The Father is My Gardener
Historically the Fifth Sunday of Easter is known as Rogate Sunday. It comes from the Latin for "pray ye," and unlike the other Latin names for Sundays this doesn't come from the Introit but from the historic Gospel, John 16: 23-32. Our Gospel has the same command, "Pray ye, or ask you." From now till Ascension, the days were known as "Rogation Days" or "Days of Asking." The Rogation Days normally come when crops are being planted, and they date to the 5th century. After a devastating earthquake, pestilence, and famine struck Gaul, the custom arose of the faithful meeting in churches and then processing through the countryside chanting litanies invoking God the Gardener's blessing upon the fruits of the earth. This text teaches the Father is my Gardener, but just what does He grow?
Jesus plainly says, "My Father is the Gardener," and that "He cuts off every branch that bears no fruit." Don't look outside of these walls for what branches Jesus speaks of. Don't think of this or that person you know who has no use for the Church. You are to think within the Church, within these walls, of those claiming to be a Christian, of the face staring back at you in the mirror. The Gardener doesn't go hither and thither cutting off any old branches. His concern is for His garden. Jesus says, "He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit."
If you garden at all, even if you just raise house plants, you do this all the time. You go leaf by leaf through a bush and pinch off branches that aren't producing. You have no qualms about sawing off even a big limb of a pecan tree that isn't bearing. That limb is taking water and nutrients from the tree that could be used elsewhere to bear fruit. It's a good thing to remove it.
This is what we earthly gardeners do, yet we think the heavenly gardener does differently. He let's branches sap moisture and food from His Son the Vine. Where we won't let days go by before cutting off a fruitless branch of a garden plant, we think the Father lets years and years and years go by without tending to His Vine. While we feel downright good pinching of a branch that isn't producing because we know we're helping the plant, we picture the Father weakly, meekly, reluctantly doing the same. Tell me; is that really how these words of Jesus sound to you? "My Father is the Gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit."
Branches without fruit are cut off from the Vine. Once they are cut off they can never bear fruit. You all know this about plants and trees. Once a branch is separated from the vine, it will never bear fruit again. What do you do with branches that you've cut off from your fruit trees or vegetable plants? They're worthless to you. Although technically they are peach branches or tomato branches or cucumber vines, they're nothing to you. You gather them up and throw them away. If you were in the country, you'd burn them without regret. Branches not attached to Christ the Vine are likewise treated. Jesus is clear here too, "If anyone does not remain in Me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire, and burned."
If you're listening, some questions ought to be screaming in your head right now. What fruit is the Gardener looking for? Do I have enough? Do I have any? Am I perhaps already cut off? To answer these and other questions we have to do some Greek work otherwise you won't see the nice, neat connection between cutting off, pruning, and bearing fruit.
Jesus says, "I am the true Vine, and My Father is the Gardener. He cuts off every branch in Me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit He prunes so that it will be even more fruitful." First of all the "cuts off" is the Greek word airei. The word translated "prunes" is kathairei. Airei and kathairei: do you hear the connection? There's more. Kathairei is not "pruned" but "cleansed." And that's important because then you see the connection between "Every branch that does bear fruit He cleanses'" and the next verse. There Jesus says, "You are already clean' because of the Word I have spoken to you." "Clean" here is katharoi the noun form of kathairei. "Every branch that does bear fruit the Father kathaireiYou, however, are already katharoi."
Jesus says to His Church, "Every branch that does bear fruit My Father cleanses so that it will be even more fruitful." Then Jesus quickly assures us, "You are already clean." How? "Because of the Word I have spoken to you." He didn't say "because you've been baptized." And although they are in the upper room just having celebrated Communion, Jesus doesn't say, "You are already clean because of My Body and Blood that you just ate and drank." No, Jesus highlights nether baptismal Water nor sacramental Bread and Wine; He highlights the Word.
See the preeminence of the Word. Not only all history but all knowledge, all facts are passed down by Words. All grace, mercy, and peace that Jesus bought for sinners are passed on to them by Words. Jesus purchased them by His holy life and His innocent suffering and death. Jesus, being true God and perfect Man had no need of grace, mercy, or peace for Himself, He had them from all eternity because He is true God, and even in time He had them as true Man because His humanity shared in the majesty of Divinity.
Our sins earned us judgment, wrath, and war. And since we are sinful "by nature" we were powerless to change this. God the Son being incarnate in the Virgin's womb changed everything. Here was our flesh and blood joyfully and perfectly keeping all of God's holy Laws. Here was all that we are required to be and can never be. But what about the judgment, wrath, and war we truly deserve because of our sins and sinfulness? Jesus bore these too in His own Body on the tree of the cross. The just judgment against your sins; the hot wrath of God your sinfulness calls for; the declaration of war your unbelief, misbelief, and doubts about God's holy Word deserve, were suffered by Jesus on the cross.
That happened almost 2000 years ago far away from here. How does what Jesus did there and then get to here and now? By Words. Whether those Words be audible as in the case of the Absolution or visible and audible as in the cases of Baptism and Communion, these Words transmit across time and space the grace, mercy and peace Jesus bought and paid for on Calvary. The Word attaches grace for the ungodly, mercy for the guilty, and peace for sinners to a human speaking, to Water in a font, and to Bread and Wine on an altar. You were cleansed; you are cleansed by these Words, that Water, and by the Body and Blood of Jesus present on that altar.
Jesus says the Father cleanses those already clean. You don't cleanse somebody by commanding them "don't get dirty" or by telling them how to be clean. You cleanse someone by cleaning them. The Father cleanses those already clean by continuing to speak the cleansing power of Absolution into their ears, by daily dunking them in the cleansing waters of Baptism, by weekly feeding them the absolutely clean Body and Blood of Jesus.
Why does the Father do even more cleaning of the cleansed, even more saving of the saved according to Jesus? So they will be even more fruitful. Now you should be really screaming. What fruit is Jesus talking about? What is the Father cultivating in His garden? What fruit is the Father looking for branches of the vine to produce? I gave you a hint in the introduction by telling you this is Rogate Sunday and the days between now and Ascension are "Days of Asking." Prayer is the fruit the Father grows.
This is where Jesus goes, isn't it? After speaking of what happens to unfruitful, cut off branches, He speaks about those branches that remain in Him. They ask whatever they wish, and it is given them. This praying says Jesus is to His Father's glory; this is the "much fruit" that branches are to bear. A good, bountiful crop is always to the glory of the gardener. He or she beams with pride, satisfaction, joy as they show you their bumper crop. Our prayers boldly and confidently ascending to the Father are to His glory; they are the fruit Jesus speaks of in this text
How do you get someone to pray more? How do you get someone to ask whatever they wish in confidence? How do you get branches on a vine to seek the sun? You don't, do you? They do that naturally. Living branches arch, twist, and turn to reach the sun. That's how it is with prayer; branches of Jesus the true Vine naturally seek the Father in prayer. So the important thing is being a branch of the Vine. Branches of the Vine grow from the Word of Baptism, the Word of Absolution, and the Word made Flesh and Blood. Having sprouted they seek the sun, being repeatedly cleansed they remain healthy branches and healthy branches naturally seek the sun.
Your meal time prayers, your bedtime prayers, the prayers you utter on the way to work, at work, after work; the prayers you offer in your daily devotions or in the weekly Divine Service; even the prayers you utter weakly boom in heaven to the glory of the Father. In these Days of Asking the fruit the Father your Gardener is growing on branches attached to His Son the Vine is prayer. Big, bountiful, healthy, prayers that our heavenly Father picks for the sake of His Son. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Fifth Sunday of Easter (20090510); John 15: 1-8