I will always remember the wondering of an ex-offender who came to faith in Christ and was enthusiastically baptized. Not long after, he came to me with a question that troubled him. He was worried about “backsliding” and falling away from the faith. He was tempted by his old ways of life and didn’t want to risk losing out on salvation. Wouldn’t it be better, he wondered, if the Lord took us to heaven right after we were baptized? After all, why risk anything further?
That question represents the hidden wondering, I suspect, of many western Christians. Once we get past Holy Week and Easter, what’s the rest of it for? Now that Jesus has done the important stuff, perhaps all that comes after is sort of beside the point. Is Jesus good for anything more now than a label for our particular club and the Divine signature on our eternal life policy?
The Vine and the Branches can allow us to think a bit about this question. It may seem that we’re going to engage in some theological mumbo-jumbo, but we need that clear and disciplined thinking to make sense out of this. We can talk for a bit about the “Person” and the “Work” of Jesus Christ and what that means for our life as people of the Spirit-filled Resurrection. What happens “after Easter” seems like a good topic for reflection and proclamation this week.
Many Protestant Christians know a fair bit about the “work” of Christ. The Work of Christ refers primarily the justification of sinners which God brings about through the victory over death won by Christ on his cross and in his resurrection.
In a simple sense, the Work of Christ is what God does in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit for us. In that Work, God sets us right with God and one another so we can be in right relationship with God, with one another, and with the whole cosmos.
We tend to think less about the “person” of Christ. The Person of Christ refers to the presence of the risen Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in the cosmos and in each creature. Again, in a simple sense, the Person of Christ is what God does in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit in us and through us.
In classical (and over-simplified) Lutheran terms, the Work of Christ is justification. The Person of Christ is about sanctification. We can debate about this description, as Lutherans have for 500 years. But it’s close enough for our purposes here.
The figure of speech we know as “The Vine and the Branches” is more about the Person of Christ than it is about the Work of Christ. It is more about sanctification than it is about justification. It is more about being “right” (righteous, whole, fully human) than getting “right” (righteous, whole, fully human). The figure of speech is more about how the Vine works in us and less about what the Vine does for us.
That in-dwelling, especially in John’s gospel, is always a mutual relationship. Christ dwells/abides/remains in me, and I dwell/abide/remain in Christ. That mutual relationship can produce some convoluted sentences to try to describe the connections.
In fact, the image of the Vine and the Branches conveys the relationship far better than the prose descriptions in John (which tend to sound like theological word salad in English). And that image reminds us that our mutual indwelling with Christ mirrors the mutual indwelling between the Father and the Son (and, by implication, the Spirit).
As I have noted in other contexts, I find the work of Tuomo Mannermaa and his Finnish school of Luther interpretation both helpful and exciting in this regard. Mannermaa points to Luther’s assertion that Christ is present in the justified sinner by faith.
I am not only “declared righteous” (thank God, that is most certainly true). In addition, and as a result, I am being “made righteous” as Christ works in me by the power of the Spirit (thank God, that is also most certainly true). In language that our Eastern siblings would well understand, we are both saved once and for all, and being saved day by day.
Mannermaa points to Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians as one of many locations for this line of thought. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God,” Paul writes in Galatians 2:19. The outcome of this death is that “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh,” Paul concludes, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Mannermaa describes this as “Christ present in faith.” He doesn’t mean a symbolic or metaphorical presence but rather a real, ontological presence. That’s important for the discussion here. “Christ in me” isn’t merely a symbol or a metaphor. It isn’t something I accomplish through devotion or thinking or imagination. That’s what actually happens when we are baptized into Christ.
The “I” of sin, of being curved in on oneself, is put to death in the cross of Christ. That “I” is being replaced with Christ who lives in me. Paul doesn’t mean that, somehow, I am obliterated as a person. Rather, he means that through the presence of Christ, I am being made into the fully human person I was created to be. The fully human person I was created to be is made for union with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit.
