Saturday, May 02, 2015
May 3, Easter 5, Life #2, The Life Abides
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
We’re going to celebrate a branch on the vine today. The branch on the vine has a name, her name is Frances. She’s a little girl, and by the way she lets me hold her in my arms, I like to think that she knows me. Let me think that. Her baptism is her grafting onto the vine. Not that we do the grafting, or even that it actually takes place today. The Holy Spirit does it, outside of time. But we claim that as certainly as we celebrate it in our history so certainly does the Holy Spirit do it in God’s mystery.
This is a baptismal cross. It’s from Ethiopia. It’s one of my favorite things. It was given to me by a member of my church in Grand Rapids. Jetts Bass was a great lady of great faith. She got sick while I was there and she died just after I left there, so I didn’t get to do her funeral. But she loved me and she blessed me and her blessing is on this cross, which signifies the power of love that crosses from life to life, through death to life again, across the generations of the faithful, life begetting life.
The Christian Church in Ethiopia is one of the most ancient churches of all. It dates itself back, of course, to the eunuch whom Philip baptized. Maybe so. There is no historical documentation of the eunuch afterward, or that he actually founded the church in Ethiopia, but neither is there any proof he didn’t.
There may well have been Jews living in Ethiopia back then, of which the Rastafarians bear strange witness, and this eunuch might have been a Jew or been influenced by Jews, which could account for his pilgrimage to the temple in Jerusalem. And then after his return he might have witnessed to the Jews in Ethiopia. But we don’t know. Nor do we know enough to say it wasn’t so.
In any case, Philip had good reason not to baptize him when he asked for it. Philip could have said, Baptism is not an individual thing, it’s a communal thing. Baptism is crossing the river into the promised land and for abiding within the congregation of Israel. But you are crossing the waters in the wrong direction and you’re leaving the Christian people and you’ll be all alone, so baptism is not indicated! The vineyard is here and the vine is the people of Israel. You can’t be a branch on the vine when you’re down there. Philip had reasons to say No. To say Yes was to stretch baptism in new ways, to do it as a risk, and with no guarantees, to do it and to leave the outcome up to God.
I can imagine the eunuch answering, “That doesn’t count for me, because I’ve already been cut off. I’m a eunuch. The book of Deuteronomy says I’m not included anyway. The Bible calls me a branch cut off the vine, a dry branch, a faggot of firewood, which is why when I got to the temple I got turned away. Even though it was not my choosing to be castrated in my childhood, the Bible is clear, I’m not allowed in the congregation of God. But why not baptize me anyway?”
How can he say, Why not? Because they’ve been reading from Isaiah, which counters Deuteronomy. He had already been reading the passage in Isaiah about the suffering Messiah, and later in that passage comes the promise that when the Messiah comes, even the eunuchs will be welcome. He was looking for hope in that prophecy. He’d been reading Isaiah as a prophecy for himself, and then Philip shows him how those same chapters spoke of Jesus. So then, does the promise of Isaiah trump the prohibition of Deuteronomy? “If my branch is cut off from the vine of Israel, can’t you graft me onto the vine of the Messiah? Here’s water.”
Philip has to make a judgment call. He’s got to decide between two scriptures, and both of them with authority, and judge which one has authority over the other one. He’s got to read both of these scriptures in terms of what he has seen and heard in Jesus. Because of Jesus, he takes Isaiah over Deuteronomy. That’s how Biblical interpretation works. I can imagine Philip thinking he’d like to check with the apostles first, him being only a deacon. But the Holy Spirit is the third character in this story, and the Holy Spirit is breathing down his neck. Philip makes the call because he can feel the Spirit pushing him. “Philip, I didn’t bring you here for you to say No.”
The story shows us the Bible being read out loud, and Philip running to keep up with it, and the Holy Spirit driving it all, so that Philip must do a Christ-centered merging of the Bible and real-life human experience. That’s what we try to do here every week. And because Philip knows that it’s the Holy Spirit driving him, he has to believe that, yes, the vineyard is also Ethiopia, and the vine is certainly planted in Ethiopia, if the vine is Christ himself, and the eunuch’s branch is already on the vine, so he will baptize him, and give the eunuch reason to rejoice the whole way home.
The vine of Christ is very tall and it’s still climbing. Way down on its trunk is the branch of the eunuch and up at the top is the new branch of Frances. And just below hers you all have your own branches on it too. You abide in him. He is your abode. He is your residence. He is where you live. This is another sermon about life, because your abode is where you live. Philip runs, and the Spirit moves, so that you can settle down and abide in him, who offers to be the source of your life.
Abiding is another word for living, for long-term living. Living-in, living-with, living-through. Last week it was abundant life, this week it’s abiding life. The way to keep your life abiding is to keep drawing your life from someone else, your life support, to choose to not live your on your own. Philip could baptize someone who’d live his new life all alone only by trusting that the Holy Spirit would keep on working in ways he couldn’t see yet. When we baptize Frances we are claiming and celebrating that her life is not her own, and that she belongs to the life of Christ.
The second aspect of life this morning is bearing fruit. Reproduction is basic to living things of any kind. Yes, inorganic crystals replicate, fires spread, and isotopes make chain reactions, but only organisms do self-directed reproduction. Living things bear fruit; they make new organisms like themselves, and they nourish them and feed them and care for them and work for them.
Living things get creative in their bearing fruit, like making gorgeous flowers and offering nectar for the bees and food for other animals. There is of course self-interest in this, and the drive for survival, but what Christians see in the astounding abundance and extravagant variety of life on earth is a testimony to the Holy Spirit who is the Lord and giver of life. And we see in the bearing of fruit a symbol of love. As even the birth of a child is literally the result of her parents loving each other.
You are commanded to bear fruit. You are commanded to love. Even Frances is commanded to love, and right now that’s easier for Frances than for you. The way that she’s loving is accepting the love of her parents. Her love is to live within their love. And there’s a lesson in that for how you practice the love you are commanded to love with. You love your neighbor accepting by God’s love for you, and then loving your neighbor from within God’s love for you.
Don’t try to love your neighbor with the love that you yourself generate, but put yourself within God’s love. Does that sound rhapsodic? Let me compare it to music. I love music, but I can’t make music the way I’d like to. I am literally a failed musician—I took an F in college orchestra, and I had to leave it. But even if I can’t make it, I can rise into it when I hear it as other people make it, and I let it fill me and inspire me and I can even share it with others. The love of God is like that. The love of God and the love of neighbor is one, it is a single love, a single energy. You let God do the loving, and you rise into it and live in it. That means quieting your own inner voice, and letting God’s love do your thinking and your speaking. That means not chasing other loves, it means not seeking other sources and satisfactions, it means abiding in God’s love. And then you can bear fruit.
God loves us. But our epistle lesson goes further than that. God is love. That’s not an abstract principal. It means that if you trace all of love within the world back to its ultimate source, there you will find the living God who generates the love. And it means that all of God’s many activities are loving activities. God’s creating is a loving creating, God’s ruling is a loving ruling, God’s judging is a loving judging, and God’s sustaining is a loving sustaining. It means that as Frances gradually discovers all the business and actions and attributes of God within her life, she can believe that binding all of them is love.
Copyright © 2015, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.