“Planted, Pruned, Productive Branches of the Vine” (John 15:1-8)
You don’t need to know too much about how grapes grow in order to enjoy a good wine. Nor do you need a degree in horticulture to understand that certain vines, shrubs, and trees need to be pruned in order to be healthy. And if a branch is diseased, injured, or severed from the rest of the plant, it will wither and die. That’s fairly common knowledge for most of us who do even a minimum amount of gardening and yard work around the house.
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus refers to something that his disciples would have been very familiar with. We know that some were fisherman. One was a tax collector. Not sure if any were vintners or vignerons. Still, wine was plentifully produced in the region where they lived. They would have seen vineyards all over the place … in Galilee and the hills surrounding Jerusalem, in particular. They wouldn’t have needed to be expert winemakers in order to understand the imagery that Jesus was using of vines and branches.
Jesus teaches us today that you were planted in his vineyard, that pruning is necessary, and that he makes you productive branches as you remain connected to him.
You were grafted into the True Vine in baptism and through the Word of God that was preached to you and created faith in your heart (Rom. 11:17). The hymn we sang a few moments ago called baptism a “blessed spring” … “O blessed spring, where Word and sign / Embrace us into Christ the Vine; / Here Christ enjoins each one to be A branch of this life-giving Tree” (LSB 595.1).
You derive life from that Vine … true spiritual life, eternal life. The sap of the divine life that belongs to him by nature flows into you who by nature are sinful and fallen. But Jesus, by grace, shares his life with you. This is the blessing of the mystical union that you and all baptized believers share with your Savior. You abide in Christ and he abides in you. You live in Christ and he lives in you.
Jesus calls God the Father the vinedresser. The vinedresser is the one who prunes the branches. There is a stern warning here and a note of encouragement.
The stern warning is that the branches that do not bear fruit are cut off completely from the vine. Those who do no good works as the fruit of faith in Christ are cut off from the vine.
It’s my understanding that on a grape vine, the longer the branches get – the further they grow from the trunk and rootstock – the less likely that those branches will produce grapes. The warning for us is to make sure we don’t get too far away from Jesus the Vine. We do this when we drift away from regularly hearing God’s Word and receiving the body and blood of Jesus in the Sacrament. These are the means whereby the branches remain connected to the Vine. If our avoidance of the means of grace goes on long enough, the danger is that we will lose faith and be cut off from Christ altogether. He’s the one who produces the fruit of faith and good works, so it’s absolutely necessary to remain connected to him. Do not let yourself be tempted to find other sources of spiritual life and strength other than Jesus. They will fail you. You will wither and die.
The note of encouragement here is that pruning is a necessary part of keeping the branches healthy and productive. Pruning grape vines must be vigorous and aggressive. After pruning, all that’s left is an unattractive, gnarly, knotty-looking trunk and rootstock. It may not look like it’s able to produce fruit. In fact, it will look quite dead.
I was a little worried when I pruned the rhododendrons at my house a few years back. They were getting a little big in the front flowerbed. I had never pruned rhodies before. And I’m not much of a gardener. I really butchered those things. I really thought I had killed them. All that was left were ugly, gray trunks. But you know what? They came back. They thrived. It took a couple of years. But this year, they bloomed like crazy.
You may at times feel more like a gnarly trunk, a withering branch, a shriveling leaf. You may be wondering when any “fruit” is going to be produced in you. The hidden reality is that, connected to Christ in Word and Sacrament, your soul is fruitful. God will produce in you the fruits of the Spirit … love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).
Maybe you are examining your life right now and you’re wondering, “Where is all that fruit? I have love, but I wish I had more joy. I have peace with God, but I don’t have much patience with people.” God probably has more pruning in store for you. And it may be vigorous and aggressive. The pruning you endure in this life – the hardships, the trials, the difficult circumstances – drives us to the Word, drives us to our knees. In the end it will produce more fruitful branches.
You can count on this because of the pruning that the True Vine endured. He needed no pruning. Yet Jesus, the most fruitful branch that ever existed – God in the flesh, perfect, sinless, full of life, connected to his Father – was cut down and treated like a fruitless branch. Thorny branches placed upon his head. Grafted with nails to the tree of the cross. Cut off from his Father and thrown into the fire, as it were, enduring the pain and agony of hell while he suffered and died. Raised to life again and now lives to prune, to purify, to cleanse all who hear his life-giving Word … like the Ethiopian eunuch in today’s Epistle who came to faith and was led to the waters of Baptism.
In John 6:63, Jesus said, “The words I have spoken are spirit and life.” In our text today, he says, “You are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” Christ’s Word of mercy and forgiveness has cleansing power.
His words in our text were spoken to the disciples on Maundy Thursday, the same disciples who later ran away and hid when their Master was arrested.
His words in our text were spoken to Peter, who tried to rely on his own strength and power later that same night. “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away,” Peter said, only hours before he denied knowing Jesus three times (Matt. 26:33).
His words in our text are spoken to you … you who are not sure whether you are bearing fruit … you who wish to hide in shame because of your sin … you who have denied your Lord in your sinful words and thoughts and deeds. But you are forgiven and cleansed by the Risen Christ. “His life [was] taken away” (Acts 8:33) so that your sins would be taken away. Jesus was “cut off” (Is. 53:8; Jer. 11:19; Dan. 9:26), pruned, purged, so that you could be connected to God in Christ.
And then, you are made to be a productive branch. “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing,” Jesus said. You are a branch connected to the vine, and his life courses through you to produce the fruit of the Spirit and good works that serve your neighbor.
Remain connected to Christ in Word and Sacrament and he will produce good works. He will produce in you a life of confident prayer, a life of evident discipleship, and a life that gives glory to God. “If you abide in my words and my words abide in you,” Jesus said, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” That’s an amazing promise. But it’s not about just simply getting whatever you want. It’s about having your life conformed to God’s word and will, and this will be reflected in your prayers. Then, when you ask according to God’s word and will, you can be confident that “it will be done for you.” So pray that his fruit will be produced in you. That’s his will. Pray that you will prove to be Christ’s disciples. That’s his will. Pray that the Father’s glory would shine through you and the fruit that you bear. That’s his will. And “it will be done for you.”
Abide in Jesus, the True Vine, who died and rose for you. Trust that the Vinedresser, God the Father, knows what’s best for you. You have been planted, pruned, and made to be productive branches in God’s Vineyard.