FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
There is a lot of dead wood in the American Church, both literally and figuratively. Let’s start with the former. We are up to our neck in real estate occupied by structures that no longer speak to who we are or further the ministry of Jesus. Most of our church buildings are anachronisms. They are lofty structures often occupying central places in the public square testifying to a time when the church was a pillar of the community. These were buildings designed not to welcome, but to impress. Many of them are large, cavernous, with high ceilings and remote altars. They were made to house the masses and are ill equipped to provide meaningful worship for a couple dozen people on a Sunday. These church buildings are old and in need of constant repair. They drain the dwindling resources of the congregations that worship in them. Rather than bringing the good news of Jesus to the world, congregations often find themselves working feverishly to maintain a shrine to the dead, honoring the memory of all whose names are engraved on every window, wall and piece of furniture.
Perhaps even more insidious than the church’s edifice complex is its stubborn attachment to ecclesiastical structures that no longer further its mission. I will be blunt here. Pastors are no more eager to let go of our career paths, pensions and benefits than Myrtle Hendricks is eager to see the sanctuary in which she was baptized, confirmed, married and hopes to be buried put up for sale. Seminary professors holding the laurel of tenure are not about to put it on the line. Prominent church leaders, whose egos are deeply invested in the programs and institutions they helped to build and develop, will fight to keep the ecclesiastical machinery going whether it serves the gospel well or not.
Finally, there is still theology and practice floating around in our church that is at best antiquated and at worst rotten to the core. Thankfully, we are beginning to dump some of it. In the case of my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, our decisions of 1999 to welcome and fully include gay, lesbian and transgendered folks into the life of the church was long overdue. Also overdue is a critical look at our seeming acceptance of late stage capitalism as a benign arrangement needing only a tweak here and there to achieve justice; a re-examination of our “Two Kingdom” doctrine justifying complicity with war; and our practice of church as voluntary organization serving the interests of the social order.
This is all good news, by the way. It is good news because Jesus is the vine and we are the branches. Because we are tied into Jesus, we are not going to die. But we are about to get pruned. Jesus promises that his heavenly Father will prune every branch that bears fruit so that it may bear more fruit. Getting pruned is not fun. If you have ever seen a tree or a vine pruned back to a tenth of what it once was, you get the idea. I suspect God’s pruning is going to hurt like hell. But at the end of the day, God will have a renewed church, exactly the church God wants and needs. That is why I say repeatedly that this is a wonderful age in which to be the church.
In our first lesson for this morning, Philip is instructed to “go toward the south…from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Vs. 26. This fits nicely with Luke’s overall story of the gospel’s spread from “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8. Having begun in Jerusalem and having spread north to Samaria, the good news of Jesus Christ now travels south to meet a representative from the southern “ends of the earth,” namely, Ethiopia. As is common throughout Luke-Acts, this instruction to Philip comes from an angel of the Lord. Vs. 26. (See also, Luke 1:11-28; Luke 2:8-21; Acts 5:17-21; Acts 12:6-17).
The Ethiopian Eunuch poses a seemingly simple question to Philip: “What is to prevent my being baptized?” Vs. 36. But it’s not such a simple question at all. There are plenty of arguments to be made against baptism in this case. In the first place, this man is a eunuch. His testicles have been cut off, probably at birth, to make him fit for government office under the monarchy. That was a big problem for baptizing this Ethiopian into the renewed, Israel, the Body of Jesus. According to the scriptures, “He whose testicles are crushed or whose male member is cut off shall not enter the assembly of the LORD.” So says Deuteronomy 23:1. So there you have it. This Ethiopian fellow is a sexual deviant. He is an “abomination” and must be excluded. That the Ethiopian probably did not choose to be a eunuch is beside the point. The Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it.
Of course, the Bible has more to say about eunuchs. The Book of the Prophet Isaiah declares:
“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, ‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt-offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”Isaiah 56:3-8.
