Word Search puzzles are popular. In them you find various words spelled up, down, across, and at angels. Usually these puzzles list the words you're looking for. Scripture tells us what sort of words we should be finding in every text but our hearts are predisposed to find only some.
For example, our hearts by nature find words like guilt, judgment, hell. You see them in this text. They jump off the page at you as if in bold face type. No, you're not making this up. What else are we suppose to find in the words "My Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch that bears no fruit?" How's your fruit bearing? Bringing in a good crop this year, are you? Circle the word GUILT.
What is the Lord going to do who cursed the fig tree that had no fruit and ordered another unfruitful one cut down? Circle JUDGMENT too. You have no trouble finding it. What does Jesus say happens to cut off branches? They wither. Cut off from the vine a fruitless branch can only wither. The only way a branch gets food and water is from the vine. Joined to the vine a branch naturally produces fruit. Something is wrong, diseased, contrary to nature if it doesn't. And when that happens the gardener cuts off the branch to stop it from wasting food and water the rest of the branches need.
Do you see the words Jesus is really using when He says, "I'm the vine you're the branches?" In Him as you are by Baptism; in Him as you are by the Words of forgiveness preached into your ears; in Him as you are by virtue of His Body and Blood in you, you are a like a branch attached to a Vine. All the forgiveness, life, and salvation, He won for you by His holy life and His guilty death are flowing into your very veins. The Water of God, the Word of God, the Body and Blood of God can't help put produce fruit. So when they don't.
The text has the Father cutting fruitless branches off. In my experience, they cut themselves off. They don't use their Baptism daily, so Water doesn't get to them. They don't believe their absolution, so no food there, and they think it is no problem to go without eating His Body and drinking His Blood. Their own body preaches to them that they can't do that with physical food and water, yet their own soul believes, or rather un-believes, that it can do that with spiritual food.
When you cut off a fruitless branch, it may be as green as the rest. When it falls to the ground it looks like it belongs still to the vine. But in a day it begins to wither. Pick up your Word Search puzzle. Find the two L's next to each other and follow them. H-E-L-L. The God who is love; the God who doesn't raise His voice in the street and doesn't put out dimly burning wicks says the fate of fruitless, cut-off branches is to wither. You may not feel the fruitlessness, the cutting, or the withering because to all outward appearances you're no different than living, fruit-producing branch, but you will feel the fire and the burning.
In a Word Search you look for the unusual letters. You know if you have a Z in a word, you will be able to search that out quickly. TARZAN might jump out if you heard the full force of the Law just preached. Why him? Johnny Weissmuller was well known for portraying the vine swinging man raised by apes. Someone asked him for the best advice he could give them. He replied, "'Don't let go of the vine.'" (Garagiola, It's Anybody's Ballgame).
The Law words we're predisposed to see in every text of Scripture condemn us completely showing that we are guilty because of what we have done and what we have failed to do. The answer then that pops off the page is: do something more, better, different. Be Tarzan; don't let go of the Vine, Jesus. Or in the words of Charles Swindoll Strengthen Your Grip. True enough. So how you doing? You intend to remember your Baptism daily. You intend to be strong in the faith that Absolution forgives all your sins. You resolve to be more faithful in Word and Sacrament. But you don't end up holding on any tighter. You don't feel weaker, less believing, or less Christian. You don't look a bit different than any other branch still on the vine. But you're Tarzan having let go of the vine yodeling your way not to the jungle floor below but to fire.
The answer to the Law Words our fallen nature searches out in every text is not more Law words telling us do better, intend better, promise more. The word Tarzan isn't in this text at all. The word remain/abide is. That is not the same as "hold on." "Hold on" implies the Vine plays the game "Crack the Whip" trying to throw off branches not holding on tightly enough. Vines don't do anything to get rid of branches. Vines don't spontaneously kick off branches. On the contrary, they are constantly sending them food and water.
The Vine Jesus doesn't stop sending you the Waters of Baptism that He paid for and poured out of His wounded side. He doesn't stop sending you the Body He gave over to death or the Blood He shed to cover your sins. So much does a vine want to keep everyone of its branches that it takes even the manure of life and converts it into food useable to sustain, grow, and fruit its branches.
