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Saturday, April 7, 2018

Easter 5B April 29, 2018

As a Vinegrower, O God, you have grafted us onto Christ, that we may abide as living branches joined to the true Vine.  Bestow on us the comforting presence of your Holy Spirit, so that, loving one another with a love that is sincere, we may become the first fruits of a humanity made new and bear a rich harvest whose fruits are holiness and peace.  We ask this through Christ, with whom you have raised us up in baptism, the Lord who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen.

From Prayers for Sunday and Seasons, Year B, Peter J. Scagnelli, LTP, 1992.

Some Thoughts on John 15:1-8

"There’s not a lot of agency for us in this text. God prunes us."

"Vines and Branches?" Nadia Bolz Weber, The Hardest Question, 2012.

"In the promise of an 'abiding' presence God's Easter people find not some abstract speculation about a distant or imaginary Trinity, but an invitation to experience the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as a saving and liberating presence in the midst of our day-to-day world."

Commentary, John 15:1-8, James Boyce, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"Like the good shepherd of last week's text, this week's image of the vine is another extended metaphor, which also borrows from and adapts Old Testament imagery for Israel."

Commentary, John 15:1-8, Meda Stamper, Preaching This Week,, 2015.

"I think one of the difficulties of living in our age is that we're offered a lot of things as substitutes for honest-to-goodness relationships, and while they may be pretty good at what they were designed for, they're finally not actual relationships."

"Getting Real," David Lose, Dear Working Preacher, 2012.

Last week the church experienced Jesus as the Good Shepherd. This week we are offered a theological reflection on God as vine grower.

God in Christ Jesus is the source of living water, he is the bread of heaven that gives life, and he is also the vine and we are his branches.

This passage comes after Jesus has prophesied his suffering, death and resurrection and has promised to return and to not leave his followers alone.  Our passage, like the good shepherd passage, is a teaching about life in God and in Christ.

The image is of God the vine grower and the gardener. Jesus is the vine and we are branches bearing fruit.  The vine is trimmed and this certainly has eschatological (end time and judgment) implications but this is not the stress nor focus of the teaching.  This image offered to us is about abiding and remaining.  The image of vine grower, vineyard/vine and branches is one about the living Word existing as the life blood of those who belong to Jesus.

Raymond Brown in volume II of his work on John's Gospel, says that this passage is about the disciples remaining in Christ.  In our current culture we talk about following Jesus and that leading to a virtuous life. However, in the abiding language of John's Gospel and in Jesus words that notion of Jesus + me = virtuous life is simply not present.  The abiding leaves a notion of being; not the more modern idea of becoming.  God is, Christ is, we are.  Virtuous life is life lived in God in Christ.  Raymond Brown points out that this is not quite the notion that Matthew's Gospel offers.  Nevertheless, this Sunday we are preaching Jesus and the living Word; we are preaching about abiding.  I don't want to get off track. So I asked myself what is this abiding?

I am reminded of St. Augustine's sermon on the Ascension, wherein he writes:
Christ, while in heaven, is also with us; and we, while on earth, are also with him.  He is with us in his godhead and his power and his love; and we, though we cannot be with him in godhead as he is with us, can be with him in our love, our love for him. 
He did not leave heaven when he came down to us from heaven; and he did not leave us when he ascended to heaven again.   His own words show that he was in heaven while he was here: 'No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man who is in heaven.' 
He said this because of the unity between us and himself, for he is our head and we are his body.  The words 'no one but he' are true, since we are Christ, in the sense that he is the Son of man because of us, and we are the children of God because of him. 
For this reason Saint Paul says: 'Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is also with Christ.
We abide in God in Christ Jesus.  Unless that is, we are abiding in something else.  The life of virtue described by John's gospel gives us a sense of what life abiding in Christ is.  Abiding/remaining in Christ is love and it is life in tune with the commandments of God.

What do we see then if we are abiding in Christ we see a life that forms a world around itself where God is central.  Not the false god's created by our ego desires, but God.  As Episcopalians we might describe this abiding life this way.  We would say (as we do in our Book of Common Prayer) that an abiding life is one where:

We trust our lives in God, and others come to know him by our life.  Nothing is put in the place of God, least of all our ego and our projections of desire.  God is respected in our words and in our actions and in the results of our actions.  Life is lived out in a an ever flowing experience of worship, prayer and study.  As we abide in God we abide in our true selves and in the thin space between heaven and our soul.

To the other we are faithful as well – treating neighbors with love as we experience God's love for us and love ourselves; to love, honor, and help our parents and family; those in authority are honored, and we meet their just demands.  We as Episcopalians believe that life that is abiding in Christ is one that shows forth respect for the life God gives us; work and prayers for peace are always present; malice, prejudice, or hatred is not born our hearts; and kindness is shared with all the creatures of God.

