Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sermon on 1 John 5:9-15 for the 7th Sunday of Easter, "This is the Testimony"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today we have the privilege (in our 2nd service) of seeing two of our youth take a significant step of maturity in their Christian walk. They have undergone instruction in the Christian faith, and will publicly confess that this faith that the church confesses is their faith also. They’re embracing and confessing the faith into which they were baptized. As I preach on the text from 1 John today, I want you to recall your own baptism and confirmation, or if you were received into faith as an adult, to remember your baptism and profession of faith. As you remember these things, consider your new identity in Christ, and how He’s called you to use the gifts He’s granted to you. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Our reading today centers around the word “testimony.” The first verse reads: “If we receive the testimony of men, the testimony of God is greater, for this is the testimony of God that He has borne concerning His Son.” The word “testimony” is a common word in churches today, but it isn’t often used in the Biblical sense of the word, or as it’s used here. John talks about two kinds of testimony: the testimony of men and the testimony of God. The “testimony” that we often hear of in Christian churches, is really the testimony of men. Usually the kind of testimony that we hear about in churches today is better described as our personal biographies. There is nothing wrong with this testimony of men, provided it is honest and true, and it does often give encouragement and conviction to fellow Christians to hear how God has been working in other peoples’ lives. But Christian testimony, in the Biblical sense, is really the second one that John talks about—the greater testimony—the testimony of God. Throughout the New Testament, when it talks about Christians testifying or giving witness, it isn’t about them, it’s about God. When we’re talking about our Christian testimony or witness, we should really use the word “testimony” to describe the greater testimony of God.

Why? What does testimony mean anyway? Testimony is usually someone’s eyewitness of some actions or events, that they tell to someone else. Say for example I witnessed a robbery at a convenience store. If the police or court would call me to testify, I would describe to them the time, the location, a description of the persons involved, and the sequence of events as I saw them as an eyewitness. My account of what I witnessed would be a testimony. The Greek word for testimony in this passage is “marturia.” You may hear the word “martyr” in there. The word martyr simply means “witness.” That is what the first Christian martyrs were—they were witnesses—often even eyewitnesses, of Jesus and His resurrection. Their testimony was the testimony of God—the witness of the actions and events of Jesus’ life. They bore witness to what they had seen and heard with their own eyes and ears, what they touched and felt with their own hands. Since many of them were killed for this testimony of God that they bore, the word “martyr” grew to be connected with the idea of dying for one’s testimony of faith.

So what’s the use of talking about this today? Do we really face death for what we believe, like the early apostles did? Well, it might surprise you that the number of Christian martyrs who’ve died for the faith in the past century surpasses the total of all those who’ve died in the previous 19 centuries of Christian history. (Give statistics or story from VoM). The reason we talk about it though—whether or not you or I, or even our confirmands are in direct danger of persecution for the faith—the reason is that this testimony of God is worth dying for. You’ll notice in our order of confirmation, that one of the questions we ask is, “Do you intend to continue steadfast in this confession and Church and to suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it?” Why is this question there? Because when we make this testimony of God, this confession of faith our own—we’ll have the devil and the world as our enemies. But we know that the testimony of God is worth infinitely more than the pleasure and approval of the world. That trials, persecutions, hatred, and even death are a small price to pay in comparison with the greatness of what God gives to us through His testimony. So it’d be better to die than to lose this testimony of God, or to deny it. For to lose it’d be far worse than death.

The church has been given this testimony of God—it’s the faith that we confess in Jesus Christ, for the forgiveness of sins and salvation. The church has been given this testimony to speak and to proclaim to all people—and because this is our testimony, we call these youth today to make that good confession of faith. The same testimony that we confess, and the testimony that has been handed down from the ancient days of the apostles. We stand in the receiving end of a great ancestry of Christian believers who’ve passed on this testimony from age to age, the unwavering conviction that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and the testimony of His Words and deeds accomplished for our salvation. Even further back than the apostles, to the Old Testament believers from David, to Moses, to Abraham, to Adam and Eve…all who believed in the promised Son of God, and so had this testimony in themselves. Now we, as Jesus’ disciples, and these youth, Abigayle and Annika, carry that testimony forward to the next generation. We are like runners in a long race that are passing the baton, or passing the torch, like runners in the Olympics. We’re all running in this race together, and we pass on this same testimony of God.

