This sermon was preached at the Australian Lutheran College Chapel, North Adelaide, 9am.
Grace, mercy and peace be to you from God our Father, and from our Lord Jesus Christ.
I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
At this time of the church year, we have been celebrating the festival of Pentecost, which is really such a wonderful time of the year to be alive, and such a wonderful time to be part of God’s church. We hear of this absolutely event, where the disciples were gathered together 50 days after Easter, and the place where they were was filled with a mighty rushing wind, the disciples had tongues of fire appear on their heads, and they began speak in other tongues. We read that the people there were amazed and said: We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God. We are also gathered here today to declare these mighty works, and to confess the mighty works of God, and even to partake of the mighty works of God, as he enters here with his Holy Spirit even today. We might be a little bit less amazed by it than those people were on the day of Pentecost, but nevertheless what we are doing today happens with no less power.
Our reading today comes from another wonderful occasion, and one of those incredible occasions where it would have been such an honour and a joy to be just a fly on the wall. Our reading today comes from John 15, where Jesus speaks about himself as a vine. And this passage comes from the middle of quite a long sermon which Jesus gives to his disciples on Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday, of course, is that incredible night on which Jesus was betrayed, that night which is the only day specifically mentioned in the Divine Service every Sunday, when the pastor says: Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night he was betrayed, took bread. Our reading from John 15 comes after Jesus has celebrated the Passover, that amazing event in history where the angel of death passed over the people of Israel and they were rescued from Egypt and from Pharaoh. Jesus had transformed this Passover meal into something completely new—he gave them new food and new drink, not just a feast of lamb, and bread and wine, but of his holy and precious body and blood, given and shed for them for the forgiveness of sins. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and he also sends Judas out to go and organise his arrest. This is the occasion where Jesus spoke the words we are reading today. So why are reading them today after Pentecost? Because Jesus gave his disciples some of his most powerful teaching on the Holy Spirit on that night, on which he was betrayed. Only a few verses earlier than our reading in chapter 14, we read where Jesus says: But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. So what a wonderful privilege it is then to learn and remember these words of Jesus, knowing that it is not us who is doing this, it is not our work, but it is the Holy Spirit who has gathered us here, who has orchestrated this whole event, and who teaches us all things and brings to our remembrance all that Jesus said to his disciples.
So Jesus says: I am the true vine, and my Father in the vinedresser. Why does Jesus say here: I am the true vine? For example, is there a false vine? Well, actually, if we go back to the Old Testament, to Isaiah chapter 5, we read there about God planting a vineyard. He is talking here of his chosen people, the people of Israel. It must be quite an effort to go and plant a whole vineyard. And as we read in Isaiah 5 about the Lord’s vineyard, we read that this vineyard was an incredible disappointment. It was a failure of a vineyard. We read: When I looked for it to yield grapes, why did it yield wild grapes? This is not the story of the Barossa Valley, with multiple award-winning wineries. This is the story of cheap plonk. We read: For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry!
Jesus, on the other hand, is no cheap plonk. He is the choicest vintage of grape-vine. He is the true vine… the vine which is the only vine in the vineyard, which grows in such an abundant way that only one vine is needed to fill the whole vineyard. We human beings, we Jews or Gentiles, or whoever we happen to be, have been planted here on this earth by God, who has created us. But unfortunately, we are all cheap plonk. We have all sinned, and fallen short of God’s glory. If people were grapevines, every human who has ever lived on this earth would be a rotten, sour disappointment, except Jesus Christ, the true vine. And if we are to be saved, and be fruitful in his kingdom, we must be connected and grafted into him, and him alone.
When we read this text, from John 15, we see that Jesus presents to us an incredibly sharp picture of God’s judgment. Actually, on the day of Pentecost, we see a kind of judgment occur there: some people received the apostles’ words and miracles gladly, but some others thought they were drunk. Jesus teaches about a separation between those who believe in him and those who don’t, even within what we might call the outward, external fellowship of the church. For example, in 1 Timothy, the church is called God’s household. But in 2 Timothy 2, St Paul writes: In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and silver and also of wood and clay, some for honourable use, some for dishonourable. Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is like a field, where both wheat and weeds grow. He teaches that it is like a dragnet in the ocean, which draws in good fish and bad fish, which will then be separated on the sea-shore. John the Baptist speaks about a threshing of people, between wheat and chaff. Jesus speaks about a wedding banquet, where the one without a garment is thrown outside. He also speaks about a wedding where there are 10 virgins, 5 who are wise and prepared, 5 who are foolish and unprepared, and who cannot come into the wedding banquet. In Matthew 25, Jesus speaks of the final judgment where the sheep will be placed on his right, and the goats on his left. In our reading today, Jesus also speaks in a similar way: Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away… 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. Now, why does Jesus say this? He teaches us that there is no universalism, no purgatory, but rather there will be judgment, and there is a heaven and a hell. Your life matters, what you believe matters, how you live matters—and after you die, there will be a judgment, a judgment that will be based on this life. So, it’s as if Jesus wants to say to his disciples, and to you, the words from Psalm 95: Today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your heart.
Now, Jesus speaks to us an incredible mystery in this text. He says: Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Actually, the word for prune, is the word for “clean”. Every branch that does not bear fruit he cleans. Pruning here is cleaning. He takes the branch, and he scrapes all the dead bits off so that it is clean. And so then, Jesus says: Already you are clean, because of the word that I have spoken to you.
