The Branches Is Us

Fifth Sunday of Easter

A few days ago I described the Christian life as a “come as you are” party. It occurred to me that I have never actually been to a come as you are party, and the two (younger) people I asked were not even sure what that was. [You can listen to the sermon 27 minutes into this youtube broadcast: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEqs5xGbtMc ]

So, yes, it is a thing, or it WAS a thing, back some decades–after the invention of the telephone, and before the invention of the internet. The host or hosts telephoned their friends and told them the party was happening NOW… so “Come as you are!” No time to get dolled up. Just get yourself over to meet your friends and maybe family, stepping directly from whatever you are doing (mowing the lawn? cooking dinner? If you were in the bath, well, that’s what bathrobes were made for…) and come on along, part of the party was the silliness and the joy of an unexpected event there was no need or possibility of being ready for… and seeing others in exactly the same situation.

In the Christ life, we are deluded if we think we have the capacity to “get ready” for the party God has planned for us. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or cannot learn, grow, become discerning, and stretch ourselves in discovery and in love. In sections of John’s Gospel and most notably in the first letter of John, part of which we have also heard today, love is almost synonymous with life, meaning the unperishable life. As we can read in 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed”.

And this isn’t simply our individual selves, it is our community life as well. So the “come as you are” party guests we meet in Acts are both Philip and the Ethiopian.

Philip is one of the very first evangelists, one of seven deacons appointed by the early community in Jerusalem. This is early days for the church. Saul, later known to us as the Apostle Paul, is still persecuting Christians! After Stephen’s death, Philip went up to Samaria where he was converting and baptising until an angel of the Lord tells him to “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.)”

Commentator Tim Witherington (Note 1) describes Philip’s whole ministry as being “on the fringes of Judaism.” If you know a little about ecology, you likely know that the territory where two ecological zones meet has the most diverse and the richest life forms.

That life and that fruitfulness, on the part of the early community, are fulfilling the promise made by Jesus to the apostles right before he died, to which our attention is drawn in this morning’s Gospel. Let’s admit that it is both appropriate and weird (Karoline Lewis calls it “homiletically challenging” (Note 2)) to return to the final days of Jesus ministry in this season of the resurrection.

“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.” John’s Gospel famously revolves around a series of “I am” statements, of which this is the final one. It is also the only one that, in addition to Jesus’ stating who I am, tells the disciples who they are. “You are the branches.” This is literally a word of life that Jesus gives them, words to cling to in the very next days, as they experience his arrest and his trial and his crucifixion. The vitality of that word is proven by its fruit: an astonishing momentum is rapidly and abundantly springing from the scant three years of Jesus earthly ministry.

What a vine, indeed! What branches!

The Ethiopian eunuch is an astonishing figure in this story. He is racially and sexually exotic, as well as evidently powerful and personally wealthy. He has come from what was then the farthest part of the world. He is marginalized in many ways. This might be why he is so drawn to the very scripture he is reading at the moment Philip appears. This official is clearly prepared and fully intentional as Philip encounters him. He has travelled to Jerusalem to worship there. He has used his wealth to purchase an actual… certainly rare and costly… scroll of scripture, the text of Isaiah which he is reading aloud. (until much later than this… Faith Wallis taught me this… reading and praying were always done out loud. ) 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. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?”

What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Such a loaded question.

The early church writers didn’t want to leave things hanging there. They actually added a whole verse about what the person being baptised needed to believe and profess. But in time this verse was recognized as an later addition, not part of the original scripture, and it was deleted. So if anyone asks you to pick up a Bible and turn to Acts 8:37, you will not find that verse at all!

In recent years this story has drawn a lot of attention as the church has moved (some would say struggled or attempted) to embrace not simply the equal membership but the authority of marginalized people–women, racialized people, blue collar and working class people, and (to dispense here with the abbreviations) lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and/or gender expansive, queer and/or questioning, intersex, asexual, and two-spirit people.

“What is to prevent me from being baptised?”

So many words and so much ink poured out. But for the earliest church, no questions or commentary were required.

“He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” [Acts 8:38]

Our scripture today is so suitable because we are celebrating Alex as he reaffirms his baptismal vows. These vows do not change Alex’s identity from before his birth, or his baptism in Christ and his continuing life… the life he was born into… in the living vine in which we all participate. As we celebrate that life in him we celebrate it in each other and in our life as, individually and corporately, living members of Christ our Lord.

Thanks be to God.


The scriptures appointed for today, the Fifth Sunday of Easter, are:

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

Image: Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, a portion of the Fresco of the Seckau Apocalypse by Herbert Boeckl (1952 – 1960) in the Angel’s Chapel at Seckau Abbey, Styria, Austria

 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons


Notes

  1. Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles, A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Eerdmans, 1988.
  2. Karoline Lewis (https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-of-easter-2/commentary-on-john-151-8-6)
  3. You can find the Bulletin containing the liturgy for a blessing on Alex’s gender transition and the official renewal of his baptismal vows under the name Alexander Marc Griffin, here.

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