The Fifth Sunday of Easter

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“Remain in Me”

John 15:1-8

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Why is it that something that goes without saying in one area of life is so difficult for us to believe in another area?  Here’s a difficult question, one that probably requires an advanced theological degree to answer: what would happen if you cut off a cornstalk at its base?  Or cut off an ear of grain from the stalk?  Or the head of a sunflower from its stem?  I think you call it “reduced yield.”  Any questions about that?  Am I saying anything that is over anyone’s head?  No: it’s as obvious as what would happen if you cut off a body from its head; it’s the end.  Since it is Mothers’ Day, we might take the idea one step further and talk about what would happen if the umbilical cord is cut early.  We all know.  The umbilical cord to the mother, the body to the head, the stalk to the roots: things do not grow unless they’re organically and physically connected to the source of their life.  And not only do they not grow, they die.  Plants wither and shrivel, and they’re good only for the burn pile.  I don’t know if any of you have grape vines, but the same principle holds: if you cut off a branch from the vine, there will be no grapes on that branch, and it’s going to die soon after.  A branch cut off from the vine means no fruit and it means death.  We have no trouble seeing that in agriculture, but in spirit-culture, we pretend that the principle does not apply.

There’s a Saturday Night Live parody of an infomercial, and the book they are selling is called Don’t Buy Stuff You Cannot Afford (  The couple sitting at the table is going through bills and wondering how they got so far into debt, and what they’re going to do to get out of it.  Well, the answer is the book: “don’t buy stuff you cannot afford.”  Seems simple enough.  But the couple has a little trouble understanding.  “Ok,” the wife says, “But what if I want something but I don’t have any money?”  You don’t buy it, is the reply.  “Okay,” the husband asks, “but let’s say I don’t have enough money to buy something.  Should I buy it anyway?”  No.  “Well, what if you have the money.  Can you buy something?”  Yes.  “Take the money away.  Same story?”  No.  You shouldn’t buy stuff when you don’t have the money.  “I think I’ve got it,” the husband says.  “I buy something I want and then hope that I can pay for it.  Right?”  And on it goes.  A simple idea that we have trouble believing.  Maybe because we do not want to believe it.  We don’t want to believe that we shouldn’t buy things if we don’t have enough money—foreclosure, anyone?  Another simple idea that we have trouble believing is that we are branches of Christ, who is the vine.  It’s all explained in this free Book: if we cut ourselves off from Christ by refusing to hear His Word and receive the gift of His life-sustaining Body and Blood, we will die spiritually.  You cannot cut off a branch from the source of its life and expect it to live.  But that is exactly what we do in our lives.  We do it all the time, in both big and small ways.  We act as if Jesus were simply giving us one option among many when He says “Remain in me.”  We say things like, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.”  Which is like saying you don’t have to be connected to the vine to be a living branch.  Or we think, “I can go a week—or five—without hearing the Word and eating the Supper.”  Which is like thinking that we can start sawing off our own branch and everything will be perfectly fine.  Or our actions show that other things are simply more important, more worthy of my limited time.  Let’s tell it as it is: those are lies from the devil.  If you are not in the place where the Lord is with His Word and with His forgiveness, with Himself, then the simple truth—as simple as a cornstalk cut off from its roots—is that you will not be a Christian for long.  You cannot sustain your own faith.  It’s impossible.

