Fruitful Branches, Living Vine

John 15:1-8 / Easter 5B / 6 May 2012 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA

Jesus the Vine, you the branches, the Father the vinedresser. That is today’s picture of your union with Christ through faith from the Gospel according to St. John. Joined to Jesus in faith you are alive and fruitful, as living branches joined to a living vine. Apart from Jesus, you are dead and fruitless.

The dead branches the Father prunes, and even branches that are fruitful he nips with his Felco pruners in order that they might produce even more fruit. Anyone who keeps fruit trees or grape vines knows the importance of pruning. Dead wood needs to be cut away. Living wood needs to be pruned back in order to produce even more fruitful wood. The Father’s pruners are the Law by which He prunes away the old Adam, our sinful self. You may wonder sometimes what God is up to. Why does He permit hardship and misfortune happen to believers? Why do bad things happen to faithful if not good people? The answer is this: He’s pruning away the dead branches and trimming the living ones so that we produce even more fruit.

Drive out into the central valley, and you will see this parable with your own eyes. The grapevines are pruned back severely, to just a few branches coming off of an old, gnarled trunk. They look as though they’ll never produce leaves much less fruit. There are barely any branches. All of last year’s growth is pruned away and discarded. But when spring growth gives way to summer fruit, the results are apparent – much fruit. If those vines were not pruned back so hard, little fruit.

It’s the same with fruit trees. We stayed at a place that was surrounded by plum trees. We walked through the orchards one morning and got a chance to look at the fruit trees up close. They weren’t a particularly pretty sight. The trees were clearly not pruned for appearance but for fruit. The main branches were topped to limit the height for the pickers. The side branches and shoots were pruned in close to keep the branches from breaking under the weight of the fruit. The branches were tied up with support lines to keep them from sagging. You would not want to do this to any tree in your front yard, I assure you. But that’s how you get lots of fruit.

On close examination, the life of a Christian, and your life in particular, may not be a very pretty sight. Certainly not the sort that you are going to boast on television about. But fruit trees and grape vines are not pruned for pretty but for fruit. The Master Vinedresser does not prune for pretty so that the world can admire how religious you are; He prunes for fruit. He cuts away the dead branches that have succumbed to Sin; He prunes the living branches too so that they would bear even more fruit.

The old Adam, our sinful nature, would rather prefer that we grow wild, like an unpruned vine or tree. I’m sure you’ve seen what happens when a tree or vine goes untended and is allowed to just grow all over the place. There’s lots of green on the outside, lots of dead wood on the inside, and very little, if any fruit. That’s how Jesus described the religious types of His day – whitewashed tombs. Pure and holy on the outside, dead on the inside. The believer in Christ is exactly the opposite – dead on the outside, alive to God on the inside.

The operative word in today’s Gospel is “abide.” “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.” What happens when a branch is broken from a tree? It dies. Not right away, perhaps. It slowly dries up. And it certainly doesn’t bear fruit. What happens to the believer when he or she is cut off from the Word, from the Body and the Blood? Same thing. Faith doesn’t necessarily die right away. It kind of just dries up and shrivels. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

We take our life in Christ far too much for granted. Whether it’s our lackadaisical and lazy church habits or the casual way we approach the Word, the way we nitpick our way through the liturgy, we just more or less assume that we’re fine on our own and all we need is a little shot of Jesus now and then to keep us going. That’s a great devil’s trick, right there. Convince the branch it doesn’t need the Vine, or all the branch needs is to be reasonably close. Try laying a dead branch next to a tree and see how well that works.

To abide is to dwell, to reside, to have your home and place somewhere. To abide in Christ is to live in Him through faith. It’s a baptismal way of speaking. You have been baptized into Christ. Your live is hidden with Christ in God. You have been grafted into the true and living Vine. By the Holy Spirit, you’ve been given the gift of faith, that graft that joins you to Christ the Vine and receives all that He has to give you – His forgiveness, His life, His love. Christ is your life. There is no life apart from Him. There is only the outward trappings of life, the visible stuff that looks like “life” but in the end is death.

To abide is not a sporadic thing, something that happens once a week for an hour or so and we can’t even wait for the benediction to get out of here. That’s not abiding. It’s not a “Gee, I’d really like to but we were out late last night and I’ve tickets to the ball game and I think my left sinus is a bit achy this morning so we’ll skip church today.” That’s not abiding. Abiding is not sticking one foot in the water, it’s diving in the deep end. It’s an organic union, a living graft, a fruitful communion where Christ feeds us and makes us fruitful. The reason Christians in general, and we in particular, are not more fruitful in fruit that abides is that we cut ourselves off from the Source of our life. Don’t blame God for the lack of faith and love in your life. Blame yourself. Blame that old Adam of yours. Blame Sin at work in your members. But don’t blame God.

And don’t gripe and complain when He applies the pruning sheers to your life and cuts away some of the idols that get in the way of your abiding in Jesus. Every loss in our life is just another dead branch being pruned away, another idol be kicked over, another distraction being eliminated. We want to be happy; God wants us to be fruitful. We want to be comfortable; God wants us to be comforted. We want to be pruned for pretty; God prunes for fruit.

What is this “fruit” that a disciple joined by faith to Jesus produces? Well, in Galatians that would be the big nine of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things, Paul says, there is no law. And no law can produce them. They come from the Spirit who flows like living water from the Vine to the branch making it fruitful. Paul then immediately reminds us that those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. We need to be pruned if we are to bear the Spirit’s fruit.

You can hone that list of nine down to one little word: Love. Love is the fruit of faith. We’re not talking here about “love” the feeling. Those go by the names philos and eros. We’re talking here about love the action, love that lays down its life for friend and even for enemy, love that gives with no regard for receiving. Self-sacrificing love to the loveless. Love as in God sending His Son into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for our sin. Love as in “God is love.” “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation, the atoning sacrifice, the payment for our sins.”

God is love. We are not love. In order for us to love, we must be joined to God in Christ. We must be as branched to the true and living Vine. And being joined to Christ we in turn love one another as God in Christ has loved us. And again, it’s not a feeling. We’re never commanded to like each other. We are commanded to put up with each other. But we are commanded and we are given to love one another. This can only be done in God.

Here is where the Vine and Branches analogy works so beautifully. Love flows from the Father through the Son by the Spirit to the branches who are alive in Christ. It flows from the wounded side of Jesus, the water and the blood, from the font and the Supper, from the words that flow into your ears, that love of God for the sinner in Christ flows to you. And it doesn’t just stop with you. Nice green leaves are a sign of a healthy branch. But fruit is how the branch is known. “By their fruit you will know them.” That love of God in Christ that flows through you produces fruit – thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold for those around you.

“By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and be my disciples.” Not “prove to be” as the text in front of you says, just “be.” Abiding is not about proving, but about being. The branch shows itself for what it is by the fruit it produces. “No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected, brought to its goal and accomplished, in us.” You can’t see the sap that runs from the vine to the branches. You can only see the fruit. You can’t see Christ or faith. You can only see the fruit of love.

As God in Christ has loved you, love. It’s not your love at work, but Christ’s. He is the Vine, you are the branches.
In the name of Jesus,