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.
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.
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.