Christ Covenant Church
Jon Marq Toombs
6 November 2016 / Ordinary Time
“You will certainly carry out God’s purpose, however you act, but it makes a difference to you whether you serve like Judas or like John.” – C. S. Lewis @CSLewisDaily
May God’s love be with you all.
Let us remember where we are in the story.
It is night and we have been hanging out with Jesus and his disciples in an upper room — but the scene has shifted. The last thing we heard Jesus say was, “Rise, let us go from here.”
It’s unclear if they all got up and left at the moment, or if they stayed for a little while longer. It is possible that they left the upper room and started walking through the city to go out to the garden.
Either way, Jesus was still teaching his disciples and counseling them to hang in there and stay connected to him no matter what.
After all the things he has just told them about betrayal and denial and leaving, it is likely that some of them wanted to disengage and take off. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another, so it will do us some good to see why we need to stay connected to Christ and his church.
Our sermon text for today is John 15:1-17. If you are willing and able, please stand for the reading of God’s Holy Word. Above all else, hear the word of the Lord:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 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. 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. 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. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (ESV)
The word of the Lord. May God add his blessings to the reading and hearing of his word. And the church says: Amen!
ONE TRUE VINE
Jesus says he is the True Vine.
In the Old Testament, prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel) described God as a vinedresser and Israel as his vineyard. God planted Israel as a vineyard, but Israel did not abide in God’s word, or in God’s love, so Israel did not bear fruit for God’s glory. That is why Israel was uprooted and replanted again and again.
When Jesus describes himself as the True Vine, he is not only echoing the prophets; he is expanding their vision and explaining their message. He means that he is the true and better Israel. He is the faithful and obedient Son—the fruitful vine—that God always wanted Israel to be.
“He shall take root, and he shall blossom and put forth shoots and fill the whole world with fruit.” (Isa 27:7)
Notice that Jesus’ descriptions are personal and relational.
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.”
Like the prophets, Jesus uses this agricultural metaphor of vine and branches to describe the covenantal relationship between himself and his followers.
This is an organic picture of Christ’s covenant community.
ONE VINEDRESSER: BRANCH AND FRUIT INSPECTOR
Jesus teaches us here that the Vinedresser is the branch inspector. All the branches are examined and evaluated by the Vinedresser. He takes a personal interest in their connection to the Vine and to the consequences of that connection.
When he examines and evaluates the vine-branches, he is looking for fruitfulness — which comes from the Spirit. It is faithfulness.
He cuts off every branch that does not bear the kind of fruit he desires; and he cleanses every branch that does bear the kind of fruit he desires.
This might be hard to hear, but what the Vinedresser considers a fruit-bearing branch and what we consider a fruit-bearing branch are two very different things.
We examine and evaluate by different standards and measures. We judge by what we see (or think we see) on the surface, but he judges by what he sees beneath the surface, in the heart.
That’s why he cuts off branches from the Vine that we might consider fruitful; and that’s why he cleans branches on the vine that we might consider fruitless.
We see this happen in real life all the time.
For example, a larger church has more branches than a smaller church, but not all its branches are alive and fruitful. Many are dead and fruitless. In some cases, a smaller church with fewer branches is actually healthier and more fruitful than a larger church with more branches. Why? Because it has fewer (if any) dead branches; the branches it has are clean and faithful.
The same can be said of people we know.
Now, the Vinedresser will examine and evaluate all the branches on the Vine—including you and me and our congregation.
When he comes, what will he find?
Will he find fruitful branches or fruitless branches?
Will he find the kind of branches that carry, support, or hold the fruit produced by the Vine, or will he find the kind of branches that cast the fruit of the Vine to the ground?
TWO KINDS OF BRANCHES: FRUITFUL AND FRUITLESS
Jesus also says there are only two kinds of branches united to the True Vine: fruitless branches and fruitful branches.
We tend to imagine that Christ’s covenant community as only made up of the True Vine and Fruitful Branches. At the end of all things that is how it will be. But right now in space-time history it is made up of the True Vine and a mix of fruitless branches and fruitful branches.
Let’s consider the similarities of the two kinds of branches (the things they have in common) first. Then we will consider the differences.
