Easter 5(B): Being Cut Off
By: The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber
Can I be honest here? I have really mixed feelings about this text. On the one hand, I value this text that reminds me that I am a part of something larger than myself, and I value this text as a sacred reminder that the fruitfulness of my life does not come from my own work, but instead comes from Christ dwelling within me. On the other, I grieve Jesus’ words that a branch that is withering will be cut off from the vine and thrown into fire. That is really hard to hear.
In my own life I have gone through some significant periods of doubt and mistrust of God. I have seen friends die tragic and sudden deaths way too early. I have witnessed depression and anxiety that has quieted and dulled some of the most vividly alive spirits that I have known. I have watched addiction pull families apart. And to think that this doubt, pain, or withering would bring God’s holy pruning shears breaks my heart. In fact, it seems to go against the scope of God’s grace, which may point to a greater truth that Christ is naming for his disciples.
These two significant overlapping feelings of abiding trust in the sustaining vine of God, and fear that I could be cut off at my most vulnerable moments are so overwhelming to me that I’m not even really sure how to react. This tension is almost enough to limit my relationship with God. With this tension, I’m not sure I will be allowed to stay on the vine or not. I can be pretty dry sometimes. I have doubts, I have persistent questions, I have days where I am confused, and I have days where I am just not interested. If that means I would be cut off, I’m just not sure I want to show those parts of myself.
The truth is that those feelings, questions, and experiences of doubt and uncertainty already make us feel pruned back, raw, and vulnerable. And maybe that is the point Jesus is making. Maybe Jesus isn’t warning the disciples that God will remove them from the vine if they make a mistake, or doubt, or have periods of fruitlessness. It may be the case that my initial reading of the scripture as judgmental and exclusive missed some significant details that provide hope and healing. Maybe God is naming a truth that the disciples will learn in just a few short days.
These verses of scripture are a part of the last conversation that Jesus has with his disciples before he is arrested, put on trial, beaten, and crucified. They are lingering at the door after the last supper. Jesus has already washed everyone’s feet (John 13:1-20), Judas has already left to sell Jesus out to the leaders of the day (John 13:27-30), and Jesus has even said, “Get up, we’re leaving this place.”(John 14:31b) I wonder if Jesus is trying to help his disciples prepare for their grief.
Jesus knows that the disciples will abandon him, according to Matthew’s Gospel he’s even told them that they will (Matt. 26:31). Jesus knows that Peter will deny Jesus three times, he’s even told him that he will (John 13:38). Jesus knows that he will die and then come back, he’s even told the disciples that he will (John 10:17-18; 12:20-36). But hearing these things is much more palatable than actually having to live through them.
If there were ever a withered vine to be pruned, it would be Peter. He denies Jesus (John 18:15-27), he walks away from ministry to return to his fishing boat (John 21:3), and yet, it is his redemptive conversation with Jesus after the resurrection that John’s gospel focuses on (John 21:15-19). Peter isn’t cut off in his moments of denial. The disciples aren’t cut off in their moments of grief. Thomas isn’t cut off in his moments of doubt. It is in those moments that Jesus shows up most vividly.
Jesus doesn’t pull nourishment away from a fruitless vine. Jesus doesn’t withhold life from a dead branch. Jesus speaks life into death. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with having to be fruitful, perfect, or righteous. The message of the Gospel has nothing to do with God’s judgmental pruning shears. The message of the Gospel is that Jesus has conquered death. A branch attached to the vine cannot die. Any of us who struggles with life and faith is in good company of everyone else who has ever lived. Life is filled with heartache and tragedy as much as it is with joy and hope. But when we try to block that out, or when we try to put a happy face on when we just don’t feel like it, we cut ourselves off. See, I don’t believe God prunes us off of the vine, but I do worry that we cut ourselves off every time we try to pretend everything is okay when it isn’t.
As we continue our celebration of Easter this Sunday, I wonder what would happen if we opened our hearts and minds to a God who meets us in our grief. Like the disciples before us, we live in a complicated world that can be simultaneously inspiring and terrifying—sometimes in the same moment. What would happen if we could dwell in the presence of our God even through that tension? What if we brought our dry and weary bones to Christ’s presence seeking nourishment and resurrection? I imagine we might find that God finds a way to bring new life even to the most wounded and disconnected parts of ourselves.
The Rev. Patrick Faulhaber currently serves as the pastor to North Decatur United Methodist Church in Decatur Georgia, and as an associate to the Greater Decatur Cooperative Parrish. He and his wife Susannah Bales live with their dogs in Decatur, where they enjoy the wonderful food, fabulous walking trails, and creative spirit of the community.