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Sixth Sunday of Easter
Light of Christ Anglican Church
The Rev. Mike Moffitt, May 17, 2020

Staying Connected to Jesus

Text: John 15:1–11

When Teresa and I lived in Roanoke we often enjoyed driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway which stretches for 469 miles from the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia to Asheville, North Carolina. It is a wonderfully scenic drive and well worth the time and effort. One of our favorite places to stop is Chateau Morrisette which is a winery outside of Floyd, Virginia. They have a great restaurant and exceptional wine and sponsor concerts like the Black Dog Festival and bluegrass music played by local mountain folk with the hammer dulcimer, banjos, guitars, and fiddles. It makes for a restful afternoon. All these things are worth the costs in and of themselves but one of my favorite parts of being there is observing the loving care of the vineyards. They are beautiful and reflect the love and care of someone who understands how to love them into producing the best fruit that they are capable of. If you intend to make wine you need to understand how to care for the vineyard in order to extract the best from the various varieties of grapes, the fruit of the vine. Where there is a vineyard, there is also the need of a vinedresser to care for and lovingly tend to the vine, or the quality of the grapes and therefore the wine will be disappointing.

Our passage from John 15:1–11 paints a picture of Jesus as the vine and his Father as the vinedresser. Over the last month and a half, we have been reminded of the “I am” statements of Jesus.

“I am the bread of life” (John 6:35)

“I am the light of the world” (John 8:12)

“I am the door” (John 10:9)

“I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11)

“I am the resurrection and the life” (John 11:25)

“I am the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6)

“I am the true vine and my Father is the vinedresser” (John 15:1)

Each of these statements shows us a particular way that Jesus is to be the Lord in our lives. Each one when understood allows us to not be anxious or worry about whatever is happening around our lives or the lives of those around the world. In other words, the “I am” statements help us develop an understanding of the broadness and depth of the good news of the Gospel. Jesus used familiar everyday examples that humans could relate to and attaches those examples to his Lordship over all things. He wants us to see (with relief) that he the Lord of everything, in every area of our lives. To understand that is to see more clearly why the Gospel is such a powerful word to us in an uncertain time like people are experiencing around the world. Most everyone feels uncertainty because they are not in control of their own wellbeing, but Jesus is. With that in mind, let’s open up our passage from John’ gospel this morning. John 15:1,

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.”

This example of the vineyard would have resonated with the people of Israel in Jesus’ day because they were an agrarian society and grapes were an important crop and still are today. In fact, Israel grows 95% of the produce consumed nationally. The Old Testament used the vineyard as metaphors and allusions for Israel as a nation. God called Israel his vine, that he planted and tended it in expectation that they bear fruit to all nations. A very sobering example is Isaiah 5:1–7, where God speaks of himself as the vinedresser who lovingly tended to his vineyard, Israel. He laments that even though he had cleared out all the stones and planted a choice vine, the crop was wild grapes that he would do away with. In Psalm 80 the Psalmist, Asaph, cries out to God to restore the vineyard that is being trampled down and its fruit being consumed by strangers and wild boars.

Psalm 80:14–18,

Turn again, O God of hosts!
    Look down from heaven, and see;
have regard for this vine,
    the stock that your right hand planted,
    and for the son whom you made strong for yourself.
They have burned it with fire; they have cut it down;
    may they perish at the rebuke of your face!
But let your hand be on the man of your right hand,
     the son of man whom you have made strong for yourself!
Then we shall not turn back from you;
    give us life, and we will call upon your name!”

The Psalmist pleads with God to return to his people Israel because he had departed from them, the vine. The Psalmist asks God to restore his grace upon Israel and to do it through the son of man.

One of the saddest parts of the Old Testament is Ezekiel 10:18–19,

Then the glory of the Lord went out from the threshold of the house, and stood over the cherubim. 19 And the cherubim lifted up their wings and mounted up from the earth before my eyes as they went out, with the wheels beside them. And they stood at the entrance of the east gate of the house of the Lord, and the glory of the God of Israel was over them.

The glory of the Lord departed the temple, and no one seemed to notice. It’s amazing how that can happen if the focus of God’s people turns away from him. They continued with their festivals, singing, sacrifices and customs but it was more about the religious practice than worshipping the Lord of Glory. Their sin and idolatry blinded them to God’s absence, but then God moved again with his solution to their spiritual blindness.

The good news of the Gospel reveals that much of the teaching of the Old Testament concerning Israel was fulfilled in Christ. The cries of the Psalmist and the prophets was heard by God, the vinedresser, and Jesus was his answer. He would be the vine that produced a crop that satisfied the desire of his Father, the vinedresser.

