Sunday, May 6, 2012

Does Jesus Command You or Give to You?


Fifth Sunday of Easter
May 6, 2012
Here is something you can know in all certainty: Jesus will never lay anything upon you that He has Himself not endured. When you are mistreated, when dark days are ahead of you, when you wonder if God is still with you, when you are tempted and you don’t think you can bear up under the enticement, you are enduring exactly what you need. It is through these things that you are made stronger and are truly blessed. Jesus Himself has endured all of these things. He didn’t enjoin upon you commandments you ought to fulfill so that God the Father may then love you and care for you. He doesn’t place suffering and trials in your life while He placidly stands by as an onlooker. He doesn’t allow you to be tempted as one who enjoys seeing others squirm in their struggle against enticement. He doesn’t stand look from afar while you endure trials even as He enjoys seeing you wonder if He’s gone and has left you for good.

Jesus Himself has submitted to the commandments of God. Jesus willingly endured suffering at the hands of others and at the hands of His Father. Jesus endured the abandonment of His own dear Father, being forsaken by Him.

The Bible in several places compares the Christian Church, the people of God, to a vine or a vineyard. Oftentimes God will lament that His vineyard, that He planted, was not bearing fruit. Even with all of His love and care for the vineyard, for His very own people, they would produce the opposite of good fruit, selfish and godless deeds.

Now Jesus makes a switch on us. He is the Vine. In a sense we are the vineyard of God but Jesus says that He is the true Vine. We are the branches. The same imagery still applies, being as Jesus says that whatever branches that do not bear fruit will be cut off. But notice that He isn’t a dispassionate observer. He isn’t sitting on the sidelines saying, Come on, bear fruit already. Get in gear.

He is the Vine. He doesn’t enjoin anything upon you He Himself does not endure. He is the Vine, His Father is the Vinedresser. The work that is done of the Vine by the Vinedresser is not done merely on the branches. It is done first and foremost on the Vine. What is done to you by your Heavenly Father has first and foremost been done by your Heavenly Father to His dear Son.

If a vine could think and understand what is going on around it it would think the vinedresser is causing it harm with all the digging around it he does and all the cutting of it. All this work of the vinedresser would not be experienced by the vine as a pleasant experience. It would be the opposite of a pleasant experience. And yet, the vine would emerge from all that work the vinedresser did healthier and producing more fruit. The vinedresser’s work is for the good of the vine.

It is the same way with the work of your Heavenly Father, who is the Vinedresser. He works away at His Vine and the branches. Since you are not just a plant you are very aware of the pain and the seeming harm all of His work does to you. It is in fact not a pleasant experience. You do in fact question Him and why He is doing so. When a vinedresser takes his shovel and hoe and clippers to the vine damage is being done in order to provide an environment in which the vine can grow and thrive. This is what happens when your Heavenly Father takes the shovel and clippers of trials and temptations and uses them to clear out those things which hinder your growth as a Christian. You can’t just water a vine you need to keep working at it and pruning it. God doesn’t just let you be, He keeps working at you with His work of pruning.

When you see a vine you know that there is a plant that has not created its life and does not sustain its growth. If left on its own it will wither and die. A vinedresser must plant it and then work at it and prune it. In the same way you have life because your Heavenly Father has given you life. In the same way you are sustained in this life because God works at you and prunes you and sustains you in life.

Jesus’ teaching of being the Vine and you the branches overflows with grace and the love of God and the power and work of God. First, that He would be the Vine and undergo the same trials that you go through. If Jesus were your mentor or leader or guide He could easily stand by and point the way for you. But He is your true Shepherd, your true Savior, He is the true Vine. He is the Shepherd who lays down His life for you. He is the Savior who actually saves you. He is the Vine that endures every bit of trials and suffering and temptation that you do.

What He says here in being the Vine and you the branches shows you His grace and love and His power and work also because He isn’t saying to you that you are the branches so you’d better get moving and bear fruit. Of course it’s true that you need to bear fruit. But if He were simply telling you that you must do good works, how would that be any different from any other religion or philosophy? It wouldn’t and you wouldn’t be left with much from Him. When He says He is Vine and you are the branches and His Father is the Vinedresser He is making you aware that you are the recipients of God’s gracious love and care. He loves you and gives you what you need. He does the work of sustaining you in growth.

