The core assertion in the text is that you did not choose Christ, but Christ chose you. And there are three things that flow from that election: joy, love and friendship. Joy in that we have been given both the victory and a vocation. Love in that we are to emulate Christ’s love for us toward our neighbor. And friendship in that we have been invited into a deep union with God. We are no not slaves of the law, but we are friends in the gospel. We have been made children of the royal household who do not need to seek an audience with the law giver, but merely need to ask our dear Father.
Why does faith feel attenuated or faint today? What is different today than even say 100 years ago? It is a question that I find myself asking over and over. And I think that that answer is what we refuse to take seriously. We will take faith itself seriously, sometimes so seriously it is just “the big lie” or maybe the necessary lie. We take works deadly seriously. Well maybe not Christians as much catechized on grace, but the world right now is all about justice which is nothing if not a demand for good works. But what we do not take seriously, as something worthy of contemplation in itself, in Himself, is God. The ground of all faith and works, the precursor to these things, is God. We are invited to abide in Christ. He is the vine and we are the branches. That is not an image of faith, but of union. And we feel that ache of desire without understanding what it is pointing at. We always get turned inward which finds nothing when the object of desire is outside of us.
The Christian Life could be described as being drug kicking and screaming towards love. While we never reach perfection here in this world, if we are blessed I do think that we can outgrow the kicking a screaming part. The natural sinner in each of us will always be there, but we can become wise to ourselves and know that his or her ways leads to misery and death. Instead we listen to the Spirit and walk where He leads. The main text for this sermon is the Acts 10 story of Cornelius and Peter which I paint as something of a NT fulfillment of the Jonah story. Peter, through the Spirit overcomes his kicking and screaming, while Jonah never does. This is the difference of Pentecost which we are fast approaching, and which Acts 10 is sometimes called the Gentile Pentecost. The sermon seeks to proclaim how God has chosen us, and how we can become wise to ourselves becoming Spirit led.
Jesus’ saying “I am the true and vine my Father is the vinedresser” is one of those sayings that is immediately accessible but almost limitless in imagination. This sermon starts out with a contemporary example of the negative, cutting oneself off from the vine. It then explores from the text what it means to stay connected. There are two things to staying connected that come from Christ, call them the life circulating in the vine and branches, the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Then there are two things that are part of the sanctified life, trials or pruning in this context and prayer. We might focus on that pruning as the big asymmetry of the Christian life, but I think that is simply life in a fallen world. If anything knowing that the Father is going to make use of them is a benefit. They could just be bad luck. The big asymmetry to me is in the time frames considered. Those branches that remove themselves wither and are burned while those that stay connected have a perpetual growing season – eternal life.
The text is a continuation from last weeks Gospel reading which has Jesus declare “I am the true vine”, but here Jesus drops the metaphors and talks very plainly. The Christian life starts at a very simple point – God loves you. It has as its goal something likewise simple – fruitful living. Jesus ties these things together here. The Gospel, God’s love for us, take precedence as we are declared his friends. We are no longer slaves to the law, but friends. Love first. But it is directed love. A love directed toward fruitfulness which is defined by the commandments. What does love look like? When a friend gives his life for another. The Christian life has a cruciform shape. But it is a life of invitation into communion with God. It is a call to a life of prayer and a life of love.
There are seven “I am” statements in the gospel of John. Last week we looked at “I am the good shepherd”. This week Jesus says “I am the true vine”. The two statements share a lot in terms of interpretation and application, but there are some important shifts. The shepherd takes care largely of unaware sheep. When the sheep become aware, they really are no longer sheep. They have a choice, be a shepherd or the hired man. In that way the Good Shepherd is a metaphor for the early Christian life. The vine is a metaphor for those in the midst of it. The vine supports the branch and the branch bears fruit. Over time in vine-y things what is branch and what is vine become difficult to sort out. The repeated word is “remain”. Remain in the vine. The Christian life is one of remaining connected to Christ. The tools for sustaining and cultivating this connection according to this text are the Word and prayer. The text is full of promise and warning. The promise of eternal fruitful life for those who remain, but the warning of the dead branches being burned for those who cut themselves off. The sermon reminds us of how Christ is our life, and encourages us toward living a fruitful by know what is fruit and avoiding what is sure to disconnect the branch from the vine.
I’ve left in two hymns. Part of hymn selection is simply matching metaphors in the text and hymn. The first hymn is an older staple – “Chief of Sinners Though I Be” (LSB 611) which reminds us at the end of the first line even though I might be such a sinner, “as the branch is to the vine, I am His and He is mine”. This is exactly why Jesus came, to graft in sinners to eternal life and set them “on the way that Enoch trod”. The hymn at the end is a newer text with a beautiful tune that is new to LCMS hymnbooks, Christ, The Word of God Incarnate (LSB 540). As a hymn it is a meditation on the various biblical metaphors most that Jesus uses for himself. Each verse takes one of the I am statements from John and expands. Three and four capture the last two weeks, and I love Holy Manna as a hymn tune that gets stuck in a good way in your head.