When Jesus speaks of himself as the true vine he is taking the image once associated with Israel and applying it to himself. This involved the identification of the people of God once applied to a particular nation but now replaced with a particular man who would gather a people comprised of Jews and Gentiles. Let’s continue with John:15:2–5

2 Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As a 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.”

In this verse Jesus emphasizes that the relationship with him as the vine, would mean that those who are his people would be fruitful, productive. This theme in one way or another runs throughout the New Testament, yet there are still many who feel that because they are justified by grace through faith alone, that works are of no real importance. A true reading of the New Testament shows that though we are justified by faith apart from works, we are also justified by faith unto works. In other words, the outcome of salvation by grace through faith alone is the grateful response of works that bring glory to the God who saved us.

Some have struggled with the what it means that God “takes away” a branch that does not bear fruit. James Montgomery Boise (and many others) believe that the ancient Greek verb airo, translated “takes away” is more accurately translated “lifts up”. He writes,

The idea is that the Father lifts up unproductive vines off of the ground (as was common in the ancient practices of vineyard care). Those caring for ancient grape vines made sure to lift them up off the ground that they may get more sun and bear fruit better.

No branch that that remains fruitless is truly one of Christ’s and no branch that is truly one of Christ’s remains fruitless. Those branches that genuinely belong to Christ will not only bear fruit, but will by necessity undergo pruning by the vinedresser that enables them to bear more fruit. You have probably noticed that a thriving vineyard will be pruned by the vinedresser after the harvest in preparation for the new season. Every time I drive down Good Luck Rd. I notice the vines that have been expertly pruned by the vinedresser at Good Luck Vineyards. Israel’s failure to bear fruit was equivalent to her breaking covenant with God. They rejected the law of God and embraced the gods of other nations.

When we look at the Old Testament discussion on the vines’ fruit, coupled with the teaching of Jesus in this passage, it would indicate that the “fruit” is speaking of moral fruit, the natural outcome of obedience, rather than evangelistic fruit, although that is also to be desired. This analogy has its limits and doesn’t carry over into the spiritual realm in every respect. Horticulturally no branch could exist at all unless it has at some point been a part of the vine. If Christ intended to teach that dead branches would be removed from him, he would be speaking of those who claimed to be united with him and yet show this to be a lie by their failure to produce fruits of obedience.

This is a major concern for Christians around the world today as we find ourselves surrounded by those who claim union with Christ but deny the truth and moral authority of God’s word. Most true Christ-followers today can easily identify many examples of what it’s like when those who claim to follow and love Jesus produce fruit that is rotten, and yet insist that is good and we should eat it. Every day you don’t need to look very hard to see examples of perversions, immorality, and the culture of death—rotten fruit. I have to wonder if this isn’t one of the reasons for a worldwide pandemic.

Jesus tells the disciples that they have been made clean because God had already begun the pruning and cleansing process when they heard and received Jesus’ teaching. There was still much to teach them but that is always true of those who follow Jesus in faithful obedience. I know it is of me.

You’ll notice that in verses 4–10 Jesus emphasizes the importance of continuity with the disciples. He uses the word “abide” 10 times. This is where the importance of the imagery of the vine is so powerful. It’s only when sap can flow freely to the branches that fruit can be born. In the same way it’s only when the spiritual relationship with Christ is intact that the Christian is healthy and fruitful. You’ll notice that the exhortation to “abide” requires an action on the part of the disciple. We must decide to make decisions that keep us close by the Master and not expose ourselves to those things that would drive us away from him.

The nourishment that Christians require to grow, flourish and bear fruit can only happen when they are connected to Jesus the vine and the Holy Spirit that flows into and through them as through a branch. Jesus emphasizes a mutual relationship where the disciple abides in the Master, and the Master abides in the disciple. It’s the intimate relationship that we read about in Song of Solomon 6:3,

“I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.”

R.C. Sproul once used the illustration of a man who joined the church but never attended services. He did however manage to show up for the church picnic and the minister mentioned that he hadn’t seen the man in church for a long while. The man replied that he had discovered that he didn’t need to go to church to be a Christian and that he communed with God in his own way, he didn’t really need the church. The pastor nodded and acknowledged that he understood what the man was saying. Then he walked over to a charcoal grill where they were cooking hamburgers and took a tong and picked up a glowing coal and moved it to the side of the grill. He went back to speaking with the fellow and then after a few minutes said to the man, “Look at that coal. A few moments ago, this coal radiated heat and warmth, and was useful for grilling these burgers. But what has happened since I removed it from the fire and set it apart by itself? It has become cool and worthless for the task it was created to do.”

