05 Easter B 09
May 10, 2009
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" 31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth."
34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD.
May your hearts live forever!
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
28 For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.
29 To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
30 Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
31 and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.
1 John 4:7-21
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9 God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
13 By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15 God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16 So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17 Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18 There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19 We love because he first loved us. 20 Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21 The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. 2 He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8 My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Where’s the Fruit?
The parable of the vine is an easy one. We could do a little diagram. The vine is Jesus, the branches are his disciples, the vinedresser is God.
It’s a little disturbing. We have the troubling image of the vinedresser cutting away the branches that bear no fruit. They end up in the heaven’s back yard in the brush pile.
Most of us here in the country have brush piles. It’s easier to take all your weeds and branches and things you have cut down and pulled up and throw them in that pile and burn them than to try to pile it in your truck and haul it to the dump. But the action is about the same. The brush pile gets all the stuff you don’t want on your property, all the stuff that’s no use to you.
We don’t feel angry about the things in the brush pile, I don’t think. We might even feel a little bit sad about that tree that’s dying so that its branches have fallen in a mild wind. We might feel a little satisfied when we light all that stuff up and watch it burn into nothing, but we’re not angry at it. It’s there because it was getting in the way or because it messed up the beauty of our property or because it threatened our flowers and vegetables. We don’t think of any of it as evil or malevolent. All the stuff we burn in the brush pile was just other kinds of living things that happened not to fit into our plans. They all have uses, probably, they all contribute somehow to the well-being of the planet, probably, but for our purposes they are useless.
In Jesus’ parable the people of God, what we call the church, is likened to God’s vineyard, God’s little patch of green, God’s garden. The parable is not about the world. Particularly in the gospel of John, Jesus makes very clear when he is speaking about the world and when he is speaking about the disciples. This parable is about his disciples.
Jesus used a lot of agrarian images in his teaching. Agriculture was very familiar to his followers. I grew up and lived in cities or suburbs most of my life and agriculture is unfamiliar to me and probably to a lot of people in the United States and other so-called developed countries. But here in Deltaville, there are lots of people who keep gardens, lots of people who have significant pieces of property with stuff growing all over it.
So many of us I think can identify with the image. Jesus puts us in the seat of God for a second and lets us see things from God’s point of view. Imagine, Jesus asks us, that you had a vineyard. The idea of a vineyard is to produce grapes. If you want to produce grapes, lots of grapes, good-tasting grapes, you have to really work on those vines. Let them grow wild and not only will you have fewer grapes, but the grapes you’ll have won’t be very good-tasting. Okay, you say, I get it. How do I make sure to have lots of good grapes? Easy, says Jesus, you just keep pruning.
I read somewhere that if you’d ever seen a well-dressed vine you’d wonder if it could survive the pruning. Modern vinedressers do some serious cutting to improve the performance of the vines. It’s pretty intense.
But of course it’s nothing personal, anymore than weeding is particularly personal to a gardener. I’m not a gardener myself. I have never enjoyed it or found it relaxing or any of those things people say about it. But I sense that gardeners think of themselves not as murderous angry garden-wreckers, but rather as nurturing and attentive caregivers. Pulling weeds, cutting branches, pruning vines, these things are about caring and nurturing for a garden so that it will be beautiful and productive and healthy.
It would be easy to individualize this parable, as we so often do to biblical texts. There is certainly truth to the idea that a lot of the suffering we endure in our individual lives shapes us as more compassionate and caring people. Of course, just as often, suffering seems to produce controlling, angry and bitter people. I think the difference is probably in the view each person has of God. Do you see God as a murderous and angry garden-wrecker? Or do you see him as a loving and attentive caregiver?
But individualizing this parable would I think twist its meaning. I think it’s pretty clear that the branches Jesus is talking about are people, and the whole picture he’s giving is of his church, the community of his disciples. I think he’s saying that there may be many people who come into the community of his church. All, of course, are welcome. All are, of course, loved.
But the church is finally God’s garden. Jesus uses the vineyard as an image, probably because it was often used in the old testament. It’s also probably no accident that wine, the fruit of the vine, was traditionally the last thing consumed at a celebratory dinner. Wine, in the ancient Near East, was the delicious dessert. It’s a fitting symbol therefore for God’s ultimate purpose, the last thing, the final outcome, the big finish.
God is not angry with the branches that don’t produce. Maybe mildly irritated, but not angry. He doesn’t think anymore of pruning off the fruitless branch than you think of pulling a weed. It’s not that the branch is bad or evil. There are plenty of wild vines growing all over the world that work just fine without any pruning at all. You wouldn’t get many grapes from them, and you wouldn’t like the ones you got, but they grow and live and thrive.
But God is after the big finish, lots and lots of sweet and juicy grapes that will become the marvelously delicious final cup of creation. The disciples of Jesus are meant to produce these grapes. If they produce, they remain. If they don’t, they wither and die, and are cut off and thrown into the brush pile.
Jesus doesn’t waste any time telling us about how scary and painful the brush pile is. He doesn’t even imply that the brush pile is some kind of eternal punishment. It’s just waste, neither good nor bad, simply unproductive, useless to the final outcome.
Which leaves us the question: what is the final outcome? What is the last cup, the delicious dessert wine? What is the fruit of the vine we are expected to produce as disciples of Jesus?
The obvious and quickest and perhaps easiest answer is love. This summons up lots of warm gushy feelings about being sweet and polite and warm toward our friends. But I think we all know that the dessert wine we’re talking about is more costly than that.
John says in his letter this morning: “God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” John’s whole gospel is about a world that despised and rejected God’s love. It is about love that loves the enemy and the outcast and the stranger, the love that welcomes back and embraces and blesses even those who hate and fear it. This is a great deal more than the gushy stuff we feel for people within our circle of concern. When God’s love comes into the world, the world crucifies it. But it can’t thereby be stopped. John also says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.” In the ways of the world, people fear their enemies, but John says, “Perfect love casts out fear.”
The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a story of fruit-bearing. Philip, full of the sap of the vine of Jesus, invites into the kingdom of God someone who formerly would never have been welcome: a foreigner and a eunuch. Even though the Ethiopian worshipped the God of the Jews, it’s certain that purity laws excluded him from the temple. Nevertheless, he’d come all the way from Ethiopia to celebrate Pentecost, the feast of the harvest and of the giving of the law at Mount Sinai. The message that Philip teaches him about Jesus, you will notice, focuses on what we might call today non-violent resistance. Jesus loved even those who betrayed and tried him, so that like a sheep led to the slaughter, he did not open his mouth. And it was this love, the love of the whole world and particularly the love of the enemy, that has triumphed in the resurrection.
Friends, if God loved us when we despised him, should we not also love those who despise him, not only here among ourselves or in our own neighborhoods, but all through the world?
We have spoken about why we see faith in decline in our nation and in North America. I think it’s because Christians have embraced the “us-against-them” mentality that infects the world. People see nothing powerful or new in yet another group standing up and saying what it’s against. The fruit we are called to bear is for them, not against them. I believe that this spirit of love, especially for the enemy and the stranger, is flowing through the vine and into the branches of Philippi Christian Church. And I see a glorious future for our congregation in this place.
I see a beautiful cup, filled with delicious wine.