurities, all our pride and despair, all of that stuff that keeps us from genuinely loving God, loving one another, indeed even loving ourselves. Yes, we would much rather ignore any and all of that, and attempt to re-create ourselves through any number of projects that do not ask to actually look at who and what we are.
But here’s the catch. God’s love in Christ is way too real to let us continue in that uneasy ignorance, and isn’t that finally the best possible news there is? That God’s love in Christ is too honest not to engage us in our actual struggles, isn’t that finally a demonstration of just how deeply God loves us, that God will not allow us to continue in paths of destruction and harm? That God in Christ loves us enough to get down in the deep muck of our lives and continually put to death all the things that keep us imprisoned to decay? Yes, though it wounds our pride and calls to question our despair, that God sometimes says “no” to us is the best possible news that there could be, for this means that God’s love is real and genuine and not some far off reality that does not have any impact on the way we live. For as we are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, we can most assuredly expect to undergo some pruning. Do not be surprised, then, when we see some of our old habits, some of our old bondages come under the divine knife so that you may grow more fully into the baptismal name you were given. Yes, those things that would keep you from the certain knowledge that you are a beloved child of God, those things are going to have to be pruned away, be it the belief that you do not merit Christ’s forgiveness or that you do not need it. Yes, and while we are at it, we can pretty well expect the things that would keep us from genuinely loving our neighbors to be cut down, as well. So we must not be surprised when the Father takes from us our fear and mistrust of those who do not share our worldviews or our tax brackets. These too will be pruned away, for Christ’s love is for the whole of the creation. And this is the dare of the Christian Gospel, to believe that even when God critiques and prunes us, God does this so that you may live more fully into the life that you have already been given. Does God say “no,” from time to time? Well, yes, yes God does. But this is only done so that God’s deeper “yes” may take on fuller flesh. In Jesus’ name, amen.