Fifth Sunday of Easter

Readings: Acts 8:26–40 | 1 John 4:1–21 | John 15:1-8

Hymn of the Day: LSB 540 Christ, the Word Incarnate

Text: John 15:1-8

If last Sunday has the popular name, Good Shepherd Sunday, then perhaps a good name for this would be “Christ the Vine Sunday.”  Today, the picture of a vine growing and branching out gives us a complete picture of Christ with His Church.  Far from the human idea that the Church is just an association of likeminded people or (as atheists say) those who are gullible enough to share a myth.  The Church is the living witness of the living Christ, against whom even the gates of hell could not prevail.

Christ is with His Christians, and His Christians are with Him.  What an amazing thought, and it reassures a believing heart who has trusts what He says, “Behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20)

Yet with Christ described as the True Vine, and we as the branches, there are also some serious lessons here:

First, our Lord tells us, “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  It’s easy to measure our life by how many good things are happening to us, and how we are able to help others.  When hard times happen, we pray that they would quickly pass, so we can get back to having a good life and being able to be useful.

But then our Father the vinedresser comes in and messes up our plans.  Family drama comes in and wrecks a holiday meal.  We have great plans to help out a friend, and it gets thrown to the wind because of illness.  Just when everything seems to be settling down, we find out the cancer has come back…again.  God! Why would you let these things keep happening?  We might want to exonerate God and blame the devil instead, but does that mean God was sleeping on the job and missed what was going on?

“Every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”  It’s not that the devil for a moment won the wrestling match over your life, or that God is punishing you for something.  You are a branch in the True Vine of Christ, and those fruitful vines—according to His wisdom—He prunes.  It doesn’t make immediate sense, but pruning actually stimulates new and healthier growth.

The paradox of the Christian is that trials actually produce a stronger faith and more fervent love for the Lord and love for others.  The country club notion of church will tell you we come together to be reminded of our values, sing songs we like together, and keep ourselves on the straight and narrow so that no disaster happens to us.  But, mysteriously, it’s actually among sinners who are pressed hard that God is at work making His Church grow.  Both St. Paul and St. James describe this in their epistles:

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5)

And, Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)

It’s through the trials, the setbacks, the weakness that God our Father makes us grow in Christ.  It may be our pride needs to be humbled, or our trust needs to be firmed up, or we need to be more merciful toward others or be the recipients of charity.  Whatever His purpose, He is the One who is always in control, directing what happens, “working all things for good for those who are called according to His purpose,” [Rom. 8:28] and preparing His Christians to bear more fruit.

The Lord picked this image of a vine for a reason.  Grapevines are not trees.  Trees, you want to grow tall and sturdy.  That’s the image at work in Psalm 1, “He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” (v. 3)  But old growth on grapevines does not bear fruit.  Only the year-old branches which have been pruned and been through a season will produce fruit.  That’s the lesson here: That we must be pruned and tended diligently by God to bear fruit for Him.

This fruit is only possible through Christ.  So, He continues in the Gospel,

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.

So, we’ve heard what God the Vinedresser is able to accomplish in the vines of His Son—those who have their life from Christ in the saving waters of Baptism and the nourishment which His Body and Blood gives.  This is what it means to be “clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you.”  But it’s also possible that on account of the trials and temptations of life, or an unhealthy fascination with what we think are acceptable fruits—that we are no longer abiding in the Vine. 

“Apart from me you can do nothing” – What a harsh absolute statement!  But it’s true.  Branches don’t live on their own.  Anyone who’s cut flowers or had a fresh Christmas tree knows this. Neither can someone remain a Christian without abiding in Christ.  This isn’t as simple as considering what we do, as if to say all you need to do is go to church to remain a Christian.  Yet at the same time, He warns us,  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.