But unlike an Olympic relay race, we don’t hand off this testimony and step to the sidelines while someone else runs. It’s more like our testimony ignites someone else’s torch, and we all keep running, carrying the Gospel light. We see people on the sidelines who aren’t in the race, and we ignite their torch with the testimony of God, and call them to run in this race. We all run for the finish line together, a living mass of bodies striving for one goal—as one body—the body of Christ. Carrying the injured, bearing one another’s burdens, running toward that upward goal. It’s a real “Run to the Son!” So as these confirmands pick up speed in their run, confirmation is not the end of their instruction, but only the beginning. The same for us. At whatever stage in life we publicly stood up and were counted, and made the good confession of faith—this wasn’t a signal that we’d completed our study as Christians, or that we’d graduated from learning the faith. Rather we signal that we’ve embraced the testimony of God as our own testimony—that by believing in the Son of God, we’ve got this testimony in ourselves. That our eyes are fixed on Jesus, and we’re training and pushing ourselves to the max.

So if you’ve started to stagger in the race, or if you’ve started to head for the sidelines and figured that it’s someone else’s race, or if you feel that you’re already done—wake up! Come to attention and see that your race is not yet over! Wherever you are in life, whatever your plans or talents, God still has a use for you, no matter how great or small. Everyone of us should be active in regular study of God’s Word and the frequent participation in God’s Word and Sacraments—Baptism and Communion. Can you imagine runners in a marathon not drinking to stay hydrated, or not energizing their body with food before or during the race? If we were that careless with our spiritual nature, we shouldn’t be surprised if we collapse in the race or feel like giving up. What if the race of life is longer than a marathon? Could we survive it and still compete if we stopped drinking from Christ, the Living Water, or stopped feeding on Him, the Bread of Life? Of course not!

So we really need to look closer at what this testimony of God is, and why it’s so superior to the testimony of man. “This is the testimony,” says John, “that God gave us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” So when we ask the question again: “What is Christian testimony?” The answer is not about us—it is for us. The testimony is that God gave us eternal life in His Son. God’s testimony is unassailable. He is truthful in every respect, trustworthy and sure, and His testimony is about His Son. God testifies concerning the most important matter for our human interest. Through knowledge of Jesus comes salvation, and through Him we have life. Christian testimony is always and ever about Jesus. He’s the One about whom we testify, He’s the One about whom the church that runs down through the ages testifies, He’s the One about whom our confirmands today testify. Today I ask you that you join them in confessing this faith, and renew your passion for this testimony of God. That together we’d see in Christ the One who’s worthy of our worship and our trust. That we’d see this as a testimony worth dying for, that we’d suffer all, even death, rather than fall away from it.

Because our Lord Christ suffered all, even death for us, so that He could give us eternal life. The Christian testimony about Christ is that He “was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. And the third day He rose again according to the Scriptures and ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.” The apostles and early disciples were the first eyewitnesses of these things, and this testimony is now ours as well. We are witnesses, and may even one day be martyrs for the faith. We’ve heard and believed that Jesus entered the world as God’s only Son, that He faced off against the powers of sin, death, and the devil, and that in a glorious battle He died on the cross in victory. The first eyewitnesses saw His resurrection from the dead, the resurrection which gives us eternal life. “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” Jesus did this all for us. This is most certainly true. 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. When were you baptized, as a child or an adult? When did you make profession of your faith, either in confirmation or as an adult? What did this mean for your life as a Christian?
2. What is Christian testimony? How is the testimony of man different from the superior testimony of God? Reread 1 John 5
3. What does the Scripture say the testimony of God is? What is a martyr? (ex. Acts 7-8)
4. Why is the testimony of God (our confession of faith) worth dying for? How have Christians given their lives in the past?
5. How does the church pass on this testimony, and how is it like running the race of faith together? What gives us the strength to keep on in this race? 1 Cor. 9:24-27; 2 Tim. 4:6-8
6. What is the testimony about Christ, and how does it give life?
7. Who is someone you can bring the testimony of God to?

Monday, May 18, 2009

Sermon on John 15:9-17, for the 6th Sunday of Easter, "You Did Not Choose Me"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. For all the talk that we make of having free will in our lives, and in whatever earthly choices we may apply it to, Jesus makes it clear with one irrefutable statement, that when it comes to being in Christ we have no such free will. “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Here at Jesus’ words, we lay down any pretensions that we sought after God, and humbly acknowledge that He has chosen us and called us by His grace alone. We confess together with the Scriptures that “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God” (Rom. 3:10b-11). Today we look at the Gospel reading, and what it means that Jesus has chosen us to go and bear fruit. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Hear it again: Jesus says to His disciples, “You did not choose me, but I chose you.” Yet is this what we hear, believe, or say? More often than not, we reverse Jesus’ words, and say that “I chose Jesus, or I made a decision for Jesus.” These words are commonly used by Christians to describe how they think they came to faith. So essentially, it seems the reason I’m a believer and the next guy isn’t, is because I was the one who chose Jesus. In return for my act of choosing Jesus, by my free will, Jesus then calls me His friend. I sought Jesus’ friendship, and He graciously obliged. Is that how it works?? Is Jesus returning our favor to Him? Quite the opposite!! Jesus makes it clear that He was the sole initiator of our relationship to Him, and that our friendship with God isn’t based on anything, ANYTHING, we have done. He chose us, and appointed us to go and bear fruit. What is this fruit? To show that we love others as He has loved us. This will be the sign and evidence of our continued friendship with Him.

