The Fourth Sunday of Easter April 17, 2016
1 John 4:1-11
197, 342, 411(1-5), 544(1, 6)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
God grant that every blood-bought soul hearing or reading these words today might learn to appreciate ever more fully just how blessed we are to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Amen.
Dear fellow servants—branches grafted into the Lord Jesus, who is our life:
What does the word “vinedresser” mean to you? Someone who takes care of grape vines, right? It’s a pretty bland, innocuous word, isn’t it? In fact, if anything, it conjures up rather quiet, peaceful images of men and women quietly tending to plants—good, healthy, honest work. Yet, there is more to the word than that. The word itself implies something ominous—a cold hard fact in a very imperfect world. The obvious implication is that vines need “dressing,” or pruning. The “ominous” part is that pruning indicates failure and death. Not really a big deal, until you read today’s text.
Our text adds the ominous part when Jesus refers to God the Father as the vinedresser. The obvious implication suddenly becomes anything but bland or idyllic because the implication no longer involves plants, but human souls. God as vinedresser indicates falling away and apostasy. It forewarns the loss of saving faith among Christians and the resulting catastrophe of eternal destruction in Hell.
Our text teaches us that the same hard lessons that apply to simple grapevines also apply to you and me. The source of our very lives is Jesus Christ. Separation from Him is a death sentence. Scripture leaves us with zero doubt of this fact. What we also learn is that our God desires more for us and from us than simple survival. He seeks the fruits of our faith and for that we need to be more than hanging by just a tattered thread—for that we need to be well connected. The text through which all of these truths are offered and reinforced to us is found in the Gospel recorded through John, the fifteenth chapter:
[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 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.
These are the words of God. God forbid that we ever lose touch with the majesty, perfection, and vital significance of these words, or that we come to regard them as common or tiresome. We pray, “Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Our text appears to be a unit designed by our Lord to combat what many have come to regard as the single greatest threat to Christians in our society today, namely, apathy or indifference. The natural result of every instance of spiritual apathy is eventual separation from our Savior. Jesus clearly warns us through these words that there is only one way for us to survive in this world and to thereby enter into the next and that is to stay connected to Him. The alternative is, or ought to be, terrifying in the extreme.
It’s no secret that winters can be tough here on the plains. One of the more discouraging discoveries for homeowners after a long hard winter is when they find that some starving critter has chewed a circle of bark from the base of one or several of their favorite backyard trees. The experienced eye recognizes that without intervention this is a death-sentence for the tree. The tree might even bud in the spring, but survival—in the absence of heroic measures—is impossible.
It is a tragedy of the highest order to see more and more Christians who are just like those pitiful, dying trees. We’re not talking about the unbelievers now, we are talking about the children of God—Christians who are hanging by a thread and don’t seem to know or care. Their physical life might well be full and enviable. Their health might be perfect and they appear happy and content. Yet they have all but doomed themselves and haven’t the faintest idea that they are, therefore, in the very worst sort of danger imaginable.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself at this point if you are among those who are gravely endangered. Before you answer, it might be helpful to take a look at some of the warning signs.
The key is not to just stay connected. While even the weakest faith saves, that’s not what we’re talking about. No one in his right mind wants his eternal future to hang by a thread. Think of it in terms of a girdled tree, which though connected has little or no chance of survival. The key is really to stay well connected—solidly and permanently connected to our Lord Jesus.
So how well connected are you to your Lord? Are your Savior and your faith your very life, or are they just parts of your life—and rather insignificant parts at that? Do you spend more time each week being pulled down by the evil that is all around you and in you, or being built up through Bible study, worship, Christian fellowship, and prayer? Is your faith growing or fading? Do you take your problems first to the Lord, or do you try to solve them by your own strength, wisdom, and cunning? Do you go to Bible Class when it is offered…ever? Are you growing bolder and more comfortable in talking to others about your faith, or are you pulling your bushel-basket down ever more tightly over your candle? Do you find yourself happy or disappointed when you have to miss church? Does it bother you like it once did to skip worship services on a Sunday morning in favor of some other pursuit? Have you filled your world with so many other things that you find sleep more important on Sunday than going to church?
These are hard questions to have to answer, and yet there are no questions more serious or more important. How easy and natural it is gradually to accept the lie that we can be independent operators and still survive. We would like to believe that we have at least some strength in and of ourselves, and yet the hard cold fact is that we lose all spiritual strength, all spiritual sustenance, all spiritual standing before God the instant we are cut off from our Lord Jesus and His Holy Spirit.
