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Here We Grow – Pruning

Date: 03/04/2022/Speaker: Ps Pauline Ong

Last week, Miak spoke about how we are the branches of Jesus the Vine in John 15. In that passage, Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Abba is the vine grower who cuts off every branch in me that doesn’t bear fruit, but prunes the fruitful ones to increase their yield (or so that they will be even more fruitful). 

Question 1 (Word Cloud) 

What do you think Jesus is pruning us for?  

Holiness? Perfection? Righteous living?  

I would say Jesus is pruning us for love.  

If you knew you were about to die, what would you tell the people you love? What words of wisdom would you share or what last, urgent piece of advice would you offer? 

Jesus’ last instructions were about love. Love one another as I have loved you. 

John 13:33-35 (The Inclusive Bible) 

I give you a new commandment:  

Love one another.  

And you are to love one another 

the way I have loved you. 

This is how all will know that you’re my disciples: 

that you truly love one another.  

Remember, at this point in the story, Jesus’s crucifixion is just days away. These are some of his final words to his beloved disciples. His most important words that he wanted to convey to his disciples about living a life of faith. Jesus doesn’t say, “Believe the right things.”  He doesn’t say, “Maintain personal and doctrinal purity.” Instead he says, “Love one another.”  

One simple, straightforward commandment, summarizing Jesus’s deepest desire for his followers: “Love one another. And you are to love one another the way I have loved you.” 

There are two parts to this commandment – firstly, love one another. But it’s not just that. Jesus tells us the way he wants us to love – and it is to love one another the way Jesus has loved us. So Jesus wasn’t just talking about love in the abstract sense, or love in whatever way the world chooses to define love. Jesus is very clear in specifying the way we are to love. Love the way I have loved you. Love one another the way I have loved you. What this means is that in order to love in this way, you need to first experience being loved by Christ.  

To love in the way Jesus commands us to is not easy because it runs counter to what the world teaches us about love.  

In fact, right after Jesus tells his disciples to love one another, Peter tries to show his love for Jesus by an act of violence.  

John 18:1-11 

After saying these things, Jesus crossed the Kidron Valley with his disciples and entered a grove of olive trees. 2 Judas, the betrayer, knew this place, because Jesus had often gone there with his disciples. 3 The leading priests and Pharisees had given Judas a contingent of Roman soldiers and Temple guards to accompany him. Now with blazing torches, lanterns, and weapons, they arrived at the olive grove. 

4 Jesus fully realized all that was going to happen to him, so he stepped forward to meet them. “Who are you looking for?” he asked. 

5 “Jesus the Nazarene,”[a] they replied. 

“I am he,”[b] Jesus said. (Judas, who betrayed him, was standing with them.) 6 As Jesus said “I am he,” they all drew back and fell to the ground! 7 Once more he asked them, “Who are you looking for?” 

And again they replied, “Jesus the Nazarene.” 

8 “I told you that I am he,” Jesus said. “And since I am the one you want, let these others go.” 9 He did this to fulfill his own statement: “I did not lose a single one of those you have given me.”[c] 

10 Then Simon Peter drew a sword and slashed off the right ear of Malchus, the high priest’s slave. 11 But Jesus said to Peter, “Put your sword back into its sheath. Shall I not drink from the cup of suffering the Father has given me? 

In Luke 22, we see an added dimension to this same story: 

When Jesus’ followers saw what was going to happen, they said, “Lord, should we strike with our swords?” 50 And one of them struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his right ear. 

51 But Jesus answered, “No more of this!” And he touched the man’s ear and healed him. 

Question 2 (Word Cloud) 

What do you think Peter’s action was motivated by?  

So Peter was all ready to exact violence, even kill for Jesus. But interestingly, he wasn’t ready to die for Jesus. Immediately after this incident, we read that Jesus was seized and led away to the house of the high priest, and Peter was following at a distance. As Jesus had predicted earlier, when Peter was identified as someone who belonged to Jesus’ entourage, he vehemently denied even knowing Jesus – three times. Peter was ready to kill but he was not ready to die for Jesus.  

Was it love that motivated his action? Or was it ego and false bravado?       

As far as we know, the healing of Malchus’ ear was the last miracle Jesus performed during his earthly ministry. What does this tell us about Jesus? Just before he goes to the cross, he pauses to reach out and help someone who is considered the enemy! This man was part of a group that was antagonistic toward Jesus. But Jesus didn’t say, “Finally, one of you got what you deserve!”  

Instead, he reached out to the man in his need, touched him, and supernaturally healed him. Interestingly, the high priest who is a Sadducee, was vehemently opposed to Jesus’ supernatural ministry. Yet it was the high priest’s own servant who received a supernatural touch from Jesus! 

What a contrast Jesus’ actions were to Peter’s behavior! Perhaps Peter acted out of ego and toxic masculinity, but in contrast Jesus demonstrated what true love and genuine care really looks like, even to those who were instrumental in capturing him and leading him to his crucifixion. Remember what Jesus said about love?  

