[Jesus said] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. 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. 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. 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. (John 15:1-8 ESV)
Today we enter the world of botany – vines and branches and fruit. Perhaps – though I didn’t see any that stood out – Jesus passed some on the journey from the upper room to the Garden of Gethsemane or the vines were in the garden precincts and he used them as an illustration to the disciples who were filled with apprehension and confusion and yet were trying to understand what Jesus was saying to them. What do you tell people on the last night of your life?
I dare say that people today, if they have the opportunity to talk to people on the last night of their life, want to say ‘goodbye’, assure people of their love, ask them to remember the good times, and encourage them to go on living without them but with their memories of the deceased. Some people believe that even though death separates us from loved ones, the deceased are still with us as long as we say their names. Words recall memories which can inspire and help us but when the silence returns, we are still alone.
Jesus told his followers that they were branches and he is the vine. As the branches remain on the vine (in him) so they bear fruit. Yes, sadly somehow branches die and they will eventually be cut away and burnt and even the living branches will be pruned at times so that there will be more fruit. The picture is straight forward enough. But what do you do if the vine dies maybe 12 hours later? Surely these words are cruel if they mean remain in his memory? Surely these words present an impossible task if you live at a time when you don’t see Jesus and those who did are long, long gone. How do you know anything then? How do you remain on the vine?
Jesus’ words only offer comfort and are not the ravings of the deluded or the tricks of the demented if he still is the true vine – not in memory but in fact, in reality. We are the most pitied if Christ hasn’t been raised from the dead and his words should be silenced if the dusty molecules of Jesus are still blowing around Jerusalem. But the Easter message has gone out still today: Christ is risen! [He is risen indeed!]
That proclamation has power. The Gospel can do things our words can’t. Our words can mould, guide, shape realities and perceptions but we do not have the power to create as God has – let there be light and there was light. The good news of Jesus breaks through death and sin – like Jesus’ words to Lazarus – Lazarus didn’t wake up and think it’d be a good idea to live – Jesus’ words brought Lazarus back to life. The gospel brings people to new life – we call this new life ‘faith’ – and it trusts God’s Word to be true – it rests in those words declaring God’s love. And in ways that science cannot determine or prove, Jesus is present – not up in heaven looking down with a telescope to see whether people are remembering him and what he has done but he is active here and now.
God doesn’t come before us just as he is but in masks – in ways that can even mock our sense of importance (like Naaman who was upset that he had to bathe in the muddy Jordan when he could have stayed at home and bathed in beautiful rivers). God uses words, water, bread and wine. These are not symbols but means or channels by which the branches are grafted and kept on the vine.
In practical terms to remain in Christ or to abide with Christ or to live with Jesus doesn’t involve mind games to convince ourselves we’re not loonies but is about staying close to God’s Word, water, bread and wine. To mix the images somewhat, we can see that here [the bible] is the vine, here [font] is the vine, here [altar / Holy Communion] is the vine and here [the congregation] are the branches.
Each of these points of contact with Jesus remind us of his death – just as his words that night pointed to his death – and yet they give us life which continues beyond our death when faith will give way to sight and sound and hugs and dancing. Hence Christians are realistic about life – it has its ups and downs, its births and deaths, its good and bad, its nobility and its shame. It’s ordinary and it’s extraordinary – and Jesus is with his branches – how can he not be?!
This message of the real presence of Jesus is badly needed in our world and in the Christian Church. For Lutherans, the ‘real presence’ of Jesus has its first focus in Holy Communion – here Jesus is present to all who commune whether they believe it or not, are repentant or not – here he comes. Where Jesus is received in faith – there he blesses and where people deny his presence or push away his gift of forgiveness – there such actions bring judgement. If we saw it happening in front of us we’d say that it was plainly rude – it’s like saying to Jesus’ face ‘I don’t believe you’re here’ or ‘I don’t want your forgiveness’ or ‘I still want to live my life my way’. Lutheran theology stresses and reminds people of this real presence not to frighten the horses so to speak but because that is the best pastoral care the vine can give to the branches – even those who are frayed, battered, vandalised, and afraid.
In Baptism each person is joined to Christ – to his death and resurrection and new life begins. It’s real. It happens. People are changed and are adopted into God’s family. And each day – young or old(er) – when we wonder just who we are, or what is our purpose and goal, or just what am I going to do today – our baptism gives us our identity. You are branches grafted to Christ; you are so loved by God that he rescued you before you could even ask for help; you are forgiven so that sin need not control or dominate or be excused away but struggled against and wrestled with because it wants to cut you away from the vine. Your baptism is your personal assurance of God’s real presence with you.
So far I have preached about 1000 words. That’s what sermons are – words. Words are central to everything in worship. And while we might wish for the pastor to shut up (at times!) what is more important is that God is doing his work here in worship through words – and clothed sometimes in water, bread and wine.
Today God calls you, speaks to you, listens to you, and blesses you. It happens. It’s real. You are different when you leave than we you arrived – whether you feel it or not. Maybe our living this week might be about discovering how God has changed us and our response to that. But it’s still largely words. Jesus’ words are what counts – in liturgy, in readings and sermons, and in blessings – the vine makes it possible for the branches to remain.
So remain in Christ and live!
- John 15:1 - 8