5 Easter Proper B5
Rev. Dr. D. K. Schroeder
John 15:1-8 Sermon
May 3, 2015

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Hymns (from The Lutheran Hymnal):
201 "Jesus Lives! The Victory's Won!"
342 "Chief Of Sinners Though I Be"
194 "Abide With Us, The Day Is Waning"
188 "Hallelujah!  Jesus Lives!"


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.  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.

            We live in Nebraska; so when the subject of agriculture comes up, it's no surprise.  What kind of crops do we raise here?  Wheat is our number one cash crop; no surprise there.  Then we have corn, and soybeans, and milo (or grain sorghum), and alfalfa.  Out west we have a lot of sugar production, and in the northern regions you'll find oats and rye and barley and even popcorn.  You might find a few other cash crops being grown on a localized or smaller scale, but I think we have all of the major crops accounted for if I didn't miss any.

            Have you ever thought about grape vines and vineyards?  "Not in Nebraska," you might be thinking.  Well, think again.  There are right at 300 vineyards in our state.  And with vineyards, there are wineries, some 21 of them.  The largest winery in the state is on the grounds of the James Arthur Vineyards, just a few miles from here.  On the 20 acres of the vineyard, there are 12,000 grape vines.  From those grapes, and the produce from over 20 other growers in Nebraska, this vineyard produces a whole selection of different wines from different strains of grapes.  Now I don't know what the current output is, but the latest figure I could find is that Nebraska produced over 49,000 gallons of wine in 2006.  That's quite a business.

            Tending grape vines is a lot of work.  The science of grape growing and grape vines is called viticulture.  It's a course that's offered at the University of Nebraska.  And it's not easy at all.

            As we look at our Gospel lesson for this morning, I'd like you to keep all those vineyards and grape vines 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 (as I'll discuss later), 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 shoots that start appearing very quickly.  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.  After 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.  Then 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 all those sticks that litter my back yard that fell from the trees over the winter.

            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."    

            Okay, I've talked about this many times before, because it's one of my pet peeves.  This excuse 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.

            Second, statements like this are examples of Biblical ignorance and Christian stupidity.  If we look at Hebrews chapter 10, we read in verses 23-25:  "Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.  And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works,  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 unique and special ways.  Their souls are important, and they need to be connected to Christ and his Church.

            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 all those dead sticks littering my back yard.  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 taken to the dump with all of the other yard waste.  And that's not a very pleasant outlook at all.

            About 20 years ago, I had the opportunity to see the oldest and largest grape vine in the world.  It was about the most incredible grave vine that I've ever seen.  And it's not in France, or Italy, or the Middle East, where you'd expect to see large quantities of grapes being grown.  No, this grape vine is in the middle of London, at Hampton Court Palace, in the palace garden.

            The grape vine, known as "The Great Vine" was planted from a shoot brought from Essex in 1769.  That makes the vine 246 years old.  The base of the vine (and yes, there's only one) is 12 feet in circumference.  And the longest rod growing from the base is 120 feet long.

            The vine isn't growing like most grape vines we are used to seeing, as I explained earlier.  It is in this glass greenhouse; and as you walk through it, the vine is all around you.  Grapes are hanging down over your head.

            The viticulturists tending the vine have their hands full.  The buds begin to break in February, and a special fertilizer is applied to the soil.  Once the new shoots are 1-2 inches long, then it is time for the disbudding, in order to reduce the number of new shoots.  Then after the shoots grow to about 12-18 inches long, they are pinched and tied.  Vaporized sulphur prevents mildew from forming on the young shoots.

            Immediately after flowering, the number of grape bunches are reduced and thinned.  During the growing season, the vine is fed by feeding the soil and leaves with special organic compounds and sprays.  Later on in the summer, the leaves are thinned so sunlight can get to the grapes as they ripen.

            The grapes themselves are harvested in late August and early September, and sold to the public.  The vine produces an average of 600 pounds of grapes each year, with a record crop of 845 pounds harvested in 2001.  And then in November and December when the vine is dormant, the fruiting spurs are pruned back to one or two buds.       

            You know as well as I do that those vines rely upon the main branch to survive.  That one long 120 foot branch wouldn't have grown to that length on its own.  And as impressive as all this is, one snip with a pair of secateurs would separate it from the main vine and it would die.   

            If we look at ourselves, we are like a severed grape vine.  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.  Without being connected to the main vine, 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:  "For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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 of all this, 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.  Just take a tour of my back yard and look at all those dead sticks.

            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 that massive grape vine at Hampton Court Palace.

            When we are part of Christ's body, which is the Church, we are grafted into him through faith.  When that happens, 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.

            I had a look at the list of the various varieties of grapes.  There was way more there than I could count.  There are red ones, green ones, white ones, purple ones, pink ones, black ones, and all the shades in between.  And they have a wide variety of flavors as well.     

            We can compare this to the broad picture of the church, where 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 have to keep asking is, "What good is a dead branch?"  Just go look at the sticks littering my back yard 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 like human branches grafted into Jesus who is the true vine, through faith alone, we most certainly are living branches indeed, and we will produce the fruit of that living faith that lives within us.