Now: “You yourselves are already clean through the word which has been and still is spoken to you” (John 15:3).  But how will you remain clean without that Word?  “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says.  “The one who remains in me and I in Him will thus bear much fruit, because apart from me”—that is, cut off, lying on the ground apart from the vine—“you are not able to do anything” (John 15:5).  There is no middle way: either you remain in the Lord, and He remains in you, and you bear fruit; or you do not remain, and He does not remain, and you do not bear fruit.  And how do you remain, live, abide in the Lord?  How does He remain in you?  By His Word, by His absolution, by His own living Body and Blood.  Jesus says, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood [remains] in me, and I in him” (John 6:56, ESV).  If you do not receive those things, it is like a plant going without sunlight, without water, without the nutrients in the soil.  You might say, “But I’m not dead.  I have faith.  I believe in Jesus.”  That’s good.  But what do plants look like that do not receive sun, water, food?  Here’s another tough question: do they look good or bad?  If you receive the necessities of life only occasionally, will you bear a lot of fruit or a little?  What about those seeds that go flying away in the wind and land in shallow, dry, deprived dirt?  I’ve seen that corn by the side of the road, all yellow and sick-looking.  Trust the Lord who created agriculture—remember, He planted the first garden in Eden (Genesis 2:8): if you aren’t remaining in the vine who is Jesus, sooner or later you will die.  Oh branches!  Abide in the Lord!  Remain in His Word!  Receive His gifts for the sake of your very life!  We are not talking about optional things here, adiaphora, take-it-or-leave-it, freedom of choice; this is literally life and death, every single week, every single day.  Hear the Word of the Lord: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.  Just as the branch is not able to bear fruit from itself unless it remains in the vine, so also you cannot [bear fruit] if you do not remain in me” (John 15:4).  But what if you do not feel the hunger and thirst for the nourishing and life-giving Word and Supper of Jesus, your vine?  Dr. Luther instructs us: “To such a person no better advice can be given than this: first, he should touch his body to see if he still has flesh and blood.  Then he should believe what the Scriptures say of it in Galatians 5 and Romans 7.  Second, he should look around to see whether he is still in the world, and remember that there will be no lack of sin and trouble, as the Scriptures say in John 15 and 16; 1 John 2 and 5.  Third, he will certainly have the devil also around him, who with his lying and murdering, day and night, will let him have no peace within or without, as the Scriptures picture him in John 8 and 16; 1 Peter 5; Ephesians 6; 2 Timothy 2” (Small Catechism, “Christian Questions with their Answers,” Q. 20).  (You can find those passages in the Small Catechism, which is in the hymnal [LSB] on p. 330).

The question is this: will the world and your sinful flesh give you a break during the week if you are not abiding in the Word of God written for you in the Scriptures?  Will they stop working against you because you are absent from His House where His Words are?  Will the devil declare a cease-fire [when you are not here to eat and drink the Lord’s Supper] [during the weeks we do not have the Lord’s Supper]?  “The only reason we go about so securely and heedlessly is that we neither imagine nor believe that we are in the flesh, in the wicked world, or under the kingdom of the devil” (Large Catechism, Sacrament of the Altar, Kolb/Wengert 475:82).  Or, maybe you think that you can handle the devil, the world, and your flesh by yourself.  If so, remember that the only one who has ever stood firm against the devil’s temptations, the temptations of the flesh, and the temptations of the world is Jesus Christ, who was holy and obedient in every way.  If you are as holy as Jesus, then clearly, you do not need to be here.  But if you are, like me, nothing but a guide to your own self-destruction (Augustine), then there is no other place you need to be.  If we aren’t in Jesus and He in us by His Word, then every other thing in our lives amounts to nothing (v. 5).  But, if you would be the disciple of Jesus, there is only the life-long way of baptism, of contrition and forgiveness, dying and rising, of gladly hearing and learning the Word of God because it is meant for you.  If you would learn of Him whose yoke is easy and whose burden is light, if you would hear His Word, and mull it over in your mind, turning it this way and that, tasting it, savoring it, digesting it so that it becomes a part of you—or, rather, that it makes you part of Him who is the Word made flesh—then you are and will be organically and physically connected to the source of your life: your Head, Jesus.  He says, “If you [remain] in my word, you are truly my disciples” (John 8:31, ESV).  And when you remain in Him, and His Words remain in you, then your prayers flow as naturally from His Word as fruit from a good tree; and you have the Lord’s promise that whatever you ask out of His Word you will have.  Remain in His Word, beloved, for the sake of your life in Christ and so you will produce the fruit of love for your neighbor.  And may the Father of Jesus—our Father—be glorified in and through us.

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).  Amen.

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 5/06/09


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