An enemy grenade falls into an area where a group of soldiers are standing. Without hesitation, one of the soldiers jumps on the grenade and covers it. His body absorbs the blast, and his fellow soldiers are saved by his act of heroism while he is killed.
A large number of Congressional Medals of Honor have been awarded to soldiers who have jumped on a grenade to save their comrades. On very rare occasions a soldier may survive such an action with grievous wounds such as Kyle Carpenter, the youngest living Medal of Honor recipient. Yet for the most part the soldier who does this is giving his life in order save his comrades.
In our text this evening Jesus says, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Our Lord speaks these words as he is on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane where he will be betrayed and arrested – events that will culminate in his crucifixion as he gives his life for us on the cross. Jesus will give his life in order to save all people. In doing so he shares the Father’s love. And because Christ has loved us in this way, he calls us to love one another.
Jesus begins our text by saying, “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.” Our Lord uses the metaphor of a vine to describe the relationship that exists between him and believers.
Jesus emphasizes that only by remaining in relation to him can we bear fruit. He says, “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.”
Jesus tells us that he is the true source of life. It is only he who can provide the means by which we can produce the life that pleases God and serves our neighbor. We like to think of ourselves as being capable and able to do things. But our Lord tells us that when it comes to what really matters – what counts before God – we are not able to do anything. It is only by remaining in Jesus through faith – only by abiding in him that we can bear fruit.
Our Lord says that he is the vine, we are the branches, and the Father is the vine dresser. The life of every branch can only continue as it remains connected to the vine – as it abides in it. Our Lord warns in our text, “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.” There is no going it alone without Jesus. To refuse to abide in Jesus – to abandon and turn away from Jesus - means spiritual death.
But it’s not just the explicit rejection of Jesus that our Lord addresses. In the first verses of our text he says, “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.” If James can say faith without works dead, Jesus says a branch that does not bear fruit is removed by the Father.
But at the same time, our Lord says that “every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” Note that here it is the branch that is connected to the vine and is producing fruit that the pruned. This is done so that it will be even more fruit.
Faithful Christians experience hardships, difficulties and challenges. To us this appears to be God ignoring or abandoning us. But Jesus says this gets it all wrong. Instead, it is God carefully tending to us so that we grow in faith and bear even more fruit. Being “pruned” does not sound enjoyable, and often it is not. But this is indeed the loving work of the Father as he causes us to grow and bear even more fruit in faith.
We know it is the loving work of the Father because of what he has done through his Son. Jesus goes on to say, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.
If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.
These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”
Jesus urges us to stand in the same relation to him that he does to the Father. The Father loves the Son. The Son abides in the Father’s love and has kept his commandments. And of course the commandment that Jesus is in the process of keeping is to offer himself as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
And just as the Father with the Son, so it is with Jesus and us. Jesus loves us. We are to abide in his love. We are to keep his commandments. Jesus tells us this so that his joy of carrying out the Father’s loving and saving will may be in us. His says this so that our joy may be full.
At the supper that night – the Last Supper – Jesus had said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Now again Jesus says in our text, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.”
Jesus tells us to love one another as he has loved us. And the way he has loved us is that the laid down his life for us. Though in fact from birth we were flesh – sinful, fallen and opposed to him – Jesus treated us as friends. He was lifted upon on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins. He was lifted up on the cross to draw us to himself, as the forgiven children of God.
Jesus was buried in a tomb to defeat death because he did not stay there. Instead he is the resurrection and the life who rose from the dead. His love has resulted in life for us – eternal life that we already possess by faith and that physical death cannot touch. And physical death cannot have the last word because the Lord who has risen from the dead will raise us up too. As Jesus says in this Gospel: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.”
Born again of water and the Spirit, the spiritual life that we have is a gift from God. Indeed, Jesus reminds us that our life of faith did not originate in us. Instead, it comes from him. At the end of our text Jesus says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
Jesus chose you. That’s what it means to confess, “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him. But the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel.” And in our text, the Lord says that this action had a purpose – that we should go and bear fruit, fruit that abides. It is not difficult to understand what this fruit is, for Jesus adds, “These things I command you, so that you will love one another.”
During Lent we prepare again to see in Jesus that, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” Our Lord chose us to be his friends when we were in fact enemies. He lay down his life for us in order to give us forgiveness and eternal life. He took it up again to give us the promise of our own resurrection. He has chosen us and appointed us to bear fruit. And this fruit is that we love one another.