It has been a month since Easter and now our hearts are beginning to turn toward the joy of Christ’s Ascension. However, as we look at our Gospel for today, it does not occur after Christ’s resurrection, but rather it occurs on Maundy Thursday, the night when our Lord was betrayed. What Jesus tells the disciples takes place just before they go to the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus invites the disciples to abide in Him so that they will be comforted in the difficult hours to come.
In our Gospel today, the Father prunes us as branches of a precious vine. He forgives our sins through the Word Jesus speaks to us. Pruned and cleansed, we bear new fruit as we receive spiritual life through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Jesus told a parable to the disciples that compared all who believe in Him to branches on a grape vine. Jesus is the vine. His Father is the vinedresser. Just as a branch gets its sustenance from the vine, so also we get our sustenance from Jesus Christ. Just as a branch quickly dies when taken away from the vine, so also will we die when we are removed from Jesus Christ. In this way, we are totally dependent on Jesus for all things. As we live in Jesus the vine, God the Father, our vinedresser, prunes and cleans us.
Jesus uses the phrase, “I am the vine” twice as He talks to the disciples. The vine is often used symbolically in Scripture. In the Old Testament, the vine was used as a picture of fruitfulness and even as a picture of God’s people. When this imagery is used, Israel is often shown as lacking in some way. Here, Jesus portrays Himself as the vine, in fact the true vine.
Because Jesus is the true vine, our life as the branches depends on Him for all things. Listen again to what Jesus tells the disciples: “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.” You bear fruit because you are forgiven branches on the vine of Christ. With Jesus as the true vine and God as the vinedresser, you have everlasting life. Without Christ, you would be dead in your sins and doomed to everlasting death.
You are a branch in Christ. You became a branch because, and only because, you were connected to the Vine, Jesus Christ, the Son of God. You did not become a branch because of who you are or what you have done. You did not become a branch of Christ because you are someone special. Rather, you were made a branch on account of your Baptism into Christ, and on account of your Baptism, life that comes from the vine now flows to you.
Jesus declares that you who are on the vine, you who are connected to Jesus Christ, are forgiven. He declares you to be “clean because of the word that I have spoken to you” says Jesus. That forgiveness that we have was earned for us by Jesus Christ on the cross. That forgiveness that we have was given to us at our Baptism, where we receive God’s name and are made His own.
However, not all branches produce fruit, and so are not connected to Christ. If we are not a part of Christ, then we cannot bear fruit. That may not sound too bad, but we cannot forget what Jesus said just a few verses ago: “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away…. God removes what is fruitless, that which is of no use. The unproductive branches are cut off from the vine, while the fruitful branches are pruned to make them still more fruitful. Cut off from Christ, we would again be as dead and doomed in our sins as we once were. This can happen to any of us. Our faith can die if we separate ourselves from His Word and Sacraments, which is our connection to Him and His forgiveness.
God does promise something for those who remain faithful to Him. Jesus goes on to say, “…and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Living branches that bear fruit only continue to do so when the vinedresser lovingly cares for them by pruning parts of the branches that are sick or dying. The Father will work in their lives by His Spirit, taking away imperfections to help them grow, making them clean by His Word.
Our Lord prunes and cleanses us by His Word. Through the Word, Jesus works faith and gives life. Through the Word, He nourishes and energizes His disciples to live in faith. Through the Word, He cleans His own followers, that is, you and me. Through the Word, you hear time and time again the love of God that has been shown to you through Jesus, as He gives His life on the cross to forgive you your sins; as He gives you His body and blood to strengthen and keep you in the true faith.
It is the Word that brings us together with Jesus and keeps us together, like a vine and branches, and because of the Word, we bear fruit. But a branch by itself cannot produce any fruit. And we by ourselves, separated from Jesus, cannot produce fruit. So we need to remain steadfast in the Word and the Sacraments, as they give us the nourishment that we need from the vine.
Through Baptism Christ’s suffering and crucifixion become our suffering and crucifixion. When God looks at us, He sees the work of Jesus Christ’s suffering and crucifixion and applies it to our account. Just as the vinedresser cuts the vine in order to graft in a branch so also Jesus was cut so that we might become part of Him. We begin life as a branch of the vine of sin and death, but God cut us away from that vine and grafted us into the vine of life – Jesus Christ. God the Father is the vinedresser. He is the one who sent His only begotten son into the world, so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. He is the one who gives us the Holy Spirit to be with us forever. It is God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit who work together to save us and to give us faith in that salvation. God is the one who grafts us into the vine through faith. He is the one who nourishes us with His forgiveness, life, and salvation. He is the one who produces the fruit in and through us.
All of this revolves around one word: abide. Three times Jesus uses the word “abide.” A person remains in Christ by faith. Christ is telling us to abide in Him. He is assuring the individual believer that so long as he trusts in Christ he is cleansed and forgiven. Jesus always abides in those who abide in Him. That staying power is not something that the branches of the true vine can muster of their own strength. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that alone can accomplish this, but with that power in action, we the branches, remain intimately connected to Christ, the vine, so that we might produce much fruit. Christ functions as the source of life for his people. As long as the connection remains, there will be spiritual fruit as a result.
Jesus assures His followers that He will abide with them, and He calls upon them to abide in Him. We remain firmly planted in Him through His Word. We are pruned by the continuing work of the Holy Spirit. We remain firm and steadfast in our faith in Christ Jesus by being disciples of Jesus Christ by abiding in Him, just as He abides in us. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.