[Jesus said:] “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” (John 15:1-2).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
As Jesus speaks these words, He is preparing His disciples for His death. He has spoken of His betrayal, predicted Peter’s denial, and now He teaches His disciples one more time before closing with His High Priestly Prayer, and heading to the Garden of Gethsemane.
Which raises the question: “Why do we spend time reading and meditating on these words in the season ofEaster?” Because when you look back on these words during Easter, you see that Jesus was doing something more than preparing His disciples for His death. He was also preparing them for His life: His resurrected life. In these words, Jesus offers His disciples (of all times) a promise that He will live and dwell in them (and us).
At the beginning of His Gospel, John reveals God has chosen to dwell among us. He writes, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). This is a wonder that the holy almighty God would choose to dwell among His people.
Throughout the Gospel, we see this wonder unfold. Jesus enters into places and engages in conversations with people. He sits at the side of a well in Samaria and talks to a woman with a checkered past. He walks along the Sea of Galilee teaching, healing, and feeding multitudes. He shares the joy of a wedding and the grief of a funeral. That Jesus dwells among us is a wonder. Though we are lost in sin, He comes to find us in grace. He comes to a well in Samaria and along the Sea of Galilee. He comes to a small congregation in southwestern Minnesota. Wherever you are, whoever you are, Jesus brings forgiveness to you. He has come to dwell among us, so He might call you to be a disciple, to speak to you in grace, and to guide you as you follow Him in the world.
Now, however, Jesus reveals something more. He has not just come to dwell among us. No, He has also chosen to dwell within us, “I am the Vine; you are the branches,” Jesus says. Branches have no life of their own. Their life flows from the vine. So, too, we have no life of our own. Our life comes from Jesus. His resurrection from the dead has revealed that He is the source of all life. Though we die, we shall live. He has defeated death for us, and nothing can now separate us from His love. But the life He gives is not just life after death. No, it is life now in the world, in the unfolding of His Kingdom. As Jesus says to His disciples a few verses after our text, “These things I have spoken to you that My joy might be in you and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Forgiveness, peace, fullness, joy… all these flow to us from Him. This life flows to us and this life flows through us to fill the world with His gifts.
Being a Christian isn’t only a question of attitude and behavioral patterns. It’s a question of a living faith that creates an intimate fellowship, a constant relationship with Christ Himself so His life flows in you with forgiveness, with a power that heals your wounds and with a warmth that constantly allows you to act, to be driven by His love.
Therefore, you need, first, to be grafted into Christ. This happens to you in Baptism. “To abide in Christ” means to be incorporated into Christ—just as the branches are connected to the vine. To abide in Christ is to believe.
Faith is something invisible, but many of the characteristics of faith are noticeable and visible. Prayer belongs to faith, as does constantly returning to His Word, listening to it, and taking it to heart. That’s the way sap from the vine flows into the branches. The words of Jesus are spirit and life. They’re the blood of life that flows from Christ’s heart to all His members. Where this happens, one can say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20).
It seems too audacious to believe that the Lord could live in us with His love and be here in us, sinners. Every day we have to be forgiven again, and this is precisely why we need Him. It is He who comes to forgive us everything. And so He does in the Word of Absolution. We could never free ourselves from our guilt if He hadn’t come to give us part of Himself. And so He has! In His Word and in His Supper, He comes to us with His love, His victory, and His new resurrected life, He nourishes us so that we bear the kind of fruit that will glorify the Father.
And so, by the nourishment the Vine provides, branches bear fruit. St. Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). These are, above all, characteristics of our Savior in His relationship with us. He is perfectly loving of us; He rejoices over us; He is patient, kind, and good to us; and so on.
By being so loving, patient, and kind to us, Christ the Vine creates in you the same fruit of the Spirit. We become—in fact, whether you always notice it in yourself or not, you have become—loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, good, faithful, gentle, self-controlled. Hard to believe, isn’t it? But true.
This fruit then gives life to your neighbor. Christ the Vine not only produces these fruit in your life for your benefit, but also for your neighbor. Christ the Vine nourishes your spouse with the love and faithfulness that we bear. Christ the Vine strengthens your children with the peace and patience that you bear. Christ the Vine benefits your fellow man with the goodness and self-control that you bear. Ultimately, Christ the Vine uses these fruit to give life to your neighbor, for these fruit lead and enable you to share the Word of His cross and resurrection with him or her and they are grafted into the vine as well.
