If you have recently gone past St John’s Church in Hook you may have seen that they have trimmed their trees and hedges. You will notice that their beautiful Weeping Willow tree has been drastically cut back to a bare trunk with just 4 or 5 thick, stumpy branches. All the beautiful willowy fronds that hung down to head height have gone; the tree looks lifeless and denuded. This process is called pollarding and I understand it is vital for the longer term health of certain species of tree. In some cases it can extend their life for many years compared to a tree that is allowed to grow untended in any way. In quite a short space of time the tree outside St John’s will grow back more vigorous than before.
In John 15, Jesus drew his disciple’s attention to the careful work of a vinedresser who prunes the vine tree to maximise its fruitfulness. Fruitless branches are taken away and burned, but branches that bear fruit are pruned so that they become more fruitful. It is this latter observation that drew my attention.
Jesus is teaching us that healthy churches and healthy individual followers of Jesus can expect to experience pruning in order that they remain healthy and bear fruit. He does not tell us explicitly what pruning looks like in spiritual terms, however the pruning imagery indicates that, in the short term at least, the process can appear quite savage and brutal. This suggests to me that any life experience that causes us pain has the potential to be a part of our spiritual pruning for fruitfulness. Sometimes when we are faced with adversity we imagine that it is in some way punishment for sin in our life. That is to forget how Jesus deals with our sin – he offers us forgiveness which in turn prompts us to cut away the sin in our lives. The pruning that Jesus does by contrast is in response to fruitfulness to ensure our ongoing spiritual health. In other words, pruning is a sign of the vinedresser’s approval rather than his displeasure.
What does it mean to bear much fruit? Jesus does not make that clear in this passage. Elsewhere in the New Testament however we see two kinds of kingdom fruitfulness: the fruitfulness of Christ-like character and the fruitfulness of new believers joining the church. Both of these are fruit that are eternal. Difficult seasons in our lives can cause us to retreat and feel sorry for ourselves. A better response is to expect that we become more like Christ and to anticipate opportunities to share his love with others.
This blog post featured in the May 2013 edition of Lifelines