"What is to Prevent Me? Nothing." Easter 5 B (May 6, 2012)
Then an angel of God said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So Philip got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “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.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
”I am the true vine, and God is the vinegrower, who removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. God is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Will you pray with me? Eternal God, bless us with wisdom and understanding; remind us that nothing prevents us from knowing your love except our own fears and doubts. Give us grace to recognise our roots in you, the vine of truth. May we drink deep of the cup of your love, in this hour and in every hour to come . Amen.
It is ironic that this reading from Acts is the prescribed lectionary reading for today. The US United Methodist Church, the largest Protestant denomination in the US, and the denomination in which I grew up, was trained, and hoped to be ordained, but was forced to leave—last week at their General Conference of churches from around the world voted to retain language in their Book of Discipline which states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching and doctrine.” This breaks my heart. There is so much good in this denomination, so many friends and cherished colleagues and teachers and mentors; and yet the denomination is mired in the past. It must also be pointed out that most of the votes to retain that language came from non-US clergy, the majority of them from the continent of Africa—the struggle again homophobia continues there, against daunting odds. And there’s another irony, that the reading today is about an Ethiopian eunuch.
Indeed--here in the book of Acts in the New Testament of the Bible we share with the United Methodists—with all Christians—is a eunuch, a Gentile—that is, non-Jewish—eunuch at that, asking to be baptised by the Apostle Philip. This is pretty astonishing for several reasons. First of all, in the Hebrew Bible, the Original Testament, in the book of Deuteronomy, there is an emphasis on perfection—only animals without blemishes are to be sacrificed, and only men without bodily blemishes are to serve God or to enter the inmost part of the Temple. Therefore, eunuchs—males who have no testicles—are considered ineligible to be part of Temple worship. In a society that emphasized the pre-eminence of masculinity and paternity and the importance of descendents, a male who did not or could not reproduce was seen as flawed. So this eunuch—who, by the way, had probably been operated on as a child, in order that he might better serve royalty, because he would not have the temptation to promote his children—specifically sons—but would do what was best for the ruler. So he was seen as flawed by traditional Jews. And then he was Ethiopian—therefore, not descended from one of the tribes of Israel, therefore not seen as truly Jewish, no matter how much or how well he read the law and the prophets. A double outsider, then.
But—an educated and probably wealthy outsider. He could read—which was rare for anyone at that time—and by the way, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that people began reading silently to themselves, that’s why Philip can hear him reading. And he had a chariot and driver, and the leisure time to make a long journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem.
He’s reading the book of Isaiah, a passage from one of the Songs of the Suffering Servant, as those sections of Isaiah are known, which Christians have always applied to Jesus. But I think here the eunuch could have seen this as applying to himself as well—something had been done to him which prevented him from worshipping God as he felt called to do. He had just come from Jerusalem, from the temple, where it must have come home to him in a very immediate way that he was not welcome there as a worshipper—a foreign eunuch.
And then Philip comes along and strikes up a conversation, a literary, scriptural conversation. And in that conversation, Philip shares with him the Good News about Jesus, who did not bar anyone from coming to him—social outcasts, the poor, the sick, the wealthy, children…anyone who sought Jesus was welcomed.
I can almost see it. The eunuch, who had felt he was not wanted by this faith community to which he was drawn, suddenly sees there might be a place for him after all. But he’s been hurt before, and so he asks tentatively, “What is to prevent me from being baptised?”
And Philip says, “Nothing at all.”
And together they go into the water.
Let’s look at Philip for a moment. He’s clearly a good evangelist—he knows how to meet someone where they are, how to speak to their need, to show them the way out of frustration and despair—or simply out of that sense of being left out, unwanted, unknown. Philip sees the Ethiopian man as he is—not as a foreigner, not as a eunuch, not as an outsider—but as another human being, on a quest for truth and a new life. And Philip gives him that hope, that new life. He sets no restrictions on him—no classes to take, no special experience of the Holy Spirit, no need for follow-up. The man asks, Philip gives. How gracious, in the original meaning of the word—gift-giving, generous—Philip is!
Philip took it seriously, that command of Jesus to proclaim the gospel to all nations. He spoke to the eunuch “where he was;” he recognised that this man knew something of God already, and so Philip started from where the other man was, and shared the Good News. It changed him—it had to made a difference to Philip, too, that the man from Ethiopia understood what Philip was teaching him and wanted to commit his life to Christ, in spite of the fact that he was not Jewish, was seen as an outsider. It is in sharing our faith, our trust in God, that our faith is strengthened—in sharing God’s love, our sense of that love is expanded and made more powerful. Philip was changed as much as the man he baptised. For both of them, the experience marked a change in their lives of faith.
Philip has received love and grace from the vine of which he is a branch, and he passes it on to the one he meets. Like Philip, we Christians aren’t the vines—we are the branches. We are rooted in Christ, our vine.
This week we are all about transgressing boundaries—of insider and outsider, of law and spirit, of grace, of hope, even of gender. Like a vine that has grown over and outside of a garden wall, refusing to be contained, spreading riotously through its branches, bearing its fruit inside and outside those boundaries, so is Christ and Christ’s love. Refusing to be limited by death, Christ rose; refusing to be limited by space or time, Christ’s followers have spread over all the earth, passing on the message of love and forgiveness for all, for freedom from death, for Christ’s companionship and grace through suffering and loneliness. Refusing to be bound by a limited understanding of God’s grace, Philip baptises and brings into God’s house the Ethiopian eunuch.
When we talk about God’s boundless love, this, my friends is what we mean. Rooted in the vine of God’s care for all creation, we, the branches, spread over all the earth, beyond all bounds, to share the Good News of God’s love for all that God created and called good. We are changed as we understand how fully God loves all people, all creatures. It widens our hearts. Christianity is not a solitary religion; it is lived and believed as part of a community. We believe, we do. We.
When we begin drawing circles about who God loves—not this person, not that person, not that group—we limit God, we deny God’s love for all that God created. Over the centuries, the Christian church has realised this—the circles have been made wider and more open. At first, the church was a sect within Judaism; then it became its own faith tradition, but open mainly to free men; then to all humans to be members, but still, only legitimate adult males could be leaders and they had to be unmarried. Then the church changed again—opening the circle—and married men and those whose parents were not married could lead. Then women became ordained leaders, and men of all races and ethnicities. Now we stand at the threshold of the last widening of that circle—inclusion of sexual and gender minorities. You know, the church could have saved a lot of time and anguish and pain if they had simply looked at this first recorded example of evangelism—to a person who was part of a gender minority, which did not hinder him from baptism, or leadership in the Ethiopian church.
This opening, widening, branching, does not mean we lose sight of whose we are. We remain connected, attached, to Christ. The Greek word used in this reading, meno, from which we get our English word “remain,” translates as “stay,
live, dwell; last, endure, continue." We remain part of Christ when we share that good news—we bear fruit as the branches do, but we cannot do it without the vital sap of the branch running through us.
With the love of Christ in our hearts, our veins, we reach out to anyone who needs to hear our good news of love and redemption and resurrection, we break barriers and boundaries down—whether of tradition, custom, fear, or ignorance—in order to spread our branches of God’s love around the world and beyond.
Sharing God’s love stretches us, makes us grow, until in time to come, we will break down all the barriers that oppose us. God’s love changes us every time we share it, every time we see again the power of God’s love to make all things new, to bring new life to that which was thought to be dead, inert, useless, or even evil. For Christ is the vine, full of the sap of God’s love; we are the branches, bearing the fruit of that love in the testimony of our lives to those who do not believe that God can love them.
Go, and bear much fruit in the name of our true vine, Jesus the Christ.