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13)  

Love does not lead one to kill or to exact violence. We cannot justify violence with love.   

True love is being willing to lay down one’s life, if necessary.   

“Love one another as I have loved you.” That’s what Jesus is pruning us for — Love.  

And in order for us to truly be able to love, Jesus needs to prune away violence.   

This past week, people all over the world were making all kinds of comments about the incident where Will Smith slapped Chris Rock during the Academy Awards. I’m not here to add to the many comments and opinions about Will Smith’s actions. I just want to make a point that beyond Will Smith, we live in a world and culture that not only accepts violence, we glorify it.  

If you think about it, all our superhero stories are filled with violence as a means to justice and peace. Walter Wink says, “The true religion of America (and indeed of the world) is violence.” Violence is embedded in 75% of the movies we watch. It’s ubiquitous – the premise of most superhero movies is that the only way to rid the world of evil is through violence! 

In Singapore, children are allowed to watch movies with violent themes but they are not allowed to watch movies with wholesome lgbtq families. That’s how prevalent violence is in our modern day culture.    

“The myth of redemptive violence is the simplest, laziest, most exciting, uncomplicated, irrational, and primitive depiction of evil the world has even known.” 

-Walter Wink, The Myth of Redemptive Violence 

“Love will make you do crazy things.” That’s what actor Will Smith said during his Oscars acceptance speech at the Academy Awards ceremony after he slapped Chris Rock. In the past, Will Smith has been open about his deep insecurities around failing to protect the women in his life, and how he grew up in a culture of violence in his neighborhood and family. Sometimes when people act out violently, they claim it’s in the name of true love.  

But love must never be equated with violence. There is no excuse for violence. That’s what Jesus was trying to teach Peter and all his followers.    

“We are effectively destroying ourselves by violence masquerading as love.” – Ronald David Laing, The Politics of Experience 

One thing that needs to be pruned from all of us is violence.  

Question 3 (Open)  

What is violence? 

Most people would say violence is an act of physical aggression that causes harm.  

Will Smith made a public apology a few days ago and said, “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behavior was unacceptable and inexcusable.” And at the end of his apology, he recognized that he is a work in progress.  

We are all works in progress. You know, violence is more than acts of physical aggression. Violence includes the things we do and say that causes harm to ourselves and others. When we say something to someone that hurts their self-esteem, when we pass around gossip and rumours about another person that hurts them and destroys their ability to trust, when we tell ourselves we are not good enough or are undeserving of love. All these are acts of violence.          

“The real violence, the violence I realized was unforgivable, is the violence that we do to ourselves, when we’re too afraid to be who we really are.” – Nomi, Sense8 

So we commit violence to ourselves and others more often than we realize.  

In order to prune us for love, Jesus has to trim and cut away the parts of us that exact violence on ourselves and others. Through our words, our thoughts, our unhelpful beliefs, our actions and our inaction. If we don’t speak up in moments when we witness violence, we are perpetuating violence through our inaction.  

Question 4 (Open)  

What are the parts of you that exact violence on yourself and others? 

Pruning of the Japanese Maple Tree  

In Japan, there is a special Japanese gardening technique called “open center pruning” and this kind of pruning is responsible not only for the sculptural appeal of the maple tree, but also for the uncluttered space and serenity in the garden as a whole. 

When a Japanese gardener “prunes open,” she cuts away not only dead branches and foliage, but also often a number of perfectly healthy branches that detract from the beauty inherent in the tree’s essential structure. Pruning open allows the visitor to see up, out, and beyond the trees to the sky, creating a sense of spaciousness and letting light into the garden. It also enables a tree to flourish by removing complicating elements, simplifying structure, and revealing its essence. The process of pruning open turns the tree inside out, so to speak, revealing the beautiful design inherent within it. 

In the same way, God the gardener is pruning us open – cutting away all that hinders us from loving well. God desires for us to live like the Japanese maple tree, our true essence revealed and flourishing, our true self front and center, secure and thriving. God yearns for us to live wholeheartedly and truthfully as the unique, beautiful, beloved individuals God created us to be. Most of all, God’s deepest desire is for us to know God, to root our whole selves in God like a tree rooted by a stream, and to know God’s deep, abiding love for us.  

God invites us into intimate relationship . . . so that we may then live more compassionately and intimately with those around us. We are the windows, as Henri Nouwen said, through which others may glimpse God. And they are windows through which we might glimpse God. 

Jesus says, “Love as I have loved you.”    

Can we really be able to do that? Honestly, doesn’t it sound like Jesus is asking for the impossible? How will we love as Jesus loved? Do we have it in us to go the extra mile for others or even risk our lives if needs be? 

