Sermon for Easter 5, Year B
Based on Jn. 15:1-8
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Jesus was well acquainted with the world around him. In his teaching he would often employ "down-to-earth" metaphors and analogies that everyone could grasp and understand. These metaphors and analogies give us a clearer picture of what it means to be a Christian and live in a meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. In today's gospel, Jesus pictures himself as "the true vine…." And us as …"the branches."
Even though many have reason to believe that Jesus was a carpenter prior to his public ministry, it is also quite obvious that he knew a lot about the care and growth of vineyards. For, according to people who work with vineyards today, there are three important points which confirm what Jesus is saying in our gospel.
First, in a real vineyard the main vine is The Life-Giving Source of fruit-bearing branches. Life-giving juices flow through the main vine to the branches ~ keeping the branches healthy and enabling them to produce high-quality, delicious grapes. It's not possible to produce such grapes without being connected to the vine. Without the vine, the branches Wither And Die.
In a similar manner, as Christians, we need our true vine, Jesus Christ. He tells us that unless we abide in him, we will not bear fruit. To abide in him means to be closely connected to him. It means that we will have communion with him. To abide with him means to have the closest possible relationship with him. It also means an unwavering, life-long loyalty to Jesus Christ.
We abide in him when we do not neglect worshipping him; when we come to church regularly. He strengthens our faith by coming to us in the preached Word and sacrament of Holy Communion. If we neglect coming to worship, we are like a sick branch on the vine, which is not getting proper nurture because it is not connected with the Source of Life and Health. Physically and spiritually, if we fail to eat and drink, we become sick and eventually die. The Word and sacrament keep us connected to our Source of life and keep us healthy.
We abide in Christ too, when we read and study the Bible. All of us, no matter how much we think we know our Bible, must continue to be life-long students of the Bible. It always has something new and fresh to say to us each day, if we will be open and willing learners.
We also abide in Christ when we pray regularly. Usually the people we feel the closest to and know the best are those persons whom we listen to and talk with most. The same is true of Jesus our Vine: if we want to abide in him, to know him, and feel close to him, then it's crucial that we listen to and talk with him in prayer.
We abide in Christ also when we do good works in response to what he has done for us. Gustavo Gutierrez, a Latin American theologian, has said that Christianity is not just a matter of right beliefs, it is also a matter of right practice. If we are going to abide in Christ, then our loving response will be to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sic, and so on.
The second thing that experienced vineyard workers tell us is that Not Every Branch Will Produce Grapes. Branches that fail to produce grapes Are Cut Off from the vine. If these branches were left on the vine, they would weaken the life of the vine, and eventually even kill it. Jesus is saying the exact same thing here in our gospel about people ~ although none of us, I'm sure, would consider ourselves branches cut off from the vine.
However, it seems that some people, like branches, fail to bear fruit. There are some people who want to have absolutely nothing at all to do with Jesus Christ. It's almost as if these people were wearing "Keep Out," "Stay Away," or "Do Not Enter" signs. Then, there are those persons who produce lots of leaves, but no grapes. They are all talk and no action. There are also others who listen to Jesus, but when they face difficulties, or peer pressure, or are influenced by others ~ they weaken, cower and fall away. It is clear from our gospel that to be a branch, to be a Christian without bearing fruit invites disaster and destruction.
As William Willimon observed: "It's a tough thought, but one that is found elsewhere in the New Testament. If we don't "bear fruit," if there are no results from our discipleship, then there is a cost to pay. The person who says, "I don't go to church, but I do consider myself religious," is probably fooling himself or herself. Your can't be abiding in Christ without being with Christ, working with Christ, serving him, bearing fruit."
The third point made by experienced vineyard workers is that even fruit-producing branches are kept short by pruning.
According to William Willimon: "In the Yarra Valley of Australia, just outside Melbourne, someone visited the vineyards of an outstanding winery. There, at the very beginning of spring, what amazed the tourist was how bare the vines looked. Beneath every vine there was a large pile of branches, the results of winter pruning. How ruthlessly these grape growers cut their vines! Yet the cutting is essential for a good harvest and healthy vines."
The reason for this is that while long branches will produce fruit, the best quality grapes come from pruned branches that are not allowed to meander all over the place on their own. Jesus is saying exactly the same thing about people when he tells us in our gospel: "every branch that does not bear fruit (is pruned by God), that it may bear More Fruit."
Jesus is saying that our lives must be in a continuing process of change, of being molded and shaped by God the Vinedresser if we are going to be fruit-bearing Christians. We always need to be learning and growing and maturing as fruit-producing Christians. Left to ourselves, without being pruned by God, we may produce some fruit; but the amount and quality of our fruit will never be as great as the fruit produced by pruned branches. As the pruned branch remains close to the main vine, so also we as Christians need to remain close to God our Vinedresser, if we are going to "bear fruit." The importance of this pruning process comes out even more when we consider that the New Testament Greek word for "pruning" here can also be translated "cleansing." We worship and serve a God who is holy. When we abide in Christ; when we remain properly connected to the vine; we will be pruned, cleansed, made holy by our God.
This process of pruning, of being cleansed, of being made holy, can be and often is a painful, difficult process. It may involve some major adjustments, changes and sacrifices on our part. We may be called upon by our God to say and do things which we had never dreamed of before.
As William Willimon points out: "Too often North American popular religion presents Christianity as the best deal a person ever had, a way to solve all of our problems, a technique to get what we want."
"No. Discipleship means getting what God wants. And sometimes, what God wants in our world cannot be achieved without cost and sometimes that cost may be painful to those whom God loves. The pain is part of being drawn even closer to the one in whom we abide."
The pruning and cleansing however, is not done by God because God wishes us ill-will. No! It is done out of love for us; knowing full well that it is for the best. This pruning, cleansing may cause us to take some rather unexpected bends in the road of life. God may call us from our present places of work, into some mission work completely different than what we're doing now. On the other hand, God may use our skills, our training, our calling for greater good in another way right where we are. Whatever the case, pruning does come ~ thank God that it is he and not someone else who does the pruning and cleansing!
May each one of us remain closely and properly connected to Jesus Christ our true vine, and, through him, to God our Vinedresser. In so doing, may we bear fruit, be pruned and cleansed to bear even more fruit and abide in Christ always.
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