The Fifth Sunday of Easter
Watch the sermon here.
So through the wonders of modern technology, I am both here today preaching to you, and in London preaching to the congregation of Emmanuel, our partner parish. Isn’t that amazing? I’ve always wanted to bilocate, and finally I’ve achieved it.
We’ve had their vicar Jonathan Kester with us on several occasions, but most of the parishioners who are listening to me there have never met most of you listening to me here. And yet, even so, we’re connected – we’re partner parishes, we pray for one another, and when we can, we try to join together in some way. But even more deeply than that, we are connected because we are part of the same body, the same community, the people who try to follow Jesus.
A deepened sense of that connection has been one of the unlikely gifts of this difficult pandemic time. In our isolation, as we hunkered down in our own apartments and avoided each other on the streets, we realized how desperately we need one another. In going through a global crisis that is literally global, where the whole world is suffering through wave after wave of the virus and the life restrictions that come with it, there’s been a sense that we truly are all in this together.
We have a great story today in our scriptures of connection, from the book of Acts. Philip, one of the first seven called as deacons, has fled Jerusalem after Stephen’s death, as so many of the new Christians have done in this persecution. Philip goes to Samaria, preaching there about Jesus and healing people – making new disciples amongst the despised enemies of the Jews, the Samaritan people. After some of the apostles follow him to see what he’s been up to, Philip up and heads off again, further out, following a call from an angel to get onto the road to Gaza, a wilderness road. And on that road, a eunuch comes riding along.
The eunuch is from Ethiopia, or what would now be northern Sudan. He is a highly placed finance minister in the queen’s court, wealthy and influential. But in Jewish terms, he is an outcast, because as a eunuch he would not be able to participate in the Temple rituals, would not even be able to convert to the Jewish faith he so clearly admires. He’s returning home from Jerusalem, a journey of some 1600 miles each way, reading from a scroll of Isaiah as he rides along. The Spirit tells Philip to catch up with him, and he does. Hearing the gospel from Philip, the eunuch is converted, and passing a pool of water, they stop the chariot in order to perform his baptism. And then Philip up and disappears again, heading off to preach and proclaim some more in other Gentile regions. Philip, it seems, just can’t stop preaching to all the wrong sorts of people.
For this encounter to happen and bear the fruit it did, both Philip and the eunuch have to do something extraordinary. The eunuch is a rich and powerful businessman, riding comfortably in his expensive car. But he invites Philip, on foot and out of breath, to join him, so that he can hear what Philip might say. The eunuch longs to go deeper into what the scripture is really about, and he’s ready to hear more from this ragged stranger. Philip, for his part, listens to how God’s Spirit is calling him, getting himself to this lonely road through the wilderness and then running up alongside this lavish chariot to call out, ‘Do you understand what you’re reading?’ Even though the eunuch is an outcast and a Gentile, Philip hops up alongside and then, when the eunuch is ready, baptizes him. What is to prevent me from being baptized? the eunuch says. It’s a poignant question: so much has prevented him already from joining the faith he professes in his heart. ‘Nothing,’ seems to be Philip’s answer, and they stop the chariot by that magically convenient pool of water to do that baptism, marking the eunuch as Christ’s own forever, marking and blessing what is already true – this wealthy eunuch, just as much as ragged, passionate Philip, is part of God’s beloved family. Unalike as they are, they are one. Nothing prevents this from being true.
Jesus says to us in John’s gospel, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches.’ And in God’s vineyard, there is room for all kinds of branches. All of us connected to the one source, the life-giving root of Jesus, the way of love that gives life to all of us. It’s just one of many metaphors in scripture that emphasize our deep connection to one another – one body, many different parts; one family of siblings who struggle to get along; one flock of wandering sheep under the same shepherd; one temple built on God as our foundation. It all runs counter to our individualized way of running our lives, something that’s especially beloved to Americans with our Lone Ranger mythology. We tend to place self-sufficiency above all, holding dear the freedom to do whatever we want. And yet every one of these images from scripture suggests that one can’t run off separate from the others without being brought back; one can’t live fully without what the others give; one can’t pretend to be a solo act without the rest of the family showing up somehow. And one branch can’t even live without the vine – if it tries to, it fails, dries up, is cut off. We only bear fruit when we’re connected to one another, stemming from the one true vine. In all our motley mix.
And yet we are so aware of all that separates us, the harm we have done one another in our history, the harm we are doing to each other still in violence, injustice, and hate. The opposing protests in our country, the hard conversations about racial injustice and policing and public health, the racism and prejudice in our own lives and community– it is so easy to thicken the dividing lines, to point fingers, to make issues of opinion into existential truths. One piece I just read pointed out that as participation in organized religion has declined in this country, people have simply found some other faith to join – and often, it’s political affiliation, making politics carry the transcendental meaning of true religion. On the left, we think we can create a future just society here on earth if we finally get everything right; on the right, we conflate God and country and look to a golden past when everything was right just the way it was. On either side, we make absolutist claims about the other side’s evil intentions. This would be a great country – if only it didn’t have those people in it.
But the call to abide in Christ together goes beyond our fallible human systems. We won’t get there by voting in the right candidate or espousing the right ideology. We don’t get there in any nation state at all. We find our connection to one another, Jesus tells us, by abiding in him – by trusting in him, rooting ourselves in him, the source of all our life. ‘God is love,’ says the letter to John today, ‘and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.’ And that love, it seems, so often leads us into community with others we would not find on our own. Impractical, unstrategic, ungainly beloved community, grounded in God. That’s what scripture seems to show us, over and over again.
Abiding in God – abiding in love: First and foremost, it means rooting ourselves in God, and listening in prayer to what the Spirit tells us. At times, we need to stop and be still, to be nourished from the well of God’s goodness. To grow further and stronger as part of the vine so that the fruit we bear may be nourishing and whole. And at other times, we need to get up and go, to bring good news to others, maybe especially others in the wilderness, on the margins. Either way, we may find that we wind up in all kinds of places we never imagined, lonely roads and luxury chariots, who knows where all, making community with people we never thought we’d come to know. People we didn’t know we were connected with – around the world, and right on our own corner. This vineyard is vast, and there’s all kinds in it. God’s world is like that.
We’re coming slowly out of this time of multiple pandemics, of illness, racism, injustice and division; it feels like time to emerge into a different world, and we feel we’ve changed from what we were even a year ago, and yet we don’t know really what this will all look like going forward. We need to reroot ourselves, to be fed and watered in our daily prayer and practice, to dig in to what we hear God saying, in scripture and poetry, children’s voices, the wind in the trees – all the ways that we hear God. Connected to one another, we need even more to connect ourselves to the one vine, and ready ourselves to bear fruit. Because we all of us are members of one another, all of us are God’s beloved children, abiding together in love, God’s very self there among us. May we live that in all we say and do.