Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6th, Year of Our + Lord 2012
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
I really love this text, about the Vine and the Vinedresser and the fruitful branches. It offers so much for preaching, opening up new ways of understanding the teaching of Christ, along with plain statements that cement the way things are on a number of different doctrines. From the efficacy of God’s Word, already you are pruned clean because of the word that I have spoken to you, to the necessity of continuing to hear the Word to keep faith alive, which is why Jesus says abide in me, and wills that my words abide in you, from the truth that to do good works and play a part in God’s mission we must remain connected to Christ, for apart from me you can do nothing, to the mystery that as we abide in Christ, our prayers will be answered.
Yes, this is a great passage from the Word of God, a passage which teaches much and helps us understand many other parts of Scripture. And because, as in this passage, Jesus is always using such down to earth, concrete metaphors, the Word of God also helps us rightly understand our daily lives. Filtering the things we see and experience through the Word of Christ is the task of every Christian and of the Church collectively, a task which exercises our faith and helps us discern truth from error and lies. This Vine and Branches text has served very well in this task recently, interacting with current events in the life of the Church, opening up yet another perspective on life in the Vine.
The specific earthly event that I’m referring to is the birth of Hannah Grace Baikie. We have been praying for Hannah for some weeks now, along with her mother, Tiffany Baikie, wife of Pastor Marcus Baikie of Concordia Lutheran in Forsyth. In a perfectly healthy world, Hannah would still be in Tiffany’s womb today, growing and developing for another month and a half. But our health is not perfect, and Tiffany was having problems, leading to her assignment to bed rest several weeks ago, in an attempt to get her and her baby as close to full term as possible.
It was not to be. Tiffany was rushed into the hospital on April 25th, and the doctors delivered Hannah Grace by C-section. You should have her picture on one side of the extra insert this morning. Two pounds two ounces, wrapped in plastic to keep her warm for her first photo shoot. The picture on your half page insert is just smaller than her actual size. And yet still, what a beautiful little girl. We could just stop right here, couldn’t we? Certainly, there is a lot of good news and Godly joy to be found in gazing at little Hannah. But I want to tell you more good news, good news about how this down to earth event connected to and was interpreted by various readings we have recently heard.
In these last few weeks of Catechism class for the spring, I have been teaching on God’s love for life, from the womb to the tomb, a topic with which Tiffany and Hannah Grace’s struggles coincided amazingly. The kids and I have talked about the miracle of life, and about the horror of abortion. In worship and class, we’ve talked about and prayed for Tiffany and Hannah. And, just the week before she was born, I brought out the fetal development dolls to show my students roughly how big Hannah was at that point in time.
This past Wednesday in the service that begins our Catechism class, I was able to use the Good Shepherd texts from last Sunday, talking about how the Good Shepherd is still at work, calling and gathering His sheep to Himself. He has saved His sheep, both in the case of tiny Hannah, and also Dale Hill, our Trinity member whose battle with melanoma has come to its end. Dale was called home to his eternal rest last Thursday. Dale’s last days were difficult, but he lived them surrounded by family and friends, and by the Word of the Shepherd, being read and prayed and sung around his bed.
And not only did the Good Shepherd safely bring Hannah into this world, but also, as you see on the other side of the extra insert, through the ministry of her earthly father, Pastor Marcus Baikie, God the Father claimed Hannah as His daughter through Holy Baptism right in the hospital, washing her in three drops of sterilized water, in the Name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
All through these last two weeks, I was also pondering another intersection between Scripture and earthly life, the intersection between Hannah Grace’s early arrival and today’s Gospel, about the Vine, Vinedresser, and the branches. With Pastor Preus covering for me last Sunday, I carried around this Sunday’s readings for an extra week. As I heard of Hannah’s premature delivery, and saw her first photo album on Facebook, I was struck by a similarity, between her tiny life, and the life of abiding in Christ that Jesus teaches us today.
