Sunday, May 2, 2021
Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
Prayer of the Day
O God, you give us your Son as the vine apart from whom we cannot live. Nourish our life in his resurrection, that we may bear the fruit of love and know the fullness of your joy, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Acts 8:26-40 Philip teaches and baptizes an Ethiopian
1 John 4:7-21 God’s love perfected in love for one another
John 15:1-8 Christ the vine
Grace and peace to you from God the Creator, Christ the Resurrected One, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
This passage from the Gospel of John comes right in the middle of Jesus’ farewell discourse. He has already washed his disciples’ feet, shared bread with Judas, given the commandment for them to love one another, and tells them that he will not leave them alone, but will send the Holy Spirit as an advocate and guide. He will go on to tell the disciples again about what is to come in the next few days, and prays for them.
The farewell discourse is long. It spans four chapters in John. It feels like both a summary of what Jesus set out to do in the world, as well as him trying to imprint on the disciples what he wants them not only to remember, but to return to. Jesus knows that he will be handed over to death at the hands of the state. He knows that what’s he’s done and what he’s said and how he’s loved has made him dangerous, in the eyes of the state. He knows the disciples are about to enter into a space of grief, and fear, and confusion.
And he leaves them with words of comfort. We’re reading this passage after Easter, after the Resurrection, and I wonder if the disciples, too, would’ve returned again and again to this night in their memory, holding onto their conversation with Jesus as they knew him, taking comfort in it.
Abide in me as I abide in you.
Dwell in me as I dwell in you.
Make your home in me as I make my home in you.
We are as intertwined as the vines and branches of a grapevine.
The image of the grapevine would’ve been intimately familiar to the disciples. Even if they themselves had not worked a vineyard, they would’ve had cousins, or friends, who did. They would know the risk of spring buds getting damaged by weather, would know the importance of spring and winter pruning’s – one to shape the plant, and one to harvest and grow more plants. Just as we mark the seasons through the changing of the leaves, Jesus’ followers might’ve marked the seasons through the changing colors of the grapes – from green to red, or purple.
As the disciples are fitting themselves into the farewell discourse, they would know in their bodies what this image means. They might not be able to describe it with words, but they would know what it means that vines and branches need to be intertwined to grow. They would know that if a branch withers, something has gone wrong, and it will no longer bear fruit. They would know how essential pruning, and dressing, and shaping, is to the entire process, to make room for new growth, to nourish existing growth. They would know that this is a seasonal process – it happens over time, over and over again.
And so, in this moment, the disciples might each be remembering a time when they felt so connected with Jesus and his teachings and his love that it was as though he wrapped around them, like a vine on a branch.
Maybe it was as he washed their feet, caring for their bodies.
Maybe it was the moment they decided to follow him, casting off their nets.
Maybe it is a moment still to come, when they ask for what’s on their heart, and in response they realize that Jesus is still entwined with them.
Whenever I have thought about this image, I’ve always thought part of the comfort in it was not being able to tell where the branch ends and the vine begins. That Jesus is so wrapped up with us that we can’t help but abide in him, dwell in him. That God is found in the spaces of transition, in the in-between. A fascinating fact about grapevines is that it can be really hard to tell where the branch ends and the vine begins. During the final stages of growth before harvest, as the grapes are ripening, canes begin to develop. Canes are vines that have hardened into branches, but maintain a living core – they are an inseparable branch/vine, that can then be planted to grow new grapevines.
There’s another element to this piece of the farewell discourse, aside from the comfort of being so entwined with Jesus, and him with us, that we make our homes in one another. And that’s pruning. For grapevines, there are a few different times in the season where pruning is essential. First, in spring, buds are pruned off to shape how the grape plant will grow – a lot of farmers will prune off all of the lower buds, so that the plant grows up and out. The next pruning is mid-season, where some of the early grapes are removed to concentrate the nutrients into the remaining fruit. And finally, there is a winter pruning, where most of the canes are removed and propagated, and any dead branches are disposed of.
All of these pruning’s shape the plant, and are done to increase the quality and yield of the fruit. In the language of Jesus’ farewell discourse, pruning is being shaped by God. Alongside the disciples, we are being shaped by God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.
