John 15: 1-8 (Easter 5 – 2018)
“Living Vine; Living Branches”
I used to have no clue how to find and see life in the early spring stage of a garden. The untouched garden after the snow melted seemed like a patch of dead useless muck: brown vines, moldy pumpkin shells, lifeless corn husks and stubs of plants. The plush fruits of September had long passed. But over the time I have learned from my father-in-law where to see life: seed pods, early buds, volunteer root plants, new vines and shoots. If you know what you are looking at there is life to be found.
A living vine has living branches, no matter how mature the fruit appears at the time. Jesus calls himself the true vine and says that you are a branch. Because he is alive, you are alive. Because he has grafted you into his life-giving Word, you produce the fruit he means to find.
Jesus and the Scriptures make it clear, “all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). There is nothing we can do without Christ to please the gardener. Not one good deed comes from an unbelieving heart. The world does not understand this point, because the world wants to believe that people are naturally good and that the human spirit is the rescue of bad society. But the truth is that without “faith it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). “Apart from ME you can do nothing.”
Apart from the Vine our hearts are dead; the sinful heart is purely selfish. Self wants to be the most important thing in the garden. Self is not here to glorify the Gardener. Self is not here to serve others in the garden. Self is here for Self. Even on our greatest of days, even in our kindest of deeds, Self wishes to steal the praise and the glory from the Gardener. Self produces nothing and lies dead below the branches thinking it deserves all the attention. Apart from the Vine, Christ, we can do nothing.
And the Gardener is watching. He is strolling through his vineyard looking for fruit. Jesus makes it clear. There is a judge. And there will be a judgment. John tells us that he knows everything, and is greater than our hearts. (1 John 3: 20) His Father is constantly looking for life in his vineyard. He is the Groundskeeper. He determines what is good and what is rotten. He determines what belongs and what should be rooted out and cut off and burned up in the brush pile of hell.
When I think of fruitful gardens I tend to think of blooming flowers in late May or the low hanging fruits from vines and plants in early September. I wonder if we tend to approach a narrow view of the Church that way, too? We see the obvious volunteers, church attenders, musicians, the big offerings, the so-called “20%” that does everything. When we lose people like that we lament over what we cannot or choose not see and determine things to be dead to quickly and harshly.
When the LORD looks for fruit, he does not look for what the world looks for. As he told Samuel, “Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). He looks for those who act according to Christ. He has no praise for social righteousness that is done for earthly gain. He looks for those who follow the truth of the Bible. He looks for those who are moved by the love of Christ. He looks for those who have been grafted into Christ through faith. Sometimes those fruits are bit more difficult to notice for us, but it is worth a deeper thought:
There is fruit in the vineyard in unlikely places. There is life in the branches that are connected to Christ the Vine. There is life there because He is life. His truth brings understanding. His love moves branches to acts of obedience. His sacrifice on a cross sheds blood that flows through our veins of faith. His life drowns our sin and death. His righteousness flows into everyone who believes in him. In a risen, living Christ there is certainty of eternal life. That kind of life gives life to young and simple. That kind of life gives life to the aging and tired. That life brings life in the struggle of each Christian branch.
The Gardener knows when we are dead from the inside out. He also knows when there is life, even if it is just an early bud or a struggling volunteer shoot underneath the ground. Like my father-in-law knowing where to look, our heavenly Father sees life when we would not: the internal struggles of a family while in the privacy of their home striving to stay close to the Vine and each other; the individual musician who practices like the dickens in hopes to overcome fear and have the courage to play ... next year; the single mom who says “No” to 5 church committees so that she can privately serve her family with a living joy; the young college student who battles his faith in a dorm room and runs off on a mission trip not sponsored by his church; the humble man who forces a pry bar in his wallet to put a five in the plate because the Vine is beginning to move him to overcome his sin of greed. Living Vine; living branches.
Jesus calls himself the “True Vine.” He is the True Vine because his love is shown in sacrifice. He flows and grows for us and to us. He took on our humanity. He replaced us under God’s wrath for sin. His life is given through death. His truth is based on the accomplished activity on Golgotha, and the shattering of deaths chains. In him the there is nothing false. In him there is only life-giving grace, atonement for sin, cleansing of conscience, restoration of soul and body, and the spiritual breath of fresh air that every dead-branch soul needs. In Christ, the Vine, there is life!
Living Vine; live branches, living fruits: “If a man remains in me and I in him he will bear much fruit.” Jesus explains further: “If you remain in me and my words remain in you …” “You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken.” The Word of God is the bridge between the Vine and the branches. His life comes to us through the Word. “Let it dwell richly in you” (Colossians 3:16). Let the Word permeate your soul and life. Through the Word the Spirit of Christ breathes life; life to your faith, life to your soul. The Word of Christ is the stint that opens the blood flow that bursts through the kinks in those branches, branches that produce fruits of repentance and faith in the Vine.
“You will bear much fruit, fruit that will last.” There is promise in that phrase. There is also responsibility in that phrase. Jesus promises that those who are connected to the Vine are alive. And live branches will bear lasting fruit. He will also prune off what does not produce. Those who have helped with pruning vines know that there is a bit of health science to it. You don’t just go in and start clipping off brown stuff arbitrarily. You clip off things that were last years bearers and are now no longer going to produce. Pruning back the dead used branches leaves room and life for the new ones to bloom and grow more fully.
In a few weeks I will begin a series of sermons that will be my last here at Crown of Life. I wonder if this image of Vine and branches lends itself to the beginnings of some closing thoughts: Today I trust that Lord has already begun to know and see the buds and volunteer shoots beneath the ground of what was and is there. As he prunes and nourishes and cares for his corner of the garden here what Christ centered fruits are just waiting to burst forth to show his glory and to serve his kingdom. Living Christ; Living Christians.
Because the Word is here in its vibrant truth God’s people are being fed and will be fed the nutrients of the True Vine. There are new buds waiting for the sunshine of fellow encouragers in Christ. There are springing shoots eager to begin sprouting the name of Jesus through music, volunteerism, education and sharing. There are seed pods of generosity and servant attitudes waiting to be planted in the garden where others had once grown. Under the threat of pruning, beneath urgency to grow, above the promise of the Gardener, connected to the Living Vine, Jesus “They will bear much fruit, fruit that will last.” Amen.