The comparison that struck me is between a branch abiding in the Vine, and all the doctors’ efforts to allow Hannah to abide in her mother’s womb, surrounded by her mother’s protections, and connected to life by the umbilical cord until her due date. We pray that in His grace, the Lord will protect Hannah and help her to develop and grow and become a healthy little baby who grows up into a healthy woman, who one day may be a mother herself. But we also know that her connection to her mother was cut off far too soon, the medical problems that necessitated her early delivery meant that she would no longer be protected in the safety of the womb, no longer fed through the cord which connected her to Tiffany, and now she must spend her first weeks in a hospital. She’s doing o.k., but her situation is far from ideal.
Your place in God’s Church and your need for connection to Him through the Word of Christ are like a preborn infant’s place in the womb and need for connection to her mother through the umbilical cord. In fact, drawing on Biblical imagery, for 2,000 years the Church has been referred to as the mother of Christians, although this way of talking has fallen out of favor in our circles because it’s perceived as a Roman Catholic idea. We should, with a right understanding, reclaim the language of Church as mother, because it fits.
It’s dangerous and difficult for a baby to be prematurely outside of the womb, the safe place God has created just for babies, dangerous to leave before the fullness of time. And a baby in the womb must be fed by her mother through the cord, there is no chance of life without this connection. So also you, Christian, need to be in the Church, God’s safe place for you, abiding in the Vine, being fed and made clean by the power of His pruning, cleansing Word, until the fullness of your time, that is until your earthly life comes to its end and your soul is delivered into heaven’s eternal joy.
Your Christian life in this fallen world will wither and die if you don’t stay connected. It’s that serious. You may not like this image, this picture of radical dependence, as if you are helpless apart from God’s intervention. We despise helplessness in our daily lives, thinking that to be and remain helpless in the world is the worst of earthly fates. We work hard to become capable, self-supporting, independent and competent people. And that’s good, for this life, although we would be wise to realize that even our competence and ability in this life is only ours as a gift and stewardship from the Lord. None the less, in earthly matters, in life before our fellow man, we have some ability, some independence.
But not in life before God. We hate to think that in our standing before God we are and remain totally dependent on His grace and good will. Indeed, Adam and Eve declared their independence from God and His Word, and have passed down their sinful rejection of God’s grace to all of us. We don’t like to hear that in spiritual matters we are helpless, but this is exactly the picture that Jesus paints for us today. Abide in me, and I in you, says Jesus. Abide in my Word, for apart from me you can do nothing, apart from my Word you will wither and die. Abide in me, and you will live, and bear much fruit.
It’s not that God wants us to be helpless. The problem is that we are sinners, by our nature resisting the good that God wants for us, instead seeking harmful and hurtful things. God must come to us and bring us back to life. God must overcome our sin, and grant us forgiveness. God must continue to feed us for salvation. God must keep us in the Vine, if we are to live and grow.
And these things that must be, God does. The Vinedresser, God the Father, has given the Vine, Jesus Christ, His only begotten Son, given Him into our death, so that He could destroy death and sin, and give us His life in return. The pruning cleansing Word is the Word of forgiveness, delivered to you by your true Vine, delivered to you in Water, Word and Wine. God has good news for you, your sins are forgiven and in Christ you have eternal life. This free gift God delivers to you, wherever His Gospel is preached, wherever His Supper is served, wherever sinners are brought to Baptismal fonts.
A baby in the womb would never willfully try to disconnect herself from the life-giving cord through which her mother gives her life. Sadly, amazingly, we Christians all too often chop away at our connection to Christ. Like branches taking ax in hand to chop away at their own base, we fill our time with sins and our heads with worldly teachings. We so often fill our time with everything but gathering with fellow believers around the Word of God and His Sacraments. Baptized people who profess to be Christians regularly neglect the Way God has made to keep us in the Vine, sometimes because of shame, that we have fallen into sin, again, sometimes for boredom, because we think we are so interesting, sometimes simply because of pride. Whatever the reason, when we do this, we are cutting ourselves off from the Vine.
Repent. Return, hear the cleansing, pruning Word again. As we will sing in a few minutes: Chief of sinners, though I be, Jesus shed His blood for me, died that I might live on high, lives that I might never die. As the branch is to the vine, I am His and He is mine, Amen.