Branches in the Vine

Sermon for the Fifth 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.

When it comes to bearing fruit, do not focus on the branch. There is nothing but despair as far as the branch is concerned. Jesus says that every branch of His that does not bear fruit is thrown away and withers, and is then gathered, thrown into the fire and burned.

This makes sense. If you have dead branches on your fruit trees that produce no fruit, would you not cut them off and throw them away? Dead branches steal water and nutrients from living branches and yet produce no fruit. For the good of the whole plant, you cut off dead branches. A fruitless branch is useless.

But don’t focus on the branch. Focusing on the branch is focusing on yourself and what you produce. Are you producing enough fruit of the Spirit? How have you shown that you love your neighbour as yourself? Have you not rather loved yourself above all others? Where is your joy? Is your joy in the Word of God or in what this world has to offer? Where is your patience? Do you wait patiently for God’s good timing to save you from trials, temptations, and suffering, or do you complain and grumble against God as if He desires something that is harmful for you? The same could be said of peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, the other fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).

Don’t focus on the branch, because a branch by itself can produce no fruit. Whatever love and care you give the branch, by itself it remains dead. Disconnected from the vine it is worthless. You can water it and fertilize it and prune it. You can give it just the right amount of sunshine and just the right about of shade. Yet, the branch that is disconnected from the vine can produce nothing. Thus, Christ says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”

You cannot produce love, joy, patience, or any other fruit of the Spirit by yourself. It’s called the fruit of the Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the source of the fruit. Abiding in Christ, the vine, the Holy Spirit produces fruit in you.

What does it mean to abide in Christ? There is no way to abide in Christ apart from Baptism, the Word, and the Sacrament of the Altar. These are the only connection Christ has with us. Apart from these Means of Grace, we are disconnected from the vine and fit only for the fire.

Through these Means of Grace, we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us. Baptism joins us to Christ, the vine. God’s Word and Holy Communion feed us and nourish us keeping us in Christ. Whoever abides in Christ bears much fruit.

We sometimes wonder why we’re having so much trouble being loving towards our neighbour or being joyful no matter our situation. We wonder why we are impatient or discontent. Yet it is because we have neglected our Baptism, the Word, and the Lord’s Supper. We haven’t been nourished as we should, so we have languished. We have mistakenly thought that God is working in our hearts apart from His Word, thus we have mistakenly thought we are self-sufficient branches with no need for the vine. Apart from Christ, the vine, we can do nothing. Apart from Christ we are dead branches destined for fire.

In Christ, however, we are alive. His forgiveness flows to us through His Means of Grace. Every sin we have ever committed is forgiven because we are in Christ. He died for our sins and rose again from the dead, so in Him, the devil and hell have no claim on us. Death is now our doorway to heaven. We will rise from the dead as surely as Christ is risen from the dead. Christ keeps strengthening our faith through His Word and His body and blood. He keeps forgiving us our sins so that we are blameless and righteous in His sight.

And God the Father prunes us. Pruning isn’t pleasant for us, but it is necessary. For plants, pruning is done to train a growing pattern, to improve plant health, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit. This is the same for us. God prunes us to train us in godly living, to strengthen our faith, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit we produce. God prunes things out of our lives to which we cling too closely; things that have become too important for us; things that have become idols for us.

This pruning isn’t for dead branches. Dead branches are thrown into the fire. This pruning is for branches that are in the vine and are producing fruit. This pruning is for you and me.

God the Father prunes us through sending sickness, suffering, and affliction into our lives. He doesn’t tell us why He sends particular trials our way. He doesn’t say, “You lost your farm because you spent too much time working.” He doesn’t say, “You got cancer because you don’t go to church enough.” He doesn’t say, “Your child was hurt because hockey became too important for your family.”

God doesn’t tell us why He prunes us the way He does, but we do know that all His pruning is to train us in godly living, to strengthen our faith, and to increase the quality and quantity of fruit we produce. The pruning of our loving Father and vinedresser turns us away from ourselves and everything in this world. His pruning works repentance and faith in our hearts.

Pruning is painful, but do you know what? We should pray for it! We should pray, “Heavenly Father, prune from my heart every desire for riches and fame. Take away from me everything that is important to me in this world. Destroy everything and anything in my life that I hold dear until I realize that You are my priceless treasure and that when I have You, I lack nothing and have everything. Destroy and burn down everything in this congregation and in our synod that man has built, until all that remains is what You have built.”

We do not pray this way, but we should. We should pray that God cuts from us everything we try to produce on our own and that He would keep us in the true vine so that we will bear much fruit and so prove to be disciples of Jesus.

Fortunately for us, even though we fail to pray this way, the Father still prunes us and keeps us in Christ, the true vine.

