Easter 5B St. John, Galveston 5/2/21
+ In Nomine Jesu +
Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Sometimes what Jesus says is dismissed because it’s hard to understand, or, because it seems unreasonable. There is a book called “The Hard Sayings of Jesus,” that deals with things He said that are difficult to comprehend and accept. For instance, in John 6, He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” Theologians have argued over those words for centuries. In Matthew 5, He said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and throw it away; it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.” And then, in Luke’s Gospel, He said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” Certainly, these are some of the hard sayings of Jesus, words that are difficult for us to comprehend and accept.
In this morning’s Gospel reading, Jesus talks about discipleship, what it means to follow Him. He used a very plain and simple analogy to make His point, one that would have been very familiar to the people of His day, that of the grape vine and the whole process of growing grapes. “I am the true vine (He said), 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.”
Up to this point, even without any sort of agricultural background, I think we all understand and even relate to what Jesus said. As His disciples, we are like branches that are connected to a vine. Elsewhere we’re told that we were made alive, grafted, as it were, into the vine, by God’s grace through Holy Baptism. As such, we aren’t the source of our own life, the vine is. In fact, the branch can only live and bear fruit for as long as it’s connected to the vine.
Even then though, a branch doesn’t bear fruit unless it’s tended properly. It has to be pruned from time to time for it to produce fruit. Years ago, we had a grapevine in our backyard. The branches produced some large, vibrant looking leaves, but they never produced any fruit. Come to find out, I wasn’t pruning them enough, or, more specifically, I wasn’t pruning them back far enough. As such, the branches were putting all of their energy into producing leaves instead of fruit.
You may or may not be aware, but pruning is a rather harsh process. It’s even counter intuitive in terms of what it involves in relation to the ultimate goal of the process, which is to produce more fruit. Portions of branches are cut and ripped away from the vine so that they’ll produce fruit in the coming season. Perhaps the pruning process, at least as it relates to us as the people of God, is best described by Peter, where he says, “now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
So, you have been grafted into Christ and connected to Him as a branch to a vine. From time to time, you’re pruned so that your lives will bring forth fruit to the glory of God. I think we all understand that part of the analogy of the vine and the branches, although the process of pruning may seem unpleasant to us at the time. But Jesus goes on to say, “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. 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.”
It’s with those last words, that apart from (Jesus) you can do nothing, we’re apt to be a bit confused. I suspect all of you have known people who weren’t Christian, but you admired and respected them because they lived their lives in a stellar fashion. You found them to be kind and helpful, loving and forgiving, even generous and gracious. They were the very kind of people you would think would inhabit the coming kingdom of God. But those are the branches that are cut down and burned in the fire. They are the branches that can’t do anything! As the prophet Jeremiah once wrote, “when I would gather them, declares the Lord, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.”
What does Jesus mean though when He says, “apart from Him you can do nothing?” How is it that the lives of some, witnessed as good by others, are said to be nothing in the eyes of God? Well, there is, as the Scriptures teach us elsewhere, a righteousness that we have before men, and a completely different righteousness that we have before God. The righteousness we have before men is based on what we do, or don’t do. Our works have everything to do with whether we are considered a good person, or not. Certainly, in this realm of righteousness, we can do all sorts of things. He or she can be a good person, kind and helpful, loving and forgiving, even generous and gracious.
Before God, however, we have a completely different righteousness. This is a righteousness wherein our good works are not only not added to our righteousness they can in fact be detrimental to it. How can that be, you might ask? Well, to the degree that we rely on our good works for our righteousness before God they become detrimental to us.
When Jesus says, “apart from Me you can do nothing,” He’s telling you that your righteousness before God is completely dependent on Him. You can’t believe without Him. You can’t do anything that is considered good in the eyes of God without His justifying and sanctifying forgiveness and grace.
On the other hand, grafted into the Vine through Holy Baptism, you are counted good and pleasing in the eyes of God. Everything you do, raising your children, working an 8 to 5 job, or loving your spouse or your friends is counted good and acceptable in God’s eyes. The fruit of your life is the life of Jesus. You are rooted and grounded in the love and in the death and resurrection of God’s dear Son. Apart from Him you can do nothing, but in Him, all of the wonders and the blessings of the Kingdom of God are yours.
Oftentimes understanding the things that Jesus says is a matter of taking our eyes off of ourselves and looking to Him, the author and finisher of our faith. “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. 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.”
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.
+ Soli Deo Gloria +