Do you, for example, believe that Jesus was exaggerating when He said in our text, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (v. 5)? Stop here again and give some thought to those words. Do you actually understand and believe what Jesus is saying here: “Apart from me you can do nothing”? It is important to define just what nothing means in God’s eyes. It means that you can still be rich and successful. You can have a life surrounded by luxuries and toys. It means you can be popular, attractive, and well-regarded in society. All of this is as nothing to God, and His is the only opinion that counts on the Day of Judgment. Having “nothing” means you will be damned.
This is the first great lesson of our text. We would do well to take careful note of these words, for here Jesus Himself spells out the dire consequences of separation from him: “If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (v. 6 ESV).
Imagine the horror of an eternity of torment compounded by the knowledge that you once had eternal life and threw it away, that you once had saving faith and sacrificed it for what you will finally recognize as less than nothing. There is no second chance in eternity. There is no “do-over” where you get to go back and make better decisions.
Yet, thanks be to God, not only is this only half of the message of our text, it is the harsh and disagreeable half. It’s necessary, but unpleasant and deeply disturbing. There is also a sweet, upbeat, positive side to these words of our Savior—a promise that ought to fill each of us with hope and confidence.
First of all, our Lord wanted to make certain that His words could not be misunderstood to mean what He never intended them to mean. So it was that in talking about bearing fruit only through our connection to Him as the vine, Jesus wanted to make perfectly clear that such bearing of fruit is not what makes us holy and righteous in the sight of His Father in Heaven. It is not the thing that pays our way into Heaven. Did you notice in our text how He communicated that message? He did it when He said, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (v.3). We are clean and righteous in God’s sight because of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of salvation. God has declared us “not guilty.” He has justified us out of pure, undeserved love through the very faith that He through the Holy Spirit has created in our hearts. That faith is worked in the hearts of His disciples through the word that He spoke—the simple, certain message that God has punished His Son Jesus in our place. That purity that we now have is therefore a gift. It is inherited, for such spiritual cleanliness could never come through our own actions. So our Lord, at the very start of His discussion on bearing fruits to the glory of God, says plainly, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.”
Although it is spiritually beneficial to use this text to ask the hard, critical questions of ourselves, we cheat ourselves greatly if we do not then examine this text for the invaluable comfort it offers. Not only are we assured that we are already clean by virtue of the Spirit working through the Word, we are also given some other promises.
To be separated from Jesus is to die, but when we remain in Him we cannot help but bear fruit…and not just a little, but bushels! While it is certainly true that apart from Jesus we can do nothing, the converse is also true: with Jesus we can do great things. The power and the glory belong to Jesus alone, but the work has been given to us—prepared in advance by our God for you and me to carry out.
Our Lord goes on to give us some startling news: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you willask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (v.7). What powerful words and what an incredible promise. No one, except the child of God, has such authority, such a promise. Our Father’s will is that we use that privilege well. Our text teaches us that this is so with these words, “By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples” (v.8).
Our Lord points out the rare and wonderful privilege of serving our Father in His kingdom, glorifying Him with our lives, and being called His disciples. Since this is the will of our Father, then we can know that it is also the will of that New Man who lives in every Christian. The strength to produce such a harvest of good works, however, simply can never be ours until and unless we are well connected to the only viable source of that strength, Jesus Christ. So He Himself said in our text: “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing” (v.5).
Nor do such works have to be “pumped” or coerced from the child of God who remains well-connected to his Lord. It is not like water deep within the earth that must be pumped with great effort from the ground. Connected to Christ, these works flow freely, like an artesian well, from that New Man within us. Using the image of our text, the “branches” do not have to be compelled, coerced, or shamed into bearing fruit. They do so naturally, freely, by virtue of their connection to the Vine.
We would all do well to keep this ongoing need—to be intimately connected with our Lord—in our back pockets and to haul this truth out every time we are faced with a decision on whether we will avail ourselves of the opportunity to be strengthened in that bond with our Lord Jesus, or allow the bond to be weakened even more. The Lord’s words are the whip God has given us to use on that lazy, godless Old Adam that unfailingly votes for apathy and slothfulness—that evil side of each of us that with perfect consistency promotes the Devil’s agenda in our lives. Yet, here we also find the incomparable message of sins forgiven and the place in Heaven that is our own personal possession by virtue of our connection with Jesus Christ. So it will ever be with God’s Word, “for we are to God the fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one we are the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15-16).
God grant to each of us a closer, more intimate walk with our Savior-God, that our God might be glorified in every conceivable way by absolutely everything we say and do. Apart from Jesus Christ we can do nothing at all. With Him there is simply no limit to the harvest that can be His in us. Therefore, we ask God the Holy Spirit to connect us ever more closely to our only source for strength and life, Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.
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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.
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