If a vine could think and its branches were aware of what they were they could easily see themselves as the source of the fruit they bear. Branches could easily forget they are connected the vine and think that they are the ones making possible the luscious fruit they bear. This happens very easily with you as well. You look at yourself and all the good you do and forget that you are not the one who makes it possible to bear this fruit. You forget that you are connected the Vine that is Jesus Christ and that your Heavenly Father is the Vinedresser who is constantly at work in pruning you and sustaining your growth so that you may bear the fruit of good works.

The reason you don’t think of this as the amazing thing it is is because it is so simple. It rests entirely on God’s work, what He does for you in your life. But you pass that off because you want to go beyond the simple work of God of forgiving and saving you and get to what you think must be the real thing God wants you to do and that is do good works. You hear it all the time in Christian circles and churches. You need to live more like Christ, you need to do more good works, or in the words of our Gospel reading, you need to bear fruit. All of this is true, there’s no doubt. But if you fool yourself into thinking that if you just try harder, do more, focus on what you as branches need to do then you are doing more than fooling yourself. You are not producing fruit and you begin withering and will eventually be cut off from the Vine.

Jesus said, “Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.” His work in you and His Father’s work in you are never divorced from this work in you in which He cleanses you and forgives you. It really is that simple. His Word He speaks to you forgives you. You are clean. You are branches that have not somehow attached themselves to the Vine but have rather been given life by the Vine and are sustained in the life through Him. In this understanding Jesus counsels 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.” Branches do not produce fruit by trying. They produce fruit by abiding in the Vine.

Your sinful flesh is very powerful. It either latches on to that Law, which itself is powerful, which is insistent that you must do more, that you must try harder, that you must by your own power do good works, so that you either feel really good about yourself because you’re trying harder or you despair of yourself because you can’t seem to get better or aren’t sure if it’s enough for what God wants. The focus in either case is on yourself, not on Christ, the Vine, where it belongs. That’s why Jesus has you covered. He knows how you think. He knows you are prone look to yourself rather than to Him. So He expounds on His words of abiding in Him: “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Do you believe that? If you do you will stop focusing on yourself and begin focusing on Christ. You will see your trials as what your Heavenly Father uses in your life to draw you to Christ rather than turn in on yourself in confusion or despair. You will see that Christ is far more powerful than anything you could think to do. This doesn’t mean, and Jesus isn’t saying, that you’re life will be a breeze. Yes, a branch on a vine just sits there. You are a living breathing disciple of Christ who lives each day doing many things and bearing fruit in many ways. That your life in Christ is difficult and challenging and filled with trials is borne out by how Jesus began, with you being pruned by God the Father.

This past week we were stunned in our community when Junior Seau’s life came to an end. It would have been a shock anyway, but the way it occurred makes it even more sad in his taking his own life. What we knew of him was a man who loved life, who excelled at what he did, and who gave so much to so many people. That he apparently was beset by demons within his own mind and spirit brings home the reality of the world we live in. Junior apparently thought there was no hope. What Jesus shows us in being the true Vine is that there is always hope. He is the Vine, you are the branches. Abide in Him. Know that even if you struggle or despair you abide in Him because He never lays anything upon you that He Himself does not give you. He knows everything you are going through, He Himself has experienced beyond what you could ever imagine.

Abide in Him, His Gospel, His grace, His mercy. Take and eat the body of Christ, for you; Himself whom He gives to you, for you. Take and drink the blood of Christ, for you; His blood poured out for you and given to you for your forgiveness. In and through this, but specifically, through Him, you then bear fruit. Apart from Him you can do nothing. As the Epistle reading today says, “We love because He first loved us.” Don’t spend your time trying to find ways to bear fruit. God gives you many opportunities in many ways. When someone impinges on your time that’s an opportunity to bear fruit. When you do simple things to serve and help others. These are not commands, they are opportunities Jesus gives you. He never commands or lays anything upon you He has not given you the ability to carry out. He is the Vine, who you are and what you have and what you do are all in Him. Amen.

SDG

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