“He is the Vine, we are the branches”

Dear friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The Gospel of John proclaims and promises that Jesus deserves all the credit in declaring us forgiven and reconciling us to Himself. For Christ’s sake we, as dead helpless branches, have been grafted into the true Vine, Jesus.

But here we have to be careful about the move we make. Our life in this world is all about being better, improving, climbing higher. But connection to Christ through baptism’s promise is not a calling for us to work towards becoming ‘more’ connected or ‘more’ grafted into Christ, but the calling is to abide/remain, to be patient and trust. As a result faith can confidently know that we have been cleansed, forgiven and are fully and completely grafted into the Vine; we are completely sanctified saints. For Jesus Christ, and not our virtuous lives is our sanctification, our righteousness and holiness. This is why the Christian life begins on the basis of God’s promise in baptism and not our decision. Grace some before and inspires faith.

A businessman told me that he once worked for someone whose business philosophy was ‘Success and winning through intimidation’. The strategy was to keep up a constant stream of demand on the employees. Nothing but success was acceptable. The atmosphere in the business environment was complete insecurity and lack of assurance. And it is when we believe our lives are finally evaluated on the basis of our performance in whatever law is hounding us, barking at us.

It is not so with life in Christ. We are completely sanctified, forgiven and free. We may disregard those annoying enemies of assurance, those enemies being those intimidating adjectives. Adjectives like: be more, be greater, go further, go higher, be better. These law words all say that although you have been grafted to the Vine who is Christ, there is still in you something lacking. Adjectives can strip assurance and create the impression that the goal of the branch (the Christian) is to move closer or upward towards the Vine in order to obtain that something that is lacking. But this is not the Gospel. For the Good News declares that it is not dependent on you and me to move up to the Holy One, but rather it is the Holy One who has and continues to come to you and me in the down to earth Word and sacraments.

Being completely sanctified also means that it is not up to the branch to try and produce fruit (good works) as a bargaining tool or payment in exchange for the status of being connected to the Vine. Rather, Christ is the source of all our good works. The implications of this are clear. The good works that each of us live out in daily life have no power to make you and me ‘more’ clean or ‘more’ connected to the Vine or more forgiven than you already are. The good works that we walk in are a result of Jesus binding Himself to us, not the cause. The fruit of good works can be thought of as marks of faith and grace; they are descriptive of sanctification not prescriptive for justification.

While good works are not the cause of our justification and do not preserve faith, it must be noted that it is certainly true that evil works do distort faith in our life here as creatures. What this means is that even though we are cleansed by God’s forgiveness, we are daily in need of the Vinegrower’s work upon us, because the old Adam and Eve still cling to us. And since we are at the same time justified and sinful, it is not possible for us to finally label or judge even our own works as righteous or good. Every one of our thoughts, words and deeds are tainted with sin. This is what the prophet Isaiah meant when he wrote that “Even our righteous deeds are filthy rags.”

So the Father does not act upon us by applying spiritual cosmetics to gloss over our sin in order to masquerade our sin as legitimate fruit. Furthermore, the solution to the old Adam is not a pep talk to encourage us to tap into our willpower so as to motivate the old Adam in producing really good fruit.

Rather, what is needed is an end to the old Adam and Eve and their sin and their preoccupation, their self-consciousness regarding good works. What is needed is death to the old. The old Adam needs to be cut off and drowned in the waters of baptism and raised daily in the promise. The old sinner needs to be crucified and raised with Christ. The Vine grower needs to act upon the branch by pruning and stripping the branches of unneeded leaves. In this way, quite apart from our knowing and awareness, God works to improve and perfect faith to keep baptism’s first promise by taking up in His grace our crosses and suffering, so that faith is increased and the remaining uncleanness and sin are daily diminished and purged. The branch needs to be acted upon by the Father who will not permit this Vine to lie unfertilized and unpruned. Otherwise it would degenerate into a wild and unfruitful vine which would finally perish entirely. But when it is well cultivated, fertilized, pruned, and stripped of its superfluous leaves, it develops its full strength and yields fruit that is not only abundant but also good and delicious.

The branch is pruned to make it bear more fruit, but fruit for whom? Martin Luther once said, “God doesn’t need our works, but our neighbor does.” This is also certainly true in our parable before us, for the Vine does not produce fruit as a means of circular consumption. The branches are not a means that the Vine uses to bear fruit for itself. Furthermore, as branches, you and I are not the source of good works, the Vine is. What this means is that we don’t produce good works, we bear good works. Good works are prepared in advance for us to walk in, which teaches us that we don’t do good works to become a Christian, rather we do good works because we already are Christians. Thus, our Lutheran understanding of Vocation helps us understand that God not only prepares good works, but He gives us the opportunity to serve our neighbor with these good works in our callings. Think of Vocation as avenues that God has called us to bear fruit.

There are several cautions for us to consider at this point in assessing the life of the Christian through this parable of the true Vine and the branches.

The first item of caution is for us to note that the branch does not turn into a Vine and the branch is not established as a separate entity from the Vine. Jesus says that apart from Him we can do nothing.
Historically we have seen that some Christian traditions err in ‘not’ treating the terms justification, regeneration and sanctification as synonyms, but as separate events. Therefore, one is justified in Christ, but then they need to be regenerated and then sanctified. In this way of thinking Christ is the basis of justification but one’s individual piety is the basis of regeneration and sanctification.

Secondly, in light of this parable, when a person speaks about cooperation he must confess that he cooperates, as Luther writes, “…to such an extent and so long as God by His Holy Spirit rules, guides, and leads him, and that as soon as God would withdraw His gracious hand from him, he could not for a moment persevere in obedience to God.”Luther is saying we neither cooperate in being the source of fruit nor do we prune or clean ourselves. Rather, we participate when we bear and walk in the good works that have been prepared in advance for us. We participate as the direct object, the people who are connected to the Vine and acted upon.

Thirdly, since good works are the fruit of Christ’s justifying grace and sanctification in our lives, we do not want to overemphasize the fruit of sanctification. Frankly, when I examine my own spiritual fruit, I end up hearing all those adjectives begin to prod me onward in the law’s demands. When I look at my progress, so to speak, in the faith all I hear is that voice which says, ‘Have you done enough? Are you serious enough about God? Do you really love God? How well are you serving your neighbor? And on and on the questions roll.

But because good works, as the Christian life itself, are the fruits of the Spirit, you, a beloved child of God grafted onto the Vine of grace, may confidently look to Christ Jesus rather than yourself. And in this confident faith you may dare to trust that the very unspectacular, often messy business of your daily living is precisely where God is pouring out His good gifts, bestowing them upon the neighbor through you, for Jesus sake.

“May the peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Pastor Mark Anderson

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