“I Am the Vine, You Are the Branches”

(John 15:1-8 – Easter 5 – April 29, 2018)

John 15:1-8 – “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 bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned. If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.

Dear Redeemed in Jesus Christ:

Connections can mean everything. It is true in the world of relationships. How often we are blessed in our connection to family and friends, as we are there to help and encourage each other through life. It is true in the professional world, too. The people you know and the associations you make can help you get ahead and be successful.

When it comes to the plant world, connections are everything. Branches receive their life juices through the trunk or the vine. A branch that is disconnected is dead and fruitless. But a branch that is connected to a living stem is alive and fruitful. So it is in the spiritual world. Our spiritual and eternal life depend on our connection to the true vine, the true life source. “Jesus says: ‘I Am the Vine, You Are the Branches.'” 1) Apart from Him we would be dead and fruitless, but 2) As we abide in Him we are living and fruitful.

1) Apart from Him we would be dead and fruitless

Jesus spoke the words of our text to His disciples the night He was betrayed. Though the next day they would see Him die on the cross, He wanted to reassure them that He was not leaving them. The Savior who would lay down His life for the sins of the world had also promised that He would rise again. The vine which would appear cut off in death would spring up as the source of salvation and eternal life for all. “Abide in Me, and I in you,” He says, encouraging our trust in Him as our living Savior, who is always with us and in us by faith.

Jesus tells His disciples: “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 bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” God the Father is looking for the fruit of faith in our lives. It is the fruit of holiness in thought, word and deed, by which we bring glory to God and serve our neighbor in love. It is the kind of fruit that can only be produced in connection to Christ, the true living vine. As Jesus says in another place: “Every good tree will produce good fruit” (Matthew 7:17). Where there is faith in Jesus, there will be fruit. Apart from Him, we would be spiritually dead and fruitless.

What does the Father do if He does not see what He looks for? Jesus says: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away.”  This is an interesting way to put it. How can He refer to a person as a “branch in Me” if it “does not bear fruit”?

He refers to those who are only outwardly connected to Him. Perhaps they claim to be true Christians. They claim connection to God’s Church. They claim connection to God’s people. From all outward appearances, they look like true believers. But God looks at the heart (1 Samuel 16:7). He does not see true faith, but hypocrisy. They appear to be a living branch in Christ, but they are cut off by unbelief.

How quickly one may become disconnected from Christ, the true vine. It often happens when a person stays away from church, despising Jesus’ ministry of Word and Sacrament. So He separates himself from the only means of grace by which the Lord brings His forgiveness, faith, and spiritual life to sinners. Such a person may still feel “sufficiently connected” to Christ. But he becomes like a broken branch, hanging by threads. Before he realizes, his faith has died. While claiming to have true faith, he produces fruit of unbelief. It may show in a life that has become focused on worldly and temporal matters instead of spiritual and eternal matters. It may show in a life of manifest sin and impenitence. One cannot claim to be connected to Christ if one does not hear the Word of Christ and take it to heart in repentance and faith. Jesus warns in Matthew 7:20-21: “Therefore by their fruits you will know them. Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”

A person who falls away from faith may in many ways look the same on the outside. In the eyes of the world, he may appear to be a true Christian. He may still look like a living and thriving branch, full of leaves and beauty. Yet, apart from Christ he has no spiritual life. He may boast in the fruit of godliness and good works. But it is all self-serving unrighteousness. For without faith, it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6).

What a sobering reality check we get in the case of Judas. By the time Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, we read that Judas had already left and gone out into the night. By all outward appearances, the other disciples thought he had gone out to do some fruit of good works in Jesus’ name, like giving money to the poor (John 13:29-30). But by then, Judas’ heart had long been despising Jesus’ Word. The Lord could see that his heart was steeped in hypocrisy. Under the guise of holiness, Judas had gone out to betray Jesus.

Here Jesus gives the grave results of not being connected to Him by faith, strengthened by His Word: “If anyone does not abide in Me, he is cast out as a branch and is withered; and they gather them and throw them into the fire, and they are burned.” Those without true repentance and faith in Christ are already spiritually dead. When Jesus comes again on Judgment Day, this will be fully revealed. He says in Matthew 13:41-42: “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.”

