Video of the Divine Service is here. The sermon begins around the 30:05 mark.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
If I had to choose one image from the Scriptures to describe the life of the Christian, it would be this passage from John 15. There are obviously a lot of images that God uses in the Scriptures to describe His relationship to His people. But if I had to choose one, it would be this one, of the vine and the branches. It is an image that is easy to understand in a culture formed around agriculture, where there are living plants all around. The people in Israel knew, like you do, that a branch that is not connected to the vine is useless. Jesus is not giving a program of self-improvement; He’s not giving a set of steps to a better life. He is talking about life and death. He’s talking about being joined to Him, and being alive; or being apart from Him and being dead. A branch that is cut off from its vine may look like it’s alive for a while; it may look green, it may have flowers, it may even have fruit. But if that branch is not connected to the vine, it will never have more flowers, it will never have more fruit. It will dry up and be good for nothing but burning. It would be silly to talk about a branch that is sometimes connected to the vine and sometimes not, and thinks it’s getting along fine.
Likewise, it would be silly to talk about a Christian who is sometimes connected to Christ and sometimes not, and thinks he is getting along fine. Sometimes people say that they can be Christians and not go to church. But that’s because they’re thinking that going to church is about what they are doing for God, as if they are doing Him a favor by taking time out of their busy schedules to spend an hour with Him, rather than the location where He feeds them with His Word and Gifts. This is the place where Christ promises to be—not because of the place, but because of what is given out here. No Christian can ever live without receiving the gifts of Christ’s life. No Christian would want to be without Christ and His gifts, without His Word and His Sacraments. Peter and the disciples knew: Lord, where else would we go? You have the words of eternal life.
Jesus says, I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from Me, you can do nothing. He doesn’t say that you can do only a little; He doesn’t say you have a kernel of life in you that He will help you grow; He doesn’t say, do what you can, and I’ll do the rest. He says, apart from Me you can do nothing. Just as a branch can have no life, no fruit, unless it is joined to the vine. It’s life in Christ, or no life at all. Life in Christ, or death. I am the true vine, Jesus says.
There was another vine. God took it out of Egypt and transplanted it into the land of Canaan. He fed it, watered it, nourished it. He gave it everything it could possibly need, and it lacked nothing. But it did not produce good fruit. It produced rotting, evil, sickened fruit. Because it joined itself to dead idols. It joined itself to vines that had no life in them. It trusted itself, and rebelled against its vine-dresser. It proved to be of the same stock as its ancestor, Adam, whom God had planted in the original Garden. And God cut it down. He used the axe of Assyria and Babylon to cut down the vine He had planted. But God didn’t leave it like that. He wasn’t finished. His goal was not condemnation or death. He had left a remnant, a stump.
From that stump, as Isaiah had prophesied, God brought a new shoot. New growth from those dead, dry roots. He grew it from the very substance of Israel, through the womb of a Virgin from the family of David. This Vine was trained to grow up around a cross-shaped trellis, and the winter of sin came down hard on the Vine. Your sin, my sin, the sin of the whole world, freezing the life out of the Vine God planted. But God didn’t leave it like that. He wasn’t done. His goal was not condemnation and death. So on the third day, God raised up the Vine, never to die again. The Spring of Resurrection has come, and it has spread over the whole earth. Millions of branches, grafted in to the true Vine, Christ. If you abide in My Word, He says, then you are truly My disciples (John 8:31). Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him (John 6:56). Haven’t you heard His Word? Haven’t you eaten His flesh and drunk His blood? You are clean because of the word He has spoken to you. You are clean by the blood He shed. I am the Vine, you are the branches.
In Minnesota, I used to have some hop vines in my backyard. You’re supposed to plant them in the spring when the danger of frost has passed (which was always a risky proposition in Northwest Minnesota). But when you think the danger of frost has passed, you plant them and they grow, and they bear fruit; you harvest them, and then, in the late fall or winter, they die and you cut them down or mow over them. The snow covers them, and for all you can see, they are dead and gone. There’s no indication of any life at all. But when spring comes, there they are, growing bigger, faster, stronger than in the previous year.
Maybe some of you feel like it’s winter for your faith. That the frost of sin or the cares of this world have killed your faith and your desire for the things of God. You take stock of your life, of your fruit (or the lack thereof) and you don’t know if you have faith at all. Or, if not winter, then maybe a desert is a better image. You look inside and all you can find is dryness and death. Then it is either despair or longing for the Vine. The most dangerous is when you don’t think there’s anything wrong, when you can’t see your sin, when you don’t want the life of Christ. It is spiritual dehydration, like a man wandering in the desert who thinks he sees water, but what he puts in his mouth is only sand. We don’t stop being thirsty, we just try to satisfy our thirst with the wrong things. We fill our hands with stuff and people and sex and alcohol and entertainment, but it’s all just so much sand and dust. That’s not water; that’s not life.
Christ is life, even and especially when you don’t think you need it. Just like those vines in my yard, what you can see is not the whole reality. What you can feel is not everything there is. When it comes to the things of God, to faith and life in Christ, what you can see and feel are even less reliable than what you can see of the growth of plants. Do not look at yourself, or how things feel; growth is sometimes slow, and always seasonal. That is true of individual Christians, it’s true of congregations, and it’s true of the entire Body of Christ. This is why we prayed that, among the many changes of this life, God would fix our hearts where true joys are found, in the true Vine. To be fixed doesn’t mean to be static, or unmoving or without growth. But you cannot sit and watch a plant grow. It doesn’t look like it’s growing at all. It can only be measured in the light of its whole life, and your life in Christ can only be measured in light of eternity and His promise to you, that He is your life and He will finish what He started. Hear His Word: I am the true vine and My Father is the vine-dresser. Every branch in Me that is not bearing fruit, He lifts up.
He does not say that the Father takes away the branch or cuts it off—not in this life. The Father never takes away a branch or cuts it off from the vine. Jesus says: every branch in Me. Every branch that belongs to Me, He lifts up. God isn’t finished. His goal is never condemnation or death. He does not will the death of a sinner. He wants you to live and grow and bear fruit. He lifts you up, like He lifted up His Son from death. He gives everything to feed and nourish you. You are His own dear children, bought with the blood of His Son. Until you die, or this age is complete, God will not cease His vine-dressing work. He lifts you up again and again, calls you, prunes you, cleanses you, gives you His Word and forgiveness again and again.
Everything depends on Christ being the Vine. Isaiah uses a similar image, of trees and where they are planted. He says that the one who trusts in man, in himself, is cursed. His heart is turned away from Yahweh. She’s like a shrub planted in a desert, in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt-land. But the one who trusts in Yahweh is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream. He doesn’t fear when the heat comes; his leaves are still green. She is not anxious when the year of drought comes; she still bears fruit, because she’s planted firmly in the living water of Christ (Isaiah 17:5-8). Like a branch fixed in Christ the vine, where true joys are found. You, beloved, are the righteous ones planted in the House of God by the water of baptism. You flourish in the courts of our God. You, because you are joined to Christ, will still bear fruit in old age. You are, the psalmist says in one of my favorite images, ever full of sap and green, because you feed continually off Christ’s Word and Supper (Psalm 92:14). You are fixed in Christ, and your Father will not forget to tend to His branches. And you will bear fruit because you are in Christ, into eternity.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 4/29/21