Sometimes Jesus says things that are designed to make us unsettled.
"Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into a fire, and burned" (John 15).
Very blunt, this. Thrown away. Withered. Burned. Rather than try to see how Jesus softens the blow of these words with the Gospel, I began to wonder, "What if we take the words of Jesus, even these words, as the Good News?" It is easy to soften the force of these words. Right before Jesus talks of withered and burned, he says, "those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit..." But are his difficult words simply meant as a useful goad to faith in Jesus disciples? It is clear that Jesus is speaking to Christians with these sharp words, not to people who don't follow him. Are these words merely intended to 'awaken anxious inquiry' (J. Calvin)? Jesus' words certainly can act as a bracing call to self reflection. Can they be strange words of hope, too? Are these words Gospel? Perhaps they express Christ's absolute confidence that our lives can be productive in the Kingdom of heaven. No one bothers to prune a vineyard if they don't believe it has the strength to bear fruit. At the turn of each season, I see large fields of vegetable crops that have passed their prime production. The farmer no longer waters or sprays fields that have no hope of useful production. He just plows the plants under, and looks toward the crops of the next season.
But in Jesus comparison, God is still an attentive keeper of his vineyard. God has every confidence that we can bear fruit. Jesus' startling words call our attention to God's hope and expectation that our lives can mean something in the world. God not only expects us to bear fruit, he provides the strength necessary for us to do so:
"I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,..."