“If you Build it They Will Come”
Readings: Acts 8:24-40; 1 John 4:7-12; John 15:1-8; Psalm 22:24-30
Perhaps you remember the movie “Field of Dreams”. It is about a young Iowa farmer who has a vision. There is a clear message. “If you build it they will come.” ‘It’ is a baseball field. ‘They’ are the great players of the past. He builds it and the players do come back from the past. It all leads him on a journey into his past where he is reconciled with his father. It is a powerful story with a powerful message.
In fact it reminds me very much of the story of St. Francis. “Build my church,” was God’s call to Francis. Francis thought it was about repairing the church building in his town. He soon discovered that God was calling him on a very different journey of discovery. God was calling him to draw people to God, to help people to grow in faith and spirituality. God’s message to him was not ‘if you build it they will come.” It was ‘find out where you are meant to be and then go there.’
It is so much easier to think, “if we build it they will come.” If only we had better facilities people would flock to this church. If only we had the right advertising people would come. If only we had an active Sunday School and more teachers people would come. If only we had more volunteers to put on better suppers and fundraisers, people would come and they would stay. After being in this parish for a few months now, I am certain that God is calling us to build up this church. However, I am also sure that we have not yet heard God’s call clearly enough. This transition time in your parish’s life can be a fruitful time of reflection about what God wants of you and what it really means to be the Church. It may confirm many things that you are doing well. It may also lead into new and exciting ways of ministering, to new ways of being the church.
The readings for today speak to us of the demands of discipleship. The Gospel reading provides us with a beautiful image of our relationship to God. It comes to us from the Old Testament where Israel is pictured as a noble vine brought out of Egypt by God and planted in a good land. However, the vine failed to bring forth fruit. With Jesus, the true vine, a new Israel emerges.
The vine, its branches, and the vine grower, are images that point to our responsibility for the work of God in the world. Jesus is the vine, the one who nurtures, the one in whom we abide. We are the branches. It is our responsibility to bear fruit. God, the vine grower does the pruning so that we can bear more fruit. Are we branches? Is the ministry in this congregation being fruitful?
We could judge ourselves in the light of the passage from the Acts of the Apostles. There we read the story of one was a faithful branch, a branch that bears fruit. The angel of God led Philip to a deserted road between Jerusalem and Gaza. A proselyte was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sitting in his chariot, he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. So Philip took the opportunity to speak to him of Jesus, the suffering servant. He asked to be baptized. Philip baptized him. The story ended abruptly with Philip suddenly finding himself in the town of Azotus and the eunuch going on his way rejoicing.
Many things could have kept the eunuch from experiencing faith. Because he was a eunuch, he had already experienced exclusion from the religious community. Jewish law excluded them from taking part in the assembly of the Lord. They were not considered acceptable in God's family. Yet the eunuch, through Philip's ministering, was able to affirm his faith, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" That truly is a wonderful step of faith. He was an outcast, one of the marginalized of his society, yet Philip reached out to him and opened the Scriptures to him. It is a wonderful statement about the inclusivity of God's kingdom. His inclusion was dependent, not on his acceptability, but on his faith. God's love is a living experience.
Philip himself could have been an obstacle to the eunuch's faith. In every part of the story he is a true disciple, one who follows God's lead. He was open to God's call because he was actively searching for the place in which he could be useful. He found the right approach. He was sensitive to the needs of the eunuch. He began with what the man understood. He led him gently to the point where he could affirm his faith.
Are we branches like Philip? Or are we blocks and impediments in the way of others experiencing God? Who are the eunuchs of our society, the ones for whom our contempt is instinctive? Who are the eunuchs of this parish? What outcasts are calling out to us for ministry? Are we actively listening to God, open to God's lead? Do we live out the Gospel or do we hide that we are Christians? How many people pass us every day who have never received a relevant explanation of God's word? I don't mean the self-serving Bible pushing of a fanatic out of touch with reality. I mean the good news of the risen life as it should be lived out in this world? Are we open to the Holy Spirit working in our lives? Are we open to new ideas, new ways, which bring resurrection to our faith community and to the lives of each of us? Are there things in our lives which need to be pruned?
We are called to faithful action. Many things can keep us from living out that faith. Fear of our own inadequacies can keep us from speaking out about our faith. It is easy to become apathetic in our highly secularized world. We can begin to think that we are unable to make any difference anyway. We can become "dead wood" which needs to be pruned back. As a church community we can stagnate. We can fail to be relevant in our community and in our world. We can hang on to old ways of doing things. We can exclude people from our community.
The Gospel underlines the necessity of fruitfulness in our lives. How do we bear fruit? We have been cut away from the forest of sin, redeemed from its ugly consequences and grafted into the vine, into Christ. We are not called to bask in his glow, to wonder at his miracles, to anticipate all the good that God has in store for us. We are called to bear fruit, to accomplish God's purposes. When we abide in Christ and invite him to abide in us, the Spirit is able to work in our lives and in the lives of those around us. Then we cannot help but be open to people in our community. Then we will indeed bear fruit.
You don’t need a building to be the church. You need to be the church where God planted you. And as for filling this church, what would it take? The gospel is not about building churches. It is about building the people of God. If we look into our hearts we will know that. So what is stopping you? Go out and be a branch. Invite people to come and find out what this church is all about. Work on the ministry of welcoming and including. Be rooted in God’s love. Share by word and action the good news of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.
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