Tales from the Vineyard
There use to be a TV show called "Tales from the Crypt" with eerie, scary stories. You would expect that based on the title. Crypts are creepy places. Vineyards aren't. Yet I know 2 tales from the vineyard that should raise the hair on the back of your neck.
The first tale of horror is this: "You don't have to bear fruit as a Christian." You can live like your neighbor who doesn't know Christ. You can remain in the vineyard devoid of grapes. Your light doesn't have to shine and you can be salt that doesn't season.
Christ says otherwise. Isaiah 5 is where the Lord introduces this figure of His people as a vineyard saying, "He planted a vineyard on a very fertile hill, and He looked for it to yield grapes." In Luke 13 the Lord pictures Himself as the owner of a vineyard with a fig tree planted in it. "He came seeking fruit on it," says the parable. In Matthew 25 when Jesus pictures the last judgment, without a parable, without figures, He highlights the works of the saved and the lack of works by the damned. Again, without figures, plain as day, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:10, "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil."
It's a horrible, wretched tale from the vineyard to say, "Christians don't have to bear fruit." A curse on such a tale. Don't you remember a curse is exactly what Jesus pronounced on the real fig tree that had no fruit? The Lord pronounces judgment on unfruitful Christians. In Isaiah 5 he says, "I will tell you what I will do to my vineyardit shall be devouredand it shall be trampled down.I will make it a waste." In Luke 13 what is the Lord's judgment on that unfruitful fig? "Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?" And in the last judgment what happens to the unfruitful? "Depart from Me into the eternal fire." Unfruitful Christians are pulled up by the hair and tossed into the fire and burned.
Why this should shock you is beyond me, since this is what we all do with unfruitful plants in our gardens. We do the same with branches of a larger plant when they cease to bear fruit or leaves. Why? Because unfruitful branches are dead ones. They're not really branches at all, are they? They don't function as branches. They don't carry moisture, nutrients, or life. Unfruitful branches have more in common with table legs then trees. We saw them off for the good of the tree. Unfruitful Christians are dead Christians and there is no such thing as a dead Christian.
Before we leave this ghastly tale that surely leads many to hell, let's deal with an equally grisly subplot: a plant, a branch, a person can bear enough fruit. Do your share; take your turn; serve for awhile is disfigured Christianity. In fact, it's not Christian at all. My turn, my share, my part is the talk of clubs, voluntary groups, civic duty, not the talk of vineyards. Fruitful Plants don't get a year or 2 off; no they're cut off once they become unfruitful. Besides, how can anyone stand before the crucified Christ who gave His soul, His life, His all, to save them and say, "I've done enough; I've taken my turn; I've done my part?" What a horrible, terrible, ugly picture! And yet how many of you sit there thinking just that?
Well, the first tale from the vineyard is: You don't have to bear fruit as a Christian. The second is just as gruesome, fearsome, and troublesome. It is: Bearing fruit makes you a Christian. That is doing good works can deliver you from a guilty conscience, rescue you from the fear of death, give you a peaceful heart, and assure you you're going to heaven.
This is not only a ghastly tale, it's a lie. No matter how many good things you do, there'll never come a time that your guilty conscience can say, "I've done enough to make up for my sins." No matter how much you do for others, for church, for Christ, you'll never do enough to say, "I don't have to be afraid of death." The peace you crave, the certainty of going to heaven is not found in your doing, sweating, bleeding, or pleading. Bearing fruit no matter how much or how lush, does not, cannot make you a Christian.
Fruit marks Christians. That's what Jesus says; bearing much fruit shows you to be His disciple. Have you ever noticed this about vines? They all look alike in the winter months. A wild grape vine looks no different than poison ivy. A vine is a vine is a vine until it produces the fruit of leaves and berries. Then there's no doubt what it is.
Only a fool looks for grapes on a poison ivy vine. Likewise, only a fool thinks you can make a branch of poison ivy into a grapevine branch by hanging grapes on it. So, the good works of taking care of family, helping neighbors, supporting government, living a sexually pure and decent life that hang on your Muslim friend, your unchristian co-worker, or your atheist boss, don't make him or her a branch of the vine Christ. You only get fruit that counts before God from branches attached to the vine Christ. There are vines in the woods that produce berries in grape-like clusters, but they aren't grapes. Real grapes can only come from real branches of a real grape vine.
