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How is it that two people can read the exact same passage of Scripture and come away with two very different and even opposing ideas of what it means? One reads it as though it were law – God's command, telling us what we must do. The other reads the very same text and hears the gospel – God's promise of what He is doing. Luther was right when he said that the one who can properly discern between law and gospel deserves to be called a doctor of theology. Take our gospel reading for this morning for example. How have you heard what has been read? Is it law or gospel? Is this a command or a promise?
Actually, both are present. There's a command and there's a promise here. The problem is, we usually get them confused and end up calling the command the promise and the promise the command. It makes all the difference in the world, both in the way we hear these words from our Lord and in the effect these words have on our life of faith.
What stands out in this text is the repetition that Jesus uses to make His point with His disciples. Six times in these eight verses, He speaks to them about 'bearing fruit.' He even throws in a couple of adjectives like, 'bear much fruit,' and 'bear more fruit' to emphasize the fact that He's not talking about something that is to happen just occasionally or rarely.
Then, five times in these eight verses, Jesus speaks to His disciples saying 'abiding in Me.' And interestingly, its never just 'abide in Me.' It's always reciprocal. 'Abide in me and I in you.'
"Bear fruit." "Abide in me." One is a command and one is a promise. Knowing which is which is critical to hearing and applying our Lord's words to our life rightly. Getting it wrong means that we will hear our Lord saying just the opposite as His words really means and what He truly intends for us to take from His words.
The command is not to 'bear fruit.' That's the promise. The command is to "abide in Me." Unfortunately, we instinctively hear this the wrong way.
As soon as we hear Jesus say, "bear fruit," we immediately begin to think about what we must do. We like it when Jesus tells us what we must do. It gives us a chance to make a contribution and do our part. We hear His word and we immediately think, what must I do to 'bear fruit?' And what kind of 'fruit' must I bear? And how much fruit do I need to produce. If we take His words seriously, we begin to identify certain places in our life where we need to clean up our act and break some bad habits. We identify a couple of things we should do that are 'good,' 'positive,' 'constructive.' And we swear to God that we'll get right on it and start producing more fruit.
The way we hear what Jesus has said, if we obey His command to 'bear fruit' and 'more fruit' and 'much fruit,' then we'll receive the promise and "abide in Him and He will abide in us."
But then, one of two things happens. We either become proud of the progress that we've made and feel that God must certainly be pleased with me for producing such good fruit, and by my fruit we can be sure that He is abiding in me and I in Him.
Or we become depressed and despair because, in all honesty, we just can't be sure that we're living up to the standards that He expects of us. I mean really, how can you ever be sure that you've done enough, when Jesus says, "bear MORE fruit," and "bear MUCH fruit." How much is 'MORE' anyway? And how much more do you have to do before you're sure you've done 'MUCH?'
I'll tell you who likes to take these words of Jesus a though they were command, preachers and authors of books on how to be a better Christian. Preachers love to preach this text as a command because they think that they need to prod and push their people to get them to bear more fruit. And the poor parishioners wear themselves out striving to live up their pastor's unending series of new challenges and higher goals.
And if that weren't bad enough, if the congregation really starts to produce some more fruit and much fruit, he writes a book called, "How to produce more fruit in your life." And innocent people in good congregations buy it, read it, believe it, and think that they need to join in the rat race if they want to abide in Jesus and Jesus in them. (Sorry, but as you can tell, I was at a pastors conference this week.)
In either case, whether we get puffed up from succeeding or burned out from failing, we end up in the exact same place, which is apart from Christ. We either conclude that we can actually produce fruit ourselves with a little spiritual boost from God or it just can't be done and we give up.
That's what happens when you focus on the fruit. The fruit becomes your idol and robs you of your life and your faith.
One last point here and I'll get off this soapbox. Keep in mind that Jesus is speaking these words to His disciples as they walk from the Upper Room after the Last Supper to the Garden of Gethsemane where He will be betrayed and arrested and led to the cross to be crucified. Can we really believe that in these final moments with His disciples that Jesus is prodding them on to produce and make it happen with the promise that then He will abide with them and they with Him?
