“Purpose and Connection”


Easter 5

May 3, 2015

 

Text: John 15:1-8; 1 John 4:7-21; Acts 8:26-40

         

          In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus told his disciples, and tells us, that he is the vine, and we are the branches. He is talking, of course, the language of growing grapes. That is something not many of us are familiar with. Some of the things he says are obvious to anyone who knows anything at all about botany. Others might be less obvious.

          Let’s begin by talking about purpose, and I am going to begin by making an obvious statement. The primary purpose of a grapevine is to produce grapes, to bear fruit. In comparing the relationship of vine and branches to the relationship between Jesus and his followers, he is also telling us that our purpose as followers of Jesus is to bear fruit for him.

          Now I would note that a grapevine does not produce grapes for its own benefit. A grapevine does not consume its own fruit. A grapevine produces fruit so that others may eat. Likewise, the fruit we produce for God is not for our own benefit. It is so the blessings of God, the love of God in Jesus Christ, the good that God calls us to do in the world, can be shared with others.

          Sometimes we in the church forget this. We act as if the church exists for our own benefit. But we are supposed to be bearing fruit, and the purpose of the fruit we bear is to nourish others to have life in Christ, not for our own consumption.

          We find an example of this kind of fruit-bearing in our lesson today from Acts. The apostle Philip was led by the Holy Spirit to travel on the desert road from Jerusalem to Gaza. While he was traveling, along came a chariot. Riding in that chariot was an Ethiopian eunuch, the queen of Ethiopia’s treasurer. As he rode along, the eunuch was reading out loud from the book of Isaiah. The Spirit told Philip to approach the chariot, so he ran up to it, and when he heard what the eunuch was reading, he said, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

          The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless I have someone to guide me?” He invited Philip to get into the chariot with him. Now the eunuch had been reading these words from Isaiah chapter 53:

          “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearers is silent so he didn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was taken away from him. Who can tell the story of his descendants because his life was taken from the earth?”

          The eunuch asked Philip: “Who is the prophet talking about here? Himself or someone else?” Philip started with that scripture and proclaimed the good news about Jesus to the eunuch. Soon they came to some water, and the eunuch asked: “Here’s some water! What would keep me from being baptized?”

          Now before I continue this story, let us recall some things about this story.

          First of all, this official was an Ethiopian. He was a Gentile, not a Jew. At this point in the story it was still a very new idea for the followers of Jesus that the Good News is meant for people of all nations, not just Jews.

          Secondly, what is a eunuch? Back in those days, eunuchs often served as high government officials in some kingdoms. They had been groomed for the job from the time they were young boys. Part of the process of preparing these young boys was emasculating them. This was done to make them more submissive and obedient—it was thought that they would not revolt against the king because they were incapable of fathering a dynasty. Eunuchs also were used to take care of the king’s harem. Kings obviously didn’t want men taking care of their women who might take advantage of the situation.

          In Deuteronomy 23:1 we read the following: “No man whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off can belong to the Lord’s assembly.” In other words, the law of Moses said that eunuchs were not welcome to be part of God’s people. The eunuch’s question, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” was not a hypothetical question. I am sure this God-fearing Gentile who read and studied the Hebrew Scriptures was well aware that his physical condition excluded him from ever being part of the Jewish people. What he wanted to know from Philip was whether that condition also meant he could not become a follower of Jesus.

          Now if you were following along in a pew Bible this morning, you may have noticed that the text skips from verse 36 to verse 38. Some old manuscripts of the book of Acts (and some modern Bibles) do include verse 37, which gives Philip’s answer to the eunuch’s question about being baptized: “Philip said to him, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you can be.’ The eunuch answered, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is God’s Son.’” However, this verse does not appear in the oldest available manuscripts of the book of Acts. So it is not included in the main text of most of the Greek versions of the New Testament used today by scholars, and also does not appear in the main text in quite a few modern translations of the Bible (including the New Revised Standard Version in our pews), but is only listed in the footnotes.

          But whether verse 37 was originally part of the text or not, we do know this: The eunuch ordered the chariot to be stopped, he and Philip got out, and Philip baptized the eunuch, making him a member of the community of faith who belonged to Jesus Christ. Philip did not exclude him because of who he was or what had been done to him; he did not exclude him for being a sexual misfit. The eunuch was welcomed as one of God’s people through Jesus Christ.

          Some might suggest that Philip didn’t know he was baptizing a eunuch. I do not believe Philip could have been ignorant of the official being a eunuch. For one thing, the eunuch probably had a voice like a young boy, and no facial hair, especially if he was emasculated before puberty. He also surely knew that many ancient nations used eunuchs as government officials.

          The fruit that Philip bore because he was connected to Jesus was sharing God’s love with an outsider to the Jewish community, a misfit at that, and through baptism welcoming that person into the community of those who follow Jesus.

          Who are the outsiders and the misfits around us? Who are the people we exclude because we judge they are not like us? Know this: God does not exclude them. Jesus and his first disciples welcomed strangers, outcasts, sinners, foreigners, and misfits. Surely we must do the same. We bear fruit for Jesus by sharing God’s love with such people.

          Jesus likens his followers to the branches of a grapevine, and himself to the vine. Obviously, the branches of grapevine are not going to produce anything unless they live in the vine, unless they are connected to it and drawing nourishment from it. Likewise, Jesus says, we are not going to produce the fruit God wants unless we are connected to Jesus, unless our lives are bound in his life. Indeed, Jesus goes so far to say that apart from him we can do nothing. He’s right. Reaching beyond ourselves, especially to those we find very different than we are, is not easy. It demands a lot from our spirits, our hearts, and our minds. If we are not receiving continuing nourishment from God, we soon dry up and burn out. We need God’s sustenance of our lives to continue to have the strength to do what God wants us to do.

          Jesus also reminds us that for a grapevine to produce well, it needs to be pruned. The excessive growth needs to be trimmed away so the nourishment can be concentrated on the production of fruit. (Our Filipino friends tell us the same is true of mangoes.) Jesus said that his word prunes us. When we allow it to take effect in our lives, Jesus prunes away the excess stuff in our lives that keeps us from living as faithfully as possible.

          Now I don’t know if plants experience anything that could be described as pain when they are pruned. But I do know that I find it painful when I am pruned. I am involved in many different things that bring me satisfaction, fulfillment, and joy. But sometimes I get involved in so many things that I get spread too thin and lose my focus (and since I also have Attention Deficit Disorder, this happens a lot). I know I am not alone in getting spread too thin—you can probably relate if you are one of those people who finds it difficult to say “no” when someone asks you to do something. I generally get better overall results when I put most of my energy toward a few things rather than everything. All the same, letting go of some things to focus on others is hard for me. I have invested significant pieces of myself in them, and letting go of that is often painful.

          It is entirely possible to get spread too thin in the church. I have known many people over the years who filled several roles in the church simultaneously. What usually happened was that one or two of the things such a person was in charge of were done well, and others were not done as well. What also usually happened is the person became burned out and ended up not wanting to do anything anymore, and if they kept going out of a sense of duty, they found little joy or satisfaction in doing so.

          God does not expect any one person to do everything. God has not given any individual the gifts or the calling for that. God distributes spiritual gifts among many so that we must work together to accomplish God’s purposes in the world. God prunes us of tasks we aren’t gifted for or called to do so we can focus on producing the best fruit in the areas where we are gifted and called.

          Let us live well connected to God so we may receive the nourishment we need to bear fruit that spiritually nourishes the lives of others, especially those whom we consider outsiders.

                                                                   Amen.

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