5 Easter – May 2, 2021
John 15:1-8 and Acts 8:26-40

          We are given two rich pieces of scripture today, the amazing story of Ethiopian eunuch and the story of the vine and the branches. Jesus is telling us that we are the branches and he is the vine – that we cannot bear fruit by ourselves unless we abide in the vine. It’s a counter cultural message in this age of ‘pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps’ and describing ourselves as ‘self-made’. The message of the vine and branches is one of interdependence.

I am the fortunate recipient of a potted jasmine vine. A Jasmine vine is fragrant and beautiful, but here’s the thing: it doesn’t care about personal space. As Debi Thomas says: It’s a messy, curly, jumbly thing.  It stretches, it spreads, and it invades. It grows in all kinds of tangled up directions, and its densely interwoven tendrils are just about indistinguishable from each other.

If this is Jesus’s metaphor for the spiritual life, then perhaps Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz Weber says it best: Christianity is a lousy religion for the “I’ll do it myself” set.  We are meant to be tangled up together.  We are meant to live lives of profound interdependence, growing into, around, and out of each other.  We cause pain and loss when we hold ourselves apart, because the fate of each individual branch affects the vine as a whole.  In this metaphor, dependence is not a matter of personal morality or preference; it’s a matter of life and death — branches that refuse to cling to the vine die.

Maybe after a year of pandemic and racial reckoning and political paralysis, maybe this is the time when we can more fully appreciate and acknowledge the affirmation that “apart from Jesus, you can do nothing” and the pruning may sound like a warning, or even a scolding, yet embedded in these words is a promise. Across this whole passage is an affirmation of both the immense dependence of the branches on the vine and simultaneously the tremendous potential of being branches on the vine.

Vines grown in sizeable settings may require regular pruning to keep them healthy, productive, attractive, and under control. Many vines just don’t know when to quit—or in which direction to grow. Pruning is part of gardening; that’s just how it works. Sometimes you cut a bush or vine back until it looks nearly like a barren stalk precisely so that new growth is possible. Don’t forget, though, that pruning doesn’t just reduce mass: It can increase it. Heading back stems encourages new growth.

All that is to say that pruning is not really for punishment, but so that the plant can be even more fruitful. Pruning sounds destructive, but it is actually creative. Have you ever seen those hedge-type plants grown into amazing shapes? By trimming the bushes regularly, they are able to shape the plants to look the way they wanted them to.

In a similar fashion, if we allow it, God prunes our lives to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. Sometimes the pruning involves removing sin from our lives. And sometimes God’s pruning is painful, but over time God can change us to look more like Jesus. Growing strong, healthy, productive, fruit bearing branches takes time.

Now, let’s look at the story of Ethiopian eunuch. My colleague Debi Thomas tells this story so well. Philip becomes the student in this story – in his Spirit-led encounter with the Ethiopian official, Philip learns that the resurrection of Jesus changes everything.  Everything he knows about insiders and outsiders, piety and depravity, identity and belonging.  The eunuch isn’t the only person in the story who undergoes a conversion; the Spirit leads Philip to experience a conversion as well.

The story begins with “the angel of the Lord” directing Philip to a certain “wilderness road” that leads away from Jerusalem. There, on the geographical margins, Philip finds the Ethiopian eunuch, a man who occupies many margins. He is a man interested enough in Israel’s God to make a pilgrimage from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, but according to Hebrew law, he is not free to practice his faith in the Temple. It’s possible that he is a Jew, but in Philip’s eyes, he is a foreigner, a Black man from Africa. He is a man of rank and privilege, a royal official in charge of his queen’s treasury, but he is also a powerless outsider — a queer man who doesn’t fit into the social and sexual paradigms of his time and place. He is wealthy enough to possess a scroll of Isaiah, and literate enough to read it, but he lacks the knowledge, context, and experience to understand what he’s reading.

In other words, the unnamed eunuch occupies an in-between space, a liminal space, a space of reversal and surprise that stubbornly resists our tidy categories of belonging and non-belonging. What kind of person, after all, earnestly seeks after a God whose laws prohibit his bodily presence in the Temple? What kind of wealthy, high-ranking official humbly asks a stranger on the road for help with his spiritual life?  What kind of long-rejected religious outcast sees a body of water and stops in his tracks because he recognizes first — before Philip, the supposed Christian “expert” — that God is issuing him a gorgeous, unconditional, and irresistible invitation?

The Ethiopian eunuch hears the good news of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, and decides to become a follower of Christ. That is true and it is wonderful. But consider for a moment the amazing question he asks Philip in return: “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  Sit with this for a while as a real question.

          “What is to prevent me?”  What is to prevent me from belonging to the family of God?  What is to prevent me from being welcomed as Christ’s own?  What is to prevent me from full participation in the risen life and community of Jesus?  What is to prevent me from breaking down the entrenched barriers, fences, walls, and obstacles that have kept me at an agonizing arm’s length from the God I yearn for?  What is to prevent me from becoming, not merely a hearer of the Good News, but an integral part of the Good News of resurrection?

Resounding silence follows the eunuch’s question. The silence speaks what words cannot.  The silence is thundering, and gorgeous, and seismic, and right.  Because the answer to the question is silence.  The answer — the only answer — is “nothing.”  In the post-resurrection world, in the world where the Spirit of God moves where and how she will, drawing all of creation to herself, in the world where the Word lives to defeat death, alienation, isolation, and fear, there is nothing to prevent a beloved image-bearer of God from entering into the fullness of Christ’s salvation.  Nothing whatsoever.

Notice in the story that it is the eunuch who commands the chariot to stop so that he and Philip can make their way to the water. Philip doesn’t say a word; he merely obeys the prompting of the man who knows without a doubt that he belongs, that the God he has worshiped from a distance for so long is now doing a new and earth-shattering thing.

This is a stunning post-Easter story. How often have we (consciously or unconsciously) communicated the message that those who don’t look, think, worship, live, speak, work, love, and practice like us do not and cannot belong? How many times has the Spirit invited us to a “wilderness road” of faith for an encounter that might convert us to an authentic post-resurrection ethos and hospitality — only to have us resist and turn away?

The fact is, if the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is true, if the post-resurrection world really is a world where all are welcome, then we are going to have to change. Let’s not kid ourselves: change is hard. Change hurts, kind of like pruning. Change makes demands on our hearts, minds, and lifestyles that we’d rather avoid.  But this is the work of conversion.  This is the ongoing work of growing in faith. This is allowing ourselves to be pruned by our God, the vine grower.

The eunuch wanted God as much as God wanted him, so God broke the connection between identity and destiny, between definition and determination.  God “inserted a new trajectory.”  If we allow it, God prunes our lives to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ.  May we be open to the movement of the Spirit in our lives, be open to being pruned, open to change, to abide in Jesus and bear much fruit, growing in faith and discipleship.   Amen.