29 April 2018

Living and Abiding in the Vine

The seven weeks of Easter are the high point of the Church’s life, the joyous celebration of her risen Lord and heavenly Bridegroom.  Everything else has led to this: the preparation of Advent, the festivities of the ChristMass, the joy and wonder of Epiphany, the repentance and discipline of Lent, and the solemn awe of Good Friday — all is done in anticipation of this blessed Eastertide.  And it is from this Easter celebration that the Church on earth shall yet derive her life and health and strength throughout the years to come, in anticipation of the Resurrection of all flesh.

For all that, even during the weeks of Easter, the Church does not forget the Crucifixion.  She does not turn Her eyes away from the Cross or from the Body of her crucified Lord.  As it is true that without the Resurrection our faith would be in vain, so would the Resurrection itself be for nothing if Christ had not suffered and been crucified for the salvation of all.  At all times and in all places, the Church preaches nothing but the one Lord Jesus Christ, both crucified and risen from the dead.

It is fitting, therefore, that the Holy Gospels throughout the latter Sundays of Easter are from that night in which the Lord Jesus Christ was handed over to His Cross and Passion.  That night when the Lord of all creation humbled Himself as the Servant of all, stooping down to wash the feet of His disciples.  That night when He fed them with His Body and His Blood, as He continues to do for His Church to the close of the age.  That night when the beloved Son of God anticipated His Sacrifice upon the Cross and called upon His Father with tears and sweat like great drops of blood.

It is on that sacred night that He spoke these Words to His disciples, and so also to you: “I Am the true Vine, and My Father is the Vinedresser.”  And again, “I Am the Vine; you are My branches.”

The image of the Vine, and of the Vineyard, is a common one throughout the Old Testament.  In numerous places, God compares His chosen People, Israel, to a Vineyard that He has planted for Himself and cared for in love.  And yet, in almost every case, despite the loving care of God, it is an unproductive Vineyard, overgrown and wild.  Where there should have been a bountiful harvest of many and good grapes, the Vineyard has produced only bad.

The Vine continued to serve as a prominent image of Israel in the time of Jesus, as well.  Jewish coins, for example, were crafted with a vine engraved on one side.  And the Temple, likewise, had the symbol of a vine sculpted into one of its gates.  So, then, as Jesus used the imagery of the Vineyard in several of His Parables, His condemnation of the people’s failure was readily apparent.

By the same token, when Jesus calls Himself the true Vine, He identifies His task and His burden.  As the true Vine of the Father, Jesus takes the place of His People.  He takes upon Himself the sin and guilt of the whole world, and He suffers the condemnation for it all.  Though He has no sins of His own, He is made to be sin in the stead of all others, that He might be the Sacrifice for sin.

For you and for all people, He actually becomes the wild, unproductive Vineyard that you have been, and He gives His Body to be harrowed and plowed under for your sins.  Thus, by His death, the failure of the Vineyard is absolved, and the weeds and wild grapes of sin are purged forever.

As a seed must first be planted in the ground before it can sprout forth as a living and fruitful plant, so is the Lord our Savior planted — as a Seed, by death — into the garden tomb.  And from the dust of the earth He rises again, surging upward into the heavens, a true and mighty Vine, strong and ever-living, flowing with the “sap” of everlasting life.  For He pours out His own lifeblood to cleanse you of your sins.  So does the dead wood of the Cross propagate the very Tree of Life, the Fruits of which are forgiveness and life and salvation in the Body and Blood of Christ Jesus.

Because the incarnate Son of God, crucified and risen from the dead, is the true Vine of the Father, the Vineyard will always meet the Father’s expectations.  Living and abiding in Christ, it yields only the good grapes for which it was intended, since it is Christ Himself who produces them.  And you also belong to that Vineyard by virtue of your fellowship with Christ Jesus, the true Vine.

By the washing of the water with His Word in Holy Baptism, you are buried with Christ Jesus in His death; you are planted together with Him in the dust of the ground.  And so it is that, in His Resurrection from the dead, you also rise and emerge with Him, sprouting and living as a branch of the Vine, firmly grafted into His pierced side.  So do you abide in Him, and He abides in you.

It is to the blessings and benefits of your Baptism that Christ is pointing in this Holy Gospel, when He says to His disciples, “You are already clean because of the Word that I have spoken to you.”  For just as He had taken water and knelt down to wash the feet of His disciples in love on that night of His Passion, so has the same Lord washed you with the waters of Holy Baptism, in which He spoke to you His Word and promise of forgiveness and eternal life.  By water and His Word He has cleansed you of all your sins, that you might live before God in righteousness and purity forever, and that you might bear the fruits of Christ to the praise and glory of His holy Name.

That is a beautiful picture of what it is and what it means to be a Christian.  For abiding in the Vine means that you — as one of His branches — bear His fruit.  Indeed, those who live within the Vine, who draw their life and health and strength from Him alone, do bear fruit in great abundance.

As St. Paul has described, it is no longer you who live, but Christ lives in you.  He is the true Vine, and He faithfully sustains His branches.  He does not fail to bring forth His fruits within your life.

