The Fourth Sunday After Easter May 18, 2003
360, 371(1-4,7), 411(1-5), 800 [alt: Go My Children with My Blessing]
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
[Jesus said], “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.
In Christ Jesus who is our true Vine, dear fellow-redeemed:
Summer vacation is just around the corner. For many eager students that means a summer filled with a variety of activities other than school. While in school myself, summer meant fun and activities on the farm together with some work. For a number of years it was part of the ritual of summer to walk through the corn and bean fields pulling out the weeds.
Among my brothers there was a bit of a challenge as to who could walk the most rows of beans in the least amount of time. As the youngest of the bean walkers, I couldn’t really compete with my older brothers (as much as I wanted to) and still do a good job. So, I tried to compete by pulling the tops off the weeds so they wouldn’t show and leaving the roots in the ground. More than once an older brother reminded me that in order for the work to be effective I had to be sure to pull the weed out by its roots.
If the roots of a plant are in place, things can happen on the top and the plant will still grow—in some cases even flourish more than before. Such is the picture Jesus uses when He calls Himself the true vine. When a branch is hooked into a vine it can survive and produce fruit. But if that branch is cut off (just like roots being pulled out of the ground) then it’s going to stop bearing fruit and die.
We are the branches hooked into Jesus as our vine. We are nourished through Him with His Word. As we consider Jesus’ vineyard picture more fully we find that WE ARE LIVING BRANCHES BY THE WORD AND WORK OF THE LORD OUR GOD I. Branches draw life from the Vine II. Branches receive tending from the Vinedresser III. Branches produce fruit from the Vine for the Vinedresser.
Jesus begins by saying, “I Myself am the TRUE vine.” [v.1] Jesus leaves no room open for any other vine to exist at all. He is exclusively the ONE TRUE vine. Jesus uses a similar expression when He calls Himself the one Good Shepherd (John 10:8ff). Just as there are many false shepherds out in the world who can lead sheep astray (Jesus calls them thieves and robbers) so there are many false vines who want us to hook our branches into them. But hear again what Jesus so clearly says, “I AM the TRUE VINE—Myself and none other,” Jesus says.
Just how “true” is Jesus as our vine? Plants that are young and tender can’t endure too much. When a gardener sets transplants out into the garden it is best to shield them from the full force of the wind and sun if he doesn’t want them to be “set back” and possibly die. However, consider an older much more established plant that has been its place for years and has sunk its roots deeply into the ground. Such a plant can weather many things because those deep roots give stability against the storms, and those deep roots gather nourishment when everything on top is dry and bleak.
Jesus is the True Vine that is established. He is the True Vine that nothing can shake because He is the Almighty Son of God. If we go to other vines they exist and have a way of living for a little while, but they cannot endure. Jesus the True Vine is so true that nothing can move Him and He will provide sustenance to the branches even in the worst of conditions.
Consider the “vine” of fair-weather friends. These are friends who are there for us, but only when the going is good. Jesus promises to be with you not only in the fair weather, but throughout all the hurricanes and tornadoes of life.
Friends sometimes don’t know what to say. They can empathize with us and say, “I can tell you are miserable and troubled, but I don’t know what to say.” Jesus ALWAYS knows what to say and He tells us what He wants to say in His Word. We may have friends and others who would say, “You know, I would help you if I could, but I just can’t. What could I do?!” Jesus says, “I CAN and I WILL help you.”
There are people in the world who pretend to be vines supporting branches, but what they really want to do is obtain branches so they can suck the energy right out of a branch. A vine that feeds on the branch will destroy the branch. Jesus is a true vine whose goal is not to feed FROM the branches, but to give food and life TO the branches. Jesus gave His life on the cross for your sake and mine. Jesus is the true vine—so true and dependable and genuine that He gave of Himself for the branches. Jesus is the only way to find true life. We read in Acts, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
Apart from Christ there is no life. Apart from Christ there is sin and no forgiveness for it. Jesus is the TRUE VINE and gives forgiveness and life. On the opposite side, Jesus also says in our text: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” [v.6] Unless we are connected to the True Vine we will face eternal condemnation.
Jesus as the true Vine is also large. He is the vine for many, almost countless branches. Imagine going into a vineyard and seeing acre after acre of lush, fruit laden vines and then you notice something interesting. As you follow each of those vines you see that they are all connected and finally every one of them connects to one massive, life-giving trunk in the middle. Everything else that you see—acres and acres of productive vineyard—is supported by one vine! That is Jesus, our one true vine.