Whoever willfully refuses to abide in Christ is in deadly danger!  But very few of us would actually say we’re refusing to abide in Christ.  Sometimes it’s believing in some idea of Jesus without hearing what His Word says or retranslating it through your own standards.  Other times it takes the form of avoiding the assembly of believers because of human disagreements.  Still other times, it’s being so enamored with being busy with good works that you don’t know or care what the church teaches.  With all of these, there is the risk of a fate worse than death: not abiding in Christ, of being cut off and thrown into the fire and burned.  Even if you consider yourself a Christian, if you do not abide in Christ through faith, you will go to hell.

Here the picture of the vine is also helpful, because the old growth is incapable of producing fruit.  That is, someone whose faith has not be exercised by trials, and someone who considers that they’re a Christian because they’ve grown up in church.  Old, barky growth does not produce the fruits of faith, and it must be pruned or taken away to be burned.

So our Lord is reminding and admonishing us because we are His living branches.  He teaches us to expect the trials as the means of our bearing much fruit, and He warns us about the dangers of complacency.

But now hear the great joy for His well-tended, fruitful branches:

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.

What joy there is in not only having a fiction of Christ, but having the Lord Himself with His Word!  That person who abides with simple trust in His Word has these great blessings!  For starters, He gives us a clean heart before Him, but then adds to that the privilege of prayer!  How great would it be if there was a group of people on earth who had access to the King of Creation? These, who could appeal to Him on behalf of those who have forsaken the faith, who could ask Him not just for private benefits but for the calling of all people and carried out in the mission of the Church; who, seeing the twisted direction of our age would not simply ask for a return to the good-old-days, but for His Kingdom to be victorious over all the powers of darkness in the present age.

And that is precisely what Jesus is saying His Christians are.  As Christ abides in us and we in Him, God is glorified by the fruits His people bear.

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.”  In this Christian Church is where genuine love is made known.  We abide in the forgiveness of sins—ours and those whom we also forgive.  We abide in God’s love for all people of every nation, appearance, class, and ability.  We abide in Christ, whose authority over heaven and earth is able to make disciples of all, and bring the branches of His living Vine through the temporal trials to eternity He has prepared for us.  Amen.

Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14)

In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.

 Jesus says, “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out…they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but they will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers” (vv. 1-5).

            Let’s test that out.  I’m going to read an excerpt from a sermon, and you tell me if it is the voice of the Shepherd, or of a stranger.  Here goes:

That’s the way it is with God. What we can accomplish on our own is hardly noteworthy. We try our best, but the results aren’t exactly graceful flowing music. However, with the hand of the Master, our life’s work truly can be beautiful…

Next time you set out to accomplish great feats, or small feats, listen carefully. You can hear the voice of the Master—the voice of our Mother/Father God—and feel God’s loving arms around you.  Know and trust that those strong hands are there helping you, helping us all, to turn our feeble attempts into true masterpieces. [1]

Was that the voice of the Shepherd?  I hope not! Unless you were baptized in the name of the some androgynous god.  The Good Shepherd does not call Himself a conductor, tuning and polishing what is beautiful in us.  The true Shepherd does not direct you to your best efforts, because even your best efforts are sin in the sight of God [Isa. 64:6]. This impostor preaches a so-called gospel of ‘you’re good enough and God accepts you as you are.’  She does not enter through the Door, which is Christ.  Instead, she speaks platitudes about a god (whatever “he” or “she” is), rather than giving Christ’s sheep what they need: the healing that comes only by His wounds [1 Peter 2:24].

Here’s another one, and this is going to be harder:

The Gospel that proclaims that we are, like it or not, let off scot-free… You’re washed. You’re forgiven. You’re free. No law condemns you. No celestial finger is wagging at you. You walk in the liberation of the Spirit, Who lives in you, is active in you, and works relentlessly to mute the voices of guilt that still growl inside you…

The Good News has nothing to do with us, but everything of the Gospel is given to us. We are like beggars on the street corner. Jesus pulls us and drops a million dollars in our outstretched hands. Just like that. Not because we’re excellent panhandlers but because he’s got the money and wants to give it away to those who would never have it otherwise.