Just like each grapevine needs a different pattern of pruning, depending on its location, soil quality, age, and type of grape, how we are each pruned and shaped by God varies. One way that we come to know how God is shaping us is by hearing the stories of others who have been shaped by God, and placing those stories and the questions raised on our own lives and experiences.
The story of Philip and the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch can be read in this way. It is a moment where they are each being shaped by God – entwined with God, and with God’s work in the world.
It begins with Philip following the directions of an angel of the Lord. He goes to the wilderness road, and goes over to the Ethiopian’s chariot and joins it. To be clear, an angel is perhaps a more straightforward and clear way that God is shaping him than most of us get. But that’s only the initial framing of the story.
Philip encounters an Ethiopian treasurer reading scripture. We don’t know much about this person – they don’t even have a recorded name. But it would be safe to say that their gender, ethnicity, and status might have been challenges for Philip. Many trans and intersex people identify with this character, whose body is unable to reproduce. That physical reality would’ve impacted their gendered experience of the world, and how they embodied gender – likely in a non-normative fashion. They are from a different part of the world than Philip, and the two have different experiences of race and ethnicity. And their status – as the trusted treasurer of a royal family – might’ve both complicated and broadened Philip’s perception of this person’s place in the world.
Their very encounter and conversation, rooted in the word of God, could be a moment they each look back on as one where God was present and entwined with them. But it doesn’t end with a conversation about scripture – this story ends in baptism.
The Ethiopian treasurer was reading Isaiah, being shaped by scripture, even before Philip came to their chariot. This tells us that the treasurer is educated, and has enough wealth – or is entrusted with enough wealth – to have written scripture. They invite Philip into the conversation – wondering about who the scripture is speaking of. Philip starts with Isaiah, and then tracks the history of his faith through to Jesus. At some point, Philip must have talked about baptism, and how Jesus sent them out to baptize in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
And then we get to the center of this story – they come across water, and the Ethiopian treasurer proclaims: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
In this moment, as far as we know, Philip is left to discern the answer to this question on his own. An angel of God doesn’t show up, telling him what to do. He must trust his own experience of God in the world, trust that Jesus is holding him so closely, even in this moment. Is there anything that prevents the Ethiopian eunuch from getting baptized? Is their gender, or ethnicity, or status a barrier to the gift of baptism?
The treasurer stops the chariot, following the Spirit, following how God is shaping them. And they both go to the water. The answer in this story is abundantly clear – nothing prevents them from receiving the gift of baptism.
When we hold this story to our own lives, to the ways God is shaping each of us, a natural question that we can ask is: are we answering the question, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” differently than Philip is? Are we putting up any barriers? That prevent us from fully abiding in the love of God? That prevent others from fully abiding in the love of God? And are those barriers faithful to the abundant and expansive nature of God? If they’re not, what can we do to prune them away, to discard the dead wood?
When I think of what it feels like to “abide in Christ as Christ abides in me”, I think of those God moments, like what I imagine Philip and the Ethiopian treasurer experienced. Moments where it is so clear that nothing separates us from God, or from each other, or from Creation.
The feeling of water washing over our skin, claiming us for God in baptism.
The taste of bursting grapes, the harvest of a well-pruned and well-tended plant.
The warmth of a bread oven, nourishing us through the intimate, embodied act of communion.
The enveloping presence of Christ, wrapping around us like a vine.
The surprise of the Holy Spirit making herself known to us in our lives.
During the baptismal rite, the sign of the cross is made on the forehead of the newly baptized, with the prayer: “child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked with the cross of Christ forever.” In that moment, united with the body of Christ, the communion of saints, and God’s work in the world, the person being baptized is simultaneously being pruned and shaped by God, and entwined with God, as a grapevine is entwined. When we remember our baptism, and our baptismal promises, we are remembering that nothing can separate us from the love of God, and that we too are constantly being shaped by, and are entwined with, God.
Abide in Christ as Christ abides in you.
Dwell in Christ as Christ dwells in you.
Make your home in God as God makes their home in you.
We are all as intertwined as the vines and branches of a grapevine.
Amen, and thanks be to God.
Vicar Reed Fowler,