In the true vine, we are continually nourished by what Christ gives to us – His body and blood, given and shed for us. Connected to Christ, the vine, we abide in Christ and Christ abides in us.

Abiding in Christ, you will live forever. On the Last Day, you cannot be judged for your sins because you are in Christ. Christ was already judged for your sins in His death on the cross. In Christ, your sins have been taken away from you and drowned into the depths of the sea. In Christ, your sins have been removed from you as far as the east is from the west.

So, do not be weary or angry with God when He prunes you. It is not pleasant, but it is for your eternal good. And don’t focus on yourself as the branch or what you can produce. Focus on Christ, the true vine, who feeds you and nourishes you, and produces much fruit in you to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

An Empty Tomb is not Enough

Sermon for the Third Sunday of Easter based on Luke 24:36-49

Dear people who eat the risen body of Jesus: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

An empty tomb is not enough.

An empty tomb could mean that Jesus’ disciples did somehow manage to steal the body of Jesus. It could mean that the chief priests and Pharisees took the body and burned it. An empty tomb could just be part of a myth, a metaphor to say that Jesus rises when the hearts of His people come alive with faith. Rubbish.

What the eyewitness accounts provide is proof of the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. He shows His apostles His scars in order to show that He really did die, that He is the crucified One. He was slain as a substitute, in our place, so that the angel of death would not come for us but pass over. He laid down His life as a ransom for many. He died to satisfy the Law’s demands, to empty hell of its wrath and fury.

He died. He has the scars to prove it. But He has come through death. He is alive in His body.

This is why He eats with the apostles and tells them to touch Him. The point is that He died and He rose, but He is not a ghost, or a spirit, or an angel. He is still a man. They, and we, have an advocate with the Father; a High Priest who has endured all our temptations and overcome them. He paves the way into heaven, not for angels or saints, but for men – and sinful men at that. For He who knew no sin became sin.

Thus the very corpse – the very body born of Mary, nailed to the cross, pierced by the centurion, dead and laid into the tomb – this body has been renewed and reborn. Our God is still a man; still one of us. He died, but is alive, and heaven is open to sinful men.

The disciples disbelieved for joy and were marvelling. They were uncertain. Then He ate with them. Even as in Emmaus where Jesus was removed from the disciple’s physical sight, but they recognized Him in the breaking of the bread, so also here in Jerusalem the apostles recognized their Lord in eating with Him. The apostles ate broiled fish with God in the flesh, back from the dead, and their hearts were full of joy, faith, and peace.

It is not so different for you. Jesus is not apprehended by your eyes, but by faith. As Jesus said to Thomas, ““Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus is not apprehended by gazing into an empty tomb, but in the breaking of the bread under a visual reminder of the sacrifice. It is no accident that the Lord’s Supper is consecrated on an altar under a cross or crucifix. Here you eat with God. He gives you His body risen out of death. You touch Him. It is not a corpse. It is the living, risen, glorified body, true God and true man, which God joins to bread to be your food, to satisfy your soul, to forgive your sins, and to encourage and strengthen your faith.

You eat the body of Jesus, who is alive. Thus, you are alive. His body and blood give you new life now, and eternal life in the world to come. They strengthen you through the trials and temptations of life. Christ’s body and blood give you peace.

When Jesus appeared to His disciples, He said, “Peace to you.” Jesus was not hoping that they would have peace or praying that they would have peace. He was giving them peace with the very words He spoke. He says it, and it is so. Jesus waged war on sin, death, and the devil. He faced God’s perfect justice for all sinners. He fought the war on the cross and won peace. He won peace with God because God’s anger has been stilled. We are reconciled and have peace with God.

Jesus showed the disciples His war wounds with which He won them peace, and He gave them peace. He calmed their troubled and doubting hearts. He comforted their startled and frightened minds.

For you, Jesus’ body and blood are not a hope for peace or a prayer for peace. His body and blood give you peace. He says it, and it is so. Jesus has won peace with God for you, and He gives you peace in His Supper because He gives you forgiveness. Wherever there is forgiveness, there is also life and salvation.

Here at the altar you eat with God in the flesh, so that your heart will be full of joy, faith, and peace.

The empty tomb is not enough. What you need is the risen body of Jesus the crucified. And it is the risen body of Jesus the crucified that the Lord provides. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.

(Reworked from a sermon by Rev. David Petersen/Rev. Dr Burnell Eckardt)

Absolution is from Christ

Sermon for the Second Sunday of Easter based on John 20:19-31

Dear absolved believers: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.

Many people find Absolution offensive. Only God can forgive sin, they say. How then can you have a pastor saying, “I forgive you all your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit”?