This is just such a wonderful comfort to us. When Jesus has spoken his word to us, we are clean. It’s no wonder that the means by which we are saved and brought into God’s kingdom is Holy Baptism. Jesus cleans us with his word, and just to make sure we understand this, he wants us to be cleaned with water too. And Jesus cleans us through and through from every single speck, every single thought, word and deed, every single sin, fault, transgression, you name it, everything that we didn’t even realise was sin. It has all been placed on him, he has shed his blood for all of it, and died on the cross for it, and now this word is spoken to us, and we are clean. Jesus says: Already you are clean, because of the word that I have spoken to you. Jesus says: Your sins are forgiven. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Now, here’s a question. Jesus says: Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes (or cleanses), that it may bear more fruit. Why does God, the vinedresser, need to keep cleaning the branches, and pruning the branches, if Jesus has already made us a clean through his word? If we’re already clean, why does God need to keep cleaning us?
The reason is that Jesus wants us to live by faith. Jesus says: Already you are clean, not because you can see it, or not because you experience it, or not because you in the deluded prideful world in your mind said so, but because of the word that I have spoken to you. You still carry your sin around with you, you still sin, you still fail, but there’s a difference. Jesus has covered your sin, your failings, your whole heart, your whole self, with his blood. And you know this because of his word. And he wants you to believe this word.
But you are going to have incredible temptations as a Christian. The devil doesn’t like the fact that you belong to Jesus, and he wants you back. Unbelievers don’t want you to be different to them, and they will be happy not to feel judged by you simply because you are you. You have a sinful nature, a writhing and restless evil continually at work in your heart, which would rather you just curse God and give him the finger.
God on the other hand wants you to bear fruit for him, so in order to do this, he will scrape off the dead stuff, and clean you. But this is incredibly painful for us, because our sinful flesh is so corrupt that it likes death rather than life. Our sinful heart cries out: hey, don’t cut that bit off! In fact, so often, we think that when we’re going through these times of cleansing, and scraping, we think that this is a time when God is showing us that he really hates us. And we accuse him: God, what have I done to deserve this? God, why don’t you love me? God, why have you forsaken me? God, I understand. Why do I have to go through this? Why do I feel no joy? Why do I only see darkness? Why do I experience no happy days? Jesus says: Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.
It’s the same as when Job says: Behold, I go forward, but [God] is not there, and backward, but I do not perceive him; on the left hand when he is working, I do not behold him; he turns to the right hand, but I do not see him. But he knows the way that I take; when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold.
Do you see? He wants to boil you in his smelter, not because he wants to see you burn, but because he wants to impurities to bubble and rise to the surface, so that they can be scraped off. You remember on the day of Pentecost, those who heard Peter’s sermon were cut to the heart. We are also continually cut to the heart by the work of the Holy Spirit through the word, throughout our whole lives, so that we may bear more fruit.
Now, Jesus knows full well the pain that we are going to experience in all of this, simply because he knows just how idolatrous, how corrupt, how twisted our hearts really are. He knows, and so he wants to encourage us, just as David was encouraged so many years ago, when he said: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
And so Jesus wants to say to you: Don’t run away, even though life will seem painful sometimes. Don’t be put off by it, don’t be offended by the cutting, don’t be disgusted by the pruning. So he says: Abide with me, and I in you. A the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. Stick with me, says Jesus, you can trust me. Many times you will want to run away from me, and you will run away sometimes, just like Peter ran away, and denied Jesus three times. Jesus still says: Abide with me, and I in you. Draw your strength from me. Everything is forgiven in me. Jesus says: for the joy that was set before me, I despised the shame, I endured the cross, and now am seated at the right hand of the throne of God.
This is the encouragement that Jesus extends to you, and to which he calls you, and exhorts you, and pleads with you. He says: I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing.
Now, Jesus here reveals two things. Firstly, He reveals our complete and total helpless. Apart from me, you can do nothing. He doesn’t say: apart from me, you can only just get the ball rolling, and get the thing started, or get half-way there. He says: Apart from me, you can do nothing. But the second thing is, He reveals his Divinity, and his total and incredible power in everything. He says: You can do nothing apart from me. When you have me, you can’t imagine how fruitful you can possibly be. He says: If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. Jesus shows us his true Divinity here, because everything will be done, if we abide in him. He also says: and my words abide in you. My words are the living and active words of God, because I am God. And whatever you ask will be done, because when you ask me, you are asking God, because I am God, who listens to your prayers, together with the Father and the Holy Spirit.
So when we go through difficulties and trials and temptations, Jesus calls us to stick with him, but specifically, to stick with his word, and to run from it if it seems difficult to us. And when things are difficult, we should ask him for what we need. And this is exactly the kind of fruit that Jesus wants us to produce. He says: By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.
So let these wonderful words of Jesus today be your encouragement. You were a useless vine producing sour grapes, but you have been grafted on to Jesus, the true vine, who speaks to you a living and life-giving word. You have been baptised in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. You have been made clean by the word which Jesus has spoken to you. I forgive you all your sins. Let him strengthen you and encourage you with his special heavenly food which he gives you for your journey: his body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. He imparts to you his forgiveness, but also his strength, his power, his energy—not necessarily as you think you need it, but as he knows better than you how and when you need it—just like the juice which flows from a vine into its branches. He is your God, your Saviour, your strength, your Rock, your faithful friend, who feeds you, who strengthens you, who forgives you. As Jesus says: These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. Amen.
Dear Jesus, you know how much help we need every minute of every day. We thank you for speaking to us your word and for making us clean. Help us each step of the way as we follow you as your Christians. Come and abide in us, and help us, and you have promised, dear Jesus, our Lord and our God. Amen.