Clearly, the Bible demonstrates changing views on “uncleanness,” “abomination” and who is included among God’s people. I cannot overemphasize that the Bible is a collection of many words, many voices and many perspectives. One cannot simply cherry pick the voice one fancies and ignore all the others. Moreover, the authoritative voice for disciples of Jesus is that of their master. Jesus Christ is the lens through which Scripture is read in order to hear properly God’s Word to us in the here and now.
The other obstacle to baptism is that this fellow is an outsider. Though he probably is of Jewish heritage (he wouldn’t be reading the Jewish scriptures if he weren’t), he was one of those “Diaspora” Jews, an ancestor of one of the thousands who fled Palestine after the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem. His ancestors were not among those who left everything in order to return to Palestine when the opportunity arose following the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus the Great. His family was not among those who made the dangerous trek across what is now the Iraqi desert to resettle a land that was still in ruins and occupied by hostile, warring tribes. This Ethiopian’s lineage was not represented among those Jews who fought a fierce and bloody war for survival and independence against the armies of Antiochus Epiphanes in the 2nd Century B.C.E. He did not live in Jerusalem or pay the exorbitant taxes required to support the temple and its priesthood. He only came to worship on high feast days like Passover and Pentecost.
This Ethiopian is a lot like those members of your church that you only see on Christmas and Easter. They tell you all about how their parents were staunch members of this church, how they were baptized and confirmed in the church and how much their church means to them-and then they disappear for another year. And you want to say to them, “Where were you in November when the rest of us made a pledge of financial commitment to the mission and ministry of this church? Where were you when the council was meeting down in the undercroft until late into the night hammering out a budget for the coming year? Where were you when the basement flooded and we were all bailing like mad? By what right do you call yourself a member? By what right do you claim the cleansing waters of baptism?
I don’t know if questions like these were going through Philip’s mind when the Ethiopian asked him what was there to prevent his being baptized. But the Bible does tell us what Philip and the Ethiopian were talking about as that chariot made its way through the wilderness in Gaza. Philip was telling the Ethiopian the good news about Jesus. Jesus, we know, had no scruples about including among his disciples people on the margins of polite society. Jesus touched lepers. Jesus laid his hands upon unclean corpses. Jesus shared a table with tax collectors and outcasts. So whatever reservations Philip may have had about baptizing this Ethiopian Eunuch, they were overcome by the good news coming from his own lips. At the end of the day, Philip simply could not see any obstacle between Jesus’ love and this man who needed it. The Spirit of Jesus broke the logjam of objections, prejudices, traditions and deeply held beliefs that stood between this Ethiopian outsider and the good news he so much needed to hear.
This is a psalm of lament that begins with the words familiar to us from Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” vs. 1; cf. Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46. You would never guess that from our reading, however, which begins at verse 25. Verse 22b marks a transition point in the psalm. Up to this point, the psalmist has been pouring out his or her complaint to God, describing the torment and ridicule s/he experiences at the hands of his or her enemies and crying out for deliverance. Though no such deliverance has yet occurred, the psalmist is confident that God will soon intervene to rescue him or her. So sure is the psalmist of God’s impending salvation that s/he is even now declaring thankfulness, praise and testimony to these saving acts. The psalmist takes delight in knowing that God’s intervention on his or her behalf will bring glory and praise to God from future generations who will learn from his or her experience that God is indeed faithful.
I should add that some commentators have argued that vss. 1-21 and vss. 22-31 constitute two separate psalms, the first being a lament and the second a hymn of thanksgiving. Perhaps that was on the minds of the lectionary makers when they divided the psalm as they did (assuming, of course, that they have minds-something I often question). I am not at all convinced by their arguments, however, which seem to hinge on the dissimilarities of lament versus thanksgiving between the two sections. Psalms of lament frequently contain a component of praise or promise of thanksgiving for anticipated salvation. See, e.g., Psalm 5; Psalm 7; Psalm 13. Artur Weiser, while maintaining the unity of the psalm, asserts that the psalm was, in whole or in part, composed after the psalmist’s prayer has been answered. Weiser, Artur The Psalms, a Commentary, The Old Testament Library, (c. 1962 SCM Press), p. 219. That interpretation does not fit the language of the psalm which speaks of salvation in the future tense. This salvation, though real, is nevertheless an anticipated act of God.
