Clinging to the same vine
“I am the true vine, and my father is the vinegrower.”
Good morning. This week, I’ve been thinking a lot about vines. Across the street, my neighbors are waging war on a hillside of Kudzu. Last year, their kudzu lay over their dogwoods and rhododendrons like a thick blanket, and the vines climbed up to the highest branches of their tallest trees.
On my side of the street, I’ve been out in the woods with my trowel and my loppers attacking a bad infestation of Oriental bittersweet. Now, I had never heard of Oriental bittersweet until I moved to Western North Carolina. But I soon learned that it is a deciduous, perennial vine which is threatening natural areas. The small, delicate shoots poking out of the soil look innocent enough. But on my property, the Oriental bittersweet vines have wrapped themselves around the tree trunks and are literally pulling an entire stand of trees down to the ground.
Both Oriental bittersweet and kudzu are aggressive and damaging invasive plants. They don’t belong here in the flora of Western North Carolina. If nothing is done, they will choke the life out the native plants of our mountain.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus said, and “whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch… into the fire and burned.”
Sometimes, as I read the gospel, I hear Jesus saying things make me uncomfortable. This is one of those sayings. It takes a little bit of exegetical work to get back to the God of love.
In his sermon last week, Tim Jones told us that we are drowning in a sea of voices. This resonated deeply with me. Sometimes, I feel like we are drowning in a sea of angry voices. Voices which are quick to accuse and slow to understand. Voices which seek to name those who should be cut off and cast aside. Voices clamoring along the battle lines of class and culture.
Which leads me this morning to our extraordinary story from the Acts of the Apostles.
Two men – strangers – meet while travelling south on a wilderness road. The outward appearances of these two strangers, whom we know as Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, suggest how odd and unusual their encounter is. They are very different from each other in class and culture.
Philip was one of the seven officials appointed by the community of believers in Jerusalem in response to the Hellenists grumbling against the Hebrews. (To be clear, this Philip was not the Philip chosen by Jesus to be one of the apostles. This is Philip the Deacon, or Philip the Evangelist.)
The Twelve Apostles laid hands on the Philip, Stephen and the other five so that they might manage the charitable donations of the church to the poor. Philip became the first preacher of the good news in Samaria. Many people converted because of his witness. Now, in this encounter, Philip is heading south towards the road that leads to Gaza.
We don’t know much about Philip, but there are a few tidbits contained in the Acts of the Apostles. Philip is a father; the Acts of the Apostles tells us that he has four unmarried daughters, each with the gift of prophecy. Philip is a Greek name. Perhaps he was a foreign-born and Greek-speaking Jew, one of the so-called Hellenists. He might have been relatively poor, since the community of believers gave up their personal possessions to be held in common.
The unnamed eunuch, on the other hand, had both power and wealth. He was a court official in charge of the Queen’s entire treasury. In the story, his chariot is an indication of his status. He is from Africa. He is educated. His copy of the scroll suggests personal wealth.
He is reading from the prophet Isaiah. This is puzzling, even to Philip. Why is the Ethiopian interested in Judaism? Can he even understand what he is reading?
They are very different men coming from different ethnic, religious and national backgrounds. However, both men knew what it is to be scorned and to fear violence.
Philip is preaching while the persecution against the church in Jerusalem intensifies. And already his colleague, Stephen, has been stoned to death. Philip is forced to flee.
The Ethiopian eunuch, despite his privilege, is also an outsider. He no longer conforms to the gender norms. Some would say that an act of violence, performed against his will, rendered him this way. There may be truth in that supposition.
Surely the words he is reading from Isaiah would resonate deeply. “Like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him.”
This is a passage about someone who is metaphorically shorn.
In any case, his ambiguous gender has now set him apart. As a castrated male, he is subjected to prejudice and exclusion from the Jewish community. His presence in the assembly of the Lord, in the Temple, is explicitly forbidden because of Jewish law as specified in Deuteronomy.
The Ethiopian is an outsider to the faith he seeks to embrace. And, yet, here he is, asking Philip to include him in the good news.
In a noisy sea of voices, Tim advised us to listen for the voice of love. And this is what the voice of love sounded like in that extraordinary encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian:
The eunuch asks Philip of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke, Isaiah or another. Philip’s response was astounding. He spoke not of Isaiah’s suffering servant or of the eunuch himself, but of Jesus.
The readings from Isaiah prophesize a time of messianic fulfillment when eunuchs and other marginalized people will be welcomed into the assembly. That time, Philip says, has arrived.
This is not just a story of Philip acting magnanimously and evangelizing to a passing stranger. This is not just a story of a smart and inquisitive Ethiopian.
Philip and the Ethiopian met each other halfway. Both men were open-minded and realized that they had something to learn from each other. There was trust and reciprocity in their brief encounter. Both men were welcoming; Philip approached the chariot and the Ethiopian invited him in. Both were breaking down the barriers that divided them.
“Is there any reason I shouldn’t be baptized?” the Ethiopian asks. And with that Philip baptized him.
The voice of God’s love came through Philip’s voice. And the message was inclusive in the fullest sense. The Ethiopian who was excluded from full participation in worship is now fully included. There were no longer any boundaries to separate the believers from God.
This is the universal unfolding of the gospel that Jesus demanded. It is a sweeping acceptance across geographical and cultural boundaries.
As you and I go along through life, we will encounter people who are different from us. And not just different along the lines of class and culture, or of ethnicity and gender. We meet people who have different values, different biases, and different worldviews, people who have experienced life very differently.
Our gospel story this morning gives us a metaphor: Jesus is the true vine, God is grower, and we are the branches.
And here’s the thing. If we are each clinging to the same vine, then how far apart can we really be from each other?
We all, I believe, experience at some time or another a sense of being excluded. We are all broken in some way, and that sets us apart from others.
We are all clinging to the same vine. We are branches bound to each other in relationship through God. Through this bond, the barriers that divide us are easily cast aside.
Next week, I will pick up my trowel and loppers and return to my task of removing the Oriental bittersweet. I will dig up the shoots which threaten the diversity of life in my woods. I will cut down the vines which pull off branches and tear down the trees. And I will think of a God, who does not divide us and cast us aside, but of our God who binds us together with the true vine.
And with the words of John I will close: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.