In John’s gospel, Jesus invites us to stay close to him as a branch to a vine; He emphasizes the importance of this connection: “If you abide in me, you will bear much fruit.”

The Old Testament writers used vines as metaphors to describe Israel’s relationship with God. Psalm 80 says, “God brought the vine out of Egypt, cleared the ground, planted and filled the land.” The leaves were lustrous but yielded no fruit because Israel abused its prosperity for idolatry, so God took his grace from them. But Jesus said, “I AM THE TRUE VINE.” And we know that the branches of a vine are the life of its fruit. To survive, a branch must stay attached to the vine like the limb of a massive tree so the wind may not blow it off. That’s what Jesus desires for Christians – to be vibrant branches.

This means staying alert, hanging tightly, and getting busy, which is arduous work for Christians. However, it also means consistent spiritual renewal.

            This is the time of year when gardeners at heart begin planting seeds and tending the shoots emerging from winter soil. We know that just because we want something to grow does not guarantee it will. We also know that getting our roses to bloom means cutting back the canes; encouraging the growth of the tomato plants means pinching off the gangly stems, and getting a second bloom from the impatiens, or the pansies and zinnias, means cutting back the early flowers. The short of this is if you love your garden, it will love you back. Love is practical when it is reciprocal.

Jazz music lovers may know the story of George Alexander Aberle. He’s an American songwriter and poet. He lived much of his life under the name Eden Ahbez. He was a forerunner of the hippie movement - a wandering advocate of love and nature. He spent much of his adulthood in California, at one point camping under one of the “Ls” of the famous Hollywood sign - a real “hippie.” He coined the line – “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return,” – which became a hit song made famous by Nat King Cole. (Check “Nature Boy” album).

Ahbez reminds us that while people busy themselves in pursuit of success and achievement, our true purpose and fulfillment in life are determined simply by love – and the most remarkable thing you’ll ever learn is to love and be loved in return”.

I see this in Jesus’ words: “Abide in me, and I will abide in you.” And Jesus also said, “Every branch in me that does not bear fruit [God] takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit [God] prunes, that it may bear fruit.”

These verses signal that there will be a remnant—a faithful branch that remains connected. Most Christians are afraid of this pruning. I learned that when a vine grower prunes, it has a two-fold focus: cutting off the dead and trimming the healthy. If there is a useless branch, like the long leafless twigs that no longer produce, they are removed. The vine grower will lighten the vine of these useless branches. By removing the dead branches, the rest of the vine is strengthened.

But sometimes, even the living branches are pruned. For instance, the vinedresser may cut back some of the growth from the previous seasons, and in Spring, he may break off some of the new shoots. That’s because if there are too many clusters of grapes on a branch, it can weaken and even crack. It seems strange to prune a healthy branch and cut it back because the short-term solution produces less fruit. However, the vine grower is committed to a total and vivacious harvest, so the vine grower thinks longer-term. He knows that because of his pruning, the vine will become more robust and yield more grapes at harvest time. For us Christians, it may be intimidating to hear, but we rely on the work of the Holy Spirit to stay close to Jesus and assuredly continue to feed on his love without fear. Still, we must be careful about what clusters our spiritual life.

The Epistle in I John 4:7 teaches fascinating facts about the fear of love, which I want to emphasize: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear --- whoever fears has not reached perfection in love."

This reminds me of the Beatles song " All We Need is Love." Staying close to Jesus and sharing his passion for loving us means you can’t say, ‘I love God’ and hate your brothers or sisters (vv.19-21). Commit to your baptismal vows, love one another, strive for justice, bear fruit, and continue to make disciples for Christ.

May the Holy Spirit strengthen us to persevere in this commitment. AMEN!