So why is it so important that we keep this order straight? Isn’t it just quibbling over words? Not at all! There is an enormous difference between thinking that we chose Jesus by an act of our free will…and that He chose us by an act of His grace. If we chose Him, and if we think that we have free will in this matter, it’s saying that God’s grace was given to me in response to my act of choosing. God’s grace for me followed my initiative to seek Him. But we already said that Scripture clearly shows that no one seeks after God, not one. So God wasn’t waiting for us to act, before He shared His grace with us. This would make our act of choosing our first and most important good work. If we claimed no other good work, but acknowledged ourselves to be sinners in every other way, but held to this as the act that put us in the kingdom of God—then this one work would still be our boast before God. But so that pride may have no room before God—and so that God may be our teacher, and not we His teacher—God saves us by grace, through faith. And this, this faith, is not of yourselves. Why? So that no man can boast (Eph. 2:8-9). So that God can remove any ground of boasting, even this small act doesn’t belong to us. Faith in Christ is purely God’s gracious gift, and He chose us, not the other way around.

Quite opposite of God waiting on our initiative, God came and sought us by His grace. He did not wait for any man to act, or to seek after Him, but sought us—pursued us lost sheep and carried us into His fold. The Good Shepherd lays down His life for the sheep (John 10:11). Greater love has no one than this, than someone lays down his life for his friends. All that we have and are in Christ Jesus is by His grace, and undeserved choosing of us. He made the sacrifice, He gave His life, He gave the Spirit who gives us faith to confess Jesus as Lord (1 Cor. 12:3b). All credit, all glory goes to Him. We don’t share in or claim any of that credit for ourselves, even in the smallest degree. Any such claim to share the credit, takes away from His glory and suffering on the cross, by making it somehow insufficient or incomplete. That our part had to be added also, in order for it to be effective. But there is no room for that.

So that we in no way diminish the greatness of Jesus’ sacrifice and what He has done, stop and consider how great is His love for us. That Christ should call us His friends, and let us know what our master is doing is an astonishing love. He laid down His life for us rebel sinners, when He died on the cross, when we had been His enemies (Rom. 5:6-8). Such a great and unheard of love, a man who pays off all the debts of His enemies. More than just paying monetary debts, which only requires a painless shelling out of cash, He paid the debts of our sin, which required His painful binding to the altar of the cross. There He paid the ransom price for all the debts of His enemies, and even those who gained from this reward mocked Him. But this is the greatest love. A love so high and beyond all description, that it has but one name: Jesus. Jesus who chose to make a friend out of an enemy. He chose us as friends, even though we made no effort, no initiative, no movement toward Him, but He came the whole way to us, arms opened in a loving embrace, hands filled with the riches of salvation to pour out to you, all at His expense. He has lavished on us the riches of His grace (Eph. 1:7-8).

Since we are His friends, He has chosen us to go and bear fruit that will abide, and this is how. He has given us the command that we love one another as He has loved us. This will be the abiding fruit that shows our continued friendship with Him. Abiding in His love, so will we love one another. But the devil is bent on destroying and disrupting this love at all costs. The devil is always active sowing “discord, anger, impatience, hatred, and envy.” He knows that there will be no shortage of trouble in this life, and that when we are tired, anxious, or stressed, that we will also be especially irritable and open to attack. I will quote Luther here at length because he explains this so true to life, and better than I could say it. Because of our sinful flesh,

even dear and faithful friends fall out or become irritable with one another. At times the devil injects poison and suspicion into a heart because of a single word or glance and thereby stirs up mutual animosity. He is a master in this art and devotes himself to it most diligently. He employs his craftiness before one is really aware of it.

