May 10, 2009 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church - Mechanicsburg, PA
Jesus said: “Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. 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.”
Again Jesus uses a metaphor to describe Himself and the relation He has to His people. Last week, you heard Jesus say: “I am the Good Shepherd.” That metaphor also told you that Jesus’ disciples were His sheep. Today, you heard Jesus say: “I am the vine; you are the branches.” This speaks to the connection that Jesus’ disciples have to Him. Jesus is their source of life, the reason why they will have an eternal place in His kingdom, sharing in salvation that He had earned for them.
Jesus is very clear that the reason why His disciples have life in them is because of their connection to Him. That is the major point of the Vine-Branches Metaphor: “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.” That last statement is very exclusive, dispelling any sort of idea that salvation can be self-determined and gained. A grape branch cannot and will not produce any clusters unless it is connected to the vine. It does not have any power or ability in itself. And so it is with you: you will not produce anything good unless you are connected to Jesus.
So how is that connection made? Jesus describes how it is established: the work of the Holy Spirit done through His Word. Jesus says that is how His disciples have already been forgiven: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” Jesus’ words of absolution, His words of eternal life, bring salvation to His hearers. They are cleansed of their sins; their guilt is removed. This happens when Jesus calls someone to follow Him, to listen and trust His words and rely on the promises given to them. His statements declare sinful people to be clean, sick people to be well, dead people to be alive. So they are made His disciples, given a share in what Jesus has earned for them.
But the effect that Jesus’ Word has in His disciples is not limited to the first calling. It must be continual, constantly delivering to them what Jesus has accomplished. This is why Jesus follows up His statement about the cleansing effect of His Word: “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.” Jesus tells them His disciples that they have been forgiven. But there is more to their discipleship then being forgiven. Just like a branch of a vine is to bear fruit, so Jesus’ disciples are meant to do good works, which is impossible unless they abide in Jesus and continue to receive His life.
That is the significance of Jesus’ statement: “Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” Humans possess no ability of their own in matters of salvation and the Christian life. All of it is a gift, something delivered by the Holy Spirit as the Word of Christ is heard and believed by them. Jesus wants His people to understand that everything that He had laid out for His disciples both to receive and to do is dependent upon the maintenance of His relationship to them. They must abide in Him, and He must abide in them. And that only takes place through the continual connection to Jesus which is effected by the reception of His Word.
The ongoing reception of Jesus’ Word by His disciples is what brings them life. It keeps the branches connected to the vine, to use the language of His metaphor. The importance of this connection is clear: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of Mine that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. . . . 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.” Connection to Jesus or lack thereof has eternal consequences.
The eternal consequences of connection to Jesus are why it is vitally important for His disciples to continually receive His Word. They must receive it in the ways that Jesus has determined—whether it be paying attention to His teaching, or being washed with water connected to His Word in Holy Baptism, or eating His Word connected to bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, or hearing His Word of forgiveness spoken by ministers. This is how Jesus’ disciples abide in Him, and He abides in them. It is how they are able to live out the way of life that Jesus has given them, including what John the Apostle wrote: “This commandment we have from Him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”
Without the continual reception of Jesus’ Word, His disciples will not bear fruit, and so will suffer the consequence: “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.” But when Jesus’ followers continually receive His Word, great things happen. Jesus says: I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit.” He speaks the words of eternal life, the living word that causes wells of living water to spring up in His hearers’ hearts. The Holy Spirit who works in them brings forth His fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control.
Jesus even says that His Father works to help His disciples become more productive: “Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” The corrective nature of the Divine Law applied to Jesus’ followers is meant to remove the impediments that they put up by sins of mind, mouth, or member. After this pruning, the work of the Gospel then will take place, leading to the fruitful life. Again, this requires the continual reception of Jesus’ Word, since His Word contains both Law and Gospel, the way to correct what is wrong with His disciples and to produce what is good, right, and salutary.
This is what the Apostle John referred to in his letter to Jesus’ followers: “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in Him and He in us, because He has given us of His Spirit.” That divine love which is perfected in us is what the Holy Spirit leads us to do as we abide in Jesus and continue to follow in His ways. It is what we do as we love one another. John says: “We love because [God] first loved us.” And that we know only through the reception of Jesus’ Word, that Word handed down through the apostles who “testify that the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world.”
Without that first and continued reception of Jesus’ Word, none of this is so. There is no salvation to be had by you. There will be no good deeds done by you. There will be no life in you. You will be like branches that are shriveling and dying, producing nothing. The Vinedresser will come and cut them away, leaving them to wither, be gathered, and burned. But this need not be so for you; in fact, Jesus desires it not to be so at all. Your Lord wants you to be branches who produce great works which show love for your neighbor, the works which stem from your love for Jesus above all things. So it will be, as you hear through Jesus’ Word about the love He showed to you through His death and resurrection.
Jesus’ metaphor is not meant simply to frighten. It is meant to direct you to how Jesus is able to give you salvation. The Vine-Branch Metaphor is given, so that you can rightly identify Jesus as the source of your life and the reason why you are pleasing to God the Father. For even more than His warnings about being cut off from Him, Jesus promises great things for you: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples.”
Proving to be Jesus’ disciples by abiding in Him, listening to what He instructs you, and doing what He instructs means that you will be continually receiving His Word. It means that Jesus will continue to give you His gifts, since “apart from [Him] you can do nothing.” And it means that what you most wish—to be delivered from sin, death, and Satan and be raised to everlasting life—will be done for you. So it will be, because the Lord Jesus has spoken it. Abiding in His Word, you will remain connected to the Vine. And wherever the True Vine is, there you, the branches, shall be for all eternity.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.