Easter 5 – (May 15th 2006)
“Vine and Branches”
I. Introduction –
I usually like to leave the scriptural teachings about agriculture to Pastor Poppe, who is eminently more qualified than I. He grew up on a farm and has a degree in “crop science”. I am a spoiled suburban brat, who knows lots about eating food, but little about growing it.
But today we come to John 15, and it falls to me. And thankfully Jesus is less concerned with the details of the biology, and more concerned with teaching the reality of his relationship to his people.
Jesus spins a great metaphor, “I am the Vine; you are the branches”. It’s one of the 7 great “I AM” statements of John’s Gospel. And today we will draw from this text 3 insights for our faith – the importance of remaining in the vine, the meaning of bearing fruit, and the promise of receiving what we ask for.
II. Remaining in the Vine
Jesus is the vine, and we are the branches. One key word in Jesus explanation of this relationship is, “remain”. “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” “If a man remains in me…” “If you remain in me…”. He repeats this idea again and again. Just what does he mean, “remain in him?”.
Well we can see easily enough the importance for a branch to remain on the vine. Every child knows that when cut off from the main plant, a branch dies. It’s the way plants work. Vines, bushes, trees, houseplants. It’s all the same. The branches need the vine, because that’s where they draw sustenance. From the vine comes life.
Apart from Jesus, we die. That’s the reality. Sin is a withering disease that would destroy us. But with Jesus, and in Jesus, there is life. His death on the cross, and his rising from the dead, bring new and true and eternal life to all his people. In this Easter season we are continually reminded that Christ is the source for our life – life with God, and life even from the dead.
What a blessing it is to be connected to Christ! To be grafted into him, a very part of him. Another word-picture in scripture express the same truth – for he is the head, and we, the church, are the body of Christ. We become part of him.
And we also have numerous promises that such a connection cannot be severed. “Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ”. “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you”.
III. Bearing Fruit
Another key word in this great metaphor is “fruit”. The gardener (God the Father) will cut off (condemn) any branch (person) that does not bear fruit (has no good works). But Jesus promises that the branch remaining in him will bear “much fruit”. Not just some, not a tiny bit. “Much fruit”.
And so we look at our lives and don’t see much fruit. We don’t see many good works. Or the ones we see are tainted by sin. But a few things to remember: 1) We won’t always see our own fruit. God has a way of working through us without our knowing it. 2) In Christ, God sees our whole life as one of good works. In fact, we get the credit for Christ’s perfect life. His fruit becomes our fruit. And 3) The fruit we do bear, we don’t bring about. God does. That’s why Jesus mentions the pruning.
Martin Luther tells a delightful dialogue about what a vine might say to the gardener if it could speak:
The vine sees the vinedresser, or gardener, coming with his pruning shears and other tools to work around it and says: "What are you doing? That hurts, don't you know that? Now I must wither and decay, for you are removing the soil from around my roots and are tearing away at my branches with those iron teeth. You are tearing and pinching me everywhere, and I will have to stand in the ground bare and seared. You are treating me worse than any tree or plant."
And the gardener would then reply: "You are a fool and do not understand. For even if I do cut a branch from you, it is a totally useless branch; it takes away your strength and your sap. Then the other branches, which should bear fruit, must suffer. Away with it! This is for your own good." Then the vine would say: "But you do not understand! I have a different feeling about it!" The gardener declares: "But I understand it well. I am doing this for your welfare, to keep the foreign and wild branches from sucking out the strength and the sap of the others. Now you will be able to yield more and better fruit and produce good wine."
The same thing is true when the gardener applies the cow manure to the root of the vine; this, too he does for the benefit of the vine even though the vine might complain and say: "What in the world are you doing? Isn't it bad enough for you to hack and cut at me all day long, trimming this an cutting off that branch? Why, now are you putting that foul smelling stuff at my roots?! I am a vine, to yield delicious grapes to make wonderful wine, and you are putting that terrible smelling stuff near me, it will destroy me!" Of course, we know well that the badly smelling manure does well to put fertilizer and nutrients into the soil so that the vine might grow and prosper and produce an even better crop.
What Luther is saying here, indeed, what Christ is saying, is that sometimes life hurts. Sometimes life stinks. But God the gardener knows better than we the branches. And he has our best interests in mind, though it may not always seem so to us.
IV. Asking and Receiving
Our third main insight is one that also comes out in our Epistle reading. That whatever we ask for in prayer, we will receive. Or, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be given to you”.
The sinful temptation is to read these promises with selfish thoughts. We all have our most-wanted list, and could imagine if God really did send us anything we asked – what spoiled children we would be!
It seems obvious that he is not including ridiculous or sinful requests. For
if God promises the faithful they will get what they ask for, then we must ask, “for what does faith pray?”
Faith prays for God’s will to be done, not our will. And with such a prayer you can never go wrong. Here, too, God has our best interests in mind even if we don’t understand or agree with his answer. One of my favorite hymns, “God Moves in a Mysterious Way” puts it this way:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
Faith sees a smiling face.
In other words, sometimes behind God’s apparent, “no”, there is an even bigger yes. As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1, “For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ”
Faith prays that we will remain in Christ, that our sins are forgiven, that our eternity with God is secure. And faith is never disappointed.
Faith prays that we stay connected to the True Vine. That we receive our sustenance from him. That we bear much fruit, in him. Faith prays that we find our life, always, only, in him. And faith is never disappointed.
“I am the Vine,” Jesus says, “You are the branches.” “Remain in me, and I will remain in you”. Amen.
V. Conclusion In this great “I AM” statement, Jesus establishes a grand metaphor for the encouragement of his disciples. He is the vine, and apart from him we wither. But remaining in him brings life and much fruit!