Easter 5.18 “Without Me…” John 15:1-8
There is a wonderful scene in the not always wonderful cartoon “Archer” (I only know about “Archer” because of the church council’s observation that I’m often overspent on my book allowance and might try television to keep costs down. Because hey: there’s nothing in books that you can’t get cheaper and faster on TV, right? It’s working really well! As this sermon, no doubt, will demonstrate :-). Anyway, Sterling Archer is a rather dense, but charismatic secret agent in the James Bond mold. He is athletic, brave, good-hearted, skilled in driving, fighting, and drinking (obsessed with airboats, ocelots, and Burt Reynolds) but is not, how shall we say it?—not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. He relies more on luck than skill. In one episode, he and his team (his mom is the boss of the outfit) are traveling on a Zeppelin because someone had the bright idea to revive that mode of travel. Archer remembers the Hindenburg going down in flames (Oh, the humanity!) and is quite nervous about being on what he considers a flammable death-trap. The captain explains to him there is no cause for concern as this dirigible is filled with helium, not hydrogen. So, perfectly safe. Archer frowns and does not want to admit he doesn’t know what helium is and that it isn’t flammable like hydrogen.
So he goes around the ship slapping cigarettes out of passengers’ mouths, lighters out of their hands, shouting “Good Lord, man! Do you want to kill us all?” And the annoyed passengers go “Helium, you dolt! Helium! What part of helium don’t you get?” And Archer replies with a frown “Uh, the core concept, obviously.” It’s a useful phrase. For example, let’s say you’re talking with your sports knowledgeable son about whether it was a good idea drafting Johnny Manz…uh, Baker Mayfield #1. You say it’s an inspired pick and your son goes: “What part of spread offense not usually correlating to NFL quarterback success don’t you get?” And you go, with a wry smile, “Uh, the core concept, obviously.” So, you don’t have to admit that you’re actually kinda hazy on the spread offense vs. pro-style. You look like you’re referencing Archer, ironically, smarter than you really are. Speaking for a friend. Try it at home, kids.
Anyway, we’re all Archer, today, I think, with Jesus and this Gospel. Jesus first speaks these words to the 11 remaining apostles on the way to the Garden of Gethsemane that fateful Thursday evening of Holy Week (Judas has left to betray Him at this point). They have been discussing lots of stuff, how Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, how He and the Father are one, how the Holy Spirit is coming to help us out, teach us all things by bringing to our remembrance the words of Jesus, how Jesus leaves us with Peace, but not as the world gives it, how this is one of our last face-to-face talks with Him for a while…
And then Jesus says, very plainly to the (usually confused) apostles that He is the vine, we are the branches, and His Father is the vinedresser, cutting off clueless (uh, er I mean fruitless) branches and pruning the ones that do bear fruit to bear more fruit. He says the Word He has already spoken to us has pruned us just fine. He says “Abide in Me and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”
And what part of “nothing” don’t we get? And I’d reply, “Uh, the core concept, obviously”—in my best Archer voice. One of my favorite things about the Gospels is how utterly clueless the apostles are most of the time. They are good-hearted, brave (except when they’re being cowardly as they’re about to be on that fateful Thursday night) skilled in sailing, fishing, tax collection—they’d be skilled in calling down fire from heaven on the recalcitrant too, if only Jesus would let them practice that important skill now and then! I bet they’d also love airboats if they’d only known about them. They’ve even read the Bible, fairly well. But they rely much more on luck + grace than skill. They are always missing the point of Jesus’ little parables and cryptic sayings, but when Jesus asks, “Have you understood all these things?” they just go “Yes”. And hope there will be no quiz and no math.
In other words, they are just like you and me and Archer. These are our peeps. Because as Dr. Luther points out marvelously in his little book “On Councils and the Church” (which I’ve been re-reading lately) Christendom, especially the leaders of the church(!) have gone around clueless for a very long time. The bishops of Rome (along with most of the other bishops) have, (like the disciples for much of the Gospel narrative) been more concerned about their own greatness and power than Jesus’. Popes have relied on all kinds of useless works and indulgences and rather little on Christ Jesus and His cross. They keep thinking that good works will work, if we just try a little harder, harp on them a little more, maybe use some clever marketing techniques from the business world to hawk the Gospel better, like beer, cosmetic products, filling the coffers…
Jesus says “Without Me, you can do nothing.” He does not say “Without Me, you can’t do much, but you can do a lot, if you just have enough zeal for saving the lost, spreading the Gospel, and can work cinnamon buns and technology into your plan.” He does not say “Without Me, you can’t get your foot in the door of My Kingdom, but once I get your foot in the door, I have a lot that I expect you to do by way of reforming your own lives and saving the lost. So let’s not sit around like grace and faith and My cross are going to get it all done, now, OK, Buster?” No. He does not say that.
And yet… Christendom has gone steaming on for most of its history (as Luther shows!) as if Jesus said “You can’t do much, but you can do a lot on your own without Me” rather than what He did say: “Without Me, you can do nothing.” Because we’ve run around, time out of mind, like Archer, failing to get the core concept of nothing, obviously. Rome came up with all kinds of clever ways to work the law and human doings and strivings into the plan of salvation. And our own Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod (which, of all Christendom, should have known better!) has been very zealous in catching up Rome on the works righteousness thing by droning on the last 4 decades about how we can’t save ourselves but we sure can save our lost brothers and sisters if only we get off our tails and start ringing doorbells and get mission-minded. Somewhere, Luther is slapping his forehead. Hard.
What part of nothing don’t we get? The core concept, obviously. But here’s the good news. We can do nothing without Him but we’re never without Him. Jesus gets us, even when we don’t get Him. He never quizzes, never scolds; just bestows saving faith on us, anyway by Word + Sacrament. Turns out, relying on Jesus’ free grace by faith alone is the winning formula…
The fun thing about “Archer” is that, despite himself, things usually work out quite well. Intelligent effort turns out to be overrated. Luck, and grace, and Jesus work better. And that is a core concept that will get us all. Because in Jesus we are all forgiven, rescued, won; and Peace surpassing all understanding (and all deserving!) guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.