5 Easter Proper B5
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
John 15:1-8 Sermon
May 6, 2012
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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal and With One Voice):
TLH 37 "Lord, 'Tis Not That I Did Choose Thee"
TLH 411 "From Eternity, O God"
WOV 699 "Blessed Assurance"
TLH 202 "Welcome Happy Morning"
WHAT GOOD IS A DEAD BRANCH?
TEXT (vs. 4-5): “[Jesus said] 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. 5 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.”
This morning, I'm going to tell you about something that happened to me the other day. As you may recall, we had some rather large storms come through, which included some strong winds.
Anyway, the next day I went out my back door to get into the car and go someplace. I didn't walk too far before I noticed that a small limb had fallen from the elm tree in my back yard, and it was lying across the drive. It was small enough so I was able to pick it up with one hand; however it was large enough that I might have done some damage to the car if I had driven over it. So I picked it up and dragged it off to one side. I would deal with it later when I had the time.
So when I got home, I put it out by the trashcan. And that's where it is right now. When my trash gets collected on Monday, it will be gone. And that's the end of my little story.
You're probably sitting here right now and thinking to yourself, "Okay, you dragged a dead branch from your driveway over to the trashcan. So what? Do you want a medal or something for this? This happens all the time!"
And you're right. It does happen all the time. Had it not been for this sermon, I probably wouldn't have mentioned it; or if I did, it would only be in passing as part of a conversation. This little story is about as dull and uninteresting as anything I could talk about. So why tell it?
As I look at that branch, it is very dead. I can snap it quite easily. It hasn't been alive for quite a while. It was once part of that big tree. At one time it was growing. It had leaves on it. If I had tried to snap a bit off of it when it was alive, it would have just bent instead.
But for whatever reason, the branch died. It was not receiving any nutrients from the main tree. It was just barely and superficially hanging on to the tree. All it took was a gust of wind to cause it to crash to the ground. This didn't happen to any of the living branches. They're all still attached to the tree. This is the only one that fell.
As we look at our Gospel lesson for this morning, I'd like you to keep that dead branch that's sitting out by my trashcan in mind. Today we're going to be discussing what Jesus means when he tells us, "I am the vine, you are the branches."
Our Gospel lesson for this morning is a metaphor, from beginning to end. A metaphor is used to make an analogy or a likeness between two unrelated things in order to illustrate some sort of common truth. In this instance, Jesus uses a grape vine as the basis for his metaphor. He compares himself to the main trunk of the vine, and he compares us to the smaller vines that branch out from it.
If you have ever seen how grapes grow, you would see how appropriate this is. Normally, grape vines are planted in a row. Along this row are a series of tall fence posts that have a series of wires strung between them. There are other ways of growing grapes, but this is one of the most common methods.
Coming out of the ground you'll see the main part of the vine sticking out. It's this bent and gnarled looking thing, with little sticks poking out of it. When you look at it, it seems to be dead from the beginning.
But that's not the case. From this main vine, you'll see little green chutes that start appearing very quickly. And as they grow, they start to wrap themselves around and in between those wires attached to the fence posts. The foliage becomes more and more lush. And then the grapes appear, bunches and bunches of them. When they're ripe, workers walk up and down the rows picking the bunches of grapes. And when the growing season is all over, the vines are pruned back so all that is left is this gnarled and twisted main vine with little sticks poking out of it. And the whole process is ready to begin again.
This is a metaphor that people could readily understand. Lots of grapes were grown in the region where Jesus was, and everybody was aware of how they were grown. As long as those branches were growing from the main vine, then everything was as it should be. However if one of those branches got cut from the main vine, there would be no grapes. There would be no foliage. All that is left is just a dead vine that takes up space. A dead grape vine is virtually useless, almost like that dead tree limb that landed in my driveway.
One of the key reasons Jesus is using this metaphor, is to describe the relationship Christians must have with him. I use the word "must," because there is no other way. This is not just some passing fancy or meaningless acquaintance. We have to be attached to Jesus and firmly grafted to him. We receive continual nourishment through this relationship. And as we are fed and nourished by him, then we produce fruits that are consistent with our faith. That's what makes this metaphor so meaningful.
I think that one of the most tired excuses I've heard as to why people don't attend church or refuse to be part of a congregation, is when they say: "Oh, I can worship God anywhere. I can worship God, and read my Bible, and pray out in the beauty of nature just as well as I can in any church."
That is about the biggest load of garbage you'll ever hear. First of all, you're probably hearing a lie. People who make that claim most likely have never gone out in nature to worship or pray in their life, nor do they really intend to do so. They probably don't even own a Bible; or if they do, they wouldn't be able to locate it. They just want to justify in themselves as to why it is okay for them to never darken the doorway of a church. A relationship with Jesus is not the important thing in their lives. All they want is to do whatever they want to do, and be comfortable with that.
Secondly, statements like this are examples of Biblical ignorance and Christian stupidity. If we look at Hebrews chapter 10, we read in verses 23-25: "23 Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
What do you think those words, "not neglecting to meet together" mean? Those words certainly do not encourage people to go out in nature by themselves and contemplate their navels. God wants people to gather together in congregations with other believers. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews talks about people separating themselves from the fellowship of believers as a bad habit! And that's a habit that definitely needs to be broken.