But now you're stuck on FRUIT. That word you don't have to search at all for it's their in boldface, all caps, and it screams at you. 6 of the 8 times John has the Word "fruit" are in this text. And you hear it as a Law word rather than an empowering one. As if when the Lord said, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth," He was demanding something from us rather than giving something to us.
So before F-R-U-I-T burns on to your retinas, let's look closer at the text. You are a branch before you bear fruit. Jesus says, "I am the Vine you are the branches." He doesn't say you may be, could be, or shall be branches but are branches. And this text certainly doesn't say, "If you bear fruit you become branches." You know that can't be true. Fruitfulness doesn't make a branch part of a vine. It merely shows that it is. It must be a branch before it can produce fruit.
Jesus declares you're branches. You've been sprouted from the Tree of the Cross. You sprung from that dry wood when the Waters of Baptism brought you life. You sprouted from that dead stump when the Words, "I took your sins; I paid for them; I forgive you for them all" struck your ears and caused you to trust them. And you're not unhealthy, diseased, decaying branches. You're attached to the healthy, green, risen Jesus.
Part of the problem with this Word Search is the word "prunes." "Every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." Most English translations have "prune" but that Greek word never means that anywhere inside or outside the New Testament (Morris, 669-70). In fact, the verb it "translates" is the same as the noun in the next sentence. "Every branch that does bear fruit He kathaireiYou are already katharoi." "Every branch that bears foot He cleansYou are already clean."
You have to go back to chapter 13 to get the full import of these words. There Jesus says, "You are clean, but not all of you." He is singling out Judas by those words in an attempt to bring him to repentance. But note whom Jesus says are clean already: feeble disciples who are going to abandon Him are nevertheless clean. Volatile Peter who will deny His Lord with oaths 3 times is still one of the clean ones. Thomas who will almost doubt himself to death is nonetheless clean.
Those confessing their sins; those not defending their sins; those wishing to be free of their sins are not the unclean, fruitless branches that will be cut off and thrown into the fire. Either you have Jesus or you have your sins. Either Jesus has your sins or you do. If you defend them, excuse them, promise to do better against them next time, you still have your sins. You are not already clean and Jesus can't clean you as He does the fruit-bearing branches.
There's that word "fruit" again, and not only that if you search a little bit harder you'll see that it's not just "fruit" but "much fruit." The insert makes it worse by interpreting it in the future. It has Jesus say, "If a man remains in Me and I in him, He will bear much fruit." It's not a future but an indicative. Not he will bear fruit sometime in the future, but he "bears much fruit" now. Indicatives indicate what is going on now. There is promise here as there is in the last verse, "This is My Father's glory that you should bear much fruit." That construction indicates that from the Father's point of view there is nothing that can stop you from bearing much fruit.
You still haven't seen the Gospel words staring back at you in big, black, comforting letters. What fruit is specifically mentioned in this text? What fruit do the Words of the Vine produce in the branches: helping the poor, giving to the church, being a better Christian? Nope, prayer. "Ask whatever you wish." Remaining in the Vine and in the Vine's Words produces the fruit of prayer. And the word used here for "word" lays stress on the fact that God spoke more than on what He said.
The divine Words of Jesus echo everyday in your life, "I baptize you into Heaven." The Words of Jesus echo in every absolution, "I have sent your sins away from you as far as east is from west." The Words of Jesus "Given and shed for you" echo over every sin, shortcoming, and failure. Jesus words to us bring forth words from us, prayer. This is the much fruit Jesus promises He will produce in His branches. And ain't that so? His "Our help is in the name of the Lord" produces our "who made heaven and earth." His "O give thanks unto the Lord" produces our "And His mercy endureth forever." His "depart in peace" echo in us till it produces our "Amen."
What I'm saying is that in this text, indeed in every text of Scripture, we're not playing Word Search. The saving, empowering, sanctifying Word is searching for us. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday of Easter (20150503); John 15: 1-8