Sermon for Easter 5
The Scriptures do not leave us in doubt, nor do they leave it to our imagination, to figure out what it is to remain in Christ, what that looks like. It looks like love for each other, sacrificial love that lays down its life for others, calling each other friends, not servants, people who know Christ and who know the Father. If we’re left in doubt about this, if we’re imagining what it is, it’s because we’ve managed to keep our noses out of his Word.
That is a decidedly non-Christian way to behave. Christians keep their noses in the Word of God. Acts shows us that. The burning desire of Philip was to be in the Word so as to explain that Word to that Ethiopian. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” he asked the man. And that man, hearing the word about Christ, could do nothing except beg for Baptism.
Think of Jesus traveling to Jerusalem. He sees a fig tree with leaves upon it. When you see leaves, you expect fruit. It doesn’t matter if it’s not the season, you say. If you see what you normally connect with fruit, you expect fruit. Jesus came to the tree and saw no fruit, so he cursed it and it withered.
We expect to see Christians bearing fruit. That’s what Christians do. When exhorting people to go to private confession to receive forgiveness, Luther said, “Christians should act like Christians.” Likewise, exhorting people to receive the Sacrament, he said, “Christians do this. They eat the meal that God provides for their forgiveness.” At Augsburg, the first Lutheran princes confessed, “Faith is bound to bring forth good fruit…because of God’s will.” We heard Jesus and John say it today. “If a man remains in me he will bear much fruit.” John told us about loving not with words and tongue, but in action and truth as evidence “that we belong to the truth.” Luther was willing to say, and our Lutheran Church agrees in its confession of faith, “If good works do not follow, the faith is false and not true.”
These fruits are obvious, both the abundance and the lack. In Galatians Paul lists a bunch: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness. These fruits give evidence of the Spirit. Likewise, the opposite: sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, jealousy, selfish ambition, envy, drunkenness. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount isn’t mystifying: pray and serve, don’t harm, no revenge, be faithful to promises made. James 2 says help your brother in need. Throughout John 13-15 Jesus hammers it home: love God, love your neighbor.
And God removes the branches that produce no fruit. In this text that we talk about people to whom we would attach the label “Christian.” “He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit.” That “in me” is the key. God examines his garden, his beloved garden. That’s what the Father does. He goes from branch to branch to see the fruit it produces. Even though God could simply look in the heart. He has that power to see if a branch is really a branch or not. But he looks where we look, at the fruit. “By their fruit you will know them.” Yes, indeed.
So we’re already past conversion here. This isn’t a text telling us how to get attached to the vine, how to become a believer in Christ. This isn’t advocating good works as a plan of salvation. Do these works of the law, fear God, honor your parents, preserve life, protect property and reputation and the Father will graft you in. No. As our Confessions say, in complete agreement with Scripture, we talk about works only with the idea of what Christ has already done for us behind them. He said that here today: “Apart from me you can do nothing.” “No branch can bear fruit by itself.” “Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” Most powerfully, “You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you.”
The Father grafts us into the vine of his doing. “You did not choose me, but I chose you,” Jesus says moments later in John 15. In Romans, as Paul rebukes the Jews, God’s chosen vineyard as Isaiah called them, he describes how God took the non-Jews, the Gentiles, the nations, and by his grace, by his choice, out of his love and mercy, grafted them into the vine. He attached them to Christ. Very plainly and very simply: by faith.
Here’s Paul’s logic. You can’t call on the one you don’t believe in. Because you’re not attached to him. You can’t believe in the one you haven’t heard about. You know nothing of this true vine. You can’t hear without someone preaching. It’s a fact of nature, I get knowledge by hearing about things. No one can preach unless they are sent. Feet bring the mouths that preach good news. And faith comes from hearing that message, and that message is heard through the Word of Christ. A word Christ speaks of twice in our Gospel. We heard the first, “You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you.” Second: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you.”
The word Jesus uses for “clean” is related to the word translated “prune.” They bring us our word “catharsis.” Cleansing, purging, purifying, a release from tension, spiritual renewal. Exactly the Word’s words. The Spirit calls Baptism a washing of rebirth and renewal. His Word, that which makes Baptism anything, cleanses and prunes. It cuts away that which is unnecessary, that which is unhelpful, that which prevents growth. “So that,” Jesus says, “it will be even more fruitful.”
That’s why we prune plants, no? So they will grow again, even better than before. It seems extreme sometime, to trim back a tree or bush the way we do. So too God’s pruning. It seems extreme to get rid of so much that we know and love and are comfortable with. Follow Jesus. Bear the cross. Hate this life. Fear, love, and trust him above all things. Don’t worry about tomorrow. Ask an invisible God and wait for him to give. Pour water on babies. Look to crumbs and sips as spiritual nourishment. Come, time and time again to a Word that seems no more powerful that Shakespeare’s sonnets. This is the discipline of our God, to hide his glory behind weakness, and finally suffering and death.
Jesus calls himself the true vine, and then we watch that vine wither away and die. We watch Jesus allow them to apply the machete to him and sever him from the Father. He is that root coming out of dry ground that everybody looks past or assumes will die. And he does die. How can we bear fruit if the vine is dead? Not just pruned, but actually dead?
It seems foolish to view this as our hope, the cleansing word. Until we hear Jesus talk about death. In John 12 he talks about the seed planted that dies so that it produces the stalk and life. In John 11 he speaks to grieving sisters and calls himself the resurrection and the life before preaching the best sermon ever: short, sweet, and to the point: “Lazarus, come forth!”
Apart from that word we have nothing. Jesus promises only fire, the fire prepared for dry branches that are separate, or, as Jesus said in verse 1, removed by the gardener because they bear no fruit. Apart from Christ we have nothing. With Christ, we have everything. We remain in, we believe in, the one who is the true vine, alive, though once dead. We have life in us.
That gives his words staying power. So he says, “If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be given you.” Jesus focuses on the spoken word, not just the general concept, the Word, but the very words he speaks, the syllables, phrases, and sentences. They must remain in and with us, for that is how the Spirit calls us and grafts us into Jesus, makes us remain in Jesus. We chew upon them. They feed us life. They fertilize us, make us grow, give us strength. Jesus is, after all, the bread of life, the water of life; his flesh is true food, his blood, true drink.
Bound up with that: “Ask whatever you wish.” Jesus makes this one of his prayer pericopes. “If you are in me and have my word,” he promises, “you have my Father, and that means you are an heir of his, a co-heir with me, his Son.” We are, after all, his shoots, his planting. He grafted us in at our Baptism. He nurtures us with his Word and through His Sacrament, so that we will bear fruit to his glory, so that we will be disciples of Jesus. So, it all makes sense. He’s proud. He wants to show off his prize winning plant. He bought us with a price, as Paul says, so that our bodies might honor him.
This is why Paul says to the Romans, “In view of God’s mercy, offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God, this is your spiritual act of worship.” In view of God’s mercy. The mercy that gave a Son to be the vine that connects us to the Father. A vine whose sap, whose life blood flows through us by faith, the blood of Jesus, his Son, that purifies us from all sins. The blood Jesus shed, but then took up again in resurrection so that it might stand ready for us on our altar, ready for us to drink to our benefit, to our forgiveness, as we taste the true vine to whom we are connected, in whom we remain, apart from whom we can do nothing. The vine with whom we have everything. In Jesus we have life, to the full, into eternity, for in Jesus we are God’s vineyard. Amen.