Life abiding in Christ is a life where bodily desires are not used to fulfill our ego needs but rather are lived out as God intended for the mutual building up of the family of God.

We live lives that are honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom, and the necessities of life for and with all people; and we use our talents and possessions as people in relationship with God.  We speak truth, and do not mislead others by our silence.

Life abiding in Christ resists temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; and rejoices in other people's gifts and graces.  We share in our fellowship together as we all abide in Christ and therefore, as St. Augustine points out, with others and with God and the saints who are in heaven.

Here is the thing though...we as humans love to put something else in the place of the vine. We like to think that sex, or money, or power, or some other something will work just as well as the True Vine. Truth is, they really don't. We know it too.

Abiding in Christ is in some very real way accepting our true nature as sinful creatures and then living in, remaining in, Christ; being Christ's own forever - as our baptismal liturgy tells us.  Accepting our chosen-ness by Christ (despite our behaviors) and abiding in love which then abides with others.  And, giving up our ego's desire for control and rather we live life that is birthed in grace.

Some Thoughts on I John 4:7-21

"Who knows how the awareness of God's love first hits people. Every person has his own tale to tell, including the person who wouldn't believe in God if you paid him."

"Salvation," Frederick Buechner, Buechner Blog.

"Much of the anger that erupts within the church under the banner of loving God and defending God's truth often seems to grow instead from love of self and of the power that comes from winning the argument, even at the expense of the church's unity in love."

Commentary, 1 John 4:7-21, Brian Peterson, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"'Love' is an abstraction and a quality of God's own self. 'Love' is personification and God is person. Love is some thing. God does things, sends a Son, atones for the sins of the world, and gives commands."

Commentary, 1 John 4:7-21, David Bartlett, Preaching This Week,, 2009.

The beloved community is built around faith in God as revealed in Christ Jesus and revealed in the loving members of the community. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to enliven this faith and love. It is a rebirthing into a new creation that is brought about by the Holy Spirit's work.

God who is love and is bound to us in love and through the loving work of Christ is also at the center of the beloved community. The members of the beloved community love one another because of this God who is love. God is love and we learn to love all those whom we meet within God's community. This  is a kind of outward flowing of the inner life of the Trinity. 

This out flowing of God's love is also at the transformative center of the world. Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit enables those of us in the world to find a path not only into the beloved community but into the life of the Trinity itself. 

This means that God is working on the individual as they make their journey. The work of the Christian, the member of the beloved community, is to love those as they enter our community and point the way to God. In this we have an example of and an outward illustration of love. Our love for one another, as they make their journey, is evidence then of the Holy Spirit within us. 

Many people believe their is an important "but" that goes in here. We love you "but"...Whenever we get into the "but" business what is taking place is that we are working less on our path to God and more on other people's paths. We are undermining the fraternal love we are supposed to illustrate. We are in fact not fulfilling our invitation by the Holy Spirit and in the end we are eroding God's beloved community.

The natural response to the above paragraph is fear, anxiety, and concern.  The disciple is clear if this is present then we are not believing in our inter-related nature with our brothers and sisters. Then  we are not believing in the power of the Holy Spirit to work. Then we are not believing in the power of Christ Jesus to save. 

The fact is that our intolerance for one another is an example that we are not living into the gifts of the Holy Spirit. "But" will say.

I am afraid that there is no "but" in the Gospel of Jesus.

If we are members of the beloved community, if God's Holy Spirit is with us, and if we are doing the work Christ has given us.. then we will be in the midst of love.

One cannot love his fellow human and not love God. One cannot love God and not love his fellow human.

We might add one who does not love their fellow human does honor the love of God and one who does not love God will not love their fellow human.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”    - Martin Luther King Jr.

Some Thoughts on Acts 8:26-40

"So Philip baptized him, and when that black and mutilated potentate bobbed back to the surface, he was so carried away he couldn't even speak. The sounds of his joy were like the sounds of a brook rattling over pebbles, and Philip never saw him again and never had to."

"Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog. "Conversion," Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words.

"God who raised Jesus orchestrates unlikely relationships that the status quo does not otherwise permit for the transformation of marginalized individuals."

Commentary, Acts 8:26-40, Mitzi J. Smith, Preaching This Week,, 2012.

"A friend of mine gives away bumper stickers of a favorite phrase of his: 'Keep Church Weird.' By that my friend means church—or any gathering recognizing God’s lovely, strange people—is a place where we might break out of our ordinary expected un-weird culture and be, well, weird."

"Castrating Our Customs," Rev. Adam J. Copeland, Day 1, 2012.

Now this is a great passage. It only comes up once every three years so it is the time to preach it. You will get "abiding" passages from John a bit more.

This is a great passage that gets heisted by the church. So, let us look at the pure structure of the story, again, for the first time.

