Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Perhaps the most beloved feature of our sanctuary here at Oak Harbor Lutheran Church are the picture windows looking out on that stand of trees. Most of those trees out there are evergreen trees. They are so named because they are “ever green.” They stay lush and full and green all year ‘round.
Except when they don’t. There are a couple of branches outside our window today which are not green. They are not green because they are no longer alive, and they are no longer alive because they are no longer connected to the tree! Those branches broke off in one of the many windstorms we’ve had over the past few months, and so they are disconnected from their source of life and have become shriveled and dried out and lifeless.
Just the past week I was over here mowing with one of my sons, and I just about pulled those branches out. But then I thought – No! Leave them! Those branches are a perfect illustration of what our Lord Jesus is teaching us in our gospel reading this week!
“Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus says. “Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”
Jesus is comparing our relationship with him as being like a vine with its branches. He is the vine, we are the branches. And just like any branch, we need to abide in him in order to truly live. We need to stay connected to him in order to stay evergreen. We need to draw nutrients from him in order to flourish with a faith that is vibrant and alive. We need to stay connected to him through word and prayer and worship in order to bear the fruit that God desires.
Without that connection, we dry up. Without that connection, faith dies. When we do not abide in Christ, we shrivel up and become lifeless, like those dead brown branches outside our window. And those dead branches are removed. “Whoever does not abide in me,” Jesus says, “is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.”
This might sound harsh, but Jesus is simply telling it like it is. He is simply being realistic. He is simply telling us the natural consequences of what happens to branches when they are no longer connected to the source of life. Jesus is telling us this so that it won’t happen to us, so that we will instead abide in him, the true vine and the source of life, apart from whom we can do nothing.
We know what it is to be disconnected. Due to pandemic restrictions we’ve been disconnected socially in many ways for more than a year now. It has been a struggle. I’ve seen a few articles recently expressing concern that we have been so socially disconnected for so long that we’ll have to relearn certain social skills. There is further concern that some people won’t want to. that they’ll want to stay in their comfortable cocoons, cut off from other people. What started off as a prudent public health measure will become a lifestyle. While personally I don’t think this will be a widespread problem, I’ve have seen anecdotal evidence of it here and there. And so some relationships will wither. Some communities, including congregations, will shrivel around the edges. The people who cut themselves off will continue to shrivel socially from lack of connection with others.
That human connection is so important, and technology is no substitute for the real thing. I’m grateful I live in an age when I can send my son out of state for college and still see him as we FaceTime with him every Sunday night, but you can bet I’m looking forward to having him at the dinner table in person when he comes home next week. As some of you saw on Facebook, I got to see Abby Chromy, our beloved former parish nurse, for an in-person visit last week for the first time in over a year. That connection had been painfully severed due to the lockdowns. To finally abide with her in person was life-giving for both of us. At Helen Grigsby’s funeral this past week I saw tears of joy in the eyes of some of our members who came out for the service saw dear friends they hadn’t seen in months. Even in the midst of death and grief, there was life! We find life in those connections, in real, human connection. We need it as human beings. We need it as the Body of Christ.
What is true in our social life is even more true in our spiritual life. In order for us to be spiritually alive, we need that connection to Jesus. He is the vine, we are the branches. Apart from him, we can do nothing. He is our source of life. He is the true vine, the only vine that can make us evergreen. He is the true vine through whom we can bear the fruit God desires. By being connected to Jesus, we are infused with a love and mercy and hope and peace that grows and blossoms into a love and mercy and hope and peace that we can share with others.
We hear these words today still very much in the season of Easter. And so we hear all of this from the perspective of knowing that Christ is risen. We hear it knowing that he is the true vine that continues to live and sprout branches yet today. When we hear Jesus tell the disciples that he abides in them, we know that our risen Lord continues to abide with his people. He continues to be present with us through the power of the Spirit. When we hear Jesus tell the disciples, “You are already been cleansed by the word I have spoken to you,” we know that our risen Lord continues to speak a word that cleanses us. He spoke this word to us at our baptism, where we were first grafted into him. He speaks this word to us whenever the forgiveness of sins is announced in his name, where he prunes away our sin to make room for fruit. He speaks this word to us every time we hear the words, “This is my body, my blood, given for you.” Our risen Lord continues to come to us to establish that connection, so that we would have life in him.
We all struggle at times to bear fruit. We struggle to stay connected to the true vine. Sometimes we feel like that withered branch outside our window, spiritually dry and dead. But our risen Lord comes to us even now through word and sacrament to connect us to him. Our risen Lord continues to abide with us. Let us abide in this true vine. Let us stay connected as his branches. Let us receive the life he has come to give us, a life that is evergreen, and bears good fruit.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church