Christ, the shoot that springs triumphant/from the stump of Jesse’s tree/Christ, true vine, you nurture branches/to bear fruit abundantly/Graft us into you, O Savior/Prune our hearts so we remain/Fruitful branches in your vineyard/Till eternal life we gain.
Chirst, our good and faithful shepherd/Watching all your lambs and sheep/Christ, the gate that guards the sheepfold/Never failing vigil keep/When we stray Good Shepherd seek us/Find us, lift us, bear us home/Lamb of God, our shepherd, keep us/Let us hear Your voice alone.
Poor Pentecost, it is one of the three High Holy Days of the Church Year (Christmas, Easter and Pentecost), and yet it is the one that often gets forced to share its celebration with a secular holiday. A couple of years ago it was Mother’s Day. This year Memorial Day. In a odd way though that might be appropriate. The Spirit doesn’t call attention to himself. The other thought is that its really hard to make a materialist celebration out of the Spirit.
Putting those thoughts aside, the juxtaposition of Memorial Day and Pentecost makes for some tough but I hope enlightening comparisons. The driving force of memorial day is to hallow something, to make it holy. The graves of soldiers who died fighting the nation’s ware we have a good and natural desire to make holy. The problem is that our efforts still are over the dead. Even the most powerful and permanent of our memorials have limits. These too will pass. But Pentecost, the work of the Spirit, is not to make dead tributes but living stones. It is the work of the Spirit that sanctifies our efforts, gives them life and turns them to the glorification of Christ who released us from our dead stone.
Finding poignancy in pop songs is pretty tough. Lady GaGa flirts with it before retreating to camp and a great bass line. There are the ever so earnest indies. The ingenues like Adele whose combine the virtues of youth and a healthy supply of talent, but that usually doesn’t age well. Something close to of the moment (I’m a pastor with three young kids, so cut me a little slack) – “somebody that I use to know“. One of the pop lines that has stuck with me is from Matchbox 20’s Real World. The Chorus, after having the singer imagine that he’s rainmaker, sings about the real world – “Please don’t change, please don’t break. The only thing that seems to work at all is you.” I remember thinking when I first heard it that the song feels the fallen world. A bunch of people looking for something that works knowing that everything eventually breaks.
That is where the orthodox understanding of marriage comes in. Everything in this fallen world breaks: towers and titans, marriages and friendships, toys and trinkets. And when we move past bargaining- “Please don’t break” we move toward acceptance, at least if pop psychology is correct. Acceptance in the realm of marriage looks like what we have – a landscape full of people that we used to know, maybe even those living with us.
But acceptance is not the endpoint of the Christian story. We might accept that things break, but not for the purpose of excusing them or making the brokenness normal. If we say the brokenness is normal, we lose the gospel. Instead we teach repentance – I’m broke. And we teach restoration – Christ makes all things new.
In regard to marriage we could teach acceptance, but that is what Moses did, that is what the law does. And the law permits divorce. In this day and age it is permitting a whole bunch else as well. But Jesus didn’t teach that. If he did, we wouldn’t have the cross, because that is what Jesus did for his bride the church. And you don’t do the cross if there is another way out. We are broken. We live in a broken world. But Christ was not. Jesus fulfills the covenant that marriage is a glimpse of. The bridegroom shares 100% of himself with his bride. The crucified one is the only thing around here that works.
“I am the true vine…remain in me.” That is the core of the text. As I say in the sermon reflecting on the seven I am saying of Jesus in John, I am the true vine and my Father is the vine dresser to me is the more complex or deepest. Unlike say the good shepherd which makes immediate intuitive sense, or the bread of life which also has a real referent, we know vines and vine dressers, but applying it to humans and the Christian life quickly gets tough.
What I try to do here is trace out a matrix of Biblical meaning and I throw it against an episode of my personal life. Writing and delivering sermons is a process of reading and proclaiming three different things. The biblical text is of primary importance. It has something to say that is for all people. But the congregation and the preacher also need to be read. A perfectly fine sermon for Saint John the Divine parish might be horribly wrong for Saint John the mundane. Likewise there can be perfectly orthodox sermons given by Pastor Emo that given by Pastor Study would be false. That is why we hold the Sermon to be God’s Word for the people of that time and place. It is also why the sermon is a spoken form.
I can’t really describe this one beyond saying I think you’d have to listen to it.