All we have is His love. And that’s all we need. Because His love is who He is. When we have Him, we have everything.[2]

            This one is harder because it’s gushing with all the right-sounding stuff.  But unlike the first example, a not a matter of using the right words.  It’s in the application of the Gospel.  What this message says is that you should just mute the guilt that nags in the back of your head.  Write it off as the devil.  Why? Because you have been forgiven.  But it’s in that subtly that our weak and wicked flesh wants to plug its ears to the Law’s accusations, even when it’s right.  This is the creeping error of antinomianism, of the Gospel replacing the Law for a Christian. Where it gains the most traction is among Christians who have a checkered past, and whose on-going weakness—thorns in the flesh [2 Cor. 12:7]—haunt them.  They earnestly want to lead a godly life, but they keep finding nothing but sin and death in the mirror.  The answer, though, is not to silence the accusation of the Law, but to confess that God is right [Ps. 51:4] and seek the Lord’s forgiveness and the Spirit’s continued work in confession and absolution and the Body and Blood of Christ.

As children, we learn to be afraid of strangers, because we don’t know their intentions for us.  This is a good warning, because there are many strangers in this world who mean us harm.  False shepherds are no exception.  What they preach is not the voice of the Good Shepherd.  Instead, they speak in the voice of that ancient serpent, the Devil.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door but climbs in by another way, that man is a thief and a robber.”

Our Lord calls them thieves and robbers.  Thieves, because they come craftily, sometimes doing such a good job that it fools the sheep.  It’s easy to spot messages of empty platitudes, but Gospely-messages that are laced with cyanide are harder to spot. The thief, like the Devil, quotes Scripture, but through a theological funhouse mirror so that the original intent or full meaning is corrupted.  By a sham gospel, you are led to trust in a different shepherd—one who minimizes the seriousness of sin, or praises you for how much you “do for the Lord,” or who focuses you on how spotless your life is.  But all the time, he steals confidence in Christ’s work from you and replaces it with doubt in your own.  The more that Satan can turn your focus away from the cross of Christ, the better he has set you on the road to hell with him.

There are also the robbers, who like Barabbas [John 18:40], are brazen in stealing sheep away from the Lord.  The robbers work within the bounds of the Church on earth.  Here you find open attempts to undermine the trustworthiness of God’s Word, and being told that we all worship the same “god.”  Here it’s easier for the well-catechized sheep to spot something destructive going on, but the weak are tossed to and fro by these suggestions.

Any teacher who comes to you apart from Jesus can do nothing but thieve and rob.  Recognizing them isn’t a matter of choosing the right name.  Sometimes those who turn out to be thieves have the very best of intentions, be well-educated, and loving people.  They may have even been faithful shepherds in the past.  “Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no salvation.” (Ps. 146:3)  Put your trust your Good Shepherd and hearing His voice.  Even St. Paul put himself under this same strict judgment: “even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. 1:8)  The message for the flock is to endeavor to hear only His voice through regular meditation and study of His Word and faithful witnesses to it throughout the centuries.  This is how we can be certain of hearing the voice of our Shepherd, and being cared for by Him.

Why is this important?  Because Satan cannot offer what the Good Shepherd gives.  Thanks be to the true God that He has sent us His Son, because in Him, we are not stolen away, killed, and destroyed.  To us, who have been smothered by evil and death, we bask in what our Good Shepherd gives His sheep:

“The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out… Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep… If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture…I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”

It is true, we can be confident of hearing our Shepherd’s voice, because He has called His Church with His voice.  He seeks us out, gathers us into His fold.  His rod defends us against our enemies and His staff guides us through this treacherous world.  And He will lead us out, calling us by name as He gave us His own in the waters of Baptism.  He is with us in the valley of the shadow of death, all the days of our life.  And in Him we have life that abounds beyond present sin and death, endures forever.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] http://www.newcastleucc.org/Sermons/20110213ReceiveTheSpirit-Womens%20Sunday-SusieCraig.pdf

[2] “Gospel Phobia” by Chad Bird. https://www.1517.org/articles/gospel-phobia (accessed 5/2/20)

Fifth Sunday of Easter (John 14:1-14)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Fifth Sunday of Easter + May 14, 2017
Text: John 14:1-14

“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.”  The only reason Jesus says this to His disciples is because He knows their hearts are troubled.  You don’t say “I am the Life” unless there’s the threat of death.  You don’t say do not be troubled unless there is tumult and uncertainty.
 
