Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter based on John 15:1-8
Dear branches in the true vine: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Even if you don’t have much of a green thumb, you are probably familiar with some basic gardening techniques. If you are trying to grow a plant that has dead branches, you probably know that the best thing to do with those dead branches is to cut them off. A dead branch isn’t only unproductive in that no fruit will grow on it, but it is also harmful to the rest of the plant. It takes nutrients that would otherwise go to other branches in the plant. A branch that has died because of disease can spread the disease to the rest of the plant if it is not cut off quickly. We know cutting off dead branches is good for the plant.
I suppose we could say that God has a green thumb. If anyone has the affinity and skill to grow gardens and plants, it is God. This is as true for the vegetation of the world, as it is for His vineyard, the church. Why would we expect God to be any less ready to cut off dead branches in His vineyard than we would be in ours? Jesus says, “Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away”; He removes them; He cuts them off (v. 2). And cut off, the branch is thrown away and withers, thrown into the fire and burned (v. 6).
Before we are too ready to start thinking of those people we know that don’t come to church and think that those people are who Jesus is talking about, I say, “Not so fast!” Yes, it is true that those branches that are not connected to the vine and receiving the nutrients of forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation here in the Divine Service have cut themselves off from Christ. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about. He’s talking about branches that are in Him, not disconnected from Him. He’s talking about branches that are in the vine; branches that are receiving the nutrients from the vine and yet are dead, producing no fruit.
Well, yikes, that’s scary, because that means Jesus is talking about me! If we start to look at the fruit in our lives, maybe from a distance we can convince ourselves we’ve got some good fruit. We might say, “Well, I’ve been faithful to my spouse. I work hard in my job. I teach my children Bible stories at home and I bring them to church. I give offerings at church.”
But if we look closer, we have to admit that we haven’t been so faithful to our spouse. We’ve had sinful thoughts. We’ve said sinful things. We’ve been selfish even when it comes to our spouse, to whom we have been joined by God as one flesh. And we haven’t worked quite as hard at our jobs as our hours might suggest due to the time we waste. We haven’t been as faithful in teaching our children about God as we should have been. We’ve given to God a little offering out of our excess, but nothing indicating that the work of the Gospel among us and around the world is important.
Upon inspection, we have to admit our fruit is not only pretty sparse, but also pretty rotten. We have to admit that we have not been bearing much fruit. We have to admit that God the Father, the vinedresser, would have the right to cut off any of us dead branches at any moment.
But before we harden our hearts and think that the pastor is wrong, our fruit must be good, or before we despair and think that God will cut us off and throw us into hell as we deserve, let us consider the whole picture.
What fruit does a branch produce? If I hand you a branch from a grape vine, what will grow on it? Absolutely nothing. You can water it all you like and give it as much sunshine as you like, but it will produce nothing. You can fertilize it and trim it, you can even sing to it, but it will produce no fruit. A branch alone can produce nothing.
So also we alone can bear no fruit. As Jesus Himself says, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me” (v. 4). It is not the branch that produces the fruit, it is the vine. The branch cannot get nutrients in any other way than being connected to the vine. Thus, a branch needs to be in the vine to produce the fruit of the vine.
The Son of God came to earth, and took on our flesh. He always produced perfect fruit, from His conception to His ascension. He never had selfish fits of crying as a baby. He never disobeyed His mother as a boy. He never went through rebellious teenage years. He never slacked off at work or wasted time. He never neglected to teach everyone around Him. He gave everything, even His very life for us. Jesus didn’t get angry at God the Father in His suffering at the end of His life. He didn’t despair in death. He produced perfect fruit from start to finish.
Through Baptism we, dead branches, were grafted into Jesus, the vine. See, it has nothing to do with our fruit. It has to do with the fruit of the vine, the fruit of Jesus. Jesus says, “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.” (v. 5) Whoever abides in Jesus bears much fruit. Abiding in Jesus, we bear much fruit because it is His fruit, not ours. Thus we will bear fruit. Thus we do bear fruit.
Jesus also says, “Every branch that does not bear fruit he cleanses, that it may bear more fruit” (v. 2 note ESV translates the Greek word as “prunes” but it is the same word that appears in v. 3 – already you are “clean”). Jesus cleanses us so that our bad fruit is forgiven and His good fruit is credited to us. Jesus continues by saying, “You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.”
The Word of God spoken to you in your Baptism means that you are already clean. The Word of absolution spoken to you again today means that you are already clean. The Word of Jesus in the Lord’s Supper, “Take eat, this is my body; take drink, this is my blood shed for you for the forgiveness of sins”; this word means that you are already clean. And this Word continues to nourish you and keep you in Jesus, the vine. This Word continues to nourish you and produce the good fruit of Jesus through you. It is this Word that can bring back even those who have cut themselves off from Christ, so that they might be grafted back in to the true vine to receive spiritual nourishment to eternal life.
Yes, on our own, we are dead branches. But in Christ, the true vine, we are alive and nourished. In the true vine, Jesus produces good fruit in us. In Jesus, all of His good fruit is credited to us, and the Father continues to cleanse us from our bad fruit so that we might bear more fruit.
We really must say God does have a green thumb since He takes dead branches like us and by grafting us into Jesus the true vine, produces a bounty of good fruit. God knows how to take care of His vineyard, and He nourishes and prunes us so that we will forever remain in Jesus, who is the true vine. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.
One thought on “God’s Green Thumb”
Best sermon on this text I’ve ever read. It can be easy to interpret the lesson as talking about other people’s fruit (neighbour-gazing) or what we should do about it (prune them!). Even worse, it’s sometimes preached as a formula for getting oneself attached to the vine (the dead branch self-revival trick). It is also sometimes used as a motivational speech (Christ as half-time coach: Now get out there and bear some fruit! Huugh!).
Thanks for revealing the law and gospel.