Monday, May 11, 2009

Sermon on John 15:1-8, for the 5th Sunday after Easter, "Jesus the True Vine"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel from John 15. Here Jesus teaches us about what it means to be pruned and to grow and bear fruit, and how this relates to trials in life and our Christian growth. He shows how the Father prunes us of dead growth, and how Jesus Himself is the Vine, from which all believers gain nourishment, health, and the ability to bear fruit. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The pruning of a plant always involves some trauma. Though the plant isn’t conscious and can’t “feel” the sharp pinch of the pruning shears or the cut of the blade, it oozes sap from the open wound. A tree may scar and leave behind a stump where the pruned branch once was. Sometimes pruning seems so radical that the plant hardly looks like it will survive or grow back. Other times the pruning is more delicate and aimed to direct the growth of the plant. I think of many times when I’ve seen bushes trimmed down to stubby, bare branches, and it seemed so stark and ugly, as if they’d never recover. I’ve seen them cut the trees near my home to the point where there was no green growth left. It’s always astonished me how the plants, bushes, and trees recover. It would seem as if the gardeners had ruined the plant, or cut back too much for it to survive. No doubt it was traumatic for the plant.

Now, remembering that you yourselves are the branches of Jesus, the true vine, do you realize that we must be trimmed and pruned in our lives, for our good? Unlike the plants and trees, we do feel the pain and the trauma of pruning—and we cry out in protest! Ouch! That hurts!! What are you trying to kill me here?!? But it’s really no joke when we undergo testing and trials in life. It may come by suffering loss of our health or mental faculties. An illness may cause us to face our mortality, and evaluate where we are in life. Loss of strength, agility, or our memory may leave us feeling more dependent than we’d wish. Loss of vision or hearing may make us feel disconnected from the sights and sounds of beauty and life around us. The death of a family member or close friend may leave us filled with unanswered questions. How could God have let them die so soon? Why did God take them, and not me? How can I manage this new grief in my life?

The pruning may be in difficult life challenges, where our capacity for patience, endurance, love, or forgiveness may be tested. We may be asked to wait longer than we think we can bear, for something that we really want to have, and we become impatient. Perhaps obstacles arise that seem to push our goals even further away than they seemed at first. Our impatience is pruned back and we’re given difficult circumstances to endure. We’re pruned to remove dead growth, so that we’ll grow back healthier and stronger, with greater patience and endurance. Our love is constantly put to the test, as the devil will leave us with no rest from his prowling around like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour (1 Pet. 5:8). The devil’s attacks may be unpredictable and strike us from where we least expect it, or they may be the same obvious, tired attacks that have worked so well in the past.

Our human love is easily destroyed and easily reaches its limits. These trials of our love come not only from outside the church, but also inside it—they come not only from our enemies but even within our own family and among our closest friends. Those closest to us can wound us the deepest. Human love is so easily emptied and reaches its limits because often we’ll only love when we feel that we’re treated well, or that we find there is some reward or return in it for us. But if not, we quickly reach the point where we see our neighbor as unlovable. Our epistle readings for these several weeks after Easter have been from the book of 1 John, which is a book of love. It speaks to this very issue in chapter 4, part of which is today’s reading. I’ll quote at length some verses from chapter 4:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made 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. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (1 John 4:9-11)
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. (4:16)
We love because he first loved us. 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. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (4:19-21)

When we look on the frailty and weakness of our own human love, it seems remarkable, and perhaps even despairing that God tells us in these verses that if we don’t love, we don’t know God. That if we abide in love, God will abide in us. That it’s impossible for us to say we love God, and yet hate our brother! This makes us a liar! If we cannot love our brother or sister whom we’ve seen, then how can we say we love God? This is absolutely crushing to hear, from the standpoint of human love, and the human reaction to see our neighbor as unlovable. Yes, even the person who has wronged us, not only our friends. When I see my love in this light, I must confess that it is empty. That I am not able to love my neighbor as I ought to. In myself I do not have the capacity for such love.

But don’t despair, for this is just what Jesus and John are talking about in today’s readings! To bear such fruit, to love as we ought to, is only possible by abiding in Christ, the True Vine. It’s true that we don’t have this love in us. But God answers that “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.” Remember that word, “propitiation”? That Jesus turned away God’s wrath from us? “We love, because He first loved us.” God first acted for us through Jesus Christ to love us, so that we might love others. The kind of love that He commands us to have—the love for our brother, the love that bears no hatred or animosity or condescension for our neighbor—this is not a love that we produce or achieve by our own efforts or willpower. This is a love that is entirely produced, granted, and given to us by God. That’s what it means that He first loved us. That’s why if we really love, we abide in Him and know Him, for He is love. “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.” You can do nothing without Him!