Trifles can lead to such quarreling and enmity that great harm results to many. The blood soon begins to boil; then the devil shoots his venomous darts into the heart by means of evil tongues, and finally no one says or thinks anything good about the other person. The devil keeps on fanning the flames and is eager to set people against one another, to spread misery, and to incite them to murder.
But Christ declares: “That is not the right attitude. Do not let the devil, the world, or your own flesh overcome you; but think of how I have loved you and still love you. Call to mind what I have spent on you to make you righteous and to save you, to make you acceptable to the Father, to make you His priest and servant and My disciple. To accomplish this, I suffered and overcame everything both the devil and the world were able to do against Me. My beloved one, thus you also should remain in My love and not be deterred by any aversion you may feel for the many trials and temptations. Stand firm, and defend yourself valiantly. I, too, would surely have reason to complain. I could become displeased and impatient because My Father permits Me to be reviled so deplorably, to be crucified so shamefully, and to have My love [repaid] by the world with such ingratitude. But I do not let any torment or suffering frighten Me away from My Father’s love or deter Me from My love for you. Therefore even if the world inflicts harm and suffering on you, look to Me, and see what I did and suffered for you. Let the world go to the devil, where it is determined to go. But for My sake remain in Me, and let My Word abide in you.

Know that the devil will certainly be around us day and night with his lying and murdering, and will let us have no peace within or without. But it is in this place and against this trial that Jesus chose us to go and bear fruit. Against the hatred and the trouble of the world, against the irritableness of our sinful flesh and all the quarrels and envy, against the lying and malice of the devil, Jesus has called and chosen us from out of this to be His friends and to bear fruit. He gives us His love, so that it will live and grow through us and that we will bear fruit that will be a lasting evidence that we remain in His love.

There is no amount of love that we can ever give or show that will ever repay the love that Christ has given to us—the greatest love of all, to lay down His life for His friends. But Jesus does not ask us to repay or earn His love—which would reduce His love from being pure gift to being an obligation or reward. Rather, He simply desires that we show the visible evidence of His love, by loving our neighbor. That He would see in all of us His love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. That He would see at work in us service and assistance for each other, charity and generosity and cooperation. That we wouldn’t stir up factions and divisions, sow disagreement by our unkindness or lack of self-control. That when the inevitable tensions arise and little sparks are lit, that we would take Luther’s advice and “Spit on it, and it will go out. Otherwise the devil will come with his venomous breath or through evil tongues and fan it into an inextinguishable fire, and it will develop into discord and hatred that cannot be allayed but will harm the whole body. For the devil is a spirit who does not desist and cease if he is not restrained.”

Knowing that even petty little things can easily spring up into a brushfire if they are not put out quickly, and knowing that the devil will readily turn those sparks into a blazing fire, we need to always be watchful and on guard. All of this is too much for us. It requires more love than we have or often feel, even toward our Christian brothers and sisters. Our love feels small and cold in comparison to Christ’s love, and we don’t even know how we can begin to do it. But to abide in His love means that it is His love that is at work to do it. His love more than fills up, it overflows, to create in us everlasting fruit that we could never bear, except that we abide in His love, and be the branches of His Vine. His love makes it possible for us to have the patience of Job, the love of faithful Mary, the courage of Peter and Paul, the mission fervor of Philip, the hospitality and generosity of Lydia, the encouragement of Barnabas. All these saints who without Christ were poor and frail, troubled and weak, but with Christ’s love, they bore the fruit of love that evidenced a life transformed. Still a work in progress, but truly friends of God.

When we love one another as Christ has loved us, His work is in progress on us, transforming us from the inside out. But His completed work, the work that is already finished and done for you, is the salvation He accomplished on the cross. When He cried out, “It is finished!” His love for you and for the world was total and complete, as Jesus laid down His life for His friends, yes, even His enemies, on the cross. With nothing to be added to or completed, He did it all, and His love accomplished salvation’s full price for us. So all the love we freely receive and share with others, is poured out for us in His self-less death, and His glorious resurrection from the dead. As we grow in love and draw more and more on this finished work of His love for us at the cross, we draw closer to the heavenly goal, when even this work in progress will be brought to completion, and our love will be perfected in heavenly glory. We owe all of this, and give thanks to Him, for His undeserved, gracious choosing of us, and the love that He so generously pours out through Jesus Christ. 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. While we have a degree of free will in ordinary, earthly matters that are “below us,” how do Jesus and the Scriptures make it clear that we do not have free will in choosing or seeking after God (heavenly matters, or things “above us”)? See John 15:16; Matt. 18:10-14; Rom. 3:10b-11; Ps. 53:1-3.
2. How does this go against all that we instinctively and by nature want to believe about ourselves and our abilities? Give yourself this simple test to see whether or not you have free will in spiritual matters: Exercise your free will to avoid all sin in thought, word, or deed for the next week. How did you do? Are you ready to concede that sin has a greater power over you than you are willing to admit?
3. Before the awakening of faith, what is the problem with our heart that we cannot seek after God? See verses above from Romans and Psalms. Also Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9; Matt. 15:18-19.
4. If faith was a matter of our seeking out God rather than Him seeking us out, how would this diminish the importance of grace? Eph. 2:8-10.
5. What are the implications of Jesus choosing us to be His friends? How does it shape our lives? How is our love and willingness to bear fruit constantly challenged? How should we respond?
6. If Jesus’ love abiding and growing in us is a work in progress, what is the completed work of love that Jesus has done?

