Wednesday, May 9, 2012
I am the vine... you are the branches...
It is weird how a person can hear one thing and imagine something quite different. Jesus' words are familiar – I am the vine, you are the branches – but we think and act as if Jesus is saying He has a garden and He has planted each of us individually in that garden. We extrapolate until we have Lutherans as like the row of peas planted in this area along side other denominations or perhaps each as little gardens in their own space. We see ourselves more as individual little snippets or plantings of Jesus here and there, in different little gardens, unconnected except that we all belong to Jesus. Nothing could be further from what Jesus is actually saying. Jesus insists that there is only one vine and one life as branches to the vine. All else is death waiting for the fire to consume it.
These words come in the long series of teachings of Jesus on Holy Thursday. He has gathered in the Upper Room to wash their feet and institute the Holy Communion meal. These acts are accompanied by serious words and teaching. Jesus speaks bluntly. After the crucifixion, their instinct will be to scatter and go off on their own. But this they cannot do. "I am the vine; you are the branches. Apart from Me," Jesus says, "you can do nothing." Jesus calls His disciples to abide in Him through His Word. This is not some spiritual abiding in heart or mind but the concrete assembly of believers around His Word. Either His disciples abide in Him in the way that Christ intends, or they wither and die waiting only for the fire to consume them all.
How to abide in Christ is not a left to us for Christ has the answer. He has appointed the means of grace through which we abide in Him and He is us and the blessed means by which we bear His good fruit that endures. It is not a question of what we like or think we need or what we desire. There is only one life and that is Christ’s and this life is accessible only where Christ is and Christ is in the Word and Sacraments. "Apart from Me" literally means that apart from the means of grace, we can do nothing and we are nothing.
From John 6 and John 8, we see how Jesus has led up to this. “If you abide in My Word,” says Jesus, “you will be free.” Apart from Him, we are captive to sin and imprisoned to death. Jesus is not speaking of words about Him or words distinct from Himself. He is that Word. Scripture is not a book about Jesus but the living words of Jesus, the Word made flesh. His Word does what it promises, His Word is efficacious, because He is that Word. The Word may be spoken by your voice or mine but the Word is always His. His Word never comes to us empty but always is filled with Him, and it never returns to Him empty, but full of the results the Spirit empowers. His Word is not a word for the moment but the yesterday, today, and forever Word that endures forever even though heaven and earth pass away. His Word is steadfast; it endures. His Word is powerful, cutting like a two edged sword.
To abide in His Word is not to meditate on that Word as if we might think on things meaningful to us. His Word is not a Hallmark moment or a Helen Steiner Rice poem. To abide in His Word is to hear the sound of His voice. This Word always preaches, it always addresses us with grace and mercy. It is the Word that is spoken to make a difference. It is the Word that convicts us as to sin, that forgives us our sins, that imparts to us righteousness, and that equips us with faith to receive and rejoice in that Word. This is not merely a devotional Word for reflection but the powerful Word proclaimed in the assembly, witnessed by the Church to the world, and the Word that produces fruit, good fruit, and lasting fruit.
To abide in Christ is to abide in Christ, is to live in this Word. The Pastor’s voice is used from this pulpit but the Word remains Christ’s and does His bidding. If this Word is not what is proclaimed from this pulpit, run from this place and find one where the Word is preached in its truth and purity.
To abide in Christ is to abide in Christ by our koinonia or fellowship in His body and blood, what we sometimes call the visible Word. Remember how Jesus spoke the Word that first Supper when He gave His disciples His body and blood. We come today to receive exactly the same thing: His flesh and blood for the life of the world. This is not a memorial meal that merely remembers but the meal of His presence by which He is still among us imparting life and equipping us to bear His fruit.
Again, the Pastor's voice may be what you hear set apart this bread and this cup but the Words are always Jesus' own words. And just as His Word is efficacious and does what it promises, so does His Word deliver what it says and this body and blood deliver to us what its promise. Here is the forgiveness meal. Here is the food of heaven for unworthy mortals. Here is what satisfies the hungry heart and quenches the thirsting soul. Here is foretaste of the promised feast to come. We come here because Christ is here and where Christ is all the fullness of His gifts and grace and blessing – in the eating and in the drinking.
Christians do not abide in Christ as individuals who meet Jesus on their terms, in their own special way. We abide in Christ where Christ has promised to be – in His Word and in His Sacraments. This is what “church” is and why He calls us here each week. Apart from these means of grace, we will surely wither and die. But here in the preached Word and the visible Word of Holy Communion Christ comes to us. Here faith is created, body and soul are nourished, and we are sustained amid the battles, temptations, and troubles of mortal life for the heavenly life that is to come.
It is here we are trimmed clean and here we are equipped to bear the good fruit of His kingdom. We are not planted to look good but to bear fruit – fruit not of our choice but the fruit of His life flowing to us and through us back to Him. Apart from these means of grace, we have no life and we will not survive. We are only as strong as the Vine which is Christ and to our connection to the Vine which is here in the Word and the Sacraments. Here we are trimmed clean. Here we bear the good fruit that endures. Here we prove to be His disciples. This fruit is His goal in us and, by faith, it becomes the goal and focus of our lives. In home and at work, in our neighborhood and community, here and throughout the world, we bear the good fruit of His kingdom because He lives in us. This fruit is His love for us reflected back to Him through those whom we love in His name. From the stranger we welcome to the sick we visit to the hurting whom we console to the weak whom we protect to the hungry whom we feed to those in darkness to whom we show the light... fruit bearing is the full goal and purpose of our everyday lives.
We come here week after week not because it feels good or because we like it. We come here as St. Peter says: "Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. You and no one else." It is only here. It is only in His Word and Sacraments. It is only for bearing the good fruit that lasts... Abide in me, Jesus, and me in you... we pray. Amen.