The Fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2012
Preacher: Christopher Ashley, PhD student in Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary and parishioner at St. Michael’s Church.
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
When I was in college, the best White preacher in town was an English Baptist named Josh Moody. At the conclusion of every sermon, after he’d said a closing prayer, he’d turn around and gesture toward the full-body baptistry that sat behind his pulpit, more or less where our altar is. And he’d say these words: “Look, here is water. Why should you not be baptized? If you believe with all your heart, you may. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
I was never a member of Pastor Josh’s church, but my friends who were described a striking effect from hearing this liturgical formula. They began to want to answer it. This didn’t happen the first time, but by the second or third, people would hear in this repeated invitation something to which their hearts had to respond. People who’d been baptized young would begin to wonder if their baptisms were real. People who’d grown up in churches like Pastor Josh’s would wonder if their belief was real. And people who were new to the Christian faith, people who were having their first church experiences with Pastor Josh in the pulpit, felt the greatest pressure of all. They felt asked to take an action, with water; and they were asked not only to believe in something very strange—that God had become human—but to believe this strange thing with all their heart.
Think of how it feels to be asked something extraordinary. Think, for instance, of when a relative or friend has asked you to hold their infant child. Some of that bodily response is familiar from fear or anxiety: The pulse ramps up; the breathing shortens; if you’re like me, you feel constriction in your forehead and nostrils. Perhaps you begin to sweat; or, as my southern relations would hasten to add, if you’re a woman, you exude a healthy glow. Your attention becomes very narrow but very complete: As you take that child, and regard its face, there is, for a moment, no other creature on earth. And in the midst of your body’s fear, there is born in your soul a moment of love.
It’s a tension like that that Josh Moody’s baptismal invitation aroused. He was inviting his hearers to love, to the embrace of baptismal water; but it was a love born alongside anxiety. “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” Do I believe with all my heart? Who can answer that? For a soul waking to its own possibility, the question is overwhelming. There are dark corners in every heart, places we can’t go, places we’d rather not go.
Now, the Biblical scholars in the room today have been shaking their heads this whole time I’ve been talking about Pastor Josh’s formula. Those words—be baptized, if you believe with all your heart—those words come from the Acts passage we just heard a moment ago. But they’re in a verse that Biblical scholars aren’t sure belongs in the Bible. In the text we just heard, which is standard in modern Bibles, the Ethiopian eunuch sees water; he asks for baptism; and he gets it, no questions asked, no angst. It’s in Josh Moody’s version that Philip stands by the water and asks the terrifying question.
So, does Philip ask the question, or not? I find this question vexing, and the New Testament scholars can’t clear it up for me. This isn’t just a question about which dusty manuscripts are the best. This is about the character of our discipleship. What does it mean to come to the water, to come to the table? If we find ourselves here this morning because we desire God, how must we approach? How may I invite you to come?
Paired with Acts today, we have two of the profoundest images of Christian discipleship ever drawn, both from John—from his Gospel, and his Letter. I want to dwell on those images—on the branches of the vine, and the perfection of love—and look there for a way to live with this tension in Acts. Come with me from the water on the wilderness road to the heart of the Father’s garden. Let us be fed together on the fruit of the vine.
Jesus says: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” The elemental force of this claim is too easily lost on us, I think, so let me explicate for just a moment. In the Mediterranean, everyone who can grow grapevines does. Greeks don’t take wine vacations to the North Fork or Napa. They don’t need to. “Wine vacation” is redundant in Spain: Every vacation is a wine vacation. We don’t think of Middle Easterners as having a wine culture, but that’s the influence of Islam and of puritanical modern Orthodox Judaism. Remember how much wine Jesus made for the wedding at Cana? It was a hundred and fifty gallons. For those of you who are too classy to buy your wine by the gallon, that’s sixty cases. And the response was, “This is really good!”, without even a hint of, “This is too much.”
