Sunday, May 06, 2012

Life from the Vine

[This was shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]

John 15:1-8
On the night of His arrest, in the room where He and the apostles had their Passover meal, Jesus tells them (and all who believe in Him) at the beginning of our lesson: “I am the true vine...”

What exactly does this mean and why should we spend the next few minutes of our lives trying to understand it?

In the Old Testament, God’s people Israel were pictured as a vine. For example, Psalm 80:8 says: “You have brought a vine out of Egypt. You have cast out the nations and planted it.” The mission of God’s people, Israel, was to be a light to the world, pointing others to the life that only God can give to those who turn from sin and believe in Him.

Israel's mission was later to be placed on the shoulders of one anointed king, a person described at least five centuries before the birth of Jesus in the book of Isaiah as the Servant. God speaks to this Servant in Isaiah 49:6: “I will...give You as a light to the gentiles, that You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth.”

In our gospel lesson, Jesus claims to be that Servant, the true Vine, Who is a light to all nations and Who offers salvation to all the world.

In that first verse, Jesus also says, “My Father is the vinedresser.”

Every vine needs pruning. Otherwise, it grows crazy and sprouts small, unhealthy, useless grapes. A vinedresser makes sure that his investment of time, energy, water, and fertilizer are maximized. He cuts off the branches that are likely to rob life from the other branches and not produce much themselves. Jesus evidently has branches that will be pruned away. We'll learn more about that as we dig further into this passage.

In verse 2, Jesus explains: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He [God the Father] takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

Now, Jesus, like most Jewish teachers in the ancient world and like the Biblical writers, loved plays on word. They helped make teaching more memorable. The word that Jesus uses for prune in verse 2 is kathairei, a word that is similar to one He uses in verse 3, where He says: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” The word for clean in verse 3 is, in the original Greek, katharoi (we get the words like catharsis or cathartic, used of cleansing experiences, from it). Jesus is equating cleansing with pruning. “My word,” Jesus is saying, “the word that all who believe in Me will not perish but have everlasting life, has made you clean. I wash away the sins of all who believe in Me and am the way you to eternal life with God.”

Jesus makes those who believe in Him clean. Our sin is pruned away. But, Jesus says, God the Father also rids His vine of unproductive branches and rids even the productive branches of unproductive shoots.

This is important, because in verse 5, Jesus tells us: “I am the vine, you are the branches...”

Jesus says that those who are baptized and believe in Him are connected to Him, sort of like a lamp is connected to electric power through a wall outlet. A lamp that remains unplugged just sets and collects dust. It only serves a function and only "comes to life" when it's connected to its power source. Believers in Jesus draw their life from Jesus alone and as branches on the same Vine, Jesus, they are also connected to each other. You can't be a Christian on your own: You need both Jesus and His Church. 

The apostle Paul says something similar to this in 1 Corinthians, where he writes that those of us who make up Christ’s Church “are the body of Christ and members individually.” So, we are branches who draw life from Jesus, we’re part of His body.

But that raises a problem. Jesus is sinless. The New Testament book of Hebrews says that Jesus “was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Now, if Jesus the Vine is going to thrive and give life to those who truly repent for sin and truly believe in Him, God cannot allow anything impure or sinful to be attached to Jesus. God must prune or cleanse Jesus the Vine of those branches that want to take life and blessings from Jesus without bearing fruit: without repentance for sin or trust in Jesus.

Unless the Father prunes the branches that are wasting God’s grace on the sins they want more than they want God, the whole vine, the entire body of Christ and God’s intention to create a new and everlasting kingdom for those who trust in Christ, is put in jeopardy.

This is why making our relationship with Christ and His Church the highest priority in our lives is so important. Jesus is saying that if we’re not all in with Him and His body, the Church, we’re really locking Him out of our lives

This leads to what Jesus says in John 15:4. It’s both an order and a plea from the Savior Who loves us like no other: “Abide in Me...”

Abide means live, stay, or remain. Jesus is saying, “Stick with Me.”

Jesus goes on to say: “As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” Then, at the end of verse 5, Jesus says something that sticks in the craw of any self-respecting, self-sufficient human being: “without Me you can do nothing.”

Who has the guts to admit that today: "Without Jesus, I can do nothing?" I learn it more every day! A few months ago, God impressed on me a simple message: “Don’t try to be creative with your sermons. Less of you; more of Me. Preach My Word and let the chips fall where they may.” It’s liberating to know that while I can’t, God always can!

Listen: Some of you may be trying to live a good, wholesome life on the strength of your own effort. If that’s what you’re doing, I’m telling you that you are bound to fail. We can never be as good as we were made to be or as we sometimes imagine ourselves to be. Jesus says we can do nothing without Him.

Others of you may think that you’re living a wholesome, godly life without paying much attention to God. As I’ve mentioned before, my grandmother used to say, “It’s easier to be good when you’re old than when you’re young.” What a stupid thing to say! That statement may be true only when you have one sin in mind.