Both kinds of branches are vine-branches. They are connected to the Vine; they have some kind of relationship with him.
Both kinds of branches were were washed with water and the word.
Both kinds of branches are examined and evaluated by the Vinedresser. He takes a personal interest in their connection to the Vine and to the consequences of that connection.
As you can tell, the branches are similar to each other; they have many things in common.
Now that we have considered the similarities, let’s consider the differences.
All the branches are connected to the Vine in some ways, but not all the branches are connected to the Vine in all the same ways.
The fruitful branches are connected to the Vine sacramentally and spiritually;
the fruitless branches are only connected sacramentally.
The fruitful branches are connected to the Vine internally;
the fruitless branches are only connected externally.
The fruitful branches are connected to the Vine deeply;
the fruitless branches are only connected superficially.
The fruitful branches nourished by the word of the Christ-vine that dwells in them;
the fruitless branches are malnourished, for the word of the Christ-vine does not dwell in them.
The fruitful branches are connected to the Vine permanently;
the fruitless branches are only connected temporarily.
On the surface, both kinds of branches have many things in common. Beneath the surface, the branches are very different from each other.
Branches often have so many things in common that most of the time it is virtually impossible for us to tell the difference between a fruitless branch and a fruitless branch. Beneath the surface, the branches are very different from each other.
And that’s okay, because we are branches, and branches have no right (and no responsibility) to pass judgment of the fruitfulness or fruitlessness of other branches.
Only the Vinedresser has that right and responsibility.
CUT AND DRIED
When the Vinedresser examines the branches and finds one that is not a fruit-bearing, he cuts it off the Vine, and casts it away and it dries up. That branch is excommunicated by the Vinedresser.
Then he gathers the deadwood and burns it in a fire.
The reason he cleans the Vine of fruitless branches is so that fruitful branches can bear more fruit. Fruitless branches are dead branches, yet they put a strain on other branches and suck the life out of them.
If the Vinedresser does not find real spiritual fruit like love, joy, peace – signs of true life – then he will cut off the fruitless branches from True Vine.
Now, we can have a deep theological discussion about whether the cut off branches lost their salvation (they did not), or whether they were ever saved in the first place (they were not), but the sad fact is this: they were cut off from the Savior and from the source of salvation.
So, there’s no reason to point out a branch’s former status (“He used to be so fruitful”) when we know it’s latter status – he was cut off, dried up, and burned.
There’s no point in glorifying the past while the future dries up and burns down. (U2, God Part II)
This is a cut and dried matter. A sobering thought, right?
Now, when the Vinedresser examines a branch and finds that it is a fruit-bearing branch, he cleanses it so that they may bear more fruit.
Sin makes you dirty and weak; the gospel makes you strong and clean. The cleaner you are the more fruit can bear. The more fruit you bear the more overcome sin.
How does the Vinedresser clean the fruitful branches?
Intitially, By connecting you to the Vine in truer and deeper ways.
Continually, by cutting off dead branches and clearing space for them to grow, lest they become like them.
Ultimately, by channeling grace into your life by means of the Holy Spirit and word of Christ.
The Spirit helps you abide in Christ and bear his fruit and clean up your life and dwell in him.
Now, earlier in the story Jesus told his disciples that they were already clean because of the word that he spoken to them.
The word “clean” used here is the same word Jesus used after he washed his disciples’ feet in the upper room in John 13:10-11. At that time he told his disciples “Y’all are clean, but not all y’all are clean.” For he knew which one was going to betray him.
The point is that even though all the disciples were exposed to the washing of water with the word (externally) not all the disciples were clean (internally).
JUDAS AND PETER
To help make all this a little more concrete, I want to tell you a couple of stories about two well-known disciples. They were real people, with real names, and a real connection to Jesus -– just like you and me.
They illustrate the similarities and differences of the two kinds of branches, two kinds of disciples.
Both were disciples of Christ, branches connected to the Vine. Both were exposed to the person and ministry of Christ; both were washed by Christ, and shared a covenant meal of bread and wine with him. One was fruitless, the other was fruitful. One was clean; the other was not.
Now, we could insert the names of a lot of different people we know into these stories, but the people I have in mind are Judas Iscariot and Simon Peter.