First, it is a missional story. Why? Because Philip is sent out. He goes where God tells him to go. Sometimes people say, "What does missional mean anyway?" And, people like to try and make a church congregation's work inside the building missional. Well, that isn't what it means and you can't be missional if you stay inside the church. Missional means to go outside the church, to go outside the boundaries of religious norms, to go. This is a missional story so don't preach about work Christians need to do inside the church. This is a story that is about going out.

So, Philip goes out. He heads into the wilderness, outside of the Jersusalem. This is important! He doesn't just go out and then travel along to his friend's home. He is invited by God to go to the very place where robbers and evil and the devil dwell. Go out to that road that does down. It goes down from the holy place to the lowly place. That place you don't think anything good can come out of...that place that you don't walk alone...that place that you have heard stories about. Philip gets up and goes. Literally, "he got up and went."

As he comes along the road he meets an Ethiopian eunuch. Don't get tripped over this business about him being a court official just yet. Lets parse this bit out... He is Ethiopian. He was a foreigner and a Jew. He was reading the scriptures and the text said he came to worship. Travel to Jerusalem for religious reasons was more common than trade. But, he was on his way because of Candace the queen and he was the treasurer. He is on his way home and stopped by the side of the road.

So here we are with a few types of importance regarding our conversation. Philip is sent to meet someone who is not a follower of Jesus, who is from another country. And, the spirit sends Philip to join "it". This is important too. Because while he was a treasurer and a jew and a member of the court...he was not considered a part of the community. Why? Because they could have no heir and therefore had no loyalties. They made good servants, slaves, and advisors because of this. So, the Ethiopian eunuch is more of an "it" than a "he". Eunuchs are mentioned several times in the bible and you may very well not have known that at all. In fact they are mentioned in both Esther and Isaiah...and maybe others though those are debated.

Now before we go much further, you need to know that the religion of the day understood this about eunuchs...they were not welcome in the kingdom - even if they worshipped God! Deuteronomy 23.1. "No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord."

So, what people reading the passage may think is that the Eunuch is reading from Isaiah and because we are in the Easter season he is reading about the suffering servant which we have been steeped in over the last few weeks. We see in fact that he is reading from the part about how the sheep will take on the suffering without a word.
“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.”
But, there is another passage from chapter 56:3-5 of Isaiah, which goes like this:
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.”
And let no eunuch complain,
“I am only a dry tree.”
For this is what the LORD says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
who choose what pleases me
and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
a memorial and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that will endure forever.
Here is what seems very important...remember Deuteronomy... Isaiah's vision is radical. It is one that says, look these people are not part of the kingdom, but when God comes a new kingdom is going to be created. Creation will be reformed and this reign of God will be catholic - universal. That all people will worship God, that it will embrace the whole of the cosmos and world. As part of that prophesy Isaiah says that even Eunuchs will inherit the kingdom. 

It is a story about moving from being outside the community to being received into the community of God's reign. 

Philip goes up and asks if he understands. They get into a conversation. Not one where Philip tells him how it is but one of equal footing. It is one where Philip guides him. We helps him understand that through the suffering upon the cross, Jesus has in fact brought about enough grace, that all people, including eunuchs, will inherit the kingdom of God. Through the work of Jesus Isaiah's prophesy has come true.

Now, they are going along the road. This is very important. Philip did not go out and get the eunuch and bring him back to Jerusalem and put him in a classroom and instruct him. He is guiding him and listening and talking. And, he is walking with him in the wilderness. They are going together in the same direction. So often we think that missional is about going out and getting them to come in here and walk with us. This passage reminds us that missional is about going out and walking with others in their life, upon their road, heading in the same direction as they are.

This is when the eunuch asks Philip to baptize him. And, he does so. And, then he continues his journey and Philip is then taken away to Azatus. He goes to the next place. He goes - being sent by the Holy Spirit. 

This is the final piece of what seems important. This baptism (like all the others) clearly does not end with the eunuch entering a community of faith. Let me say that again. The baptism is not about, and does not result in, the eunuch entering a community of faith. Instead, it results in the eunuch being sent. He goes - being sent by the Holy Spirit. 

This is the first individual baptism described post Easter and it is interesting that it makes no mention of it being an entrance into any community. Rather, it is a pure acceptance of God's gift through the crucifixion and a part of being sent out to share the good news. One is baptized into the catholic community of Christ - as a sign of what has already taken place on Golgotha. It includes of course the promise that one also receives with sure and certain hope what happened on Easter morning.

This is a great passage to preach...but don't heist it for the institutional church. 

Previous Sermons For This Sunday

May 8, 2015, Sermon on Easter 5B 2015 at St Davids Austin and Trinity Marble Falls

1 comment:

  1. On page:
    The links for: "Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch," sermon discussion from Frederick Buechner, Frederick Buechner Blog. "Conversion," Frederick Buechner, Beyond Words. & "Castrating Our Customs," Rev. Adam J. Copeland, Day 1, 2012 are broken and return a 404 error.
    Thank you