Download or listen to the Fifth Sunday of Easter: “The Vine” (John 15:1-8)
If I had to choose one image from the Scriptures to describe the life of the Christian, it would be this passage from John 15. There are obviously a lot of images that God uses in the Scriptures to describe His relationship to His people. But if I had to choose one, it would be this one, of the vine and the branches. It is an image that is easy to understand in a culture formed around agriculture, where there are living plants all around them. The people in Israel knew, like you do, that a branch that is not connected to the vine is useless. Jesus is not giving a program of self-improvement; He’s not giving a set of steps to a better life. He is talking about life and death. He’s talking about being joined to Him, and being alive; or being apart from Him and being dead. A branch that is cut off from its vine may look like it’s alive for a while; it may look green, it may have flowers, it may even have fruit. But if that branch is not connected to the vine, it will never have more flowers, it will never have more fruit. It will dry up and be good for nothing but burning. It would be silly to talk about a branch that is sometimes connected to the vine and sometimes not, and thinks it’s getting along fine. Likewise, it would be silly to talk about a Christian who is sometimes connected to Christ and sometimes not, and thinks he is getting along fine. Sometimes people say that they can be Christians and not go to church. But that’s because they’re thinking that going to church is about what they are doing for God, rather than the place where He feeds them with His Word and Gifts. This is the place where Christ promises to be, and no Christian can ever live without receiving the gifts of Christ’s life. No Christian would want to be without Christ and His gifts. Jesus says, I am the vine, you are the branches. If you abide in Me and I in you, you will bear much fruit. Apart from Me, you can do nothing. He doesn’t say that you can only do a little; He doesn’t say you have a kernel of life in you that He will help you grow; He doesn’t say, do what you can, and I’ll do the rest. He says, apart from Me you can do nothing. Just as a branch can have no life, no fruit, unless it is joined to the vine. It’s life in Christ, or nothing. Life in Christ, or death.
I am the true vine, Jesus says. There was another vine. God took it out of Egypt and transplanted it into the land of Canaan. He fed it, watered it, nourished it. He gave it everything it could possibly need, and it lacked nothing. But it did not produce good fruit. It produced rotting, evil, sickened fruit. Because it joined itself to dead idols. It joined itself to vines that had no life in them. It trusted itself, and rebelled against its vine-dresser. It proved to be of the same stock as its ancestor, Adam, whom God had planted in the original Garden. And God cut it down. He used the axe of Assyria and Babylon to cut down the vine He had planted. But God wasn’t finished. His goal was not condemnation or death. He had left a remnant, a stump. And from that stump, as Isaiah had prophesied, God brought a new shoot. New growth from those dead, dry roots. He grew it from the very substance of Israel, through the womb of a Virgin from the family of David. This Vine was shaped to grow up around a cross-shaped trellis, and the winter of sin came down hard on the Vine. Your sin, my sin, the sin of the whole world, freezing the life out of the Vine God planted. But God was not done. His goal was not condemnation and death. And on the third day, God raised up the Vine, never to die again. The Spring of Resurrection has come, and it has spread over the whole earth. Millions of branches, joined to Christ. If you abide in My Word, He says, then you are truly My disciples (John 8:31). Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me and I in him (John 6:56). Haven’t you heard His Word? Haven’t you eaten His flesh and drunk His blood? You are clean because of the word He has spoken to you. You are clean by the blood He shed. I am the Vine, you are the branches.
I have some vines in my backyard. They’re hop vines. You’re supposed to plant them in the spring when the danger of frost has passed (which is always a risky proposition here). You plant them when the danger of frost has passed, and they grow, bear fruit, you harvest them, and then, in the late fall or winter, they die and you cut them down or mow over them. The snow covers them, and for all you can see, they are dead and gone. There’s no indication of any life at all. But when spring comes, there they are, growing bigger, faster, stronger than the last year. I know some of you feel like it’s winter for your faith. That the frost of sin or the cares of this world has killed your faith and your desire for the things of God. You take stock of your life, of your fruit (or the lack thereof) and you don’t know if you have faith at all. If not winter, then it’s a desert. You look inside and all you can find is dryness and death. Then it is either despair or longing for the Vine. The most dangerous is when you don’t think there’s anything wrong, when you can’t see your sin, when you don’t want the life of Christ. It is spiritual dehydration, like a man wandering in the desert who thinks he sees water, but what he puts in his mouth is only sand. We don’t stop being thirsty, we just try to satisfy our thirst with the wrong things. We fill our hands with stuff and people and sex and alcohol and entertainment, but it’s all just so much sand and dust. That’s not water; that’s not life. Christ is life, even and especially when you don’t think you need it. Just like those vines in my yard, what you can see is not the whole reality. What you can feel is not everything there is. When it comes to the things of God, to faith and life in Christ, what you can see and feel are even less reliable than actual plants. Do not look at yourself, or how things feel; growth is sometimes slow, and always seasonal. This is why we prayed that amid the many changes of this life, God would fix our hearts where true joys are found, in the true Vine. To be fixed is not to be static, not to be unmoving or without growth. But you cannot sit and watch a plant grow. It doesn’t look like it’s growing at all. It can only be measured in the light of its whole life, and your life in Christ can only be measured in light of eternity and His promise to you, that He is your life and He will finish what He started. Hear His Word: I am the true vine and My Father is the vine-dresser. Every branch in Me that is not bearing fruit, He lifts it up. He does not say that the Father takes the branch away or cuts it off. Notice: every branch in Me. Every branch that belongs to Me. God’s goal is never condemnation or death. He does not will the death of a sinner. He wants you to live and grow and bear fruit. He lifts you up, like He lifted up His Son. He does everything He can to feed and nourish you. You are His own dear children, bought with the blood of His Son. Until you die, or this world is over, God will never let you go without a fight. He lifts you up again and again, calls you again and again, gives you His Word and forgiveness again and again.
Everything depends on Christ being the Vine. Isaiah uses a similar image, of trees and where they are planted. He says that the one who trusts in man, in himself, is cursed. His heart is turned away from Yahweh. She’s like a shrub planted in a desert, in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt-land. But the one who trusts in Yahweh is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream. He doesn’t fear when the heat comes; his leaves are still green. She is not anxious when the year of drought comes; she still bears fruit, because she’s planted firmly in the living water of Christ (Isaiah 17:5-8). Like a branch fixed in Christ the vine. You, beloved, are the righteous ones planted in the House of God by the water of baptism. You flourish in the courts of our God. You, because you are joined to Christ, will still bear fruit in old age. You are, the psalmist says, ever full of sap and green, because you feed continually off Christ’s Word and Supper (Psalm 92:14). You are fixed in Christ, and your Father will not forget to tend to His branches.
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, 5/5/12