In Ephesians, Paul uses a different picture and says that we are all blocks of a building and Jesus is our cornerstone “in whom the whole building, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord…” (Ephesians 2:20-21). Jesus is the one stone by whom all believers are built into His Church. Jesus is the one vine to whom every child of God connects. So when we meet fellow Christians in the world, as we interact with them, as we see the blessings of God in their lives and see them living as children of God—it all traces back to Christ!
Jesus has made us branches of this amazing vine through the Gospel. He says, “You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you.” [v.3] Jesus speaks His Word and with that Word He sends His Holy Spirit to create new hearts in us, to bring us to faith, to attach us to the Vine, and to give us the blessings of forgiveness of sins and life. Earlier in this same Gospel, John records these words of Jesus, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing. The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). Paul reminded the Corinthians of their formerly sinful ways and then says, “But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).
We were dead branches—deadwood, dry and ready for the fire. By grace and through the Word of God we have been hooked into Jesus, the living Vine. It is the power of God’s Word that takes dead branches with no life of their own, and grafts them into a vine so that now they live and produce! This is the miracle of God’s grace through the Word by which He chose us and made us His own.
The true Vine, Jesus, isn’t going to go anywhere. He is established. Sadly, the branches can break themselves off from the vine. At times branches may be actually withering right on the vine because although they LOOK like they are attached they have actually detached themselves by neglecting their Savior and His Word. The apostle Paul warned the Roman Christians about this very thing. Paul uses an olive tree as illustration rather than a grape vine and writes about the Gentile believers having been grafted into Christ and the Jews who rejected Him as having been broken off. He says, “And if some of the branches were broken off, and you, being a wild olive tree, were grafted in among them, and with them became a partaker of the root and fatness of the olive tree, do not boast against the branches. But if you do boast, remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you. You will say then, ‘Branches were broken off that I might be grafted in.’ Well said. Because of unbelief they were broken off, and you stand by faith. Do not be haughty, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either” (Romans 11:17-21).
Just as surely as we were dead rebellious branches grafted into Christ, so too we need to beware and not become bold in ourselves thinking “Now I’m living.” Our life comes from the Vine, not ourselves. If we forsake that Vine we will again be broken off and die. Jesus said, “If you abide in My Word, you are My disciples indeed. And you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31). Abiding in the Word keeps us connected to the vine and to the life.
There is another part of this life that Jesus mentions. “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire and it shall be done for you.” [v.7] If someone is not connected to the Vine he has no business asking for something from the Vine. If someone is apart from God through unbelief he is not God’s child and, therefore, cannot pray and come before Him. However, to His children, God gives the wonderful blessing and privilege to “ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
God doesn’t always answer our prayers in the exact way we have asked and we may not receive the things we desire, but we have the confidence that when we are hooked into the Vine we are able to go to the Vine. When we go to God in prayer we are able to ask for every needful blessing, take our cares to Him, and seek His help.
True life and the privilege of going to God in prayer come because we are connected to Jesus, the ONE and ONLY TRUE VINE.
Grapevines need to be cut and pruned if they are to bear fruit. Dead branches are cut and taken out of the way because they aren’t any good to the plant. Live branches are cut off or at least cut back so that the energy of the plant is directed toward producing fruit instead of wasting it on more fruitless branches and leaves. A grapevine or fruit tree whose branches are left to grow on their own may look like it is flourishing and healthy but it won’t be producing fruit because the energy is misdirected. Again, we find that this is a perfect picture of our life in Christ.
The Father, Jesus says, is the vinedresser who does the cutting and the pruning. The dead branches are those who have left Christ and turned their backs on God’s Word. They were once believers but have since separated themselves from their Savior so they are dead branches and God cuts them off. We heard of God’s judgment against unbelief in our Old Testament reading. Jesus also says, “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away…” [v.2].