It has been suggested by some commentators that Jesus’ cry from the cross might not have been a cry of dereliction at all, but that the gospel writers meant to say that Jesus was praying this psalm from the cross. Clearly, the body of the psalm reflects at many points precisely what Jesus was experiencing at the hands of his enemies, so much so that New Testament scholars argue over the extent to which the psalm might have influenced the telling of the passion story. However these questions might be resolved, there is obviously a parallel between the psalmist praising God for deliverance s/he cannot yet see and Jesus’ faithful obedience to his heavenly Father even to death on the cross. In both cases, faith looks to salvation in God’s future even when there appears to be no future.
“God is Love.” John Wesley has noted that “[t]his little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.” Wesley’s Notes on the Bible, Christian Classics Ethereal Library. Indeed, love is the heart of God’s being, the unifying force holding the church together and the power by which the world is overcome. But this love is no abstract principle. As noted by one commentator:
“It is important not to confuse this dynamic of love with the sentimentality that passes for love in our culture. What is affirmed here makes our customary talk of love sound thin and gaseous by comparison. The kind of love initially regarded as sacrificial love (as in John3:16) has assumed awesome dimensions here. For one thing, love is regarded as constitutive for the community of believers. If we do not love, we cannot know God—which is like saying that without oxygen we would not be able to breathe. Having initially drawn breath, though, we are obliged to continue breathing and acting in love. Loving one another is mentioned several times in this text. We recognize it as something we do because we have first been loved by God.” Brusic, Robert M., “A River Ride with 1 John: Texts of the Easter Season,” Word & World, (c. 1997 by Word & World, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, MN) pp. 217-218.
God’s love is expressed concretely in the sending of his Son to “abide” among us. Vss. 10, 15. That term “abide,” which is critical both for the letters and the gospel of Saint John, makes clear that the sending of the Son was not an event fixed in the past. God has been sending his Son for as long as God has been speaking through the prophets. But when that Word became “enfleshed,” and came to “tabernacle” among us, God’s desire from the foundation of the world became complete. John 1:14. It cannot be over-emphasized that the Incarnation was not a temporary state for God. When God became human, God remained human and henceforth will always be human. Only so can God abide among us such that God is our God and we are God’s people. See Revelation 21:5-8. Though perfected in the age to come, this “abiding” begins even now within the community of disciples whose love for one another reflects the love God has for the Son and the love God demonstrates toward God’s people.
The Gospel of John, and even more John’s letters, have been criticized for their concentration of love within the community of the faithful. The missionary emphasis is lacking, it is claimed. But such a conclusion can only flow from a very superficial reading of John. As we saw from last week’s gospel lesson, Jesus has sheep that do not yet belong to his fold and need to be brought in so that there will be “one flock, one shepherd.” John 10:16. The whole purpose of the oneness of the disciples in love is “so that the world may believe that you [God] have sent me [Jesus].” John 17:23. Disciples of Jesus are called to be a countercultural community that testifies to an alternative way of being human. A community that lives the Sermon on the Mount is far more transformative than one trying to preach it into legislation, social action and reform of the existing order. Saint Augustine also recognized the outward thrust of John’s letters in his homilies: “Extend thy love to them that are nearest, yet do not call this an extending: for it is almost loving thyself, to love them that are close to thee. Extend it to the unknown, who have done thee no ill. Pass even them: reach on to love thine enemies. This at least the Lord commands.” Homily 8, St. Augustine, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.
