Jesus spoke these words about a vine, branches and fruit right after having instituted the Meal of His Body and Blood using bread and the fruit of the vine, wine. The words about the Vine and the Supper are connected, but to get to this connection we've got to go through the part where Jesus says branches that remain in Him "bear much fruit." Jesus doesn't say they bear "some" but "much," not "little" but "much," not "few" but "much."
I have news for you. The dollar you give to that homeless guy is not "much." You probably know that. You may not know that the ten dollars you give to that homeless guy isn't much, and you sure don't know that giving a homeless guy a 100 dollars still wouldn't be much fruit. Neither is your acting in faith in this or that instance instead of your usual worry much fruit. It's an exception. And the 5 non-daydreaming minutes of holding my preaching and the Word of God sacred that you can manage every now and again is not much fruit either.
Go ahead and sift through your life. Run down the limbs of your life to the fruit there. What do you think? Is it much? Perhaps you can find lots of fruit there. After all, you are faithful to your spouse, your children, your job, your country, your church, aren't you? So there are clutches and bunches of fruit! But get closer to them; do you see the worm holes, the bruises, the gouges of sin that mar your fruit? There's not much there that isn't ruined by your sins, is there? In fact, if you really want to get down to it, there's nothing on the limbs of your life that isn't rotted, polluted, and worthless.
What does Jesus plainly say His Father does to every, not some, not a few, but every branch that bears no fruit? "He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit," says Jesus. Isn't it funny? We all expect an employer would fire us for not being productive. We all pull up plants that don't produce fruit and cut off dead, fruitless branches, but we don't really think God cuts off branches that bear no fruit, but He does, and do note it doesn't say God will do this at some future time, but that He does it right now.
Have you seen that Hewlett-Packard commercial where a guy is sitting quietly in a restaurant and all of a sudden a computer arrow is at his neck? Unseen hands grab him, throw him over the table, drag him outside over a parked car, and throw him into a police van. That's how God might handle anyone of us fruitless branches at any moment. He might suddenly reach down and cut us off right here and right now. This means if you can't find fruit in your life that is holy and acceptable to Him, then be afraid be very afraid. Unseen Hands might prune you at any moment, and throw you into a very hot fire for all eternity.
God is serious about the branches connected to Christ the Vine producing much fruit. If you can hear this text and not wonder about the fruit or lack thereof in your life, then you are a hardened sinner heading for hell. If you don't think God is really serious about fruit from you or that He should be satisfied with what little, imperfect fruit you do have, then I have nothing more to say to you. The fruit of your life is going to be death and hell and there isn't anything I can do for you, but for you who tremble at these words about much fruit, there is much more to be said.
Let me ask you. What bears fruit? We're tempted to say, "Branches," because that's how it looks, that's where the fruit hangs. But is this strictly true? Do branches really bear fruit? Cut one off from the vine and see for yourself. Cut off a branch from your tomato and see what it produces. Even Jesus plainly says, "No branch can bear fruit by itself." Branches don't produce fruit; vines, plants, roots do. If a branch could somehow talk to you, wouldn't you pity one cut off from the vine boasting of the fruit it would bear or a cut off one trying so very hard to produce fruit? It never could in a million, billion, trillion years, could it? No branch at any time has produced fruit apart from the vine in the ground which gathers water, nutrients, food.
Every gardener knows that if you're concerned about fruit, you have to be concerned about the vine. That's where your effort, your water, your fertilizer is going to go. God the Father is the Gardener, He planted God the Son in the dust of our humanity. Jesus sprouted and grew just like we do. But He was like one of those plants you get from the nursery that has fruit on it from the start. Jesus was producing fruit from day one. He never sinned even once, not in doing, not in speaking, not even in thinking. He was obedient to His earthly parents and His heavenly Father. He was a perfect child, teen, and adult. He was a perfect worker, citizen and church member. See bushels of grapes, of tomatoes, of peppers, of corn before the Father's throne. What gardener would not be pleased?
Yet what do we read this Gardener did? Isaiah tells us that God the Father was pleased to crush His Son. He cut Him off from His love and acceptance. He let Christ who was the greenest of trees wither on the cross to the point where the fires of hell licking at His feet caused Him to burst into flames. He screamed, He cried, He begged for mercy, for forgiveness, for grace but there was no mercy for this perfect Bearer of much fruit. There was only the judgment that you and I deserve.
