The following sermon was preached by Dr Thomas Winger in the seminary’s Martin Luther Chapel for the divine service in commemoration of St Simon and St Jude, Apostles, 28 October 2021.
Dear branches of the true Vine: The Psalmist looks down from Jerusalem on the devastation that Israel’s enemies have managed to wreak. The land looks like a vineyard that’s been ravaged by wild boars—we might say, like a bull in a China shop. In despair, he cries out to God to restore His people as a gardener would carefully renew his garden. He reminds God what He’d done for them: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land” (Ps. 80:8-9). It’s an appeal to God to take responsibility for His patch:
14 Turn again, O God of hosts! Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine, 15 the stock that Your right hand planted,
and for the son whom You made strong for Yourself.
16 They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
may they perish at the rebuke of Your face! (Ps. 80:14-16)
His agonised, even angry appeal is understandable from his perspective; and it makes even more sense from God’s. He has a vested interest in the vineyard He planted. Remember the tragic song God sang through His prophet Isaiah:
My beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill. 2 He dug it and cleared it of stones, and planted it with choice vines; He built a watchtower in the midst of it, and hewed out a wine vat in it; and He looked for it to yield grapes, but it yielded wild grapes. (Is. 5:1-2)
Oh, dear. The problem with God’s vineyard wasn’t just a tragic accident like a wild boar crashing the party. The vine itself had gone rogue. In other words, Israel had rejected what God made them to be. They chose other gods and other sacrifices; they didn’t give God the faithfulness and obedience and thanksgiving and worship that He wanted as fruit from His people. And so, whatever the metaphor, it’s God who ripped out these vines gone wild, who cut out the dead branches, piled them up, and set them ablaze to purify His vineyard. The nations destroyed Israel as God’s instrument to punish them for forsaking His Word and promises. And it looked like He was ready to start over again.
This is surely what Jesus had in mind when He declared to His twelve disciples that Thursday night, “I am the true Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser” (Jn 15:1). He’s the true Vine because He’s the Vine that grows true to its nature and purpose. He is what the Father meant Israel to be. Where they failed, He would be obedient; where they were crooked, He would be straight. He’s faithful to God’s calling. He keeps God’s Word—in fact, He is God’s Word. He’s as intimate with God as the Word that comes out of His heart and mouth. And so, like a tender shoot from the stump of Jesse, He brings forth a new and living vine for His Father’s vineyard. He grows a new Israel as branches from His body. And He calls this new Israel to be faithful to His Word; He seeks the faithfulness God had always sought in old Israel, but so rarely found. And He promises the 12 apostles around the table that they will be part of the new vine of Israel by clinging to Him: “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. … If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (Jn 15:4, 7). If they remain in His Word, they’ll be able to call out to God to rescue them from their enemies, restore them as His people; and He’ll answer them for the sake of Jesus. They’ll be able to make that ancient Psalm their own.
This is what Jesus’ words mean for us, too. On the one hand, they come with a dire warning of the consequences of disobedience: “If anyone does not abide in Me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned” (Jn 15:6). “Not abiding in Jesus” means not keeping His Word, that is, rejecting His teaching, failing to hold fast to everything He’s entrusted to us (Mt. 28:19). If we’re unfaithful, He’ll cut us off like a dead branch. But if we remain in His Word, even if we’re weak and faltering, He’ll prune us, remove the dead wood of our sin and failure, and make us to be more lively and fruitful than ever. And so long as we remain in Him, we’ll continue to draw our life from Him as branches get their lifeblood from the vine to which they’re attached. We’ll bear the fruits of faith and love and worship that His nourishing life will generate in us.
Now, the problem with an extended image like this is figuring out how to make it concrete. If we’re branches, how do we get attached to a vine? How does the vine deliver its lifeblood to us? What’s Jesus really talking about? To find the answer, we simply need to back up and remember where we are and where we’ve come from. It’s “the night in which He was betrayed”, Holy Thursday. The sacred meal is underway, the Passover made into something new. Jesus has just taken up in His hands the cup of blessing and said:
“Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom.” (Mt. 26:27b-29)
The words John records from Jesus’ farewell discourse that night follow directly on from this sacramental gift and can’t be understood without it.
“I am the true Vine …. Already you are clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. … 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. (Jn 15:1a, 3, 4a, 5)
Already you’re clean. He has washed you and made you His own through the Word that He spoke in the water that He poured (Jn 13:10). You were implanted in Him and watered in by the Vinedresser when you were baptised into Christ. Connected to Him this way, you’re hooked up to His divine circulatory system. His blood begins to pump through your body like the sap of a vine entering the newly ingrafted branch. This happens when you eat His Body and drink His blood. I have no doubt that John had this twofold sacramental connection in mind when He reported the sight given to Him at the foot of the cross, as He watched with wonder the water and the blood flowing from Jesus’ side. This is the way grafting works—you cut an incision into the vine and insert the branch. So also we are attached to Him where His side was wounded. Through this wound, His water and His blood pump into us from His dying heart. And so, looking forward, we find the answer to our questions by journeying with Him from Thursday evening to Friday, from the Supper to the cross. For His word, “I am the true Vine, and My Father is the vinedresser” (Jn 15:1), is also prediction of His Passion, where Jesus Himself would be pruned, cut off, and thrown into the fire in place of us withered branches. And so what He means is that it’s only by connection to His death through Baptism and the Supper that we can bear the fruit of eternal life.
In the past year and a half we’ve all felt very cut off. We’ve been cut off from each other by lockdowns that have forbidden grandparents to hug their dear grandchildren, and children from visiting their dying parents. But we’ve felt as much, if not more grieved by being cut off from the true Vine, our Lord Jesus, when services in God’s house have been forbidden entirely, or so constrained by limits that our people have felt unable to attend. In places our people have gone months without receiving the precious Sacrament of the Altar, whether out of fear, or because it wasn’t provided, or because it just seemed too hard. Our churches have seemed as devastated as a vineyard ransacked by wild boars. We’ve felt like branches that are drying up and withering without the nourishing sap of God’s Word delivered to us by live mouths, the absolution laid upon us with human hands, the Body and Blood of Christ placed upon our quivering lips. How good it has felt to have these gifts restored to us. And we pray they won’t be taken away again, and that our brothers and sisters who’ve weakened through absence would come back and be renewed.
But as much as these gifts are the ongoing source of our life in Jesus, there is another treasure that carries us through such hard times; and it’s found in the little word “abide”. Our bond to Jesus isn’t so weak that a momentary separation can sever it. His love isn’t so fickle or fragile that these brief disruptions can break it. Jesus says: “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” (Jn 15:5). We are not apart from Him. We’re in Him—not just at the brief moment when we kneel at the altar, but enduringly. The One who grafted us into His side, where the water and the blood poured out, doesn’t let go of us so easily. As His blood has coursed through this graft, He has come to be in us and we in Him in a way that “abides”, that endures, that outlasts the painful but temporary obstructions that have got in the way of our worship. And He will still abide with us as the eventide fast falls, as the shadows lengthen and the fever of life is over and our work is done, and He will grant us a safe lodging and abiding peace at the last. Amen.