The Fifth Sunday of Easter April 28, 2013
1 John 3:18-24
210, 499, 342, 191(5-6)
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.
Several years ago I tried to grow some green pepper plants during the summer. I’m not a very good gardener, but I thought I could manage this because I wasn’t going to grow these from seed. The plants were already started. All I had to do was put them in soil and water them. Soon, some nice juicy peppers would appear, right? Well, the days went by and every so often I would look into the pots and try to see any signs of life. I measured whether my plants were living and successful by looking for the fruit. If I saw peppers, then I would know that those stems and leaves were not dead. The trouble was, the fruit never appeared. Disappointed, near the end of the growing season I concluded that my plants were dead and I threw them away into the garbage.
In a similar way, the Bible teaches us that God sees us as branches of a plant, branches which are connected to Jesus, the Vine. On those branches, God looks for fruit. If He sees fruit, He knows that we are spiritually alive. If He does not see fruit, He concludes that we are dead.
What is the sort of “fruit” that God looks for in us? It is not green peppers, but it is the “fruit of the Spirit” as Scripture calls it. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). “The fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness, and truth” (Ephesians 5:9 NIV).
This is the sort of fruit that God expects to see when He looks at you and me—His Christian plants. He expects this fruit also to take the form of such things as sorrow over sin, trusting in Jesus alone for forgiveness, and a desire to turn from evil and live a life of love to Him and to others. If God sees this sort of fruit, He knows that the Holy Spirit is living in us. If He does not see it, He knows that the branch is spiritually dead.
Jesus said that such withered branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned. So we understand that it is important for us, as branches, to bear fruit. By this we glorify our Father in Heaven and show ourselves to be Jesus’ disciples.
But what is the secret to becoming fruit-bearing branches? Do we have to reach a certain age before we begin to bear good fruit or arrive at a certain level of maturity? Centuries ago Martin Luther once thought that he could force himself to be loving, faithful, and good by torturing and depriving his body, but he discovered that method did not work. The Bible tells us the secret. Jesus told it to His disciples, and He tells us what is the key to becoming fruit-bearing branches: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” [v.5 NIV]
Scripture does not make it difficult for us to understand. On our own we cannot produce the fruit God desires. As branches, we can only bear fruit if we are connected to Jesus, the Vine.
The good news for you is that you already have this connection. The Lord said this to His disciples: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” [v.3] They had already been brought into a spiritual relationship with Jesus. This relationship was founded on the forgiveness of their sins, the fact that Jesus had made them clean. In view of the sacrifice Christ would make on the cross, their guilt was already paid in the sight of God. So the Lord had spoken words of forgiveness to them, and they had trusted these words and believed that Jesus was the Promised One sent from Heaven. They had become His spiritual children. They had been drawn into a relationship with Him.
The same has happened with you. You have been drawn into a relationship with Jesus. Your relationship too is based on the forgiveness of your sins. Christ has declared that you are clean and by virtue of that cleansing you are one of His own children. He has declared your cleansing to you many times and in many ways. In Baptism, the washing with water says to you, “You are clean of your guilt against God.” In the Lord’s Supper, the body and blood of the Savior are given to you and they say, “This is for the forgiveness of your sins.” In the Word that is spoken to you, Jesus tells you that He paid the price that covers your debt, and like the disciples of old, you trust Jesus’ words and you believe that He is the Promised One sent from Heaven. You have been drawn into a relationship with Him too.
By connecting you to Jesus the Vine, God the Father—the Great Vine-dresser—has already prepared you, the branch, to bear fruit! No branch can bear fruit by itself, but you are not branches scattered on the ground, withering and dead. You are in the Vine and A CONNECTION TO THE LIVING LORD BEARS FRUIT.