For Jesus, wine is more than a classy tipple. It is the stuff of life, as unremarkable as water, and probably safer to drink. You can see traces of this universality of the vine in some immigrant settlements in America: I think of friends in an old Italian neighborhood in Providence, who bottle home-raised wine from the vines previous owners had planted in the backyard. When Jesus says “My Father is the vine-grower”, he’s speaking of a role every householder had filled. When he says “I am the true vine,” he is reminding his hearers of a family inheritance, old-growth vines, that many of them had tended with love, because it gave them life.
So Jesus’ hearers would actually find themselves in two places in this image. On the one hand, there is the familiar place, the place of the vine-tender, which many of them would have actually filled. That’s where Jesus puts the Father. On the other hand, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches”. Jesus is inviting his hearers to look at themselves from God’s perspective. His analogy draws them, as vine-tenders themselves, into the Father’s place, there to look upon their human lives as sources of God’s own life and joy.
And what does the vine-grower do with the vines? He makes them fruitful through catharsis. That’s the Greek word translated here as “pruning” the vines and “cleansing” the disciples. I want to linger on this word, because it points toward the tension we encountered earlier. Usually, catharsis is a ritual word. It speaks of cleansing, of purifying the people as they enter the holy place. Aristotle used that metaphor to describe what happens to our emotions in the theater—the theater itself being a religious place in the ancient world. Jesus uses the catharsis metaphor here in a homier sense. He sees the stuff of life, not primarily in temples and theaters, but in the sources of daily sustenance. His words, however, transform daily bread with ritual grace. The branches of the backyard vine aren’t simply pruned or trimmed. There are perfectly good Greek verbs for that. The farmer, in Jesus’ image here, cleanses the branches, purifies them, prepares them for fruitfulness. The ritual metaphor transforms the agricultural space.
Why bear fruit? There are two sides to that answer, and they speak directly to the tension from the Acts passage. On the one hand, there is the threat of branches withering and burning if they do not abide in the vine and bear fruit. The anxious questions arise: Am I abiding? Do I bear fruit? Do I believe with all my heart?
On the other hand, there is the extravagance of the Father. The astonishing claims of Jesus reach out to us: “Ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” The motivation of the farmer is the crucial point here. When a vine bears fruit, the farmer gains life from its fruit. But the Father-farmer of the True Vine, the First Person of the Trinity, does not hydrate or consume. Our Reformed brethren would insist—and they have a point, Scripturally speaking—that glory is God’s life and God’s goal. That is truest of all in John’s Gospel. So when Jesus says that the Father is glorified by our discipleship, that means our following Jesus is a joining in the very life of God.
This passage speaks to us, I think, in fear and trembling for the branches that may burn, but also in boundless grace for the goodness of the Father who tends them. The passage invites us to see ourselves as branches under threat, and simultaneously to remember our own work of tending to the vine, the work that makes us into the Father’s likeness. Which possibility reaches our heart depends on which of these perspectives we take.
The balance in this passage, between reading it as branches and reading it as icons of the Father, is very fine. These possibilities read each other and shape each other, serving as poles of the Christian life. There is, in baptism, the great “Why not?”, and also the demand of all our heart’s desire. There is, in the Eucharist, the great self-offering of God, and the real threat that we will fail to discern it. We live, in this world, in a dialectic between the overwhelming question and the impossibly gracious answer.
But even in this world, those options are not parallel. I want to conclude by suggesting that John’s other word to us this morning, from his Epistle, shows us where this process is going. Let me read those words again;
“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as God is, so are we in this world. 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. We love because God first loved us.”
Love is born amidst anxiety. As we take up a child, a loved one, a future, we will be asked: Do you believe in this child, this future, with all your heart? Friends, it is God’s promise, revealed in John’s words, that the love born in that moment will triumph over the fear and cast it out. We have been given boldness for the day of judgment. We have been given boldness to face our death in baptism. We have been given boldness to stand beneath the Holy Spirit’s oil-borne anointing. We have been given boldness to approach the blood of the altar. We are given boldness, this day, to enfold Christ’s infant, bread-carried body in our own.
Look, here is bread and wine! What is to prevent you from communion? If Christ’s word has been spoken to you, you are cleansed. The Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit in the Spirit, and come to Christ’s table, and become disciples.