This is what happens when we move away from Christ and he stops being the center of our focus, of our world. Jesus told his disciples, “Abide in me, stay close to me. Take hold of me and hold on tightly. Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you can make it on your own, that’s a lie from the enemy. Apart from me you can’t do anything.” There has never been a time in history where that exhortation is more important than it is today.

Let read John 15:6–8,

“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. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

Those who do not abide (remain) with Jesus show that they never had a vital unity with Christ. Because of that there is no real surprise when they turn away. The language used here is very serious because it speaks of eternal damnation. It could be that Jesus had Judas Iscariot in mind when he spoke these words. This is why disciples must look after each other and those they know and love. Love requires that we lovingly but truthfully confront those who have turned away from following Jesus and for those who have never wanted to. There is to much at stake to turn a blind eye to those who feel safe in their rejection of God’s word and the issue of offending someone with the gospel should never stop us. Being confrontational or judgmental is one thing but lovingly sharing our faith and the truth of God’s word is the greatest way to show love and concern. I’ve had to perform funerals for those that I knew had rejected the offer of the gospel and it made me so sad but more committed to be a faithful witness.

For those who continue to abide in Christ and his word, he makes the same assurance that he made to his disciples in the upper room in John 14:14, “ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” One of our faithful requests should be for the salvation of those who are hopelessly lost.

Jesus gave his disciples the assurance that he would do anything that His trusting followers asked for in His name; that is, according to His character and authority. Charles Spurgeon in speaking from this passage observed,

It becomes safe for God to say to the sanctified soul, ‘Ask what thou wilt, and it shall be done unto thee’ The Heavenly instincts of that man lead him right; that grace that is within his soul thrust down all covetous lustings and foul desires, and his will is the actual shadow of God’s will. The spiritual life is master in him, and so his aspirations are holy, heavenly, Godlike.

Finally let’s read John 15:9–11,

“As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

I confess that I struggle with understanding the depth of our heavenly Father’ love for Jesus, his Son, but I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that it surpasses anything that I could see or understand. And yet Jesus promises to love those who abide in his love with the same love that the Father has for him. The Father is the source and pattern of all love, so, as always, Jesus is doing exactly what he receives from the Father. Jesus' disciples must remain in his love, and they do this by obeying his commands. Their obedience is itself the fruit of their remaining in Jesus as the vine, and it would be because that is how they express their joy and gratitude.

Jesus spoke about love and obedience that they might share in his own joy. As his word remains in them through their obedience they are actually sharing in his life with the Father, which is characterized not only by obedience, but also by joy. Frankly, joy is not what springs to mind for many people when they think of obedience. They see obedience as conforming to rules, which seems legalistic and against their independence and personal autonomy. Rules often induce guilt in those not keeping them and a prideful delight in those who do obey.

But the obedience Jesus is talking about is an obedience not to societal rules, but to the Father who is all love. To obey him is to conform one's life to the very pattern of God's own life. Such obedience shares in his life, which is characterized by harmony, grace, goodness, and beauty. We are in intimate union with him and swept up into his dance for which we were created, and which brings the deepest fulfillment and deepest joy to our lives. Jesus' joy came from such intimacy with the Father and his delight to do that which pleases the one who is all love and goodness.

Jesus is showing how our joy may be complete. If we have no joy in obeying the Father, then we should consider whether we know him as Jesus knows him and whether we understand his will as the description of our true freedom and joy. Jesus said in John 8:31–36,

”If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free….Truly, truly I say to you everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”

Indeed, we might ask ourselves what does bring us joy. The answer will reveal to us our own hearts. Jesus loves just as the Father loves (v. 9), and he commands his disciples to love one another just as he has loved them (v. 12). The Christian community is to be characterized by divine love.

If this love were just a feeling, such a command would be impossible to fulfill. But the love Jesus refers to is an act based in a certain state of heart. Specifically, it is the laying down of one's life because someone else’s seems more important. By God's grace we can indeed decide to act for the good of others, and we can choose to act accordingly. This is the love Christians are called to in Christ, for Jesus says we are to love one another just as he has sloved us, which he immediately defines in terms of laying down of one's life for one's friends.

We are in a more unusual situation than we have been before. There is so much uncertainty, fear and suffering all around us. If we are indeed connected to Jesus as the vine then our greatest desire should to be doing what he directs us to do, not out of fear of the consequences but out of love for Jesus and the Father. How that looks for us as individuals or as members of this local body remains to be seen, but now is the time to make the decision to be lovingly obedient to whatever or wherever God directs us.

Let’s pray.

©2020 Rev. Mike Moffitt

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