But so that we can produce this fruit, this love that God desires, He prunes us, and again it hurts. Luther said if vines could talk, they’d say to the vinedresser who comes to clip and cut the branches with His clipper and pruning hook—What are you doing? I must die for how your iron teeth bite and clip my branches; you’re tearing and pinching me so that I will be dead and barren of my beautiful leaves. You treat no other plant so cruelly as me, and you really don’t know what you are doing! But our Father, the vinedresser will reply that we simply don’t understand that this is for our welfare, and that by removing the excess branches and growth, He’s helping us. “For even if I do cut a branch from you, it is a totally useless branch; it takes away your strength and your sap. Then the other branches, which should bear fruit, must suffer. Therefore away with it! This is for your own good.” You say: “But I do not understand it, and I have a different feeling about it.” The vinedresser declares: “But I understand it well. I am doing this for your welfare, to keep the foreign and wild branches from sucking out the strength and the sap of the others. Now you will be able to yield more and better fruit and to produce good wine.”

This should be of great comfort to us as Christians when trials and hardships come about, when death, distress, or suffering faces us. We know that the devil, the world, our sinful flesh; the afflictions, harm, and suffering we endure in life are being used as pruning shears in God’s capable hands. We can gladly say to ourselves, “See, I am being pruned and sheared for my benefit and growth, that I might bear better fruit. Go ahead: chop, prune, remove the unnecessary leaves for I know God’s purpose full and well. This is the work of my Father to prune His vine and make me grow better and produce a good yield of fruit. Praise God who can use even the devil with all his malice to serve our good!

More than this, we’re reminded that Christ Himself shares the fate of the vine in every way. Even as we’re pruned and cut back, He suffered far worse trauma, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. His love was repaid with scorn, hatred, and spit. His back felt the tearing pain of the scourge that opened the wounds by which we are healed. His hands and feet felt the bite, not of pruning shears, but iron nails that pierced Him and held Him to the dead trunk of a tree. His side was pierced with the point of the spear, with a rush of blood and water that flowed like life-giving sap as the True Vine poured out His life for the world. So that in this shameful death on the dead tree of the cross, He might become the Living Vine that grows and reaches out to all who believe in Him. In this way He first loved us, so that as we abide or remain in Him, we become the branches of His living vine, to bear much fruit. His death and resurrection from the dead provides the life and the love that flows from He the vine into we the branches. Abiding in His love and being pruned by His Father’s care, we as His branches grow all over the world with His love, so that we can truly bear His fruit everywhere. So we’ll love one another and prove to be His disciples. Seeing His Son’s love growing and bearing fruit in us, God the Father will be glorified. Let us pray:

Dear heavenly Father, teach me to love as you have loved me. Give me the same love that covers over a multitude of wrongs, that as my sin has reached to the heavens, and yet you have forgiven it, that I too may cover a multitude of wrongs with your love living in me. Help me to abide as a true branch in your Son, the True Vine, that I may truly forgive others as you have forgiven me. Enable me to not only speak the words of forgiveness to another, but enable me to also treat them as forgiven and loved. Guard my heart and actions from angry or hurtful words, and instead fill me with the fruit of your love, so that I truly recognize and rejoice in your pruning as necessary for my growth and benefit. Remind me always of everything your Son endured on the cross for the sake of love, so that I may abide in that eternal love through your Son Jesus Christ, in whose name we pray, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
1. Why is pruning necessary for a fruit-bearing vine? How does that relate to how it’s necessary for us as believers to be pruned by the Father?
2. What are some ways that we are pruned? What tests, difficulties, or challenges do you personally face that are pruning you to be a branch that bears more fruit?
3. In you person situation, what is the growth that God desires for you? Read 1 John chapter 4, Galatians 5, Eph 4:17-5:21.
4. How is our human love insufficient for the love of our brother that God commands? Where do we find the source of the love that keeps the command to love our neighbor? How do we “tap into” this love?
5. How does it help in times of trouble to know about God’s pruning activity? What perspective does it give?
6. How does Jesus share with the fate of the vine in every way? What did He endure to become the Living Vine that bears fruit in us, His branches?
7. Read the following for Old Testament examples of vine imagery: Psalm 80:8-19; Isaiah 4:2-4, 5:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21; Ezekiel 15; Joel 1:11-12, 2:12-13.

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