In the Name of Christ the Crucified +
This Lent, we have pondered the I AM sayings of our Lord, the teachings He gives us to understand who exactly He is, what He does for us, what He gives us. And tonight we hear these words from our Lord: “I am the vine; you are the branches.” Tonight, as we ponder not only our Lord’s Passion, but also His gift of His most blessed Holy Supper, it is most appropriate to hear these words, for tonight our Lord not only says who He is, but He teaches us who we are and how we are who were are. It is a wonderful text, so let us consider it this night.
To begin, our Lord says something that can sound chilling. “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 does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” I have done a bit of pruning this year on my fruit trees, and I probably should have done more. It’s a stark contrast to see – the branches on the trees now are starting to flower and blossom and show forth beauty, but on the other hand, those branches that I’ve cut off… they are dead, and waiting simply to be burned in the fire pit come some spring evening. This is part of the image to explain what our lives in this fallen world actually are. Whenever we consider sin, we are actually seeing death and destruction. It’s as simple as that. We see emptiness and ruin. We see worthlessness. And what is more terrifying is that we see this often in ourselves. How often are we filled with regret over things we have done, how often do we lament opportunities missed, how often do we take pains not to think about certain things, not to bring up certain topics because they show us our failures, our disappointments? That is why we flee from the full preaching of the Law, preaching that shows us the depth of our sin, shows us how worthless and futile our works are. We see this, and when we consider the pain that comes, the suffering that comes, we can be tempted to wonder if all this means that God is rejecting us, if He is simply going to cast us off forever.
When we think that, we miss the point. Yes, there will be those in hell, but not you. You belong to Christ. You remain in Him. You, the Father is pruning. When you hear God’s Word of Law, that is simply God coming and driving you to repentance, breaking you of sin, shaping and guiding you so that you might bring forth much fruit. Hear what Christ says of you – “Already you are clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you.” You are washed clean in Holy Baptism, you have heard the Word of forgiveness spoken to you, you receive Christ’s own Body and Blood in His Supper. “Abide in Me, and I in you.” Why? Because in Christ, in His Word that makes you clean, you have life. “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” Your works could never earn you a connection to God, if you are not joined to Christ you can do nothing, no more than the branch in the brush pile is going to produce apples.
But you are in Christ, and what does He promise you? “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” Listen carefully – our Lord did not say, “You had better bear much fruit!” This is not a command to work and work and do more and more. This is a promise – when you are in Christ you will bear much fruit… it simply will happen. We are so tempted to hear this verse and want to make things about ourselves, what we do, look at my actions, see the fruits of my labors… that’s not the point. When you are attached to Christ, cleansed by Him, fruit will come. But what is that fruit? So often we want to jump first to action, to things we do. That’s not how it is – earlier in John, in chapter six, we hear our Lord this: “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” So often we want to look to our actions, to see, to judge everything by that. But this misses the point. Fruitfulness is this – believing in Christ and seeing not your own actions, but seeing Him. Fruit is receiving forgiveness, receiving God’s love. As water and nutrients flow from the roots and trunk into the branches and from there comes fruit, so too forgiveness and love flow from Christ into you, so that you might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and that believing you might have life in His name. That’s how John ends the Gospel. Or as Jesus puts it in our text tonight: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. 9 As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” We come before God, we confess that we are sinful human beings and ask for forgiveness, and it is done for us for the sake of Christ to the Glory of the Father. Everything is centered in forgiveness, everything in our lives stems from the fact that we poor, fallen people have received love from God – and that this love is sure and certain and will not go away. As the Father loves Christ and will always love Him, so you are loved by God. That is where you live, in His love, hearing, receiving His love, over and over – so that all the sin and death and chaos in the world does not lie to you and tell you that God doesn’t love you. You are Christ’s, you are loved, you are forgiven. This is what Christ wishes you to see.
Consider this, on the night when He was betrayed, our Lord establishes and institutes His Supper. The Lord’s Supper is the centerpiece of our worship life, the point of this congregation. Look at this room – where is your eye drawn to? It’s drawn to the altar – for that is where we celebrate our Lord’s meal. And what is this meal but Christ Jesus giving us Himself, His own Body and Blood – and what for? For the forgiveness of sins. So that we would abide in Him, abide in His love. So that we would receive the benefits and blessings of His most blessed suffering and death over and over – so that we would see that our sin is done away with, that we will not die eternally because He has died for us. He is the vine, you are the branches, you are attached to Him – that is precisely what His supper is – it is Vine giving Himself to you so that you might always believe, so that you might have the truth that Christ is your Lord always stand first and foremost in your mind, over and against all the plagues of doubt and remorse that Satan sends your way. You belong to Christ – you abide in Him – and here is the proof. Take and Eat, this is My Body – take and drink, this is My Blood shed for you for the remission of your sin. You are cared for by Christ.
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” One of the worst things about the English language, one of the worst English words in the bible today is that word – “keep”. We hear it and think “obey”, think about things we must do. “Keep” in the Scriptures means to hold fast to, to trust, to remain centered upon – and Christ our Lord has told you to take and eat, to take and drink, so that you abide in Christ love. This is not a burden, this is not about trying to prove yourself righteous or holy. Of yourself you aren’t – but Christ is righteous and holy, and He pours His righteousness, He pours himself into you. And why? So that your joy may be full. So that you might stand in the midst of this fallen, dying world as those attached to Christ, as those who cling to Him, those who trust in His love, indeed, those who show His love even without thinking about it. You live in Christ and He in you – by His Word He prunes you, He cleanses you, He makes you to grow in faith towards God and in love toward your neighbor – and it simply happens because that is who you are in Christ.
He is the vine, and as a vine nourishes its branches that it might grow, so too Christ nourishes you this night with Himself. Christ gives you life, gives you joy, gives you assurance that as He rose, so too shall you. This is a truth that stands out in total defiance of all sin, of all death, of all the powers of Satan. Let sin and despair dither with guilt and fear, let all Satan and his ilk be cast into the fires of Hell – let death and grave molder by their lonesomes – that has nothing to do with you any longer. You are Christ’s – He is the vine and you are His branches. In Him there is nothing but life and joy and salvation, fruit that endures even to the life of the world to come. In the Name of Christ the Crucified +