Monday, May 11, 2009

Evangelism Equipping

On the blog of a fellow LCMS pastor, Rev. William Cwirla, is a somewhat humorous, but perceptive 7-step “program” for how we as Christians should prepare ourselves for evangelizing (spreading the Gospel!). The 7 simple steps are listed below:

Rev. Cwirla's 7-Step Evangelism Equipping Program™
1. Talk to people about sin and Jesus' death and resurrection wherever and whenever you can.
2. Don't worry that people will think you're weird, you are.
3. When possible, invite them to church and hang with them through catechesis to their Baptism.
4. Practice talking sin and Jesus with folks in your congregation, most of whom are Christians already, but hey, if you can't talk about sin and Jesus in church, where can you?
5. Memorize the small catechism so you'll have something intelligent to say and don't just blather on and on about yourself.
6. Don't worry about failure; God works through that too.
7. No ifs, ands, or buts when it comes to faith in Jesus or it isn't "good news." If you don't know what that means, go back to catechism.

I want to share this with you all, so that we start to think about our Christian calling to help spread the Gospel. Oftentimes I think we “psyche” ourselves out of ever doing or saying anything to anyone else, in the way of talking about Jesus. We convince ourselves that we will sound ridiculous or people will think we are weird—which Rev. Cwirla lightheartedly reminds us that we are. We convince ourselves that we aren’t “professionals” and don’t have the right experience or words to say, and that even if we did blurt something out, that it wouldn’t be very meaningful, or likely to change their hearts anyways. Or we simply think it’s not our job! That’s for the pastor or an evangelism committee to do!

But we make it seem more difficult than it really is. All we need to do is start talking to people about sin and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Does it seem like your everyday conversation could never end up there? What about when people start talking about problems in their lives, and they are struggling with what choices to make? Some of their options may be selfish or immoral, but may seem like the easy way out of a situation. Simply ask the question: “Don’t you think that’s wrong (a sin)?” Sin (although they won’t call it that) is endlessly the topic in the media and magazines, as any tabloid can prove. The news is full of issues that relate to morality, as our society increasingly wavers over ethical issues like abortion, the definition of marriage, warfare, the human rights of prisoners, the conduct and education of our children in schools. You don’t have to look far for a topic that is a natural bridge point to talking about your faith in God’s Word. You don’t even need to have any expertise on those issues to simply ask questions and begin to talk about the effects of sin in the world. Maybe the people you talk to are experiencing grief, or loss, or guilt in their lives. Then you have a ready opportunity to tell them about the forgiveness of sins and Jesus’ death and resurrection!

Worried that you won’t know what to say? Bring them to church and bible study. If they want to attend a class like Christianity 101 to learn more about the Good News, offer to attend it with them, and discuss things together. Practice talking about your faith with people at church! Really! Do we ever do that? Or is it just the sports and weather that come up? If we aren’t comfortable talking even with fellow Christians about faith matters, then we probably never will be with someone outside. So practice! Memorize the Small Catechism so that you know the basic parts of Christian teaching. And don’t try to take credit for or expect to be the one responsible for changing someone’s heart. As long as you are sharing the good news about what Jesus has done, God can work through that. His Word is effective to create faith (Rom. 10:17). We just need that Word on our lips.

We have to know that this Word is definitely for them because it’s definitely for us and its given for all. We need the saving truth of Jesus Christ because we are sinners ourselves, and therefore don’t exalt ourselves above others. We know that Jesus Christ is the only way to the Father, and that salvation is found in no other name than Jesus (Acts 4:12). So try it yourself! Practice talking about your faith, memorize the Christian basics, and pray for God to show you opportunities to tell the good news. Don’t be afraid of the opportunities when they come. Just speak, and be a vessel for God’s work! “If you cannot speak like angels, if you cannot preach like Paul, you can tell the love of Jesus, you can say He died for all. If you cannot rouse the wicked with the judgment’s dread alarms, you can lead the little children to the Savior’s waiting arms” (LSB 826).

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.