But even then, the Lord is not finished with you.
“My Father is the Vinedresser,” Jesus says. “Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it might bear more fruit.”
When Aimee and I bought our first home in Freeman, South Dakota, we were delighted that it came with a large lot that covered half a city block. There was plenty of room for the kids to play, a huge spot for a garden, and the previous owners had planted all sorts of fruit bearing plants, including strawberries, raspberries, apples, apricots, and grapes.
The first year we lived there, we didn’t really know what we were doing and with three little ones and another on the way, we just got too busy to prune the grapevines. Guess what happened? The vines grew like crazy, thick and so full of leaves you couldn’t see through them. They looked great… from a distance. But if you looked closer, you would soon see that there were hardly any grapes and the few that we found were tiny dried-up things with more seeds than fruit and juice.
As I started researching, I found out just how important it is to prune the vines. “Grapevines will twist and twine around everything within reach unless snipped and trained to grow where you want them… For quantities of luscious clusters, serious pruning is in order each year.”[i]
That fall, I went out there when everything was dormant. I pruned mercilessly. It looked like there wasn’t anything left, just the major branches. The next year, we had a wonderful crop of flavorful concord grapes that gave us gallons of tasty juice and many jars of jelly.
Aimee learned more about pruning when she began working for a nursery. One day she was helping Matthew prune the trees. She listened to his instructions and cautiously proceeded, getting one tree done to about every five that Matthew finished. After a while, he told her, “Aimee, you can’t be afraid. They’ll grow back.” His years of experience as a horticulturist gave Matthew the knowledge of the resiliency of plants and confidence in the positive effects of pruning.
This is especially true when the pruning is being done someone who knows what he’s doing.
The Lord is the Vinedresser. He knows exactly what He is doing as He cleans the dead or withered branch and prunes the branches to produce even more fruit. Pruning can look and feel like a disaster. Yet, God works through the disaster to bring you closer to Jesus so people might see how He bears fruit in your life.
You’ve been pruned. Maybe it hurt a little; maybe it hurt a lot. And, it will happen to you again. So there’s a few things the Lord would have you know.
First, understand that the pruning that the Father allows and engages in, is always for your own good or the good of the Church and coming of the Kingdom to those who are outside her walls.
With respect to one’s own good, consider Peter, who would come to understand this personally after Jesus’ resurrection. Despite the apostle’s vociferous objections, Jesus had just predicted Peter’s threefold denial a few minutes earlier. Yet, Jesus had also promised Peter that He was praying that Peter would not fail and that when Peter turned again, the apostle would strengthen his brothers (Luke 22:32 ff.). Ultimately, this pruning would teach Peter the limits of his own strength, even as it revealed the expanse of God’s love.
St. Paul knew something about pruning, too. He battled a thorn in his flesh. Three times, Paul prayed that the thorn might be removed. Three time the Lord said to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 9). This thorn was God’s pruning, building Paul into greater faith and bringing Paul into an experience of Christ’s strength that would serve the apostle well for his life and encourage countless Christians since.
The branches of the Vine are pruned and bear much fruit.
Second, remember that the pruning that the Father allows and engages in is never like what took place with the Son of God… with Jesus the Vine. The Father cut the Son off for those hours on the cross. Jesus suffered the separation that you and I deserved, and He did it in order that you and I might never—not ever—not even for a second—be cut off from Him. The children of God are pruned, but never are they cut off or forsaken as Christ was on the cross.
Third, understand the difference between Law and Gospel. The bottom line is that, as a Christian you will bear much fruit that is according to the will of God in His Commandments. Good works will naturally flow forth from you, and you don’t need to go trolling for them. They are the activities of your various vocations.
And most importantly, know this: Despite the pruning that you may have to endure, the Lord loves you and the Word of Christ remains true, namely, “Already you are clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you.” That Word was spoken in your Baptism and you hear that truth in every announcement of the Absolution… that is, you are forgiven of all your sins in the name of the Father and of the (+) Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[i] Groves, Marjorie P. (Ed.) Complete Guide to Gardening p. 447-448. Des Moines: Meredith Corporation, 1979.