Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2018
Branches on the Vine
In John’s Gospel we are given a long discourse in the upper room on the night when Jesus was betrayed that spans about five chapters. Today’s teaching by Jesus falls right about in the middle. It helps us understand the aspect of abiding and the seemingly unrelated statement about being clean that appears in the middle of our reading. Jesus has been preparing the disciples for His death and for the ministry which they have been called into. He is describing for them the mystery of the Church through which Jesus will continue to proclaim the Good News and do the good works which glorify the Father.
While this way of describing the Church is not as common as the sheep and shepherd metaphor or the use of body and head as Paul would write, it is one that describes the relationship of Christ and His Church in a useful way. We may not all understand the intricacies of the agricultural profession but we do understand that pruning is a necessary activity and the basics of how a plant works, maybe even more than some as we enjoy syrup derived from the Maple’s sap.
Let’s first look at the one verse that seems a bit out of place. “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” While Jesus washing the disciples feet is a reading that we have on Maundy Thursday, it is connected to this reading as part of the same conversation in the upper room. Jesus washed the feet of His disciples and had that short exchange with Peter about not needing to wash the rest of the body because they were already clean, although not all of them, as He referred to His betrayer Judas. They were already made to be branches through the word of Jesus. You have been grafted into this vine by the word of Jesus as well in your Holy baptism. This cleansing by water and the Word is the first act and a necessary act if we are to be branches on the vine. While not directly related to the vine and branches, it is part of the greater conversation and is spoken to ensure the disciples of the purity applied to them and their status as branches. The rest of the discussion is about what it means to be a branch.
This is the time of year that everybody is cleaning up their yards. For those that have trees, the melting snow reveals a number of dead branches laying on the ground. The snow didn’t kill them but the weight of it caused the branches to break off and fall to the ground. These branches from my yard make it to the burn pile. Jesus describes such branches as those that do not abide in Him. At one time they were attached but now are no longer. There are any number of things that can act like the snow and break a branch away. It could be that the cares of the world have overwhelmed an individual and the worries of life have consumed him such that he thinks only about what he must do and relies upon his own abilities to succeed or overcome. It could be the carnal pleasures and the temporal satisfaction of sin that causes the branch to die on the vine. It could simply be laziness that no longer desires and then doesn’t receive the nourishment that comes from the vine. Apart from the vine they can do nothing. They cannot please God or glorify Him in their words or actions. They are simply collected and thrown into the fire. It is not that they are wicked by any standard. They could be upright and productive citizens. They may do all sorts of things that are wonderful but if they do not abide in Jesus, none of it glorifies God and is not acceptable as good fruit.
One of the things that has occupied the minds of church leaders at all levels for the past decades is the steady decline of membership. There are statistics that say all sorts of things but the reality is that most congregations see themselves as aging and diminishing. Part of this shrinking of the churches is attributed to the turn in cultural norms. Since it is no longer expected by a majority of society that we attend church, with the relaxed pressure, those that came for reasons other than real faith, have wandered away. But there are still some that outwardly are attached to the vine but lack faith and do not fear, love, and trust in God. They may look like are part of the Church but they will be taken away for their lack of fruit. A grape vine that does not produce grapes is of little use. Even an ornamental tree that does not bloom or produce its colorful foliage lacks its own kind of fruit and does not serve its purpose.
“Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit [God] takes away.” There is an expectation that each of us will produce fruit. It is remarkable that Jesus nurtured Judas along with the other disciples for the same three years of His ministry, only to dismiss him to his evil duty of betrayal just moments before this teaching. He was provide the same as the others even to the point that the others did not even know of his evil intent. But without real fruit because he did not truly abide in Jesus, he was cut off. Yet, the One that suffered and died is the One that produces fruit. It is in His loving of all twelve to the point of death that fruit is produced. It is in His trust of the Father that Jesus produces fruit. It is because of Him and His love for the Father and us that fruit is continued to be produced. And so our fruit is to look like His. They are to be the product of love that trusts in God in the face of all adversity and that loves our neighbor even as we love ourselves. As the vine gives all that is in Him to the branches, the branches are to give all that is in them to the fruit.
Jesus describes our abiding in this way: “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:9-10, 12). Loving meant that Jesus washed the feet of Judas just as He washed Peter’s. It means He died for the sins of the most wicked that you can imagine just as He died for yours. And so, our love, our fruit, should not be picky. We cannot be selective as to whom we love but we are to love all that God puts in our path and we are to love them as He has loved us.
If that were not enough, Jesus describes those producing fruit as being pruned that they might produce more fruit. This means that as we love and we give of ourselves, more will be expected. Other opportunities will be given, chances to sacrifice will be expanded. It does help to explain why Christians suffer as they do. We suffer humiliation and ridicule as our Lord suffered. We die to self but live to God as our Savior has. Pruning is not for the sake of the branch but for the sake fruit. It is expected that we should suffer and sacrifice of self for the good of our neighbor that our love might be known and our Father in heaven glorified.
When we think on such things, we feel as if we are going it alone but that is not true. You might not understand my situation nor be able to help and the same can be true of me not being able to sympathize or assist you directly but Jesus can. Our source is not each other as if one of us was the vine but it is Jesus who supplies our every need as the vine supplies the branch. As His word has made you clean, it is his word that feeds you and strengthens you to bear fruit. There may seem to be no earthly help or understanding but there is the One that understands completely and is an ever present help in time of need. He supplies you with exactly what you need as the vine supplies the branches. In His promises to never leave you nor forsake you, He sent out His disciples and He preserves His Church that forgiveness of sins is bestowed, that His body and blood be distributed and His branches receive and produce the fruit of life.
None of us is sure of our fruit and we are always aware of our failings. In answer to our doubts, Jesus encourages to ask and assures us that it will be done for us when we do. There is no greater thing to seek than forgiveness for where there is forgiveness there is life and salvation. Proving to be His disciples is not the same as earning such status. Just as and apple tree cannot bear oranges nor a fig tree grapes, one that abides in Jesus and His words abide in him, then his fruit will be the fruit of love, that is the fruit of God.
Receive your blessing in God’s love for you in Christ Jesus, abiding then, in Him, and you will be fruitful as He abides in you.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the holy Spirit. Amen.