Sermon from May 2, 2021
The theology in John’s Gospel sometimes feels uncomfortably exclusive. Cut off the dead branches! Throw them in the fire! This is language for a very different faith tradition than ours, for a Christian community in a very different historical context. But when we read of God the gardener, the vinegrower, who lovingly tends the plant so that it grows strong and healthy, so that it bears fruit that is luscious and lifegiving, that is a part of John that we can relate to.
John’s contemporaries would have heard the image of the vine and connected it with their national identity and history. The prophets wrote about Israel as God’s vine, a vine that went rogue from time to time and stopped bearing fruit, until God stepped in with the clippers and brought it back to a healthy state. The grape vine is an enduring image for prosperity. It takes a long time for a vine to become optimally productive: to tend a vineyard is a longterm investment of time and land. But the prize for all that patient tending is the cluster of grapes that yield precious liquid, sweetness, and ultimately wine to gladden the heart. A withered and neglected vine is a sad monument to war and national decay.
So Jesus’s image of himself as the vine and God as the vinegrower is a reset – instead of Israel being God’s vine, Jesus himself is the vine, and those who abide in him will abide in God’s vineyard. And Jesus identifies himself very closely with God, using the loaded phrase “I AM” twice in this speech. This is the final I AM statement of John’s Gospel, coming after: I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the good shepherd, I am the way, the truth and the life; and now, finally, I am the true vine. Jesus tells us again and again “I AM”, using all these familiar and evocative images to fill out the picture of himself as the source of eternal life.
So Jesus is the vine, entirely in the hands of God the vinegrower. And then Jesus says “and YOU are the branches”. We, the disciples, the followers of the Jesus movement, are intimately connected with God through Jesus. We are nurtured and cared for through this life-giving vine, bearing fruit that is abundant through the work of the vine grower and the relationship with the vine. Jesus’s life flows through us to refresh the world, just as the fruit of the vine refreshes those who share in it. And of course, for us as Christians, the fruit of the vine becomes the blood of Jesus, the sacramental source of life for us who abide in it.
To abide is to hang in there, to persevere, not to give up when the going gets tough. Jesus abides in us and we abide in him. And when we abide in him, when we are 100% connected through him to God, our desires will be aligned with God’s desires for us. Whatever we ask in that context will be granted, because it will be what God wants for us. Abiding implies commitment to the vine and to the community in whom Jesus lives.
Our ritual of commitment is the sacrament of baptism, and that brings me to the story from the Acts of the Apostles and the question that the Ethiopian eunuch asks Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”. What indeed?
Let’s think for a moment about who this man is. He belongs to more than one minority. He is a black African. He is a foreigner in Israel. He is a eunuch. He comes to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, but he surely stands out in the crowd. He’s an outsider in so many ways, clearly longing to be an insider, longing to understand the Scripture, longing to be a part of the people of God. I have to wonder if the Isaiah passage that he’s reading, about being led to the slaughter, about humiliation, about the loss of generation, if this passage might not evoke the memory of his own humiliation and mutilation.
I wonder if he is confused by the multiple messages of Scripture, those that say he is unworthy, as an incomplete man, to be in God’s presence, and those that say that the faithful eunuch will be more highly praised than the father of sons and daughters. Anyone who has ever identified as a minority or an outsider and who has struggled with faith will appreciate his confusion. No wonder he wants to know who the prophet is describing. He wants to know if somehow this ancient Jewish writer could be describing his own experience.
Many of us have that same question about Scripture. Where am I in this story? Is it possible that God the vinegrower has room for me on the vine? Is Jesus really the way, the truth, and the life for me? Philip, one of the first deacons, is quick to respond to the questions within the question. He does what a deacon does, bringing God and the world into conversation, sharing the good news of Jesus with this hungry seeker.
And here comes that question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” The answer could be: plenty. His outsider status could be seen as an obstacle. He’s probably had many experiences of being excluded on the basis of who he is. Many of us can tell personal stories about the obstacles that have been placed between us and a faith community. And our own faith tradition is not exempt. You may remember reading, a few years ago, about a gay couple who were members of the Episcopal Cathedral in Orlando. They scheduled the baptism of their infant son, but the baptism was postponed by the Dean because of unidentified opposition in the cathedral community, which became widely known through social media. As far as I know, the little boy was ultimately baptized and the family remained members of the Cathedral, but that very public hesitation on the part of the Dean did damage to the Episcopal Church’s ability to be truly inclusive of all people.
There’s a lesson for us here at St. Paul’s: what might we be doing, consciously or unconsciously, that prevents people from becoming full members of this community? What expectations do we project about language, clothing, reading ability, personal style, and other markers, that are communicated in some way to put some people off joining the cathedral while encouraging others?
Philip readily agrees to baptize his new friend and they both go on their way rejoicing. The Spirit has done her work, Philip has acted in love, and the Ethiopian’s shame has been turned to joy, as he is grafted onto the hospitable vine of the Jesus movement.
If we follow the example of Philip and the other evangelists in Acts, we too will practice radical inclusion, which I believe is the truly Christian thing to do. If we are closely attuned, abiding on the vine, to the teaching of Jesus and the promptings of the Holy Spirit, we will hear the longing in the seeker’s voice and do something to fulfill it. This is what the letter of John means by love, not a feeling but an action, a willingness to be proactive in the name of Jesus, to bring people in, not shut them out. And I believe that’s what St. Paul’s does, as part of a rich, fruit-bearing vine. Our 100-plus Sacred Ground participants, our ecumenical and interfaith relationships, our membership in the wider body of Christ that is the Episcopal Church, our outreach to our city, all of these are signs that we are abiding in Jesus, that we share a common purpose to bear fruit that will some day bring peace and justice to our world.
And the loving and patient vinegrower abides among us, trimming and tending, leading us to bear fruit, to add value to the lives of the people around us, to offer fruit that refreshes the thirsty, sweetens the bitterness of grief, and provides a home for the spiritually homeless. To God the gardener be the glory.