Saturday, April 28, 2018

The Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B

Abiding in God’s Love

Readings: Acts 8:24-40; 1 John 4:7-12; John 15:1-8; Psalm 22:24-30

A few days ago a friend sent me an email about trees and their ability to survive and even thrive under adverse conditions. There was a picture of a tree that survived a Tsunami. Another one was growing in the cleft of a rock. The roots of another had spread out over the sidewalk. It brought to mind an experience I had as a child. I was at my bedroom window during a thunderstorm, when the crabapple tree in our backyard was struck by lightning. It was an awesome sight. It split the tree in half and sent chunks of wood hurtling through the air. The next day we cleaned up the chunks of wood. A typical rectory, no one really got around to dealing with the stump of the tree. It was just left to rot. A couple of years later we noticed that a small tree had started to grow out of the stump. By the time I moved away from home, the tree had grown up and was once again producing fruit. It is for me a powerful resurrection image. More than that, it resonates with me about the imagery of the vine and branches in today’s Gospel and about our need to abide in God.

The vine and the branches is 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 new 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 in carrying out God’s work. Jesus, the vine, the one who nurtures, is the one in whom we abide. The writer of John’s Gospel gives us several ways in which we abide in God. That lovely comforting verse, “In my father’s house are many mansions” gives us a beautiful example of how we abide in God. Just as the mansions are abiding places, so the vine image is another way of talking about a place where one is deeply at home, nurtured by God, loved by God, ready to be fruitful. We are the branches. Our responsibility is to stay connected to Jesus, the vine so that we can bear fruit. God, the vine grower does the pruning so that we can bear even more fruit. So the question today is, are we branches? Is our ministry being fruitful?

How do we share by word and action the good news of God in Jesus Christ? That is the ongoing message of Easter. It is the theme of the readings throughout the season. More importantly, it is the message of our baptismal covenant, the purpose for which we come together Sunday by Sunday. What a wonderful illustration of the power of sharing the Christian faith we have in the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch! The angel of God led Philip to a deserted road between Jerusalem and Gaza. A eunuch was returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Sitting in his chariot, he was reading from the prophet Isaiah. He was struggling with its meaning. And Philip took the opportunity to speak to him of Jesus, the suffering servant. The man 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 at his new found faith.

You have to know that 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, on his attachment to the vine. God's love is a living experience.

Philip could have been an obstacle to the eunuch's faith. In every part of the story he is a true disciple, a branch bearing fruit, one who follows God's lead, one who abides in God. 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.

The image of Jesus, the vine, and God the vinegrower helps us to understand the demands of our baptismal covenant. It is a vivid image of God and of our relationship with Christ. It shows us our place in the relationship. It reminds us of our responsibility as branches to bear fruit. We are the branches attached to Jesus, the vine. God does the pruning so that we will be more effective in our ministry.

Are we branches, channels of God’s love, like Philip? Or are we blocks and impediments to the faith, simply getting in the way of others experiencing God’s love? Are we open to the Spirit? It is God’s Spirit that informs our experience of God. It is God’s Spirit that transforms us. The Spirit brings new ideas, new ways, new life, resurrection to our faith community and to the lives of each of us.
The Spirit enthuses us so that we are enabled to share our faith and bear fruit.

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. I always think that it is wise to remember the words of St. Francis who says “Preach the Gospel; use words when necessary.” It isn’t about grabbing people by the lapels and dragging them kicking and screaming into the church. It isn’t about nagging people. It is about living our lives faithfully. It is about seeing Christ in others. It is about allowing Christ to be seen in us.

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 share our faith with others. Then we will indeed bear fruit.

We bear fruit not by squeezing it out of ourselves somehow, but because we are drawn into God’s love. We choose the abiding place of our souls. We choose to abide in Christ, which means we choose to abide in his love. We choose to open ourselves up to God’s love, to bask in that love, and to share it with others. Amen.

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