The Fourth Sunday after Easter May 6, 2007
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 3:18-24
197, 342, 411, 544(6)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
God grant that every single one of us 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:
As winter once again gives way to spring on the plains of North Dakota, the thoughts of many of us have turned to the garden, field, and flowerbed. Maybe it is hardwired into our genes somehow, but the turning of the rich soil, the sowing of seeds, and the promise of new growth is truly one of life’s finer pleasures—one of God’s greater gifts.
Yet it remains forever true that in this life nothing is perfect. So also sulking around the shadowy edges of our hopeful sowing is the realization that adversity and death are never far removed from any living thing. Our sin did that to God’s perfect creation. Still, for a time, the fresh warm hope of spring overshadows the threats that lurk in the shadows. One day the bugs may well come, the wind, the disease, and finally the killing frost, but for now there is the promise of new life and the hope of the harvest.
As I began to plant this year’s garden—hopeful as always—the image flashed through my mind of my old nemesis: North Dakota hail. I remember walking out to my garden last year (after yet another major hail storm) to find my poor, pampered plants shredded and smashed into the hail-studded mud. Not a pleasant sight or memory and one that I struggle to repress as I bask in the potential that is spring. Yet the memory of my little patch of destruction came to mind once again with the reading and contemplation of today’s text. In the days following the storm, I recall being struck once again by both the fragility of life and by the importance of remaining well connected to the source of life. Many of the plants, having taken mortal blows to their stems (their lifelines) remained green for several days following the storm. They were doomed, of course, but word had not yet reached the branches that something had gone terribly wrong between them and the roots. Those plants that did survive never produced the fruit they were intended to produce.
Our text teaches us that the same hard lessons apply to you and me. The source of our very lives is Jesus Christ. Separation from Him is a death sentence, of this there is no doubt. What we often fail to realize, however, is that our God desires more for us and from us than simple survival. He seeks also 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 is found in the Gospel recorded through John, the fifteenth chapter:
“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.”
These are the words of our 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. Even so we pray: “Sanctify us through Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth!” Amen.
Our text appears to be a unit designed by our Lord to combat the ever-present danger of 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.
If you’ve been around plants for any length of time, you undoubtedly have seen the rather tragic sight that we talked about earlier—doomed plants that do not yet realize how near at hand death really is. As fresh and green as the leaves might still appear, survival is nearly impossible.
What a profound tragedy to see more and more Christians who are just like those little, dying plants. We’re not talking about the unbelievers now. We are talking about the children of God. Many Christians are hanging by a thread and don’t even know it. Their physical life is full and good. Their health is perfect and they feel just fine. Yet they are, as we said, hanging by a spiritual thread. They haven’t the faintest idea that they are therefore in the very worst sort of danger imaginable.
What you need to ask yourself at this point is whether or not you are among them. Before you answer, it might be helpful to take a look at some of the warning signs. The key here is not just to stay connected. That is far too feeble. The doomed plants were also connected, even though they had no chance of survival. The key is really to stay well connected—solidly and permanently connected or 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 prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and worship? 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 more bold 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…like sleeping in?
These are hard questions to have to answer, and yet there are no questions more serious. How easy and natural to gradually 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. Jesus was not exaggerating when he said in our text, “Without Me you can do nothing.” This is the first great lesson of our text for this morning. 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 cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” [v.6]
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 can finally recognize as less than nothing. There is no second chance in eternity.
Yet, thanks be to God, not only is this only half of the message of our text, it is the harsh and disagreeable half—necessary, but unpleasant. 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 must have 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, so too He 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. In other words, He wanted us to know that our bearing fruit is not the thing that pays our way into heaven. Did you notice in our text how He accomplished that? 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”—justified us—out of pure, undeserved love through the very faith that He through the Holy Spirit has created in our hearts. That faith was worked in the hearts of his disciples through the word that he spoke to them—the simple truth that God has punished His Son, Jesus, in our place. We therefore have a gifted or inherited purity, 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 here 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 to bear fruit—and not just a little but bushels of the stuff! 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 having been 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 will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” [v.7] What powerful words and what an incredible promise. No one, save the child of God, has such authority, such promise and our Father’s will is that we use these privileges 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 that 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]
We would all do well to keep these words in our back pockets and to haul them 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 our place in heaven prepared through our connection with Jesus Christ. So it will ever be with God’s Word—“…fragrance of Christ among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing. To the one…the aroma of death leading to death, and to the other the aroma of life leading to life” (2 Corinthians 2:15f).
What we desire, therefore, is to put on that New Man that has been created in us and to thus enjoy a closer, more intimate walk with our Savior-God. This we desire simply because it is right that our God should be glorified in all that we do. It is right that we praise Him ever more fully by the fruits of faith in our lives. It is right that we recognize that apart from Jesus Christ we can do nothing at all. Yet, connected to our Lord, how exciting to learn that there is simply no limit to the harvest that can be His in us. God grant that we might be ever more closely connected 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.