But, I’ve found that the older I get, the easier it is for me to do just what I want to do. Society allows that as we age. “Age has its privileges,” we're told. Live enough years with that mentality and you start to believe it! You think that you’re entitled.

As the years go by--I’m talking to people in their teens as well as those in their 80s--maybe the best thing we could pray in the morning is, “God, what do you want me to do today that I don’t want to do?” I guarantee that if we will pray like that, we’ll be pushed so far out of our comfort zones we’ll have to remain connected to Christ for support and the sheer ability to get the thing done. We’ll know that we can’t, but God can.

In verse 6, Jesus says that if we refuse to be connected to Him, we will be cast out, thrown into the fire and burned. Lest we misunderstand Jesus' meaning here, He says something similar in Matthew's gospel: "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the rightweous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:49-50). The difference between the good and evil people Jesus describes here is not that one group are sinners and the other is not; it's that one group of sinners places its confidence in its own capacity to be good, while the other group relies for its goodness on Christ, the true vine, alone.

Those who don’t believe in hell need to take the subject up with Jesus; He clearly did believe in hell. In fact, He died and rose to prevent any of us from experiencing it. All that is required of us is that we remain connected to Him, trusting in Him alone.

But verse 6 isn’t the most challenging verse in the lesson. Verse 7 is. Jesus says: “If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.”

A lot of games get played with this verse and others like it. “If you only had enough faith,” some people will say, “you would never get sick and everything you ever wanted would be there for you.” That’s not faith, but magical thinking.

So, let’s not play games and deal honestly with what Jesus says here, with what we can understand and what we can’t. Probably every person in this sanctuary has prayed for the earthly lives of loved ones or friends, the new job or career, good health for ourselves or other things, and not received the answers we desperately sought. I cannot and will not explain away all the pain you’ve gone through as a result. Nor do I know why God seems to say, “No” to the prayers of Christians.

But, just a few thoughts. Please look at Psalm 37:4. It says: “Delight the Lord, and he shall give you the desires of your heart.”

Notice that the prerequisite for God giving us the desires of our hearts is that we delight in Lord. To delight in the Lord must mean, in part, putting God and God’s priorities first in our lives. We delight in God as we abide in Christ and remain connected to Him. As a result, what we desire changes because we delight in God. God's mind and our minds move more in sync. Some of what we pray for may change when delight in God. God may teach us to truly pray the hardest petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy will be done.” Maybe this is why Jesus makes this promise to give us whatever we desire within the context of His plea and command to abide in Him.

When I first became a Christian, the passage of Scripture that bothered me the most was Genesis 3:24. It comes after Adam and Eve have fallen into sin. It says that God drove Adam and Eve out of the garden and kept the whole human race from getting to the tree of life. “Why did God do that?” I wondered. Doesn’t God want to give us life?

The answer, of course, is that God does want to give us life. But more than that, God wants to give us life with Him. Had the human race gotten access to the tree of life without the change in our relationship with God that comes to those who believe in Jesus Christ, it would have meant an eternity of suffering and separation from God. We would have gotten the desires of our hearts, but the desires of hearts darkened and perverted by sin. We would have been lost to God forever, still in our sins.

God’s ways may not lead us to the answers we seek. But God’s ways, when we persevere in abiding with Christ, always lead to life beyond the confines of this suffering, dying world. God's ways always lead to resurrection victory and eternal life in His kingdom when we stick with Jesus.

The crucified and risen Jesus is the only one with the credibility to ask us to believe that, to trust God even when tragedies we devoutly prayed would not come, come anyway.

That's because Jesus on the cross assures us that God understands our pain and because Jesus risen assures us that there will be a time beyond our earthly sadness when all that seems senseless and barren will be explained, when all the hurts and kills us today will be in the past.

The apostle Paul, who knew all about suffering and about God rebuffing him when he asked that  suffering be removed from his life, could, because of his connection to Jesus, say in Romans 8:18: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed to us” when Jesus returns to bring His new creation in its fullness!

Until that day when Jesus returns, as we remain connected to Christ and our prayers move in sync with God, God will build up our faith, we will delight in God and desire the things God desires, and God will use us to share His love with and bring His kingdom to others. Like our Savior, we will share in others’ sorrows and joys and, in this way, bring the life of Christ to them. It is just this life--a life of deep connection with Christ and the needs of others--that Jesus calls “bearing fruit,” living the same faith Sunday afternoon through Saturday that we profess on Sunday mornings.

“By this [abiding in Him],” Jesus says in verse 8 of our gospel lesson, “My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit. So [or, in this way] you will be My disciples.”

Stick with Jesus and His body, the Church.

That’s where life is.

That’s where, even in the midst of questions we can’t fully answer in this world, purpose can be found.