When asked if he understood what he was reading the Ethiopian eunuch answered Philip honestly, asking, “How can I [understand], unless someone guides me?” And this has been a theme in our Easter season scripture readings, namely, the opening of a believer’s mind (Luke 24:45) by God to understand the Bible. It’s not that you cannot understand it to a certain extent since it is all composed of words you already know. The Ethiopian could understand the passage he was reading from the book of Isaiah was about someone who suffered unjustly to the point of death. The question is the identity of this suffering servant. “‘About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus” (Acts 8:34-35). Jesus is the key to truly understanding the Bible. In one way or another it is, finally, all about Him. Reject Jesus and you miss the heart and real message of the Bible.
In this post-Easter season we have been reviewing certain things Jesus said during His earthly ministry now in the light of His resurrection from the dead. Last Sunday He spoke about God and His people with the imagery of sheep and shepherds. Today and hear Jesus say, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser…. I am the vine; you are the branches.” Now someone hearing this for the first time, like the Ethiopian with little or no knowledge about the Bible, will be confused as to why Jesus used the analogy of vines. It is because God used the analogy of a vineyard many times in the Old Testament to illustrate that God’s people, “the house of Israel,” are God’s own planting. But where God looked for good fruit, He found that it produced only bad fruit (Is. 5:1-7). This is true of all people because of our fallen, sinful nature. So today when Jesus says, “I am the true vine,” He means to say that, whereas people are thoroughly enslaved by sin, He came to live in our place perfectly according to God’s Law. Now because of His holy life, and by means of His holy death for us, by faith in Him we are cleansed from our sin, we are given His righteousness and, by our connection with Him, we are now able to produce the good fruit God expects.
In the first place we become the children of God by being drawn to God through His Word. The result of the Ethiopian eunuch’s hearing of God’s Word, both from reading it in the prophet Isaiah and from Philip’s preaching, was that he was baptized into Christ and thereby made a member of Christ’s Church, a branch of the vine. Jesus’ concern in these words before us today is that we do not fall away but remain connected to Him and continue to produce good fruit. This, too, happens only with respect of remaining or abiding in His Word.
The Father, He says, is the farmer or the vinedresser, the One who acts in people’s lives and hearts by means of the Word of God. By His Word He cares for His vine, His people, by, variously, cutting off the dead branches and “pruning” the living branches.
Here there is, first, the warning that it is possible to fall away from salvation and faith in Christ. Those who do not abide in Christ and His Word (whether they were ever connected to Him in the first place or not!), “he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Besides being true of actual dead branches, the meaning couldn’t be clearer that the result of rejecting God, of unbelief, is being cut off from life and from God eternally; damnation, death and hell. Obviously, obviously (right?), people that today reject God, whether that be in the brash way you see and hear so many people today publicly mocking especially Judeo-Christian believers or simply just ignoring God, are quite unaware of the horrendous consequences of their rejection and unbelief awaiting them. This is why today’s psalm (Ps. 150) calls for everyone and everything that has the breath of life to praise the Lord; for all have their origin, creation and being in God. To this extent, anyway, the 58th annual observance of a “national day of prayer” this past week served to call people to their spiritual sensibilities, and to reveal to some extent the pervasive and deep lack of faith and belief that afflicts our American society today. Faith, especially (I guess) the Christian faith, is embarrassing to people who do not know or understand it! The most they will say is that they will practice their faith “privately,” which, of course, makes you suspect that that excuse is, after all, just a cover for unbelief.
Now, interestingly, if the threat of damnation, death and hell does not impress or affect you, you are probably dead and in danger of exactly that. Those, however, who wonder or are at all concerned whether they might be spiritually dead or falling away from faith are the ones not being cut off but only being “pruned.” The word translated “pruned” in our text [kath-ai-rei, from which we get the word “catharsis”] also means to be cleansed. It is the taking away of the “stuff” that hinders growth, thereby strengthening the branch. This pruning, cleansing or purifying, happens through the Word of God. Hence the importance of remaining in and the continual hearing of the Word of God. The Word of God awakens the flame of faith in the heart, reminds you of your baptism into Christ, that is, that you are indeed a branch of Christ the vine, and acts like nutrients making for spiritual growth and the production of the fruits of faith, the first and chief of which is love (Gal. 5:22-23). So St. John reminds us today, “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love” (1 John 4:7-8). And, we might turn that around and say anyone who does not know God cannot truly love.
The repeated concern (11 times in this chapter of John’s Gospel) is to remain, to abide, stay, live, endure and continue in God’s Word. So, see if you can follow this spiritual logic. On the one hand, people need to know and be reminded that it is not your church attendance that gains you points with God, that qualifies you for heaven. On the other hand, those who truly believe and belong to God are not found wandering around on Sunday mornings apart from the gathering of God’s people around Word and Sacrament. “Going to church” is not considered a good work nor a burden. It’s just what we do. For the person of faith “going to church” is just normal! It is abnormal, unusual not to go to church. How about the family praying a prayer of thanks or blessing before a meal? It’s not a legal requirement. But it is “normal” for the person of faith. Or the daily praying and reading of the catechism, the Ten Commandments, the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. Without saying exactly how or even understanding how, surrounding yourself or being surrounded by the Word of God is the life-giving connection of faith with its proper object, namely, Jesus Christ.
And let’s make that the last word of this text. That is, it would seem from all these commands to remain and abide in the Word that it is somehow the responsibility of the branch to do this. But remember the context as Jesus says, “you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me,” “apart from me you can do nothing,” “you did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit—fruit that will last” (John 15:4, 5, 16). From beginning to end—the drawing, the baptizing, the engrafting, the new birth, the sustaining, continuing and abiding, and the final goal of the resurrection and eternal life—it is all about Christ and his work in us. May Jesus Christ be praised.