April 17, 2014 / Maundy Thursday
John 15:1-8 The Garden of Good Works
15 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. 2 He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. 3 You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. 4 Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.
5 “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. 6 If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned. 7 If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.
Dear Brothers and Sisters and fellow branches in Christ,
I love apples, especially Honey Crisp. So I love seeing apple orchards on the side of the road with the rows upon rows of trees. Although, it takes me only a minute to eat an apple, there is a lot of time and hard work involved for farmers and harvesters caring for these apple orchards. They must carefully watch for insects, irrigate if water is needed, do all they can to make sure the tree stays alive and all the branches are healthy so that we can all enjoy the fruit. God occasionally used this same imagery to describe the nation of Israel in the Old Testament. The vine was used as a picture of God’s people and a picture of their success.
But here in our lesson, Jesus describes himself as the true vine and describes God the Father as the gardener. Jesus spoke all these things with his disciples on the night he was betrayed by one of his very own disciples, on Maundy Thursday. The last few hours gave Jesus one of his last opportunities to teach his disciples and prepare them for what was coming. Jesus would be arrested, convicted, and executed like a criminal and they would have to live without him being around. However, he taught them through all the words in Scripture that he was the promised Messiah, promised thousands of years before. He alone was the source of life, just like a vine.
Without life from the vine, the rest of the plant withers and dies. Without life, a branch is completely useless. The source of energy and nourishment depends on being connected to the tree and the main vine. Like any gardener, God the Father is looking for results. When branches appear to have a bad connection and do not produce fruit, the gardener cuts off those branches.
Jesus plainly states that without him there is no life. We never had that connection to begin with! He says, “Apart from me you can do nothing!” Sin is what cut us off from God. It is obvious that if a branch is cut off from the vine, it will die. Because we weren’t connected to Christ, we were spiritually dead. No matter what the sinful human nature says, on our own we are unable to do anything to please God or be good enough for heaven. So, we are lifeless with no good found in us. We can’t bear fruit that God would deem worthy enough. What good are we then? Without Jesus, we are worthless before God.
Jesus speaks of this with great urgency and warning. When we aren’t connected to Christ and His Word, our spiritual life withers and dies off. Isn’t that always the case, especially when we are home? Reading God’s Word seems to become a chore, like making your bed. It’s so much easier to watch Dancing with the Stars for an hour, or get sucked into watching a whole season of a show on Netflix, than to take five minutes to read from the Bible and see something much more lasting. If we don’t stay connected to that source of life, to the vine, we are unproductive and we can’t produce good fruit. Branches that aren’t connected are fit for nothing but being cut off and burned. This isn’t God’s fault but it is a result of the actions taken or not taken by the unfruitful branches. Unbelief is what causes God to remove them from the vine. How tragic when branches that were once vibrant, healthy and fruitful, wither because of the lack of connection.
As the gardener, God the Father is looking for healthy and fruitful branches. The key ingredient to a healthy spiritual life is the Word. The Word gives life. We see that in Baptism when simple water connected with God’s Word brought life to us who were spiritually dead. The Word continues to work faith, nourishing and energizing us to live in faith. We remain in Jesus and he in us when we come into contact with his word and the sacraments. The more we are into his word, the more we gain a firmer understanding and appreciation for what Christ has done for us.
What a wonderful miracle that we were ultimately cleansed when God declared us righteous by faith in Christ. Our connection to the vine was given through Jesus. By his grace, you are branches who have been grafted into the Vine. Isn’t that a remarkable thing to think about? God took us, these dead branches which weren’t good for anything except burning, and grafted us right to the vine, right to Christ. What great comfort this is for us today! By the grace of God, we have heard the word and He is the one who brought us to faith. Our sins have been forgiven. We have been declared holy and righteous in God’s eyes because of Jesus Christ. His forgiveness is our sap. It’s the nectar that we need to stay alive spiritually and to grow in good works. And God continues to give life to us when we remain connected to the word.
It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that Jesus used the picture of a grapevine to teach about good works on the same night that he used grape wine to institute the Lord’s Supper. When we come to the Lord’s Supper, we receive his body and blood, forgiveness that you can see and touch. Everything he obtained by keeping the Ten Commandments; by suffering, dying, and being buried; by descending into hell; by rising from the dead; by ascending into heaven; and by being seated at God’s right hand he gives to us, along with himself, and makes it ours in this sacrament. It is yours!
You see, the more we realize the extent of our own sin, the more we realize what Jesus Christ did for us. The better we fathom how low we are capable of going, the higher we are lifted by his mercy. The more appalled we are at the ugliness of our sin, the more intensely we’ll love him who rescued us in spite of it. The more we cringe at how driven we are to self-satisfaction, the more we can only gaze in amazement at him who devoted every ounce of energy to save our lives and not his own. However, in Christ, your life therefore has infinite value, no matter how insignificant or lowly it may seem to you and to the world. It is priceless! We have been cleansed! Now you are no longer cut off from God; you are united to him.
What is there left to do other than bear good fruit? Our good fruit is the life we live with our family, at work and school. It is the life of stewardship, of using all of our gifts that come from God to his praise. Paul mentions in Galatians what this fruit entails. Paul says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” These are all things that we do every day as we live out our Christian lives. The good fruit and good works that we do demonstrate that we are connected.
Good works do not save us. We don’t do them to earn anything in God’s eyes as we already know that we can’t please God on our own. Such a response is only possible through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection. In other words, true good works that actually please God spring from faith in Jesus for salvation. In the book of Hebrews it says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God” (Heb 11:6). We can call a good work a fruit of faith, something that faith produces.
As we stay connected to the vine, God the Father will prune the fruitful branches. Now, this pruning is different from the unfruitful branches. God the Father will cut off the unfruitful branches. However the fruitful branches are pruned, in order that the they might become even more productive. This pruning is ongoing for the rest of our lives and is simply God working to make us grow as Christians. God works to prune in many different ways. Sometimes God will employ suffering for that purpose. For example, he might deprive us of health or some pleasure or even of a loved one in order to help us kill our love for ourselves and rely on him, live lives of service to him, and give our fruits of faith a chance to grow. Maybe God puts a certain difficulty in our lives that drives us back to God’s Word, or it might just be loving encouragement from our Christian brothers and sisters to live out a Christian life. These things help to realize that connection to Christ. God’s Word helps to strengthen that connection.
Imagine if this fall, there were no apples at any of the stands. I’m sure people would be heart broken and maybe even livid at that fact. I would be sad because I wouldn’t have a sermon illustration. But oh, I’m sure that won’t happen! The life giving nutrients of an apple tree pale in comparison however to Christ and his life giving Word. When we are connected to him and his Word, we bear fruit and most importantly we have life. Amen.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.