the true vine,” Jesus said to His disciples. “I AM.” Ego eimi, in
the Greek. When Jesus says, “I am,” Jews take notice. Their ears perk up, and
they pay attention. These are the words that Moses heard from the burning bush,
when he asked the Lord God who he should tell the Israelites had sent him to lead
them out of captivity. “I AM WHO I AM,” Yahweh had said. “Tell them, ‘I AM’ has
sent me unto you.” “I AM” are the words and the name of God.
had spoken this phrase, “I AM,” on several occasions. Usually, it was when He was
describing how He, the Anointed One, was fulfilling one of the prophecies of God.
How He, the Son, was making up for all the shortcomings of Israel.
was succeeding, in contrast to all the times they had failed, in living up to the
covenants the Lord had established with them.
had gradually revealed His identity throughout His ministry, letting people know
that the Christ, the Messiah, had indeed come. In each of Jesus’ “I AM” statements,
He claimed an authority, a power, that the Jews believed was reserved for God alone.
And so, with each of His statements, as it becomes clearer and clearer that He is
the Chosen One, the resistance of those who expected a savior on their own terms
grows. Their charges of blasphemy against Jesus increase. Their hatred and jealousy
the bread of life,” Jesus first tells them. Then, later, “I AM the light of the
world.” Then, “I AM the gate,” and—as we heard last week—“I AM the good shepherd.”
These were soon followed by, “I AM the resurrection and the life,” and then, “I
AM the way, and the truth, and the life.”
then, Jesus makes another “I AM” statement. This time, however, He doesn’t make
it a public proclamation of His divine nature or His Messiahship. His words, “I
AM the true vine,” are said in private, to His disciples in the seclusion of the
Upper Room, on the night in which He was betrayed.
speaking to those who already knew Him to be the Messiah, who already believed Him
to be the fulfillment of all the prophecies which the people of Israel had ignored.
He spoke of Himself as the vine to those who were to be His branches, those who
He was charging with bearing much fruit once He had suffered, died, arisen, and
departed in glory. The branches to whom He spoke that evening are the seedling
members of the body of Christ, those who would become the first tender, green shoots
of His Church.
in identifying Himself as the vine and the Father as the gardener, Jesus again places
Himself as the connection between God and man. In the book of Isaiah, the prophet
likens Israel and Judah to a vineyard, carefully built and lovingly maintained by
a gardener. But the vineyard had yielded only bad fruit, so the Gardener decided
that he was going to take away the wall and hedge that protected it. He will let
it be trampled and destroyed, overrun with weeds, left untended, left to dry out
it had—Israel was destroyed by Assyria, Judah was overrun by Babylon, until only
a remnant of God’s chosen people remained. Carried off; once again placed into
captivity. And after those surviving exiles finally returned to Palestine to re-start
the Jewish nation, that vineyard went untended for years and years—the Gardener
sent them no prophets; the Vineyard Owner did not soothe and nourish them with new,
rich waters of His Word.
even when God had turned a deaf ear to the nation of Israel on account of their
unrighteousness; even when He ignored their demands for salvation in the
fashion that they wanted it, and after He gave them over to their sin and to
their enemies, He did not abandon them. He continued to bear them up in His
hand and protect them from complete destruction.
in due time, God sent John the Baptist—immersing Israel in the same cool waters
of the Jordan across which the nation had traveled to enter their promised resting
place so many centuries before. And close on John’s heels came a new vine; a single
new shoot from the stump of Jesse—the true vine, Christ Jesus. From that one vine
would come the righteousness that was lacking in all the other vines of the vineyard
of Israel; the one vine that would remain when all the others had been leveled to
the ground and uprooted.
vine is solid and healthy. That vine is deeply set in rich soil, cared for by the
Gardener, regularly fed and watered, and He has high hopes for it. The Gardener
will not let the branches on this vine wither; nor will He let these branches simply
get thick and lush with green leaves and bear no fruit. He wants fruit. He expects
fruit. And He will have His fruit, one way or another.
it is for us as well. Through the gift of faith, God has taken us—broken, withered,
and diseased by sin—and grafted us as branches into the solid, healthy, perfect
vine: Jesus Christ. We receive the soothing, refreshing waters of baptism, and
are fed by His Word and His Holy Supper. The Gardener does all that is necessary
for His branches to grow healthy in the vine, and to bear much fruit.
doesn’t mean that everything always goes smoothly for the branches. Far from it.
Sometimes pruning is necessary for a plant to be healthy and strong. Sometimes
excess growth has to be cut away for the branches to bear fruit.
says that the trials and struggles in our lives are God pruning us so that we may
bear good fruit in our lives. Martin Luther on this text calls these trials and
struggles the manure and pruning clippers of our lives. If you were a branch of
a vine, Luther wrote, you must admit that there are things that would happen to
you that would be hard to understand. Why does the gardener keep cutting off limbs
and branches? Why does the gardener keep piling manure up all around me? It stinks
and I don’t like it!
why does the gardener do these things? The gardener does these things because He
knows what is best for the vine and its branches. The gardener knows that too many
limbs will choke the fruits, and that the vine must be fertilized in order to grow
and be fruitful.
of the earliest Christian martyrs was a man named Ignatius, a disciple of the apostle
John. Ignatius was arrested and taken to Rome to be torn apart by wild beasts in
the arena. When this was about to happen, Ignatius said, “Let them come! I am
God’s kernel of grain. He must crush and grind me in the mill before He can use
is a very different way of looking at Christian suffering, isn’t it? Certainly
it is horrible that wild beasts killed Ignatius. But Ignatius, in faith, could
see that God would use these terrible events to serve as a witness to the Gospel.