Likewise, our heavenly vinedresser prunes us, the living branches. “…and every branch that bears fruit He prunes that it may bear more fruit.” [v.2] Our sins are forgiven, but we still have our sinful flesh. The daily temptations to sin and to do what is displeasing to God are the temptations to grow wild and put our energies in all the wrong things and forget about bearing fruit for our Lord. God prunes these sinful ambitions—cuts them back—so that instead of pursuing these wild things of the flesh, we instead produce good fruits of the Spirit. God allows difficulties and troubles and hardships and sorrows to come into our lives to prune back our desire to follow what is wrong and against God. Anything that brings us pain or sorrow or trouble is part of the lasting effect of sin in this life. God allows the miserable effects of sin to afflict us so that we don’t continue in our own unproductive ways, but rather rely on Him and live for Him.
A man was once lacking a particular blessing in his life which he greatly desired. Day after day he asked God to give him that blessing. Then in a most remarkable, wonderful, and unexpected way, God did give it to him. Then, day after day the man thanked God for such a wonderful gift. Gradually, however, the gift was taken for granted and the thanksgiving ended. It even came nearly to the point at which the gift became more important than God because so much energy was directed toward it. Then God allowed the gift to disappear and the man realized what he had done. In his great need he relied on God, but when the need was filled he soon began to rely on himself again. He directed his energies the wrong way by forgetting the blessings from the Vine. God pruned this self-reliance by allowing hardship to come back into this man’s life and by taking the gift away from him.
Don’t we all find ourselves acting as that man at times? It is so easy for us to go on our own way and become wild shoots living for ourselves. God’s goal by tenderly nurturing us and pruning us is to keep us as faithful and fruitful branches for Christ. God knows exactly what to do. He knows what to cut and what to leave, how to fertilize and how to dig, what to give and what to take. So the writer to the Hebrews says, “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord (the pruning) nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives” (Hebrews 12:5-6).
The pruning that keeps us as healthy branches in Christ is not always pain-free nor does it always seem to make much sense to us. There may have been times (and will be again) when you cry out in agony at such pruning. The weight of the sorrow and the pain may seem to much to bear. At times like these our Vinedresser assures us that He will never prune us back to a point from which we will not grow back. He will never prune us in a way that will be harmful to us and He will never allow temptation that we are not able to bear (cf: 1 Corinthians 10:13).
God, our Vinedresser, is the one who guides and directs each of our individual lives. He strengthens each of us in the Vine. It is important to remember that as He prunes us it is also for the benefit of the other branches. He may prune us to redirect our energies in a different way for the blessing of other people. We may sit and scratch our heads and struggle to figure out why we were pruned in such a way without even realizing what is being done through us. Or at times we may not see the effect of the pruning because it is an inner growth. The fruits that are produced are not always out in the open for everyone to see, sometimes it is just an inner strengthening that we don’t even realize we or someone else has gained until we need it and God shows it to us.
When we are pruned branches, attached to the vine, and tended by the Master Gardner of our hearts and lives the natural result is that we will produce fruit. Fruits from Christ’s branches are fruits of faith—expressions of love for all that He has done. In the epistle reading, Paul called them “fruits of the Spirit” because it is the Holy Spirit who creates these fruits through the Word of God working in our hearts. These are things like “…love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23).
Dead branches can’t do these things. They might outwardly live good lives, but they are not pleasing to God. They may outwardly do all the right things, but those “right things” don’t come from a heart filled with love, joy, and peace of the kind that Jesus gives. Jesus said, “Abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.” [v.4-5] “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Hebrews 11:5). Without faith, no matter what it is done it is still sin in God’s eyes because without the cleansing of Christ’s forgiveness everything is tainted by sin.
The way we conduct ourselves, the way we talk, the things we do are all fruits of faith produced by Christ in us for our Father. When fruits of faith are evident in our lives it makes us stand out as fruitful branches in our Lord’s vineyard. Live and act like living branches of the true vine and that in itself will be a witness to your Savior. Remember that the unbelievers are dead branches. They have no life. Show them the life that you have.
Our congregation will also be known by its fruits. We are part of that vineyard. So what we do as an individual congregation is a testimony to the fruit of the Gospel. The way we preach and teach, the things we view as being important, the roads we pursue, the way we conduct ourselves in the community, all of these are part of the fruit which others see. They are produced by Christ through the Gospel and give glory to the Father.
This is the wonderful thing about these fruits. They are not glorifying us. They are not produced by us. They are produced through us to the glory of the LORD OUR GOD!
We have the gift of being living branches and living to the glory of our God who created us, our God who redeemed us, and our God who brought us to the Vine and grafted us into it. All thanks and glory be to Him who has made us LIVING BRANCHES! Amen!
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.