No, these words are meant to be pure comfort and encouragement for these men and for you and me. These are words of promise, not command. "You will produce fruit. You will see me handed over, crucified and die on the cross. But, do not worry. Do not despair. You will produce MORE fruit than you produced while I was with you. You will produce MUCH fruit."
"Abide in Me." There's the command. When you abide in Christ and He in you, you will bear much fruit. And it will be good fruit, the kind of fruit that God is pleased with. "As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me." Bearing fruit is not the command. It's the promise. And you apply His promise to your life by taking a deep breath, relaxing, stop running, stop counting. Christ has done it all by His death and resurrection. You are the fruit of His atoning sacrifice and victory over the sin, death and the devil. Abiding in Him and He in you, you will bear much fruit not because of anything you do, but because of everything that He has done.
It sounds too simple and too easy I know, but that's what Jesus is saying. Just as apples trees produce apples and grape vines produce grapes, Christ produces Christians. And abiding in you, He produces His fruit through you.
So, apart from Christ, try as hard as you may, you cannot produce good fruit. Why? Jesus answers like this, "Are grapes gathered from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? The diseased tree bears bad fruit." (Matt.7:16-17). By nature, from birth, we are the branches of a thorn bush and a diseased tree. And you don't get good fruit from bad trees.
But when Christ comes to you something radical happens. He cuts you off from the thorn bush and the diseased tree and unites you to Himself, the true vine. At the beginning of our Inquirers Class this past Thursday evening, Dawna and Tommy Lambert were baptized into Christ. By the power of the Holy Spirit working through the water and the word, two things happened to them. They were cut off from the diseased tree that produces no good fruit and thrown into the fire to be burned. And they were united, grafted in to the true vine that is Jesus Christ and now His life giving Spirit is at work producing good fruit through their life. Or do you not know that as many of you as have been baptized into Christ, have been cut off from the diseased tree you were united to and united to the true vine, and Christ now abides in you and you in Him?
Now, what Jesus is commanding us is, "stay put!" "Remain connected to me." "Abide in me." "Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing." And as Luther says in his "Bondage of the Will," Jesus does not mean, "a little something."
Abiding in Christ and Christ in you, you will bear much fruit. God the Father will see to it. "My father is the vinedresser." The vinedresser is the caretaker. He takes care of the vine and its branches. You're not left on your own to grow and be fruitful. The Father takes care of you. He'll prune you if your pride needs to be cut back. He's always ready to nourish you with His Word and the sacraments that will fertilize your faith. Connected to the vine, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and courses through our veins producing His gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Maybe it doesn't seem to you as though you are producing much fruit. Maybe you look at your life and you just can't see it. So once again let me remind you, that when we focus on the fruit, you've got your eyes fixed on the wrong object. Fix your eyes on Jesus to whom you are united and in whom you abide and who abides in you. Listen to what He says and not on what you see. His Word does what it says. "Whoever abides in Me and I in Him, he it is who bears much fruit."
Rest assured, that God is at work in you producing fruit that He likes. And most of the time, you're not going to see it. You're not going to realize what fruit that word of encouragement you spoke to someone along the way produced. Mother's, you're not always going to see the fruit of the love you bestow on your children. But it's there and God sees it and by this, Jesus says, "My Father is glorified that you bear much fruit." Only rarely are you going to see the fruit of the prayers that you pray for someone who needs to be lifted up to the Lord, or that visit you paid to the person who was lonely or that word you spoke on behalf of someone who couldn't defend themselves. But you are bearing fruit and God sees it and "My Father is glorified that you bear much fruit."
"Abide in me." That's the command. "You will bear much fruit." That's the promise. God does not do His work on us from the outside in, by pressuring us to produce a change in our life. He works on us from the inside out, changing us by His mighty power on the inside and fruit begins to appear on the outside. Changed as we are on the inside, we begin to ask God for what He wants to give us and He gives us what we ask for.
This is what Easter is all about. It's not just the promise of eternal life when we die but the assurance of the risen and living Christ abiding in us now. Yes, when we die, we will most certainly be raised to new life. But even now, you have been raised to that new life in Christ. You are the fruit of His resurrection.