Luther put it, “Ignatius looks upon the terrible teeth of the wild lions and bears
as nothing else than God’s millstone with which he must be ground to powder in order
that he may be prepared as a good cake for God.”
In some parts of the
country, springtime brings tornado season, and other violent weather. Thunderstorms
and strong winds can damage trees, tearing weaker branches from the trunk and depositing
them far away. If these branches had not broken off, the entire tree might have
been uprooted. Branches whose burden is too great for the tree to bear under stress
are shed for the sake of the tree. Those trees that come down altogether clear room
for future trees to grow. The trees are wounded, but with care and attention, they
will heal. Destruction gives way to rebirth.
Similarly, spring and
summer increase the risk of forest fires. While environmentalists lament the scorching
of thousands of acres of trees, and government agencies spend untold millions to
battle the blazes, these destructive fires are an essential part of the growth and
renewal of the forest. The fires clear out underbrush which draws moisture and
nutrients away from the timber, making future growth healthier. In some cases the
heat from the fire is also an essential agent in releasing the seeds from the pinecones
of certain species of valuable trees. God’s creation always has a way.
In the same way, God
sometimes throws a rough storm into our path. Or, He might let the flames of fire
lick at us and singe our outward being. It is important that we realize this, and
not lose heart.
The bad things that
happen in our lives are sometimes God’s way of pruning us, the branches who are
to bear His fruit in the world. The difficulties and obstacles we face can be His
way of chastening us when we’ve grown too lush and thick on the fat things of this
Unlike the fires of
hell which would torment us forever if not for our salvation in Jesus, God’s fire
is only temporary. His fire tempers us like steel, and burns away the impurities
in our lives.
By this pruning and
burning, God trims and shapes our individual lives, driving us toward repentance
to draw ever closer into the real dependence we have on Christ, the vine. His cutting
away of the excesses and the distractions of this world allows us to become healthier
branches, focused on those things which further His kingdom and which bear much
Likewise, He cuts off
those branches which bear no fruit at all. In His perfect knowledge, He knows which
branches are hypocrites and false believers. Those He will cast into the real,
eternal fire—fire which does not purify, but only punishes.
So it will also be
for those who break themselves off from the vine, who do not remain connected to
Christ, and who separate themselves from the nourishment of Word and Sacrament.
They wither; they dry out; they become brittle; and eventually they snap loose in
the winds of change and fall away. These branches, too, are fit only for consumption
in the flames.
But it is not so for
you. You have been grafted firmly into the trunk of the vine, into the solid center
of the Church, Jesus Christ. And intertwined with that vine, irrevocably connected
to Christ, is His bride, the Church. The holy and precious mother in whom all Christians
And within Mother Church
the saving lifeblood of Christ, the very Spirit of salvation sent by the Father,
the Gardener, now courses through her veins and brings life to the branches. Life
that comes in faith by hearing, comes in washing and regeneration in the flood of
baptism, comes in the feeding of the branches in Christ’s holy meal.
We know and confess
that our one God certainly works for us and in us in three persons: Father, Son,
and Holy Spirit. Christ’s Father is our eternal Father, too, the good Gardener
who prunes us so that we might bear much fruit. And Jesus Christ, through His death
and our baptism into that death, is our eternal Brother, linking us firmly into
Himself, the strong vine. And the Holy Spirit has called us to faith through God’s
Word, and daily keeps us attached to that vine.
On this Mother’s Day,
we can also look to Christ’s bride, our collective Mother—the “one, holy, Christian,
and apostolic Church,” as we confess it—as our connection to our God and Lord and
to the fellowship of all believers. So Mother’s Day is a good day to remember that
our loving Father provides through our loving Mother Church the nurturing care and
nourishment of Word and Sacrament. He gives us all that we truly need to continue
to grow into strong, healthy, mature Christians.
In your grafting into
the vine of Christ, and by extension into that nurturing Mother who is inextricably
and eternally wed to Christ, this same God uses the bad things in your life to prune
you and make you stronger branches. He feeds you with His life in the Lord’s Supper.
He gives you His body and His blood, so that you may be nourished and refreshed
in your sometimes-difficult journey.
It’s no accident that
Jesus calls Himself the true vine. It is from the fruit of that vine in Holy Communion
that you regularly receive His nourishing and life-giving Spirit. And God the Father,
the Great Gardener, looks down upon you and sees the good fruit of your life,
brought about by the work of that Spirit as it flows from the vine. As Jesus
told His disciples in our text, He has cleansed you by His Word that He has
spoken to you, and He loves you with the very core of His being. Jesus is the vine;
you are the branches; remain in Him, and bear much fruit. In Jesus’ name (+).