One betrayed Jesus. The other denied him.
Both regretted their sins. One committed suicide; the other confessed his sins and cried for mercy and cast himself on the Lord.
Judas was a branch that did not abide in Christ, and Christ’s word did not dwell in his heart. As a result, he was a fruitless branch. So, Judas was cut off of the Vine, and withered and died.
Peter was a branch that continued to abide in Christ, and Christ’s word continued to dwell in his heart. As a result, he was a fruitful branch. Thus, Peter was cleansed by the word, and he bore much fruit.
Their stories are sobering reminders that we must be extra careful how we judge others lest we draw false conclusions about them.
Think about it: How many times have you thought in your heart, “That guy is fruitful” only to find out that God cut him out of the vine. OR “She is so fruitless” yet God kept her in the vine and cleansed her and she became more fruitful than you ever thought possible.
We might feel tempted to look around at other branches and wonder who is fruitful and who is not; who is like Judas and who is like Peter, but Jesus teaches us that we branches have one responsibility, and it does not involve passing judgment on the fruitfulness or fruitlessness of other branches.
Contrary to popular opinion, we are not called to be fruit inspectors!
ABIDE IN ME
We have one massive responsibility and this is it: Abide in the Vine.
That means we must be intentional and deliberate about centering our heart, mind, soul, and body on the Vine — not on ourselves nor other branches.
Jesus is the true vine and you are branches and we must do what he requires of us.
In this text we are not commanded to bear fruit, clean up our act, do better, or try harder. We are commanded to abide in Christ, to dwell in the Vine, to stay connected to Jesus no matter what.
The Vine is sovereign over the branches, so he commands them to abide in him. The branches are responsible to the Vine, so they must obey his commands.
As we heard last week, to love Christ is to obey him.
To obey his command you must be intentional and deliberate about loving Christ and making him your permanent dwelling place.
In baptism, we were been washed with water through the word; we were united to the Vine. But now, we must be intentional and deliberate about centering our heart, mind, soul, and body on Christ or else we will be cut off.
Because whoever abides in me (union) and I in him (communion), bears much fruit, for apart from me you are not able to do nothing (slang).
No branch is able to bear fruit by itself; it must abide in the vine. Neither are you able to bear fruit, unless you dwell in Christ.
The Vine is the source and sustainer of life for the branches. In order to survive and thrive, the branches must dwell in union with the Vine and in communion with other branches.
We need more Christ, more covenant, and more community, not less. We need Christ, and we need one another.
Apart from Christ we can do nothing; cut off from Christ we dry up and die.
Jesus said, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so come to be my disciples.”
When branches take on the traits and virtues of the vine, the Father is glorified.
When branches carry the Spirit’s fruit of love, joy, peace, the Father is glorified.
When clean branches bear the weight of much spiritual fruit, and show themselves to be true followers of the Vine, the Father is glorified.
I want to end today by relating a scene from the old movie A Walk in the Clouds.
The story is about a Hispanic family who own and operate a fruitful vineyard called Las Nubes. It is set in California in the 1940’s.
In one tragic scene a fire breaks out and burns throughout the whole vineyard. The blazing fire threatens to wipe out in one night everything the Aragon family has worked for for many generations.
As the light of dawn breaks it becomes painfully obvious to everyone that everything has been destroyed and ruined by the fire—the vines, presses, barns, homes, everything.
While the family cries over their losses, and tries to comfort one another, a stranger appears, walking through the smoke and the ash, carrying a piece of charred root-stock in his hands.
He gives it to the Owner of the Vineyard, who cleans it off and cuts it open. Immediately his sorrow is turned to joy.
There is life in the root-stock of the vine.
And the Owner of the Vineyard looks at the outsider and says, “This is the root of your life, the root of your family. You are bound to this land, and to this family, by commitment, by honor, by love. Plant it. It will grow.”
Likewise, I want you to know that the Vinedresser looks at you vine-branches and says,
“There is life in the Vine.
This true vine is the root of your life, the root of your family.
You are bound to this vineyard, and to this church, by covenant, by the Holy Spirit, and by love.
Dwell in him, and you will grow and bear much fruit.”