It is never Jesus’ will that anyone become disconnected from Him by impenitence and unbelief. This is why, no less than seven times in our text, He earnestly repeats His desire: “abide in Me… abide in Me and My words abide in you…” and so on.

Jesus’ words move us to examine our own hearts, as to whether we are in the true faith (2 Corinthians 13:5). As a vine conveys life-giving juices to its branches that they may stay alive, so Jesus and His Word is our only source of spiritual life. But are we tempted turn to other sources? Do we try to find fullness of life in the passing wealth and pleasures of this world, instead of Christ alone? Do we trust worldly wisdom and strength to guide us, instead of His Word alone? Are we tempted to feel “sufficiently connected” to Jesus, so that we excuse ourselves in a path of sin? When someone warns us of the fruit of sin in our life, do we disregard it as unimportant or take offense? Do we no longer hunger and thirst for Christ’s Word and Sacrament, and the forgiveness and strength of faith imparted there? These are not signs of spiritual health. The Tempter seeks to cut us off from our only source of life forever.

2) As we abide in Him we are living and fruitful

Apart from Christ the true vine, we would be spiritually dead and fruitless. But as we abide in Him we are living and fruitful.

We continue to abide in Jesus through true repentance and faith, worked by His Word. The disciple Peter learned this. He was there to hear Jesus’ words that night. But at first, he did not put them into practice. Peter thought he was a strong enough branch on his own. He boasted that even if all others fell away, he never would (Matthew 26:33, 35). But as Peter relied on his own strength instead of Jesus and His Word, he put himself in spiritual danger. He ended up denying the Lord. But afterward, faced with his sinful failure, emptied of pride, Peter took the words of Jesus to heart. He wept bitter tears of repentance. Later, Jesus restored His disciple with words of forgiveness.

As believers, we certainly are not perfect. If it were left to us, we could not abide in Jesus. Under our own strength and willpower, we would become disconnected. But by the grace of God, He gives us faith through His Gospel of forgiveness and salvation in Christ. Through His Word and Sacraments, the Holy Spirit continues to strengthen us in the true faith and keep us connected to Christ.

How differently God the Father treats us now, as we are connected to His Son by faith. Here Jesus assures His disciples of His Father’s loving care: “Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” God the Father cleans and prunes us. Those two words come from the same root in the Greek. They describe God’s gracious dealing with us through faith in His Son. First He cleanses us by His justification; then He prunes us by sanctification.

Our justification in Jesus is complete, as He says: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” It is that Gospel Word of Jesus, which declares us to be forgiven of all sin and counted righteous in the sight of His Father. We do not make ourselves clean by our own fruit of holiness. Even our best works and efforts to produce good fruit are corrupted by our sinful nature. But the sinless life of Jesus was filled only with the fruit of perfection. In all He said and did, He truly brought glory to His Father. This was especially true in His greatest work of saving us by His sacrifice on the cross. There, Jesus laid down His life to take away all our sins. Then He took it up again. Now, the Word of our living Savior declares us forgiven and righteous through faith in Him.

Having justified us by faith in His Son, God the Father continues to sanctify us. Jesus says: “Every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Now that God has connected us to the living vine as living branches, He continues to shape us in Christ for our good. He continues to prune and remove what remains of our sinful nature, with its harmful outgrowths and manifestations. He chastens us as His children in fatherly love. Hebrews 12:11 says: No chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” Through His Word, the Holy Spirit continues to work in us true repentance and make our faith grow. More and more, He causes the new man, the spiritual nature, to dominate. The more the flesh is subdued, the more the fruits of faith increase – those thoughts, words, and deeds by which we glorify God and serve our neighbor in love.

Jesus concludes with this promise: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this My Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be My disciples.” The more our will is conformed to His Word, the more we pray that His good will alone be done in our lives. In answer to our prayer, the living vine is powerful to do far more than we ask or imagine (Ephesians 3:20). As He shapes our lives with His purpose, He enables us to producing fruit to His glory.

Thanks to God, we have the connection that means everything. As branches connected to the living vine, we have His gift of forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life in Christ. We bring glory to our heavenly Father by the faith He gives, and by the fruit He works in us.

Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. Amen.