”I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
As winter creeps darkly toward us in the Southern Hemisphere I see my horticultural friends wielding their most feared weapons, the seccateurs. Knowing just where to cut, they lop and lunge at every bush and tree until skeletal forms remain where foliage once flourished and the ground is littered with sticks and stalks. It is botanical carnage. Essential, I am told, but carnage nonetheless!
In the history of Christianity there have many, and some very interesting, aberrant groups commonly called heretics. The word heretic comes from “hairetikos=able to choose”. So a heretic was judged by the church hierarchy to be one who had chosen to believe and profess in opposition to official doctrine and as a result, had to be silenced. Such silencing usually involved the cutting off of the heretical, “wrong choice” person or group from the church community. In dark and dangerous times it also involved the cutting off of body parts from the heretic either during the trial to determine heresy or eventually to cut the heretic off as a consequence of the bad choice they had made. In the latter case the most favoured body part to be severed was the head. The head that had made the wrong choice was thus removed from the body, symbolising the cleansing of the church by the removal of the heretic. It was another carnage. Not botanical pruning, this time it was human carnage. At least gardeners don’t hear the plants scream!
I am glad to report that this Inquisitorial practice is no longer part of church management though the language echoing that dreadful past remains with us in phrases like, “heads are going to roll” and “losing your head” about something or someone. The Inquisitors, who were the head lopping pruners of the medieval church considered themselves tasked with “cleansing” the church of error. They saw themselves as those who were doing the pruning work that Jesus refers to in today’s Gospel reading.
In fact the word that John’s gospel uses for prune is katharei=to cleanse. We still reference the word when speaking of cathartic experiences. Those moments when we, through grief or pain, are cleared out and cleansed. Inquisitors saw themselves as cleansing the church through the pruning of heretics. Painful it might have been, but prudent for the preservation of power.
One of the best known groups of heretics in Europe also take their name from this word katharo. They are the Cathars who are refered to in the Council of Nicaea in 325 but which emerged as an autonomous movement of strict Christians in the 12th Century in the Rhineland and Northern France. These heretical, “wrong-choicers” were completely exterminated with the loss of many pruned and roasted body parts by the 12th and 13th century Inquisitions. The Cathars had some strange ideas about no re-marriage afetr widowhood and who also maintained that there was no way to do penance for sin that was committed after baptism. A rather serious bunch they were. A kind of puritanical movement before the Puritans if you know what I mean? How ironic then that the Cleansed Ones = Cathars were “cleansed” by the Inquisition. Something Rwandan with Auschwitzian echoes here don’t you think?
Anyway, the Church needed to get rid of them. They were just not with the Roman programme. So the Inquisitors arrived and the heads rolled. A vast pruning purge which, despite novel romantic notions of links to the Knights Templar and the Holy Grail, surely represents one of the lowest ebbs of Christian history?
So it is with my mind awash with horticulture and history, that I eventually come to the Sunday gospel.
It fascinates me that in John’s gospel there are only two parables recorded. Last Sunday Jesus referred to himself as the Good Shepherd in the one parable, and this week he refers to himself as the Vine in the second. If the writer of the last canonical gospel to be written opted for only these two similes they must be pivotal to describe Jesus.
Now, if Jesus is the the Vine with a Shepherd’s heart, and only God is the gardener, then a few realities seem to bud and sprout from that:
- Only God is qualified to wield the pruning tools.
- Every severance is painful to Jesus.
- Believing that we have the right to prune the church as Christ followers is not only arrogant, it is blasphemous (playing God) and may indeed rebound in the axe wielder being axed for usurpation! Cathars are cleansed!
No, for me it is clear. The church is not called to prune, that is God’s job. Faggots of fruitless followers are God’s business not mine.
The church is called to fruit by remaining connected to the life giving/love flowing sap of the Shepherd-Vine.
It is through fruitful love and life, not through severance and sectarianism, that I become his disciple. Of course if you don’t agree, you can always cut me off.