In John's Gospel Jesus gives a number of speeches on his own identity. Some of these are the great “I AM” passages – in fact we had one last week, in which Jesus declared, “I AM the Good Shepherd”. He also says, I am the Bread of Life, I am the Light of the World, I am the Resurrection and the Life, Way the Truth and the Life, Today he uses another grand metaphor to illustrate who he is, and what is his relationship with us, his people.
Jesus is the True Vine, and we are the branches. The comparison extends a bit more - the Father is the gardener, and the fruit we bear is good works. Some vines, unbelievers, bear no fruit. They are condemned to the fire. Simple enough?
And yet there is much to learn from this teaching. There is great comfort in knowing Jesus the Vine, and knowing what it means to be a branch grafted into him. So let's examine it more closely.
But first a reminder – that apart from Christ, there is no fruit. Severed from the True Vine, there is no hope. These are the unbelievers, who have no connection to Christ, no faith or trust in him. Their destiny is destruction. And this would be you... if not for God's grace in Christ!
This takes faith to see. For the eyes of the world will see all sorts of “fruit” in both our lives and the lives of unbelievers. You don't have to be a Christian to feed the poor, care for the sick, be a good citizen, or raise your children to be respectful. You don't have to believe in Jesus to be nice to people, or to be regarded as a “good person”. The world looks at the outward things, the surface, and sees what it considers good according to its own standard. In fact by outward standards, we might even say many unbelievers are far better than Christians!
But don't be tempted to do the same! Jesus is quite clear. “Apart from me you can do nothing!” In other words, apart from Jesus, none of these so-called good works amount to a hill of beans. You could win all the accolades of man and affect the lives of millions of people for the better and it would still not be fruitful in the eyes of God. Your good works, even the best of them, would be filthy rags. Your towering moral achievements wouldn't stand the test of God's perfection. They are, you are, after all, like all of us, sinful. And even your best is corrupt and wicked and stinks of death.
If I do good, am I not proud of it? Haven't I done it with some expectation of selfish gain? Even if it's just for the warm fuzzy feeling of satisfaction, the good vibes we give ourselves when we do something nice? Am I doing it truly out of love for neighbor, or with some other motivation or agenda? Or perhaps I do it, but grudgingly, and only to avoid looking bad or some other punishment. I do it so as to avoid some more negative scenario. But how commendable is that?
Sinful man can appear to do all sorts of good things, when the fruit is rotten on the inside, and is really no fruit at all. The outward works count for nothing. God sees the heart. He can't be fooled.
“Apart from me you can do nothing” Nothing good, that is. Nothing but sin, rebel, and make your situation with God worse. Apart from Christ is not where you want to me.
But Jesus is the true vine. And we are not apart from him, we are in him. We are in him by the grafting-in of Holy Baptism, where we are made members of his kingdom. The word he speaks to us cleanses us. That word is his Gospel – the good news of salvation that comes by the fruits of his cross. His blood shed for you and me, his life given for you and me, there, is the source of our life. And we are in him, and we have that life, as we abide in his word, believing and trusting that what he says is true – even when it doesn't look to be.
So when he says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit”. There are plenty of places in Scripture where good works are commanded, but this is not one of them. Here, instead is a promise. And here is great comfort. I know that, looking at myself, my good works amount to little. Against the perfect standard of the law, they don't stand up. The closer we inspect our fruit, the more fault we'll find with ourselves (if we're honest). And it will look like no good fruit at all. But there is this promise of Jesus that we will bear much fruit. And so we believe it. No matter what our life looks like, we know that in him, abiding in him, the fruit will come.
One commentator puts it this way, “From God's point of view the entire life of the Christian, by virtue of the fact that he is attached to Jesus, the Vine, is a good work. No wonder Jesus uses the expression "MUCH fruit" twice... It's either MUCH fruit or none.”
But he never says it's our job to assess our own fruitfulness. What branch does that anyway? That's the gardener's job. We are directed to trust in the word, to remain in Christ, and thus receive our life from the True Vine.
The fruitless branches he casts away and burns. And the fruitful branches, he makes even more fruitful – by pruning.
Here again we call on faith to trust the word where our eyes say different. The branch probably doesn't like being pruned. It's damaging. It probably feels like being cut off. Why would that crazy gardener come and cut off parts of me, the branch might think, if it could.
Martin Luther expanded the pruning metaphor, and imagined the gardener also applying manure. But it all starts with Christ himself. Here's how Luther said Christ could put it:
" (They) will throw manure at Me and will hack away at Me. They will shamefully revile and blaspheme Me, will torture, scourge, crucify, and kill Me in the most disgraceful manner, so that all the world will suppose that I must finally perish and be destroyed. But the fertilizing and pruning I suffer will yield a richer fruit: that is, through My cross and death I shall come to My glory, begin My reign, and be acknowledged and believed throughout the world.
Later on you will have the same experience. You, too, must be fertilized and cultivated in this way. The Father, who makes Me the Vine and you the branches, will not permit this Vine to lie unfertilized and unpruned."
And for Luther, the Devil is God's manure: "God takes him in hand and says: “Devil, you are indeed a murderer and an evildoer; but I will use you for My purpose. You shall be My hoe; the world and your following shall be My manure for the fertilization of My vineyard.”
So too, the believer, when God “prunes” us to make us more fruitful. He does things in our lives, allows troubles in our lives, that we don't always understand or like. He allows suffering, perhaps even sends it at times. But the purpose and end of it are his own – to make us more faithful, more fruitful. Though it may be painful, though it may require endurance, God is in charge of his vineyard, and he knows better than we do. So trust. Endure. And abide in Christ.
One final comforting promise, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Ah, but words that are often misunderstood and misapplied. This isn't Jesus as the wish-granting genie of the lamp, “your wish is my command”. It's not “Jesus make me rich”, “Jesus if you're real heal my disease” or even, “Jesus take my suffering away”.
He says whatever you ask, abiding in my word, it will be done for you. But what kind of prayers do we pray, abiding in his word? Prayers of faith.
Prayers that trust him to do what is best. Prayers of thy will, not my will be done, Oh Lord. Prayers that know he will answer, in his way, at his time. Prayers that know and trust that in the end he will make all things new, and right, and good. Prayers that are rooted in the true vine – the source of our life- Jesus Christ.
Apart from him we can do nothing, no good works, not even pray. But in him is all hope and comfort and life. Even when we are pruned, we know it is for God's good purposes. We have the promise that more fruit will come.