May 6, 2012 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“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.”
Jesus uses another well-known image to describe Himself, to testify about His identity: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” It is an image familiar to His audience—the eleven disciples in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday. How many vineyards had they walked by in their three years together as Master and Disciples? How much of the vine’s fruit had they consumed together, including the Passover cups they had just drunk?
But Jesus is also taking His audience back to the Scriptures, to a depiction that the Lord had given about His people of old. Several times, the Lord speaks about Israel as a vine, one that He Himself has planted. This was an image of the Covenant Relationship that the Lord had with His people. He was the source of their life. He had given them that special identity. But over and over, the people had grown unruly, going outside of the boundaries that the Lord had set, producing wild fruits of idolatry and other sins.
But Jesus notes that this time is different. The Lord had planted another vine, and He is it: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” He is present in the world as the Agent of the Lord’s Covenant, the one through whom that Covenant is fulfilled. Unlike Israel, Jesus does not go wild. He does not grow in unruly ways. No, He shows perfect obedience, perfect actions completely in line with His Father’s will. The fruit that Jesus bears is the salvation that He has achieved and the life that He bestows.
So Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.” But He also says more. Jesus discloses the identity of people who are connected to Him: “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.” Jesus says that His disciples are branches. They are connected to Him. They abide or dwell in Him. And vice versa. He is connected to them. He abides or dwells in them. This is a relationship that Jesus reveals. It is a Covenant relationship. They are tied, one to the other. Without branches, Jesus cannot be the “true vine”. Without a vine, the disciples cannot be “branches”. Jesus’ identity and the disciples’ identity are interwoven.
The vine and branches image speaks about your connection to Jesus. You have been incorporated into the covenant that Jesus fulfilled. He has made you part of it, so that you can share in the salvation that He has achieved and the life that He bestows. Being a branch of the true vine is accomplished for you. That is what baptism brings to an individual. Baptism unites the person with Jesus. It is how they are made Jesus’ disciples and have a new identity granted to them. New life is made theirs, as they are incorporated into the Covenant.
But Jesus is not silent about what this new life is like. He speaks about branches who are connected to Him, the vine: “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.” As branches, Jesus’ disciples are to bear fruit. They are to live as He establishes. They are to act as He did. Jesus’ disciples will not do exactly like He did, but they will have the will and desire to fulfill the Father’s commands and be empowered to do so.
How is this possible for the branches? Because they are connected to the source of life. Jesus makes that clear: “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.” By themselves, the branches do nothing. They have the power and ability to do nothing. But connected to the vine, the branches bear fruit. Jesus’ disciples show true love for God and for one another. They make the confession about the identity of Jesus and His Father: “In this the love of God was manifest among us, that God sent His only Son into the world, so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” They also love one another: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God.”
This is what Jesus—the “true vine”—produces in His disciples—“the branches”. Note that well. The fruit that the branches bear is produced by the vine. It is the outcome of being connected to Him. That is the meaning of Jesus’ words: “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.” Without the connection to the vine, there is only death for the branches: “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.” They are cut off from the life source. They are sundered from the power and ability that Jesus bears.
So Jesus warns you who have been baptized and given the identity as His branches. If you cut yourself off from Jesus, your identity will be lost. That cutting off is seen when you take up deliberate sin, when you decide to go back to the identity that was once formerly yours before Jesus made you His disciples. The cutting off also happens when you absent yourself from the way that Jesus bestows His power and ability to His branches: through the reception of His Gospel, the words of promise, life, and forgiveness. When this occurs, the withering begins.
There is nothing in yourself that will produce the fruit that Jesus expects from His people: the true confession about Him and love for one another. The apostle wrote: “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in Him, and He in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him.” But that true confession can only occur when one hears the testimony about Jesus’ identity through the Gospel. The love for one another only comes as we have received and continue to receive it from God: “We love because He first loved us.”
But Jesus’ desire is not that you be cut off from Him. No, He wants you to be true branches of the true vine. It is also the desire and will of His Father. So Jesus has established ways for you to maintain the connection with Him. There are hints of that in His words: “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 fruit…. 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.” The pruning and the abiding in Jesus’ words are the way that the branches maintain their connection to the vine.
What is the pruning? It is the process of removing parts of your life that are not in accordance with the Father’s will. This is what happens when the Law of God is spoken and applied to you. Your faults are pointed out. Every time that you strayed from the path of righteousness is revealed. Sin and guilt are highlighted. But this is done so that you can receive correction and absolution. Does it sting? Yes, indeed it does. John’s audience did not take pleasure in hearing a statement like this: “If anyone says, ‘I love God, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” No one enjoys being rebuked or reproved. But after it happens and your fault is forgiven, you are then sent on your way to follow more faithfully as Jesus’ disciple. So that instead of being completely mired in what does not please God, you begin to be freed of that burden.
What is the abiding in Jesus’ words? It is what takes place when you frequently hear the accounts of what Jesus has done for your salvation and His teaching about the new life that He has given to you. The Spirit of God is present in those words, just as John wrote: “By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God….” The Spirit of God motivates and empowers you to fulfill the divine will: “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.” The words of Jesus that you hear are not empty phrases or just a series of vocables. No, they are dynamic and powerful, carrying His Spirit to you, so that you can be productive branches.
As you participate in these things, then you begin to bear fruit. You begin to act in ways different from your former lives. Now you can confess that God has become man and find it a mystery that brings life to you and not just a confounding thing. Now you find that dependence on another for your existence is your desire. Now the will of God seems pleasing to you. Now you find being under a discipline or rule as beneficial and good. Now you begin to see sacrifice and giving as something worthy for you to do. Now you experience love as something you both receive and show. These are the changes that happen when you abide in Jesus’ words and are pruned by the Father. And out of them comes a behavior, actions that please God. When that happens, you are not cut off from the vine but are thriving branches.
This is what Jesus wants you to hear, so that you can prosper in the relationship that He has established with you. The Father prunes you, as His Law is spoken and corrective is given. You do abide in Jesus, as your ears hear His Gospel, the words that testify about His identity and acts. A new life is created in you, a new life established through the covenant relationship that you have with Jesus. His words are true: “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.” So you will bear fruit and prove to be His disciples. Do so now, for it is what the true vine and the vinedresser desire for you, the branches who have been given life and salvation.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.