It is true that only God can forgive sin, but in what way has He promised to forgive sin? He sends His ministers to forgive on His behalf, saying, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Christ has the authority to forgive sin. He earned it by paying for every sin ever committed through His suffering and death. And Christ gives that authority to His Church on earth. When a pastor speaks the forgiveness Christ has sent Him to speak, it is Christ Himself who forgives sin. Christ has all authority in heaven and on earth, so it is He who decides how He wants to forgive sin. Christ has chosen to give forgiveness of sins through the mouths of sinful men sent to His people for that purpose.

Forgiveness doesn’t do you any good if it is somewhere out there for you to find. Forgiveness doesn’t do you any good if it’s sitting in heaven. Forgiveness of sins needs to come to sinners, where sinners are. That is why Christ instituted the church. The church is the place for sinners to gather and receive forgiveness. Forgiveness belongs to the church.

Since forgiveness belongs to the church, no man can assume the office of pastor without a call from the church. The church, to whom forgiveness belongs, must call a pastor to give this forgiveness to them. No one can appoint himself to be a pastor. This is what it means in Romans 10 where Saint Paul asks, “How are they to preach unless they are sent?” They cannot preach unless they are sent. They must be called by God through the church.

Christ instituted the office of the ministry, or the office of pastor, for the purpose of preaching His Word and giving His forgiveness. It is the office or the position that is special, not the man who occupies the office or position. There is nothing special about the man John Nieminen. He has nothing to say to you. He has no special wisdom, insight, or knowledge to impart to you. Yet when your pastor speaks Christ’s Word to you, it is Christ Himself who speaks to you. When your pastor forgives you your sins, it is Christ Himself who forgives you your sins through the Word He has given your pastor to speak.

This is why pastors wear albs or robes. They cover up the man and remind you and me that it is only according to his office as pastor that he has the right to say one word from God. This is also why pastors are called by their title. It’s not a matter of pride or conceit, but rather a reminder to you and to me that I’m not here of my own doing. I didn’t decide one day that I think I’ve done enough studies, look on a map and say, “I’m going to move to the prairies and serve these two congregations in Neudorf and Melville as their pastor.” No, God called me here to be your pastor. He called me through you, the church. You called me to come and speak God’s Word to you and forgive you your sins in the stead and by the command of my Lord Jesus Christ.

I’m not here as John to do what I want or speak what I want. I’m here as a pastor, doing what God has commanded me to do, and saying what He has commanded me to say.

There are some things I’m tempted to not preach or teach. I’m tempted to avoid saying things that get people upset. I’m tempted to not touch sensitive topics with a ten-foot pole. But I don’t have a choice in the matter, unless I am going to be faithless to the One who has called me to teach and preach to you.

I must preach God’s Law to you. I must tell you what God commands you to do in every aspect of your life. It is necessary, not because you can fulfil the Law of God, but so that you will recognize your failures to do what God commands and repent of your sins. It is necessary for me to preach the Law so that you realize that you need forgiveness and that you would desire to receive that forgiveness.

I must preach the Gospel to you. I must tell you that Jesus died on the cross for all your sins, so that every single sin is forgiven: big sins, little sins, public sins, secret sins. Jesus took the punishment of every single one of your sins so that you have the promise of eternal life instead of eternal punishment in hell.

I must forgive the sins of repentant sinners. I must also retain the sins of the unrepentant.

Those who are offended by a man forgiving sins are even more offended at a man retaining sins. “Who are you to judge?” they say. Once again, we have to go back to the Word of Christ Jesus Himself, who says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you… Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Withholding forgiveness is not done arbitrarily or based on the whims of the pastor. Here too, a pastor must follow the Word of Christ. It is only the impenitent sinners who have their sins retained and are not forgiven; those sinners who refuse to turn away from their sin; those who have no desire to do better.

Every sinner who is repentant is forgiven. The weak sinner who struggles with his sins is forgiven. The repentant sinner who has again fallen and thought, said, or done something which breaks God’s holy Law is forgiven.

This is where Absolution comes in. Absolution gives forgiveness to the weak and doubting heart. It strengthens faith. It is Christ’s Word spoken to you in His stead and by His command.

When you hear the words of Absolution, it may be the voice of your pastor you hear, but you are hearing the words of Jesus. Jesus instituted the office of the ministry for the benefit of His Church, so that through the ministers who faithfully proclaim His Word, Jesus Himself is speaking. When Jesus commands it to be spoken, so it is.

You can thus be confident in the Absolution you receive from your pastor. The forgiveness he speaks is not his own forgiveness, but the forgiveness of God. He is the messenger of Christ, speaking that which he has been commanded to speak; forgiving what he has been commanded to forgive.

Your faith is thus in Christ and His promises, nothing else. Christ cannot deceive or lie, so you can confidently trust His word of forgiveness which He speaks to you through the mouths of His ministers. Ministers come and go, but Christ’s promises to you are eternal. Amen.

The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.