Sunday, May 6, 2012

Easter 5, Series B

There was no sermon posted last week because we had a guest preacher for Holy Cross' 50th anniversary celebration.  We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming.

Sermon on John 15:1-8
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
May 6, 2012 (The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Series B)

The branch bears fruit because it is connected to the vine.  It doesn’t bear fruit because it’s been ordered to bear fruit, or berated for its lack of fruit, or told that unless it bears fruit it will be thrown into the fire.  It bears fruit because it is connected to the vine.  That’s what living branches do.  They bear fruit.  Dead branches don’t bear fruit, and they are the ones that are cut off and thrown into the fire.  But you can’t make a dead branch alive by telling it that.  Dead is dead, and only God can bring life from the dead.  Fruit comes naturally from being connected to the vine, or it isn’t really fruit.

All of that sounds like common sense when we’re talking about grapevines and their branches producing grapes.  You can substitute whatever sort of fruit tree you like, by the way, and the illustration Jesus uses here still works.  Pretty much all fruit-bearing trees operate the same way here.  But when we start talking about the fruit borne by Christians and Christian churches, then we seem to forget everything we know about these things.  We want to make fruit appear by berating the vine for its lack of fruit.  We think we can make a branch more fruitful by telling it that it’s not bearing fruit and warning it that it’s risking being cut off and thrown into the fire.  We like to think, in other words, that it is by preaching the law that we can get people to do good works in the Kingdom of God.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.  You see, there are all sorts of things that people can do that are, in a worldly sense, good works, acts of love and service towards our neighbors.  Most of the average Christian’s good works are no different than the things his unbelieving neighbor does.  I serve as God’s hand to give His people daily bread in the form of beef, pork, and poultry at the Kenosha Walmart for up to 40 hours a week most weeks.  But those of my coworkers who are atheists or who simply don’t care about religious matters do exactly the same thing.  Which ones are good works before God?  Only those done in faith toward God.  Only those whose imperfections are covered by the sap of the vine, the blood of Jesus Christ shed for the remission of sin.  In that sense, only the believer can do good works.  Works done by the unbeliever aren’t seen as good works by God.  And that is why only those who are connected to the vine, Jesus Christ, by His Word and Spirit, body and blood, are able to bear fruit.

And so being connected to the true Vine is a matter of receiving Christ who comes to us in Word and Sacrament.  It’s a matter of hearing, over and over again, that your sins are forgiven and that He loves you and wants you to be with Him forever.  And bearing fruit in His kingdom is something only God can judge.  He is the one who is the vine-dresser, we aren’t.  We can’t always see the fruit that is coming from some branches of the vine.  Some branches, some Christians, and yes, some congregations, may look at first glance like they’re withering.  And unfortunately some preachers may even tell them that they’re withering, that they’re not bearing enough fruit for the kingdom, or whatever, or even that they’re being unfaithful to their Lord.  But it is God who judges, not us.  What may look like a branch that is failing to bear fruit may in fact be a branch that has been severely pruned and which is still recovering from the pruning process.  And the fruit that is borne by that branch may not be visible to us, either.  The fruit of faith may be seen elsewhere in a person’s life than what can be seen within these walls on a Sunday morning.  Often it is in how they care for their own family and neighbors, and how well they perform the duties of their secular vocations.  Those who would criticize a church for being small are looking at it from the world’s perspective, not God’s.

And so, being a fruitful branch is simply a matter of remaining in the vine.  You can’t take a dead branch and order it to bear fruit.  You can only resurrect it by the power of God’s Word which makes the dead to live.  What fruit you bear, what fruit your congregation bears, is up to Him, ultimately.  Being small doesn’t mean you’re unfaithful, nor does being big mean you’re more faithful.  He is the judge, He is the vine-dresser, and He is also the vine.  Simply remaining in Him is how we bear fruit.  And the ultimate fruit, the one we will see and know for sure, is the mature fruit of eternal life, when we will finally see ourselves and each other as He sees us.  And how does He see us?  As those who are conformed to Him through death to sin and resurrection to new life.  As those through whom Christ has borne fruit, through whom Christ has worked.  As those who are now joined to Him, inseparably, forever.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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