You are living branches who are able to bear fruit because you are connected to a living Savior. Think about that—the Vine to which you are connected is alive. That is what we have been celebrating throughout this Easter season Jesus, who once was dead, has risen from the grave, and now to this very day is vibrant and active. Now, because He is living, wouldn’t you expect those who are connected to Him to be living too? Of course, you would! And they are! Those who have been drawn to Him, who are His children by faith, are living branches, bearing good fruit, because Jesus is living. “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Ephesians 2:10 NIV).
Only connected to Jesus can we be living branches bringing forth good fruit. “Apart from me you can do nothing,” [v.5 NIV] the Lord says, and sometimes people wonder about that. They look around and think, “Aren’t there people bearing fruit without Jesus? Don’t even unbelievers who have no relationship with Christ show things like gentleness, self-control, love, peace, and patience?” Yes, they do to an extent, and we are glad that even those who are not in Christ still have a certain amount of the Law of God written on their hearts by their Creator.
We are glad, for example, that atheists have enough natural knowledge of God that they do not constantly disrupt the stability and safety of our land by ungodly actions. We are glad that non-Christians can smile and be nice too. This sort of “civic righteousness” is good and it benefits us, but an outwardly decent act born from a heart that is not really connected to Jesus is not the same thing as fruit of the Spirit. This sort of righteousness is not the sign of a spiritually healthy branch, it is often tainted with pride and selfishness, and the Heavenly Father can tell what fruit comes from a heart that trusts in Jesus and is connected to Him and what fruit does not.
The love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, and so forth that come from you is a reflection of the love you have been shown by Jesus. There is a famous Bible verse that says, “We love because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). God produces fruit in you that consists of things such as kindness, humility, slowness to anger, and so forth because you are connected by faith to your living Lord Jesus and to His love for you. His self-sacrificing love, by which He suffered and offered His life on cross, has entered your heart and makes itself known by your works. A CONNECTION TO THE LIVING LORD BEARS FRUIT!
Now our fruit too is soiled by our own sinfulness. We are not perfectly loving, faithful, or righteous in what we do—not by a long ways. Yet, our Heavenly Father appreciates our fruit of peace, kindness, gentleness, and the like because He sees us as His children who are connected to Jesus. He sees our fruit as coming forth on account of our relationship to His Son.
It is something like this: When my two-year old brings me a picture He has colored, it is not necessarily a great masterpiece of art. He cannot stay in the lines with his markers. Many times I cannot even tell what he was trying to draw, but I love the picture because it is from one of my children and I can tell that it was drawn out of love for me. He has such a smile on his face when he hands it over. This is how God sees our fruit too. In and of themselves, our good works are not very good or very impressive, but God sees them as the work of His children who love Him, and so they are pleasing to Him.
A CONNECTION TO THE LIVING LORD BEARS FRUIT, so it is important to all of us that we maintain the connection to Jesus. We do not want to become disconnected branches that are dead—branches that show no signs of real spiritual life and are good for nothing except to be thrown in the garbage like my pepper plant. This is why Jesus urges all His disciples: “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing…If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you willask 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.” [vv.5ff]
It is critically important for each of us to maintain a connection to Jesus. We do this by listening to His Word regularly in church, by keeping it in mind at home, by teaching it to our children and showing them by our example that spiritual things matter. We maintain a connection to Jesus by speaking with Him regularly in prayer, talking to Him, and then watching for, trusting in, and listening to His answers. We maintain a relationship to our Savior by keeping Him in mind as we make decisions and carry on our daily lives. This is the kind of relationship that Christ cultivates with us, the kind of relationship that He wants us to enjoy with Him.
This is not always easy, and sometimes God must remind us of the importance of remaining in Christ by “pruning” us branches a bit—sending us times of hardship to discipline us, refocus us, and make us more aware again of Him. Time and again He did this with His disciples; and time and again He blessed their connection to Him.
Oh, how much value there is to remain in Jesus! In Him we bear good fruit. As one of His productive branches, our lives can be a blessing to others, and by our fruit we give glory to God each and every day, and show ourselves to be His disciples so that even more may come to know Him and be saved. Amen.
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.
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.