For most of us, including me, we would prefer to be safe. Keep our circles small and choose the people we love based on our own preferences, and not on Jesus’ all-inclusive commandment.  

And yet this was Jesus’s dying wish. Which means that we have a God who first and foremost wants every child to feel loved. Not shamed. Not punished. Not judged. Not isolated. But loved. 

But that’s not all. Jesus follows his commandment with an amazing and challenging promise: “By this everyone will know.” Meaning, love is the litmus test of Christian witness. Our love for each other is how the world will know who we are and whose we are. Our love for each other is how the world will see, taste, touch, hear, and find Jesus.  

I’m not sure how you feel about this statement but it seems Jesus is saying if we fail to love one another, the world won’t know what it needs to know about God’s love. We are the body of Christ – Christ’s living, breathing, healing body on earth. Whether intentionally or not, people are observing. How we love or not love one another speaks volumes about who Jesus is. Yes, there are times when we fail. Yes, there will be times when we let God and each other down. But we can certainly try and hopefully grow in the way we love. It’s a tall order so what can we do? Where do we even begin?  

Jesus offers a single, straightforward answer: “Abide in my love.” Following on what Miak preached about last week, Jesus explains the metaphor of the vine and branches, and calls us once again to abide. To stay, to remain, to rest, to make our home in Christ and his love.  

I think we often treat Jesus as a role model, and then we become disappointed with ourselves when we can’t live up to his high standards. But Jesus is telling us that the way to love as he has loved us is not through our sheer willpower and our own strength. It’s by abiding in his love.  

“In the vine-and-branches metaphor, Jesus’s love is not our example; it’s our source.  It’s where our love originates and deepens. Where it replenishes itself. In other words, if we don’t abide, we can’t love. Jesus’s commandment to us is not that we wear ourselves out, trying to conjure love from our own easily depleted resources.  

Rather, it’s that we abide in the holy place where divine love becomes possible. That we make our home in Jesus’s love — the most abundant and inexhaustible love in existence. 

As is so often the case in our lives as Christians, Jesus’s commandment leads us straight to paradox: we are called to action via rest.  Called to become love as we abide in love.   

In other words, we will become what we attend to; we will give away what we take in.  The commandment — or better yet, the invitation — is to drink our fill of the Source, which is Christ, spill over to bless the world, and then return to the Source for a fresh in-filling. This is our movement, our rhythm, our dance. Over and over again.  

This is where we begin and end and begin again. “Love one another as I have loved you.” “Abide in my love.” – Debi Thomas 

We are called to action via rest. Jesus truly is the expert in paradox. But there is such wisdom in this, right? We are called to become love as we abide in love. Action and rest, abiding and love are not two separate actions. They are one and the same. This impossible commandment is made possible through abiding with Christ. One step at a time, one person at a time. But it’s all about love for you, me and the world. 

So what does this mean for you and me? I believe the call to love is a call to weep with those who weep. To laugh with those who laugh. To touch the untouchables, feed the hungry, welcome the children, release the captives, forgive those who sin against us, confront the oppressors, comfort the oppressed, serve one another, hold each other close, and tell each other the truth in love. The call is to guide each other home. 

And we don’t have to do it alone. In fact, together we are stronger.  

I have shared with you in the past about the redwoods or sequoias in California, which are the largest trees on the planet. But recently, I discovered something very interesting about them. Do you know how these redwoods maintain such height? Sequoia trees have relatively shallow root systems that only grow 2 to 6 metres below the ground.  

However, they grow close to one another so they can share nutrients and their roots are intertwined. They are literally holding each other up. This interconnectedness is what allows them the strength and stability to grow incredibly tall and live for thousands of years.  

Like the redwood, we learn to love one another only when we are in community. We learn how to share our nutrients and how to hold each other up, through the good and the difficult times. I am thankful that we are able to have hybrid services now due to the pandemic but for those of you who are able to come to church in person, I want to strongly encourage you to come and reconnect, rebuild and renew your bonds. We cannot carry out Jesus’ commandment to love when we are distant and disconnected. Even as things open up in Singapore, Miak and I are looking forward to reconnecting with you in deeper ways.    

So can we learn to love one another as Christ has loved us? Yes, when we learn to abide in Jesus and drink our fill from the Source, which is Christ. Action and rest, love and abide.  

I would like to end my sermon today with a blessing from A Black Rock Prayer Book. I read it recently and found it very moving so I’d like to share it with you in closing: 

The world now is too dangerous and too beautiful  
for anything but love. 
May your eyes be so blessed you see God in everyone. 
Your ears, so you hear the cry of the poor. 
May your hands be so blessed 
that everything you touch is a sacrament. 
Your lips, so you speak nothing but the truth with love. 
May your feet be so blessed you run to those who need you. 
And may your heart be so opened, so set on fire, 
that your love, your love, changes everything. 
And may the blessing of the God who created you, loves you, 
and sustains you, be with you now and always.