Of course we recognize that there will be those times when circumstances exist that will prevent people from attending worship or other fellowship opportunities. That's why we have to minister to such individuals in special ways. Their souls are important, and they need to be connected to Christ and his Church in unique ways.
But there is no excuse for people to stubbornly exclude themselves from the fellowship for their own selfish reasons. And it happens all the time. Unfortunately people who thus remove themselves are in danger of becoming like that dead branch in my driveway. They become lifeless, unloving, uncaring, and apathetic. They receive no nourishment from God's Word, and no encouragement from their fellow Christians. So they continue to become more and more lifeless, until there's nothing left but a dried up old stick, just waiting to be left by the trashcan. And that's not a very pleasant outlook at all.
When I lived in Minnesota, I was a member of St. Mark's Lutheran Church in Mankato. The pastor there was Martin Birkholtz, a man in his 70's and nearing retirement. Pastor B's hobby was apple trees. He had a number of them growing out beside the church. And by watching him and talking to him, I found it fascinating to learn about what he had to do to maintain these trees.
He used to do grafts, where one individual tree would produce maybe five or six different varieties of apples. Now I'm not a horticulturist, but I'll do my best to explain what he did. He would get live shoots from another apple tree. Then he had a way of cutting a slit in the main tree and inserting this shoot, so it would graft itself into the main tree and grow to become a strong branch. It received all of its nutrients from the main tree, but it produced its own unique fruit.
I do know that time was of the essence when Pastor B did his grafting. He would get these shoots, with the bottoms wrapped in a wet rag. This would keep them alive for only a very short time. If he let it go too long, they would wind up being little more than a dried up twig. They had to be grafted into the tree right away.
If we look at ourselves, we are like that shoot that needs to be grafted into the tree. Sin has separated us from God, and we cannot survive on our own. Certainly we could get along for a short time, but left to our own devices, we continually get weaker and weaker. On our own, we would experience eternal death. In verse 4 of our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells us: "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 don't think you can get much more direct than that.
If we go back to the 10th chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, the warnings against separation from the fellowship of believers continues with this grim warning in verses 26-29: "26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?" That is not a very pleasant outlook at all for those who stubbornly separate themselves from Christ's body.
The point here, is that Jesus wants us to know how serious he is about all of this. He's not trying to scare us to faith, but yet he needs to be brutally honest about the consequences. A dead branch isn't really good for anything, except to be discarded or burnt.
Jesus holds himself out as the true vine, as the main root that feeds all of the branches. And what he gives is a gracious invitation to graft ourselves into him, and not some threat or order or edict. He loves us so much that he wants to see us grow and produce fruit like Pastor B's apple trees, and not be left by the trashcan like that branch in my driveway.
The hymn writer captures this thought so well when he writes, "Naught shall my soul from Jesus sever; in faith I touch his wounded side; and hail him as my Lord forever, nor life nor death shall us divide. My God for Jesus' sake I pray, thy peace may bless my dying day." (TLH 598:7)
When we are part of Christ's body, which is the Church, we are grafted into him through faith. When I think of how Pastor B cut that slit in his apple tree and grafted in a new branch, I am reminded how we touch the wounded side of Jesus in faith. When we come to him in faith, then we have the benefit of what he did on our behalf. Our sins are completely wiped clean, and we are being fed and nourished directly from our Saviour's body. The prophet Isaiah reminds us, "By his wounds we are healed." By his wounds, we can now be grafted to him by faith alone.
One day, I was mowing the church lawn, and Pastor Birkholz was working with one of his apple trees. He motioned for me to come over to him. He reached up into the tree to one of the smaller branches, and picked off two rather dull looking reddish squatty apples. "Try this," he said as he handed them to me. He had this broad smile on his face as he watched me bite into one of the apples. I have to say that was one of the best tasting apples I had ever eaten. Then he said, "I suppose you're wondering why I handed you two of them. That's because every time I give one to somebody, they'll always ask me, 'do you have another?'" He told me that it was a variety of crab apple, but I can't tell you what kind it was. All I know is that it had a lovely flavor.
As we look at the broad picture of the church, we can see a whole variety of different people with different fruits of faith. But all of Christ's people are grafted into him through faith alone to receive their nourishment. The branch may not be the biggest and the fruit might look rather unassuming, but when the branch is being fed and nourished by Jesus, then it is good fruit indeed.
People will always have their various reasons for excluding themselves from Christ's church and from fellow Christians. They might even seem like good reasons on the surface, but they're usually selfish and worthless. Still the question we still have to keep asking is, "What good is a dead branch?" Just go look by my trashcan in the alley behind my house if you want to see the answer.
I've always liked the old saying that goes, "The Church is a hospital for sinners, and not a museum of saints." We're not putting ourselves on display for the world to admire. Instead, we are more like a trauma center, where we can receive the transfusion of the blood Jesus shed for us, and the nourishment of his body broken for us for the forgiveness of our sins. By being grafted into him through faith alone, we are living branches that produce fruit, and not a pile of dead wood left by the trashcan.