Jesus was speaking to His disciples at that time as they were about to face His betrayal, crucifixion, death, and then His ascension.  This arrangement where Jesus is with them face to face would not—could not—last forever, because it was necessary for Jesus to be taken from them in His suffering, and taken when He ascended into heaven 40 days after His resurrection.
 
The Ascension is coming, when Jesus’ disciples would lose their visible presence with the Lord.  Now, the Ascension is something we confess each week—He ascended to the Father and sits at the right hand of the Father Almighty—but something that isn’t well understood.  Thankfully, these next few weeks, each Gospel reading will teach us about the significance and comfort of Jesus’ Ascension.
 
In this part of the Gospel, Jesus reassures us about His Ascension: “Let not your hearts be troubled.”  “I go to prepare a place for you” and “I will come again and will take you to myself.”
 
“Let not your hearts be troubled.  Believe in God; believe also in Me.”
Things like our bills, the direction of the country, and keeping our job cause great anxiety.  How much more should it matter where we go when it’s all said and done?
Yet our Lord says about this: do not be troubled.  It’s not based on performance evaluations or lifelong dedication.  Instead He says, believe!  Believe that He has done everything which is needed to bring a poor, weak, sinful creature back to God and bring them safely into eternal rest.
But how important it is to believe!  Where faith reassures a troubled heart, unbelief leads to an uncertain and callous heart.  The calling of a disciple of Jesus is to take Him at His Word each day. Repent of your wicked thoughts, words, and deeds.  Believe in God and the One He has sent to accomplish your forgiveness, your salvation.
 
“I go to prepare a place for you.”
On Good Friday, the debt you owed was paid.  Every sin which would bar you from God’s holy presence was atoned for there.
So, the comfort for you, as His disciple, is that He returns to the Father to prepare a place for your return to the Father.
This life is a pilgrimage, not a destination.  The true end of life is not the grim grave. It is to have a place with God.  What counts in the meantime is not our achievements here or how much we collect (because we must let all that go).  What truly lasts when this life comes to a close is our faith in Jesus, who alone is the way to the Father and the resurrection to eternal life.
Yet in our pilgrimage, we go through many unknown ways—unknowns about the future and the struggles we and our families will have to endure, as well as unknowns about what will become of Christians in the world.  Yet, Jesus assures us, “Let not your hearts be troubled…you know the way to where I am going.”  Even though we haven’t seen the end of our journey, we already know the way.  You may not know what lies on the road ahead, but you can be certain that through faith, your Savior has already prepared your place.
 
“And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.”
Our comfort isn’t in the Ascension alone, but also in the fact that from thence He will come to judge the living and the dead.  He comes again to gather us into that promise of eternity.
Salvation is not complete yet.  Yes, of course, the atonement which brought peace to all who believe is finished (John 19:30).  However, the creation still longs in eager expectation for Jesus’ return and the revealing of the sons of God (Romans 8:19-21).  That’s why the world is still like it is, full of unrest and destruction.  That part of the job isn’t finished yet.
So know where to expect paradise.  Paradise won’t be in the body of death you now have—full of sin and plagued by death.  Paradise won’t be in this world, filled with corruption and wickedness.  It will be complete when we see the Son of Man coming on the clouds in glory.  It will be when we rise from our graves finally free from the curse of sin and death.  That’s the hope that we press toward, where our longings for outward peace will finally be satisfied.
 
Through many unknown ways, by faith we already know the only way to heaven.  The way is Jesus, who has become your way to eternal life.  Do not be troubled that He has ascended and is no longer visibly among us.  Believe that He has gone ahead of us, as the forerunner so that the children of God may be at home with their Father.  Amen.