It is too horrible of a tale to keep on thinking about. It's a hideous mutilation of Christianity to say bearing fruit makes a Christian. No, only the Lord Jesus Christ can make a Christian, and therefore, only He can give you peace of heart, certainty of salvation, freedom from guilt and rescue from the fear of death. Only a grapevine can produce grape branches. Only the Christ can produce Christians.
Pay close attention to how this text starts. Jesus doesn't tell the disciples to make themselves branches. He doesn't even, as many think, tell them they need pruning so they can bear more fruit. You miss this because of the insert's translation. "Every branch that does bear fruit, the Father prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the Word I have spoken to you." The words prunes and clean are the verb and noun form of the same word. So we translate, "The Father prunes every branch. You are already pruned because of the Word I spoke to you." Jesus is not warning them they're about to be pruned, He's assuring them that they have already been pruned. All systems are go' for them to be fruitful.
Now no one prunes a branch not attached to a vine. Having been pruned indicates you're connected to the vine, and that's what counts because apart from it you can do nothing. But joined to the Vine, you can do all things. But there has to be a true Vine, a healthy Vine, before there can be branches. So don't focus on you being a Christian; focus on there being a Christ.
Adam and Eve, though planted by God in the good soil of the Garden of Eden, quickly became wild vines producing grapes of wrath. Rather than pull them up right then and there, God the Son was sent as a vine into the soil that had now become poor and weed infested. But He was fruitful. He kept all God's Laws perfectly and He grew grapes of love, joy, peace, and hope in bunches. Yet, perfect fruit wasn't enough to appease the wrath of God. Those rebellious vines must be punished, so God took His Son, the holy vine, and crushed Him in the winepress at Gethsemane and hung Him to wither and die under His hot wrath on Calvary. The blood that flowed from the crushed Christ covered our sins appeasing God's wrath.
There's the answer to that guilty conscience that chases you around at night. There's the answer to that heart of yours that can only find panic not peace. There's what will melt that icy fear of death you know, and there's what will fill in the hole of doubt you have about being saved. You cannot do enough good to make up for your sins let alone pay for them. You can't suffer enough, even in all eternity, to pay for your sins. It takes a perfect Man to take your payments on Himself, and it takes the Holy God to make those payments. It takes the God who is Man, Jesus.
The holy vine Jesus paid for our sins on Good Friday and was planted in the ground, a dead, lifeless vine. But He burst forth on Easter alive and growing, and He grew all the way to heaven. But how does one become joined to that vine? We are branches of a wild vine; He is holy. Romans pictures a grafting process. We wild branches are grafted unto the holy Vine. How? You've been Baptized into Him. His Word of promise that your many sins are forgiven has reached out and grabbed you. He has bodied and blooded you to Himself in Holy Communion. Get it? The actions of Christ, the Vine, not your actions have joined you to Him.
This is important because in this second tale of terror there is a sub error too. Just hold on to the vine and you'll be alright. How can this be error? Doesn't Jesus say remain in the vine? Yes, but does He say this is done by holding on as tight as you can? No. Why? Because all of you with any experience in Christ know that if salvation depends on me holding on to Him, I am damned. I let go in fear; I let go in rebellion; I let go in despair. But, says St. Paul, He never lets go. Even "if we are faithless, He remains faithful."
That's powerful Gospel, but that's the truth of even the ordinary branch vine relationship. Vines hold on to branches not the other way around. So Christ the Vine of vines keeps us living, active, fruitful, and pruned by the Word He speaks to us. And this Word comes not just into our ears but on to our bodies in Baptism and into our bodies through the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion.
Now let's send those tales of the vineyard back to the hellish crypt they crept out of. The Word of God that courses through the Vine is living and active. He makes Christians. He makes branches. He creates faith, new life, a quiet heart, a guiltless conscience, and fruit. The branch is the location where the fruit the Vine makes is found, but the branch is not the source, the Vine is. The fruit properly belongs to the Vine not the branch, and because it does, the Father is very pleased with it. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday of Easter (20060514); John 15: 1-8