Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!
When newly minted Lutheran Pastors are ushered out into the ministry world, it’s done by a rather archaic system of placement. People who don’t really know you place you in a some church somewhere and you don’t really have any say in the matter. This system probably needs an overhauling as it’s 2021 n’ all, but that’s a topic for another time. Regardless, placement time is a pretty uneasy time with much trepidation to say the least! You look at the map of calling congregations and think “OK, I could end up at any of these places.” And then you immediately start researching “which one is closest to the nearest Costco!?” When I was placed I went to the south Okanagan valley in British Columbia. And you know what they say about BC…The land of fruits and nuts. “The fruits get stuck in the valley while the nuts roll all the way to the coast!”
But the Okanagan is an absolutely gorgeous place. Smack dab in the middle of fruit and wine country. The orchards and vineyards lining the hillsides truly are breathtaking. It’s the first time I’ve ever eaten tree ripened fruit. Our grocery store produce is all picked green and it may ripen a bit in transit if you’re lucky but there is nothing like eating a peach right off the tree. And then there was the wineries. Beautiful sprawling estates that look like mansions with acres and acres of lake view vistas and grape vines for as far as the eye can see. It truly is a glorious sight to behold. It’s only in the context of a vineyard where Jesus’ words and teaching about vines and vine dressing actually come to life. “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (JN 15:5).
The image of the vine was historically a symbol for God’s people Israel (Isaiah 5:1-7; Jeremiah 2:21; Hosea 10:1-2). In contrast to disobedient and unfruitful Israel, our Lord Jesus calls Himself the true vine. This combined with His branches, makes up the new and fruitful people of the God. This is the Church. But what does it mean to abide in the vine? Well it means to be attached and connected. Branches that get cut off and severed from the vine or from a tree or shrub for that matter, well they shrivel and die. They can’t produce fruit because, well, they’re dead. And this is Jesus’ main point in this teaching. In Him is life. And outside of Him there is only death. So how do we abide in Him? How do we maintain our connection to God?
This is probably more important right now in human history than ever before. The pandemic lockdowns and restrictions and media propaganda have created an even larger pandemic of fear. And this fear has risen to the point of idolatry for many Christians. It has the debilitating function of cutting us off from being together as the church. No visiting. No potluck dinners. No being together as a Church Family. Many people are too afraid to come to God’s house. They may or may not be terrified of going to the grocery store or a salon or a casino, but that’s a topic for another time. The point is, we are at an incredibly disconnected and cut-off time of separation and isolation and it is taking a massive toll on us as tempers grow short and annoyance grows long.
“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” (JN 15:4). The branch comes from the vine. This is our faith connection to Jesus the true vine. It is our Baptism that grafts us into the vine. This act of God’s grace and choosing us is what connects us to Him. Our identity as God’s branches on the “Divine Vine” is a result of His work of salvation in Christ our Lord and apart from Him we can do nothing. So Jesus encourages His followers to abide in Him, to remain in Him in this connection of faith. We do this firstly by gathering together as God’s people in His house on His day. For here we have all the gifts of God that bring forth life. We have His assurance of forgiveness for our sins through the Pastor. We have the scriptures that illuminate our lives with the Gospel of Christ. We have Holy Communion, the very fruit of the vine, in the presence of Christ given and shed for us and our salvation. We have His praise on our lips and in the liturgy and hymns of the church. This is where we are the branches and how we remain connected to the vine. This is where we abide in Christ.
And this abiding connection has as its goal bearing fruit. It was prophesied by Isaiah that “In days to come Jacob shall take root, Israel shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit” (27:6). This was God’s directive for Israel but comes to fruition in Christ the true vine and in you the true branches. The first fruits are eternal salvation through the death and resurrection of the Messiah for all who believe. And the other shoots are the mission of the church to preach the Gospel into all the world and serve our neighbours in love and good works. This how the branches will “fill the whole world with fruit.” Jesus says “I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit” (15:1-2).
A few weeks back I got a harassing letter from the city. It was from the horticulturalist who concluded that my chokecherry trees in the backyard were chock full of nasty black knot. My immediate reaction was “why don’t you go looking for potholes instead!” Anyways, in the letter I was instructed to remove all the rotted limbs so that it wouldn’t spread to other trees. So I went to work pruning. And I pruned and I pruned and I pruned. At the end I felt like the little pig who was going to build his house out of sticks! There was more of the trees on ground than there was left on the trees! But then I saw it. On closer inspection, the black knot had made its way down into the main trunks of my trees. No amount of pruning was going to do anything for them. They are rotten to the core and will eventually have to be cut down and burned for fire wood. Likewise, the dead branches on the vine that don’t bear fruit are taken away. They are removed from the vine, gathered up and chucked into the fire to be burned. They have not served God’s purpose. They have not brought forth the fruit of His Kingdom. There were no fruits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23) to be found. Instead there was only faithlessness clinging to a false god of fear and death.
Yet for the fruitful branches, the ones who do produce the fruit of God’s Kingdom, our Lord tells us that His father the vinedresser prunes, that they may produce even more fruit. How does our Lord prune us? It’s often not really a pleasant process. But the result is healthier and better branches and bigger fruit. He prunes us by targeting our spiritual black knot. Our nasty, disease ridden sins. We confess every Divine Service that we are poor miserable sinners in thought, word and deed, in what we’ve done and left undone. It’s a general confession. But the problem is, we don’t commit general sins. We commit specific sins. These are what the Lord seeks to prune away from us. As long as our sins have this nameless, faceless, corona-masked-quality to it, we can easily ignore them. And we do! But our Lord Jesus tells us this: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be My disciples” (JN 15:7-8).
Ask for our Lord to continue His good work of pruning. Let Him prune away the black-knot of sin. Cooperate with the process and embrace specific repentance. Seek to delight in His will and walk in His ways by the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than being caught up in the transient things of this earthly age which pander to our sinful nature and the false desires of our fallen human hearts, instead value the heavenly things. Value that you are a branch, connected to the vine of Christ. Seek to replace the black-knot of sin with abundant fruit of the Spirit and show the world that you are indeed a disciple of Jesus Christ our Lord. For Christ is Risen! He is Risen Indeed! Alleluia!