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“[Jesus said:] I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. 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. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” —John 15:1-9

Jesus said, “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

We are being pruned. We’re all feeling it right now.

Pruning is uncomfortable, to put it mildly. It looks and feels like you’re dying. It feels like you’ve lost a part of you—which really, you have. It feels like you’ve been robbed of the very thing that’s been producing fruit. It feels like you’ve lost your purpose. The questions course through your mind, “Why? Why did this happen? Where did this come from? What’s going on? What can we do? What’s coming next?”

Read these words again: “I am the vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.”

God is the vinedresser. He’s the one who shapes the vine, decides when and what to prune, so that His vine may produce more fruit. It is our Father’s will when and how pruning happens--our Father’s and no one else’s. It’s certainly not up to us. Nor is it just a result of the machinations of the Devil (though God often uses the devil’s teeth for pruning shears). It’s your Father doing the cutting. And His pruning is always Good. 

It still hurts, but that doesn’t make it any less Good. Consider how much good fruit Jesus produced during those 3 years of earthly ministry in Israel. People were miraculously healed, demons were cast out, the dead were raised, and the kingdom of heaven was proclaimed everywhere. Yet the Father pruned Jesus. He pruned Jesus with liars and cowards, with fists and lashes and thorns and nails. He pruned Jesus with terrible suffering so that He could produce eternal fruit for all people of all time, greater and more precious fruit than any of us would have imagined possible. And we saw how Jesus came through the pruning: Alive. Healed. Bearing scars, yes, and also bearing a Word of peace that He could never have spoken had He not suffered that pruning. 

“Every branch that does bear fruit the Father prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” We are pruned not because we were fruitless before, but because we are fruitful. This is so that we may bear more fruit.

And what is that fruit? Let’s not lose sight of that. What is the fruit that the Father desires, that He prunes us to bear? It’s faithful Christians gathered around Jesus’ gifts and calling others to join us. It faithful, forgiven sons and daughters of God hearing and speaking and living the Gospel of Christ. Faith towards God, fervent love toward one another.

We know we’re not unfruitful because we’ve been doing the very thing that God calls us to do: preaching and hearing the Gospel, proclaiming forgiveness of sins in Jesus, receiving the gifts of the Sacraments. That’s what we’ve done here since Zion was founded over 100 years ago. And that’s what we will continue to do for years to come.

Now how will our shared life of faith and love look in the days ahead? Bearing fruit may look very different from what we expect, what once seemed beyond us. But it will always come back to the life we receive from our vine, Jesus.

What our forefathers in the Church faced in former times is not much different than what we’re going through now. In some ways it’s incredibly similar. Adult conversions and baptisms were the main source of growth in the first centuries following the resurrection, and adult conversions and baptisms will be how we grow here in New York in the years to come. That means active rather than passive growth. It’s not going to be a time where we can just hang out our shingle and wait for people to come to us, or wait for people to have babies to grow the church (though that demographic is slowly changing in Christian circles).

And you wonder, how long will it be until it’s illegal for us to hang out a shingle at all? How long until the Enemy of the church makes it financially or legally impossible for us to do church as we do right now? How long until we are meeting in people’s houses again, like Christians always have and still do in so much of the world? Not long. Sooner than we could have imagined 50 years ago, 10 years ago, 5 years ago.

And you also have to wonder, will any of that be bad for us? Or can God bring good even from that suffering? That’s the norm for the Christian church throughout the ages, throughout the world. God uses even direct persecution to prune us further, for our good, for our growth.

We have been pruned before, we are being pruned now, and the pruning will continue, as it always will until Jesus returns. This pruning is not divine punishment--all punishment was finished on Jesus’ cross. This pruning is not divine punishment, but divine providence,  the work of love. We will endure the same way the Church always has: we abide in Christ, the vine. 

Never forget: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

Apart from Christ we can do nothing. But we are not apart from Him.

We have His lifeblood flowing through our veins, pumping life and love from His heart into our own. We hear how Jesus, our vine, was wounded so that we could be grafted in. And at Zion’s altar, by the power of His Word, the fruit of the grapevine brings us the fruit of the Cross.

Anything and everything we do must be done from this foundation, flowing from the proclamation and reception of Christ crucified and risen that we have at Zion. Zion gathering in Divine Service is not a function of our church—it is our church. That’s where we are calling people to join us. That’s the point of all the evangelism and catechesis and teaching—to bring them to receive all of Jesus’ gifts here. That’s how we live and exist as part of the eternal capital-C Church. Word and Sacrament, Divine Service is how we do that. That’s our core and center and foundation and heart. It’s how we produce fruit, and it always has been. It’s gathering around Jesus to receive life from Him there. And week after week, that’s exactly what He does for you.

It was never was the branch itself producing the fruit. It was always the vine, producing the fruit through the branch. Jesus the vine has been at work here all along, and He suffers the pruning with us. Abiding in Jesus we will come through this pruning the same way he did: Alive. Healed. Bearing scars, yes, and also bearing His Word of peace. Abide in Him now by receiving His Life and Word from Him every week in the Divine Service.

No one can cut us off from Jesus, our life-giving vine. No government regulation or financial drought or protesters or lawsuits, no man or demon, can ever take us away from Him. Not by coercion, not by force. Greater is He who is us than he who is in the world.

So what now? We do what the Church has always done. Abide in the vine, bear fruit and so prove to be Jesus’ disciples, following where He leads, living from His life, loving from His love. If God is for us, who can be against us? If Christ is our vine, what can possibly stop the fruit, the love, the life He gives us?

+Pastor Heath