Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
Jesus refers to himself in many ways in John’s gospel. “I am the bread of life,” he says. He also calls himself the light of the world, the good Shepherd, as we explored last week, and the resurrection and the life, among other names which help us understand who he is and what it means for us to walk alongside him. Why does he call himself the true vine?
Some passages from the Old Testament help us find the answer. Prophets like Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah compared the Israel of their day with a vine. God said through Jeremiah, “I planted you a choice vine, wholly of pure seed. How then have you turned degenerate and become a wild vine?” The Lord gave his beloved chosen people the best he had, but even so, as human nature often does, they turned away from him. He said through Isaiah: “I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I shall remove its hedge. It shall be devoured and trampled down. I will make it a waste. It will not be pruned or hoed.” The people suffered. The faithful cried out and clung to the Lord. “Give us life and we will call on your name.”
They waited for the Savior who would undo the imperfections in God’s vineyard. Jesus came, then, to fulfill the mission that the Lord Almighty gave to Old Testament Israel. He was reliable, faithful, and always in tune with God’s will – the true vine, as he said.
Now, every vine has branches, and so by using this word-picture, Jesus also called attention to his close tie with everyone who believes in him. We are the branches. We abide in him and he abides in us – and all for a purpose. The most important part is bearing fruit, which many of the people in Old Testament Israel failed to do. By fruitfulness, Jesus doesn’t mean external things like making our names great or making a mark in the community or piling up money or any of the other things the world encourages us to chase. Christian fruitfulness is a more inward quality. It comes from faith in Jesus and means first of all being like him. Paul described fruitfulness as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Paul also wrote this in another passage: “This is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ – to the glory and praise of God.” Fruitfulness for Jesus refers to qualities we can’t see or touch – like goodness, understanding, love, truth.
Any Christian can acquire this kind of fruitfulness by sticking with Jesus. It doesn’t take special ability or extra energy. God can take a small amount of fruitfulness and multiply it to abundance. The Holy Spirit works ceaselessly and steadily to transform God’s people and often in ways that surprise us – by cutting and pruning when we feel like sitting back and thinking only about what pleases us. Although pruning can be unpleasant, it produces great results. Martin Luther was an expert on this subject.
He said that Christ interprets all the suffering he and his people pass through as the diligent work and care that a vine-dresser expends on his plants to make them grow and bear fruit. Jesus teaches us that the affliction and suffering of Christians is actually quite different from the way it looks to the world. Christians are not afflicted without God’s consent and his will. Choppy times are signs of God’s grace and fatherly love, not wrath and punishment, because they serve our well-being.
To use Luther’s words, we learn the art of believing that anything that distresses us doesn’t happen to harm us but for our profit. We compare this to a vine-dresser who hoes and cultivates his vine. The suffering of Christians is a help and not a harm. It enables us to bear better and more abundant fruit.
Our faith, you see, gives us a comforting way to understand our afflictions. “Happy is the Christian,” Luther said, “who can apply the picture of God as a vine-dresser in hours of distress and trial, when the devil assaults and torments him and the world reviles and defames him as an apostle of the devil. Then he can say, ‘See, I am being fertilized and cultivated as a branch of the vine. All right, dear hoe and clipper, go ahead take away unnecessary leaves. I’ll gladly suffer it, for these are God’s hoes and clippers. They are applied for my good and welfare.’”
God works on us, then, to make us fruitful. We look on whatever we suffer as God’s way of making us more trusting of Christ, more loving, more joyful, kinder, more patient, gentler, and so on.
Fruitfulness is a necessary part of our walk with God, not because we need to earn our own salvations, but because our fruitfulness glorifies the Heavenly Father and it proves that we are disciples of Christ, not among the branches who will be cast away and burned in the fire. God’s loving work prunes us and purifies us and transforms us more and more into the image of our Lord.
The world is a perilous place, though. Temptations abound and there are plenty of false vines for us to get tangled up in. Then, too, our flesh is weak and we may wonder if we throw away the loving restraints that God places upon us. Will we turn out to be one of the fruitless branches that are tossed out?
That isn’t the Lord’s intention for us. Jesus assures us that we are clean now through our faith in him. He obeyed God’s law for us in every way; he defeated the devil on our behalf; he paid the price for our sinfulness and rose again from the dead. His willingness to wipe away our sins will never run out. He declares us to be righteous – just the way he wants us to be – and passes his fruitfulness on to us. He makes us patient and loving; he shares his kindness and self-control with us. He empowers us to remain with him, to stick with him, to abide in faith.
He doesn’t ask us to do anything that’s too hard for us. We keep on reading the Bible regularly and coming to worship on Sundays. Many folks think about gardens at this time of year. As a result of weeding and planting and watering, a garden grows to abundance. So the Holy Spirit works on us. God uses our Sunday worship and our daily Bible reading to prune us and make our lives with him fruitful and abundant.
Another aid to fruitfulness is our daily prayers. “If you remain in me, and my words remain in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” God gives us the privilege of coming to him at any time. He surrounds us with his love, including the times when he prunes us by shaking us up. He is good company and the experience of his presence strengthens us to cope with the times when the world strikes at us with special ferocity. We talk to the Lord about our joys and our griefs, about our fears, and about the small things of each day that contribute to our happiness or make us uneasy. We talk to him as we work in the kitchen or sit by ourselves or when we are busy with some task that doesn’t take a lot of concentration. We ask him to make us fruitful, remembering that he is in us and guiding us even at the times when we aren’t aware of him.
We remember, too, that there are different kinds of prayer – prayers of praise and prayers of request, prayers in which we ask forgiveness and the moments of stillness when we turn ourselves over to God and invite him to be with us, to use us and to keep on making us fruitful. And if it ever happens that we’re tangled up in worldly affairs, we ask the Heavenly Father to prune us and make us right again for his vineyard, trusting that whatever shaking up we undergo as he pulls away dead branches will be good for us.
We live in the world and in God’s vineyard at the same time. He overcame the world through his Son and his actions of pruning make his victory more visible in us. Good Christian fruit grows in us because we remain in him. We stay in his Word and we remember to say our prayers. We welcome whatever he does with us and we rejoice in the hope that he will keep us fruitful and flourishing in his vineyard. In Jesus’ Name. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.