To be sure, there are those who vainly imagine themselves to be “in Christ,” who rest easy in the Vineyard as unproductive branches, dead on the Vine, declining to draw upon His life-giving sap.  Though they presume to be in Christ, those stubborn and self-sufficient branches either attempt to yield fruit by their own powers, instead of relying on the Vine, or they remain content to bear nothing at all.  Like mutinous and renegade branches, they live like separate vines unto themselves, thereby living a façade, and all the while rejecting the only real source of help and consolation.

Do not suppose that you are immune to such temptations and unfaithfulness.  For so long as you live in this world, you are under attack from the devil, the world, and your own mortal flesh.  Far too easily do you let the cares and occupations of this life get you down, and, instead of turning to the Gospel of Christ Jesus, you crowd your days and nights with your own efforts to succeed.

You also have been guilty of producing the wild grapes of worldly living, and so much excess foliage that there has been little if any room for the fruit that Christ would so graciously bestow upon you and bring forth in you.  Thus would you be a renegade and good-for-nothing branch.

But thanks be to God, who has given you the victory in our dear Lord Jesus Christ!  For the Father loves you with an everlasting love, and He prunes away your wild grapes and excess foliage, lest you fall from the Vine altogether and be cast away forever.  He disciplines you and calls you to repentance, until you turn at last, not to yourself, but to the Cross of Christ.

The Word of God, like a pure and life-giving Fountain, is always calling out to you, calling you to return to the strength and nourishment of the Vine.  And as you are immersed into that Fountain of His Word, you are returned to the significance of your Baptism into Christ.  Your mortal flesh is drowned and put to death and buried with all of your sinful lusts and desires, with all of your idolatry and faithless unbelief, and with all of your laziness and neglect.  But so are you also raised up as a new creation in Christ Jesus, bearing the fruits of faith and love as a member of His Body.

You live by faith in Him, in love for God and man in Christ, as a living branch of the true Vine, by abiding in Him, and by drawing on the vital “Sap” that He alone provides.  That “Sap,” so to speak, is supplied to you in many ways.  In Holy Baptism, by which you have been grafted into the Vine, and to which you are returned throughout your life by the Word and Spirit of Christ Jesus.  And the “Sap” is poured out for you in the preaching of the Word of God, which is the Promised Land in which you live, flowing with the milk and honey of forgiveness and everlasting life.  So is the “Sap” given especially in the spoken Word of Holy Absolution, the forgiveness of all your sins in the Name and stead of Christ Himself; for by His Word of forgiveness you are given life.

By each of these means you are nourished and made alive, and so do you bear the fruits of Christ.

And what is more, in the Supper of your Lord, the very Body and Blood of your Savior are given to you for the forgiveness of all your sins and the strengthening of your faith in the most intimate communion with Him.  Here you are given to drink from His Cup of Salvation, overflowing with the life-giving Fruit of the true Vine.  Here at His Table He comes to abide in you with His own flesh and blood, that you might abide in Him and with Him, both body and soul, now and forever.

Here at the Table of your Lord, gathered together with your brothers and sisters in Christ at His Altar — as many branches grafted into one Vine — you eat and drink together as one Vineyard from the Cross of your Salvation.  Here, together as one Body, you are nourished by the Holy Spirit to live and believe in Christ, and to bear the fruits of faith and love to the glory of God.

Having thus been gathered around the Altar of the Lord with your brothers and sisters in Christ, as branches together of one and the same holy Vine, you love one another as He has loved you.  Not in words only, but in deeds and in truth.  You forgive, as you are forgiven.  You sacrifice for others, as Christ has sacrificed Himself for you.  You love and serve your neighbor, as you are loved and served by God in Christ.  For you cannot abide in Him, and He will not abide in you, if you harden your heart and refuse to abide with others in His peace and love and forgiveness.

When your father Adam ate the fruit of disobedience and sin, he was cut off from the Vineyard of the Lord of Hosts, and He was barred from the Tree of Life.  But that is not the case with you, not now.  For though you daily sin much and, indeed, you deserve nothing but punishment, the Tree of Life has been planted for you, and established for you in this place.  The Lord your God has stretched out His arms and wrapped the branches of His love around you.  He has given Himself for you, and He has called you to Himself.  He has grafted you into His Body in mercy.

He has granted you forgiveness by His Word and Ministry of the Gospel, and so you are forgiven.

Not only that, but what is more, Christ stretches forth Himself — His love and His forgiveness — through the life that He now lives in you, wherever He has planted you in this world, even to the ends of the earth.  He reaches out with you, as one of His many branches, to those who are not yet grafted into the Vine.  He scatters the fruits of His Love and Joy and Peace and Forgiveness, with seemingly reckless abandon, so that all might be gathered into the Lamb’s High Feast forever.

As St. John has written elsewhere: “He showed to me a pure river, which is the water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb.  In the middle was the Tree of Life, which bore twelve fruits, each one yielding its fruit in great abundance.  And the leaves of that Tree were for the healing of the nations.”  There shall be no more curse, and His servants shall serve Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness.  Even as He is risen from the dead, and lives and reigns to all eternity.  This is most certainly true.

In the Name + of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

No comments: