Rev’d Peter Norman
In 1998, after 21 years in the industry, I left the position of winemaker at Montana’s Gisborne Winery (now Indevin) to attend the Bible College of New Zealand (Laidlaw as it is now known). Being a Methodist winemaker was the source of amusement for some, suggesting I was an oxymoron. I am not sure whether they meant that Methodist and winemaker do not go together or that I was “pointedly foolish” a literal translation of the Greek. Probably both. Uprooted from their comfortable life style in Gisborne my family and I moved to Auckland and took up residence in a Campus house. I suppose, it could be said that I had seen the light, although living on a Christian Campus was probably enlightening in a number of other ways. Suffice to say, it was not the heaven on earth, I was naively expecting. Anyway, back to my oenological and viticultural musings. As you know winemakers and grape growers work closely together to ensure the grapes produced are of optimum quality and meet the winemaker’s requirements for a particular variety or style of wine. While the right soil, climate and aspect are of critical importance, so also is canopy management. Hence today’s gospel passage.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vineyard keeper. He removes any of my branches that do not produce fruit, and he trims any branch that produces fruit so that it will produce even more fruit. In Aotearoa/New Zealand grapevines are pruned from May through to September. Most of the branches or canes produced during the previous season are removed, including dead and diseased wood. In some vineyards, the canes are burnt to help prevent the spread of disease. Depending on the trellising system (the configuration of wires and posts), the pruners usually lay down two or four canes. Each fruiting cane that is laid down is pruned to have a specific number of buds. The number of buds helps determine the number of grape bunches the vine will produce. Because of New Zealand’s temperate climate and fertile soils, grape vines have to be managed to keep the cropping levels down. I suspect that with the Middle East’s hot dry climate and relatively infertile soils the vines had to be encouraged to produce more fruit. Although, it must be noted, that stressed vines with small crops produce fruit with enhanced varietal characters thus producing wines with lifted aromas and more intense flavours. Vines that are well managed will have the correct leaf to fruit ratio, producing fruit with a good, acid, pH, sugar balance and enhanced varietal characters. If vines are over cropped it is often difficult to get the fruit ripe, varietal character can be lacking and acid and sugar can be out of balance. Therefore, for the vineyard manager in ancient Israel canopies were managed to try and increase crop levels and shade the fruit from the hot sun. Disease is not so much an issue in drier climes. In New Zealand, vines are pruned and leaf plucked to reduce the size of the crop and open up the fruiting zones. High humidity and rainfall increase the likelihood of disease so fruiting zones need to be exposed to wind and sunlight. Exposed fruiting zones also allow for the more efficient and effective use of sprays, especially fungicides. However, if a grapevine is not pruned and the canopy managed, it will continue to vigorously produce branches and leaves throughout the growing season. Eventually most of the plant’s energy will go into supporting cane and leaf leaving little or nothing for fruit production. The canes become entangled, the canopy impenetrable creating ideal conditions for the spread of disease and die back. So what is the message in all this? Well while there maybe be a message for each of us as individuals, I think there is an important message for the body of Christ. For me it is a call for the church to look at the fruit it is producing. Is it producing quality fruit or is it producing little or no fruit? Can we do better with our pruning and canopy management. Do we really know what a healthy crop looks like? In other words, what is working and what is not working for us as church today. Maybe Paul gives us an indication of what a healthy crop looks like with a list of fruit in his letter to the Galatians. He writes, “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22-23, 25).
What is top of Paul’s list? “Love!” Of course, the greatest commandments are to love God, self and neighbour. It is clear that the author of I John sees love as God’s very nature, as we have heard “God is Love”. Love is not weak, but embraces all creation, seeking salvation or transformation for all. God’s love powerfully transforms lives and sets us on the path of wholeness. God lives in us and we live in God. God’s love flows to and through us, and as we love, we share in God’s loving healing power. If we allow God’s love to flow through us, as Jesus did, then we too will produce quality fruit, just as the well-managed grapevine produces quality grapes. As Paul noted, if we live by the spirit, the spirit of love, then we produce the fruit of the spirit. It is about connectedness. God, the vine and the branches are all connected. In loving one another, we abide in God; and in that loving relatedness, God abides in us. Love banishes fear. In loving relationships, we experience God as our deepest reality, and discover that despite the vicissitudes of life, we are safe in God’s care and guided by God’s providential love. Yet, we are often fearful and out of our fear, we turn our backs on one another. Love invites us to live in love or as I John says to “abide in love.” If love is the beginning and end of life, the creative force in the universe, then ultimately we have nothing to fear. God’s, over-flowing, ever-flowing, and sacrificial love gives us strength to let go of what holds us back and love one another even when it is challenging and difficult. That is when we produce quality fruit.
In John 15, the branches survive and thrive because they are connected to the vine. As we have noted above God is the energy of life, flowing through all things, inspiring all things, and energizing all things. Yet, our values and commitments shape God’s flow of energy, expanding or contracting its impact on our lives. When we are connected with the vine, we flourish and produce and abundance of quality fruit. Disconnected or unpruned we wither and die spiritually. Pruning is necessary. We may need to change our pathways to be more attentive to the healing and loving energy flowing through us. We may have to let go of spiritual cumber to allow the fullness of divine energy, God’s love, to flow in and through us. John 15 invites us to consider how we not only stay connected to the vine, but to allow pruning to take place. It opens us to practices of spiritual viticulture. These practices include intentional abiding in God by prayerful opening to divine energy, cutting out what is inessential or preventing us from producing the fruit of the spirit and seeing our intimate connection with the other branches of the vine. In our love for one another, we expand the flow of divine energy flowing in and through us. Although the vine is the source of life and energy, the branches are not passive; they must be pruned to improve their own fruitfulness and support the fruitfulness of the other branches. There is an intimate interdependence between God and us. Our bearing of good fruit, the fruit of the spirit, enhances God’s life and reveals something of God’s realm here on earth. In tending the branches – our own branch and others – we share in God’s loving healing presence in the world and advance God’s vision in our time. Our love for God must flow out into love for others – both Christian companions and others – in such a way that they too come to love God and others. Through the cycle of love for God, self and neighbour we reveal the fruit of the spirit. Do you have a vision of God’s reign on earth? We are called, “your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” to work at revealing God’s will in the here and now and bringing about the realisation of God’s Kingdom or realm here on earth. We bear fruit for God’s Reign. God is love and as this love flows through us and as we allow ourselves to be shaped by this love the fruit of the spirit is revealed, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Then we with that display of quality fruit many will be drawn to, “taste and see that God is good.”