To the cross, to the perfect Vine, is where frightened sinners are to turn. When you can find in your life no fruit or only worm eaten fruit, the place to turn to is Jesus the Vine. Power to bear fruit doesn't come from your determination, your great desire, your efforts. Power to bear fruit can't even come from pouring water on you, giving you fertilizer and food. Why not? Branches can only get the water and food they need in connection with the Vine. If they are not connected to the Vine it is useless to pour water and fertilizer on them.
Therefore, what's the all important question for us? Are we connected to the Vine? That's the question Jesus wants to cultivate in our hearts. He wants us to see our lack of fruit and run back to the Vine. He doesn't want us to say, "I'll do better," and certainly not, "Well at least I did better than that branch over there." He wants us to say nothing more than, "It's true. I have no fruit worthy of the Vine from which I grow." That's all we can say under the holy, exacting demands of the Law, but there is another Word for those crushed by the Law. It is the Gospel, and listen to what it says.
Jesus says to the disciples who had just finished feasting on His Body and Blood in Communion, who had just taken into their bodies and souls forgiveness, life, and salvation: "Every branch that bears fruit the Father (literally) cleanses (not prunes as the insert translated) so that it will be even more fruitful." Then in the next sentence Jesus says they don't even need cleansing because His Word has already done that! "Every branch that bears fruit He cleanses...You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you."
You've all picked through fruit in the grocery store. It generally goes, "Too hard, too soft, too bruised, too dented, too out of shape, O here's one." Jesus says the Word He has spoken to you in your Baptism, speaks to you in your Absolution, or the Word He gives you to eat and drink in Communion has already cleansed your fruit. God the Father picks through your life and says, "Good, good, good, good, good." That's how come the Son can say to you, "You bear much fruit."
Faithful, serious Christians who believe the Law that says all of even there best fruit is bruised, rotten, and worthless, very often don't listen to the Gospel Word which says through Jesus the Vine you have much fruit. Their hearts condemn them like John says in the Epistle reading and Paul shows us in Romans. They say, "No, no, no the good fruit I want to bear I don't, and the evil fruit I don't want to produce I do." Dear friend, God is greater than even our hearts and He says for the sake of His Son you are bearing much fruit even though you may not be aware of it. Listen to how a former, now sainted, seminary professor of mine puts this: "From God's point of view the entire life of the Christian, by virtue of the fact that he is attached to Jesus, the Vine, is a good work."
Surely those of you who have raised kids can see how this works. At the toddler stage they wish to help with everything, but actually they can help with nothing. If the truth be told, they are in your way when you cook, wash, clean, work in the yard or on the car. But because you love them, everything they do, no matter how feeble, insignificant, or imperfect it is, is praised by you to high heaven. "Great, wonderful, perfect," we say. Though the works of a toddler are not, we say they are for the sake of our love for them.
Well God loved the world so much that He gave up His only begotten Son. In Jesus, God loves us dearly, wonderfully, perfectly. So in Jesus, He sees everything we do as a great work. Are you in Jesus? You've been baptized into His name, haven't you? Are you in Jesus? In His name your sins have been sent away and heaven has been opened to you, hasn't it? Are you in Jesus? If the very Body and Blood of Jesus is given to you to eat and drink, then most certainly is Jesus in you and you must be in Jesus. Our Lutheran Confessions apply our text to Communion saying by Communion we branches have a real connection to the Vine Jesus.
Here's the last piece in the puzzle of how sinners like us can produce much good fruit. We've already seen how by grace for Christ's sake, God our Father and Gardener proclaims all that we do to be good fruit. Here we learn that by being attached to Christ the Vine we constantly draw water and food from Him. Now if you think this attachment is something you must maintain by faith, then you will most certainly fall away. Why? Because our faith is weak, fickle and sinful. Who among you could ever say your faith is strong enough, good enough, sure enough? Jesus, however, is strong, certain, and holy. He must keep us attached to Himself.
How can one be sure he or she is attached to Jesus the Vine? Since Jesus promises that every branch that remains in Him will bear much fruit, not might or maybe, but will, the question that really matters is, am I attached to Jesus? Baptism, Absolution, Communion all say, "Yes," even though our hearts sometimes say, "No." But "God is greater than our hearts, and He knows everything." God the Gardener certainly knows the branches attached to His Vine, and these He waters with Baptism, feeds with Communion, and talks to by His Word. Are you being watered, fed, and spoken to? Then take heart; the Father's your Gardener and you're attached to Jesus the Vine. I mean you don't waste time watering, feeding and talking to a cut off branch, do you? And I doubt you go around doing these things for other people's plants. So this font, this pulpit, this altar all testify that you're in the Father's garden securely attached to Jesus, the Vine bearing much fruit in the process. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Easter V (5-18-03), John 15: 1-8