Mannermaa puts it this way. “It is important to appreciate that the conquest of the forces of sin and destruction takes place within Christ’s own person. He won the battle between righteousness and sin ‘in himself,’” Mannermaa declares. “Sin, death, and curse are first conquered in the person of Christ, and ‘thereafter’ the whole of creation is to be transformed through his person. Salvation is participation in the person of Christ” (Kindle Locations 317-319, my emphasis).
My righteousness is certainly a declarative (“forensic”) justification. It is also, Mannermaa asserts, a performative (“ontological”) justification. Luther often talks about this reality as the “Wonderful Exchange.” Christ takes the powers of sin, death, and the devil that live in me and absorbs them into himself. There, those powers are defeated. In exchange, I receive forgiveness, life, and salvation for Jesus’ sake and through his presence.
Mannermaa writes, “What takes place here between Christ and the believer is a kind of communication of attributes: Christ, the divine righteousness, truth, peace, joy, love, power, and life, gives himself to the Christian. At the same time,” he notes, “Christ ‘absorbs’ the believer’s sin, death, and curse into himself” (Kindle Locations 329-330).
“I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus tells his disciples. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). It is hard to articulate a closer actual and physical connection than that between the vine and the branches.
The branches draw their life from the vine. In a physical, as well as theological and spiritual, sense, the vine is present in each and all of the branches. This is the relationship Jesus promises, offers, and creates in all who follow him.
Therefore, according to Luther, the Wonderful Exchange is not only a removal of sin, death, and the devil, to be replaced by forgiveness, life, and salvation. What happens is, in fact, a “communication of attributes.” This is a technical theological term that up until Luther was typically applied to the relationships between members of the Trinity. But for Luther, it describes what happens to us when we mutually indwell with Christ in faith.
“It is precisely the Christ present in justifying faith who communicates God’s saving attributes to the believer in the ‘happy exchange,’” Mannermaa writes. “God is righteousness, and in faith the human being participates in righteousness; God is joy, and in faith the human being participates in joy; God is life, and in faith the human being participates in life; God is power, and in faith the human being participates in power, and so forth” (Kindle Locations 397-400).
This understanding of our relationship with God in Christ by the power of the Spirit helps me to hear “The Vine and the Branches” as sweet gospel rather than merely an opaque metaphor. Jesus makes this promise of himself to the first disciples and to all disciples who come after.
The Father tends the Vine in order to give life to the Vine, and in that life, we branches find and have our life as well. We are invited to abide in the Valid Vine as Beloved Branches, to remain connected and nourished and growing in him. With that mutual exchange of life and love, we can bear fruit. We can become all that God created us to be from the beginning. Why would we wish for anything else?
I wish I had come across the work of the Finns sooner, but I’m glad to find it now. The presence and power of the Messiah is present in us and in me by the power of the Life-giving Spirit. We draw our abundant life from the Vine.
We are made of the “same stuff” as the Vine as well! For Mannermaa, this means that Luther’s view was relatively close to the Eastern view of salvation as theosis, becoming more and more like Christ (“divinized”) in our union with him.
What is our life after justification good for? The Love of God is poured into us. But it is also poured out through us. That’s why we’re here – to be fruitful branches. In that fruit-bearing, we find more and more of the abundant life promised to us.
Life on the Vine (there’s a sermon title for you — no extra charge) is intensely personal and intimate. It is also of necessity communal. Jesus doesn’t say I am the vine, and you (singular) are a branch. We are branches together.
I can tell you that the last thirteen months of pandemic piety have confirmed both realities in me. I have been nourished as a branch through deeper study, reflection, and prayer. I have been reminded that life as a solo branch cannot be enough to sustain me for the long haul. We are branches together.
You can certainly use the story of the Ethiopian eunuch as an illustration of what happens when we’re brought into Life on the Vine. The second reading has some great lines as well to flesh this out (pun intended) further.
References and Resources
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John: A Verse-by-Verse Exposition. Kingsley Books. Kindle Edition.
Lewis, C. S. The Last Battle. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.
Lewis, Karoline. “On Withering” (April 23, 2018) https://www.workingpreacher.org/dear-working-preacher/on-withering.
Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.
Tuomo Mannermaa; Kirsi Irmeli Stjerna. Christ Present in Faith: Luther’s View of Justification. Kindle Edition.