“Perfect love casts out all fear.” Vs. 18. I would be rich if I had a quarter for every time I heard a preacher say “I fear.” “I fear for our teenagers and the pressures they face…” “I fear for the future of our children…” “I fear for our church in the coming decades…” I am as cognizant as anyone of the dangers we encounter, the temptations in front of us and the challenges we face both as believers and simply as human beings. Prudence and caution are always warranted, but fear must never be part of the equation. Whenever we go into survival mode, we invariably make foolish, faithless and shortsighted decisions that bite us in the end. If the universe is the creation of a God whose determination to bring it to perfection is demonstrated by God’s “putting his own skin in the game,” sending his only begotten Son to abide with us at the cost of his crucifixion, then there is no room for fear. We cannot lose this game. We can only forfeit our opportunity to play on the winning team for fear of getting dirty, beat up and sore.
The Hebrew Scriptures frequently employ the “vine” metaphor in speaking about Israel. See Isaiah 5:1-7; Isaiah 27:2-6; Psalm 80:8-16; Jeremiah 2:21; Jeremiah 6:9; Jeremiah 12:10-13; Ezekiel 15:1-8; Ezekiel 17:5-10; Ezekiel 19:10-14; Hosea 10:1-2; Hosea 14:7. That being the case, one might expect Jesus to say that “we” or “you” are the vine inasmuch as the community of disciples represents the renewal of Israel. Instead, Jesus employs the “I am” construction seen throughout the gospel calling himself the vine. One might argue, as some commentators have, that the metaphor is problematic because its use is principally associated with judgment upon Israel’s failures. Carson, D.A., The Gospel According to John (c. 1991 by Eerdmans) p. 513. The image fits nicely into John’s incarnational thought, however. “[I]t is a feature of Johannine theology that Jesus applied to himself terms used in the OT for Israel and other parts of the NT for the Christian community.” Brown, Raymond, E., The Gospel According to John XIII –XXI, The Anchor Bible (c. 1970 by Doubleday) p. 670. The indwelling Spirit of the resurrected Christ will animate the community of faith through which the ministry of Jesus will continue. Like the vine to which all branches cling and from which they derive their sustenance, Jesus is the source of life and power to which the disciples must cling.
The disciples are branches whose life and fruit bearing capacity depend on their connection to the vine. Apart from the vine, the branches can do nothing. Vs. 4. Again, the key term “abide” is used to emphasize the indwelling of Jesus among his disciples. Vs. 4. Abiding in Christ is a life and death matter. Branches that do not “abide” in the vine wither, die and must be burned. By contrast, fruitful branches are pruned in order to make them more fruitful still. Vs. 2.
What does Jesus mean by saying that his Father is glorified as the disciples “bear much fruit” and so “prove” that they are his disciples? Clearly, the chief fruit is love among the disciples. Indeed, it is by their love for one another that the disciples will be known as followers of Jesus. John 13:35. This love, however, is not a passive emotion. Because the Spirit of Jesus is at work inspiring love among his disciples, they will do not only the works Jesus has done during his ministry, but even “greater works than these.” John 14:12. As God’s alternative humanity, the church will invariably collide with the old system of loveless domination and exploitation. This is a community that has been sent into the world just as Jesus was sent into the world. John 20:21. Because a servant is not above his master, the disciples can expect the same resistance and rejection Jesus receives. John 15:20. The cross is the shape love invariably takes in the midst of a sinful world.
Stanley Hauerwas has often said that the church is a people whose lives are incomprehensible apart from the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus says much the same thing later on in the chapter.
“If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. 19If you belonged to the world,* the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you.” John 15:18-19.
Of course, the world has many good reasons for hating Christians that have nothing to do with faithfulness to Jesus. The degree to which we are not liked is a poor barometer by which to measure the effectiveness of our witness. Nonetheless, we ought to be somewhat concerned at the ease with which the church has been able to fit into the Americana landscape over the last couple of centuries. If the church’s life and ministry would look just as sensible if we were to dismiss Jesus altogether, something is clearly out of whack.