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God often uses grapes, vines, and vineyards as illustrations of his church and his work in our lives. Whether it’s a little garden or a huge farm, anyone who has tried to grow things knows that it takes some work. We also know the joy and satisfaction that comes when what we have planted produces a bumper crop. As we look at the words of Jesus today and consider the meaning of his illustration of the vine and the branches, we want to think about what the vine does, what the vinedresser does, and what the branch does. As we do, we will be humbled, empowered, and moved to give praise and glory to God for connecting us to the True Vine.
Jesus tells his disciples and us that he is the vine. He wants us to picture in our minds a grape vine planted in a vineyard. My grandfather used to have some grapevines growing on a trellis along the side of his garage. Something that always amazed me about looking at grape vines is how many branches they could produce. You could put one plant beneath an arbor, or a trellis and that one plant would send out branches that would cover the whole thing.
The first thing that a vine does is produce branches. The branches don’t produce themselves. The vine brings them into existence. Scripture pictures Israel as the original branches on the vine. They came into existence when God called Abraham and promised to make him the father of a great nation from whom the Messiah would come. Paul points out in Romans that you and I, the Gentiles, have been grafted into the vine. Either way, whether natural branches or branches that have been grafted in, Jesus’ words hold true, you did not choose me, I chose you. The vine produces the branch, the branch doesn’t produce itself. A branch that is grafted in cannot graft itself, someone who has very advanced knowledge and skill must graft a branch into the vine. The picture is clear. If we are a branch connect to the vine it is not by our own doing, it is God’s doing.
Once the vine produces branches its work is not finished. The vine must continue to provide nourishment to all the branches it has produced. As a grape vine continues to produce branches and spread out over the arbor/trellis, sometimes it is unable to provide nourishment to its many branches, but not so with Jesus. Jesus reminds us that he is the true vine. In fact, he is I AM. He is the one and only true God, the almighty. He is able, not just to provide nourishment for every branch he produces, but he is able to provide perfect nourishment, just the right nourishment for every branch he produces.
Just imagine a plant that always is able to provide the proper nourishment, the proper combination of water and nitrogen and all the other chemicals a branch needs to produce a bumper crop, and be able do provide such nourishment no mater what the conditions, too hot, too dry, too wet, no matter what. We can’t imagine such a perfect plant in our fields or gardens, but that’s what Jesus is to us. He is the true vine. He provides us with the perfect nourishment, just what we need to continue to grow and produce fruit, no matter what the circumstances of our lives might be.
Even if you live to be 100, there’s never going to be a time in your life when the circumstances of your life will be perfect. We live in a sinful, imperfect world. We are sinful, imperfect people. If we are constantly looking for perfect conditions, we will be constantly frustrated and depressed. But what a comfort to know that the vine to which we are attached is constantly providing us with just what we need no matter what our circumstances might be, rich, poor, sick, healthy, happy or sad, no matter what! He provides this perfect nourishment through his word and sacrament, and by sending the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts and to help us in our prayers.
A vine produces branches and provides nourishment. Jesus is the true vine, the perfect vine who has produced us, called us to faith and joined us to himself; and he continues to offer us just what we need. That’s what the vine does. In Jesus’ picture there is also a gardener, a vinedresser. Let’s consider what he does.
Jesus says, my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. This is a part of the picture we don’t like to think about. It is clear that Jesus is saying that there are some branches, some people who were called to faith, who were grafted into the vine, who had the proper nourishment provided for them, but who became like dead or unfruitful branches. They were Christians, but their lack of fruit gave evidence to what the Father already knew, they did not remain Christians. They shut themselves off from the perfect nourishment the true vine was providing for them. We all know what happens to a branch that no longer receives nourishment from the vine. It becomes weak, subject to diseases, attacks from insects, and eventually it dies. The vinedresser cuts off dead branches and throws them into the fire. We hate to think that someone who was once a Christian, who was connected to Jesus the vine, could end up in the fires of Hell, but Jesus’ illustration indicates that it is possible. If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall.
The work of the vinedresser is not just to cut off dead, unfruitful branches. It’s his job to prune the fruit-bearing branches so that they are not sapped by unnecessary shoots, or succors. It is his job to guide the growth of the branches so that they are supported by the trellis, so that they grow in the proper direction and have the support they need when they are loaded down with fruit.
If we think of ourselves as a branch being pruned, we might say, “Ouch.” Pruning sounds like something that might hurt, and it often does. Pruning is a picture of discipline, the loving discipline our heavenly father provides, for he tells us that those he loves he disciplines. He may provide such discipline through sickness, disease, pain, loss, or persecution. Often, he provides discipline through those whom he has placed over us for this purpose, our parents, our teachers, Pastors and Elders in the church, or caring Christian friends. He sends them to use his word to point out a sin or a weakness, exposing it so that it can be dealt with. He wounds us with the pruning knife of the law so that he might heal us and make us stronger through the gospel.
The vine produces and nourishes branches. The vinedresser prunes good branches and removes dead, unfruitful branches. What does the branch do? It remains. If it is going to avoid being cut off and thrown into the fire, if it is going to be able to produce the fruit that the gardener is looking for, it remains connected to the vine, taking in all that perfect nourishment the vine provides. How does it do that? How do we do that? Jesus explains, if you remain in me and my words remain in you. We remain attached to the vine and continue to receive the nourishment we need when we stay close to the word.
Sometimes we are tempted to take the vine and the nourishment he provides for granted. We are told by the world that the things we have been taught are old fashioned and out of date. We are tempted to look for answers in the “how to” books that fill our bookstores today, instead of going to the book that he has inspired for us. We are tempted to become bored when we hear the same old truths over and over again. If we give in to these temptations, if we begin to neglect the word and Sacraments, we are in danger of being becoming a dead, or at least an unfruitful branch and being cut off from the vine. It is by remaining in Jesus and his word that we receive the nourishment we need.
I always like to hold up my father as an example of this truth. He contracted Polio at the age of 26 and spent the last 47 years in a wheelchair. He shared with us that when he was sick, being kept alive in an iron lung, unsure if he would live or die or what his future might be like, he was nourished by all the Bible passages and hymns he had learned in the Lutheran grade school he had attended. Many people marveled at how someone who had suffered so much physically could have served on the city’s school board, run his own accounting business, and have kept such a positive attitude. We knew the answer. He remained in the word. When he was able, he went to his desk every morning and spent time with God, praying and reading the Bible. He remained in the word and the fruit that God produced in him was evident to many people, even if not all of them knew the reason for the fruit.
A branch remains in the vine, and when it does, God’s purpose is accomplished, it produces fruit. God’s purpose for a grape vine is that it produces grapes. God’s purpose for us as Christians, as branches connected to Jesus, the vine, is that we produce the fruit of good works for which people will praise our father in heaven. The fruit he expects us to produce is described in a number of ways in the Bible. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. A grape vine produces branches that produce grapes. The Jesus vine produces branches that are like Jesus, that are Christ-like, that forgive as he forgives, that love as he loves.
Just as a branch can’t say to the vine, “I don’t need you I can produce grapes all on my own,” so Jesus says, without me you can do nothing. As we remain connected to Jesus and in his word, he works in us to will and to do his good pleasure. We cannot take credit for any fruit we produce. All the glory praise goes to God. He made us a branch on the true vine. He provides the perfect nourishment for every situation in life. He prunes us and guides our growth. When we produce fruit, it is because of all that he has done for us, and for the purpose of bringing him all the glory.
Remain connected to the Vine, to Jesus. Remain in his word. When you do you will rejoice when you are pruned and praise God when you see the fruit he enables you to produce.