You are clean…

As I mentioned in a recent post, it took me a long time to learn to prune fruit trees properly. I had no problem envisioning the goal: fresh, plump peaches dripping with sweet juice. But I had grown up in a house with no fruit trees and no backyard. I simply could not wrap my mind around the idea that you had to cut a tree back — to me, way too severely — in order to make it more fruitful. Being “nice” to the tree (or too lazy to do the work) meant stunted fruit.

Hopefully, Jesus’ disciples were a little more familiar with the imagery. Having told them “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower” (John 15:1, NRSV), Jesus continued: “He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” (vs. 2). This, I assume, would not have been much of a surprise to the disciples: Well, of course. Not sure exactly where you’re going with this whole “vine” thing, Lord, but surely any good vinegrower that cares about the fruit would do what you’re saying.

But then Jesus says something that sounds like a change of subject: “You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. (vs. 3). From pruning to cleansing? What gives?

If you have a study bible, the notes in the margin should explain the mystery: the words translated “prunes” in verse 2 and “cleansed” in verse 3 come from the same root (no pun intended — well, sort of intended, but really hard to avoid). It’s possible, in other words, to translate verse 2 as the gardener “cleansing” the vine.

To me, it’s also interesting to note that this is the same word that appears in the earlier story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. At first, Peter objects to this lowly act of service, and then does an about-face, impetuously asking Jesus to wash his head and hands as well. Jesus replies that it’s not necessary; Peter only needed to have his feet washed to be clean from head to toe. Then Jesus added a mysterious statement that the disciples probably didn’t understand at the time: “And you are clean, but not all of you” (13:10). As John realized later, it was a reference to Judas, who was about to vanish into the night to betray his master.

The disciples have already been cleansed by the word they have heard from Jesus. The implication is that when one truly receives the gospel — when Jesus’ words “abide in” the disciples (John 15:7) — God begins to use it to prune away all the things that get in the way of a fruitful life.

Judas, unfortunately, stands as the tragic counterexample, the one who instead sought to use Jesus to his purposes rather than the other way around. I have read commentators who raise a question about John 15: how is it possible that a branch could be in Jesus and not bear fruit? It’s a legitimate question. But surely that’s not more of a conundrum than Judas’ betrayal. Our part is not to wonder why others don’t abide, but to abide ourselves.

That will be the subject of Sunday’s post.