3 May 2015
Fifth Sunday of Easter
John15: 1-8, Acts 8:26-40
Heavenly Father, as we come into the presence of your Word this morning open our hearts and minds to hear your message for us and send us on our way rejoicing. Amen.
Last week we were blessed to have Annemarie speak to us about the “I am” sayings of Jesus and today’s Gospel reading continues that theme with Jesus saying: “I am the vine and you are the branches”. And, of course, that reading contains layers and layers of imagery and meaning that could feed a whole series of sermons – and perhaps it would be particularly interesting for us to think about the word ‘pruning’. We talk a great deal in church about coming to Jesus ‘just as we are’, rather than pretending to be something we are not, and of course that is true. We do come to Jesus just as we are, but if, when we got there, Jesus left us just as we were then what is the point? Jesus says here that God is the vine grower and in order to be fruitful vines need to be pruned – and this is the really interesting bit, even the branches that are fruitful need to be pruned back so that they might become even more fruitful. In our lives we all get pruned back from time to time in a host of ways and it is always tempting to treat such experiences as a time to shake our fists at God but here Jesus tells us that fruitful branches should expect to be pruned back – not as a punishment, not because of an absence of God but precisely because the vine-grower wants to make us even more fruitful for his kingdom. But the important thing is that the branches continue to always abide in the vine – that we remain grafted into the main body of the plant which sends its roots into the soil and taps into the water and nutrients and sends it back out to the branches and fruit.
So our reaction to being pruned back is one that needs to be explored, and is something I shall certainly return to in the future. When church finances are pruned tight do we use that as an excuse to give up and walk away or do we use that as a gateway into a more fruitful future?
There is some wonderful stuff here to think about, but that is not actually the sermon that I want to preach today. I want to think about the other story we heard, from the book of Acts. This is the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, and it is a great story, which conveys some of the joy of encountering God and it also reminds me of the way in which God called me to faith through both his word and sacrament.
So we are looking at the reading from Acts chapter 8, verses 26-40.
To put those verses in some context, in the first half of chapter 8, which we didn’t hear this morning, there was violent and widespread persecution against the church. Stephen, whose death we remember on Boxing Day, had been killed and the believers scattered – but unlike the scattering which took place following Jesus’ arrest, they did not scatter and keep quiet. Philip, and this is Philip who was ordained as a deacon with Stephen in Acts 6 not one of the 12 disciples, went north from Jerusalem into Samaria, he preached the gospel and did miraculous signs bringing great joy to the city of Samaria.
And then, at the start of today’s reading, an Angel of the Lord told Philip he must now go South again – but not back to Jerusalem – he is to go past Jerusalem to the desert road, the wilderness road, which lead from Jerusalem to Gaza and from there the road went onto Egypt and thence down the Nile to Ethiopia.
Philip did not question the Angel as to why his successful ministry in Samaria was being cut short in this way, we are told simply that “…he got up and went.” Which reminds me of Abrahms’ response in Genesis 12 to being told to go where the Lord wanted him. And perhaps it also speaks to us of a fruitful branch being pruned in order to become more fruitful.
So Philip went where he was told, to the road running south of Jerusalem, and there he encountered the Ethiopian eunuch whose name, unfortunately, we do not know.
Now, what do you first think of when you think of Ethiopia? I am sorry to say that the first thing I usually think of is the images of famine from 1984, which led onto Band Aid and Live Aid – the images with which we have become so familiar over the years of stick-thin African children who are dead or dying in a landscape which looks like a wasteland.
The problem with that being the first, and perhaps the only, image we have of a place is that it can blind us to the depths of culture and history of a place which sits in the centre of the cradle of humanity and which features more in the bible than you may realise.
So, let me give you three, perhaps counterintuitive, facts about Ethiopia at the time of today’s story: Firstly, it was a very wealthy kingdom that traded its natural resources extensively with its neighbours in Africa, the Mediterranean and Arabia. Secondly, unlike Israel at this time which was under Roman Occupation, Ethiopia was a free and proud nation. Finally, although Ethiopia was a long journey down the Nile through Egypt, many Ethiopians were actually practising Jews and had been for centuries. From today’s reading you may have noticed that the reason the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem was that he had come there “to worship” and, as he was travelling home, he was reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, which of course is part of the Jewish scripture. It is believed that Ethiopia had been heavily influenced by Judaism since the Queen of Sheba had visited King Solomon, which you can see in 1 Kings 10. Many Ethiopians still consider themselves descendants of Israel and many have even emigrated to modern Israel on the basis of their Judaism.
So, although this man may have been missing some personal vital assets, and although he came from a far away land, this reading tells us loud and clear that this was a very important and very wealthy Jewish believer, traveling in a chariot in the service of his Queen. Philip the evangelist was the opposite of wealthy or important, travelling on foot, yes, in the service of Jesus his king, but possibly even a wanted man in the eyes of the authorities. It is a meeting of opposite worlds, in some ways, but perhaps in a reversal of our cultural expectation here the Ethiopian is wealthy and our protagonist is poor.
So Philip hears the rich Ethiopian in his chariot reading from the book of Isaiah and Philip is again prompted to take action – this time the Holy Spirit prompts him to be bold and to go up to the chariot. Hearing the words of Isaiah, Philip asks:
“Do you understand what you are reading?”
This question is quite bold in itself and works on more than level – the scripture would have been written in Hebrew, which would not have been the Ethiopian’s native language – so it could simply mean, do you understand what this means? but it can also mean, do you understand the import of what you are reading?
Fortunately the Ethiopian is not a proud man and he is not offended at Philip’s question – rather he proves that he is willing to be taught:
“How can I know, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to stop walking on the dusty road and to come up and join him in his presumably opulent carriage.
The Ethiopian repeats the passage he was reading:
“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.”
This actually comes from Isaiah chapter 53:7-8. In Judaism at the time there were at least three different interpretations of the identity of the sheep being taken to slaughter: 1. That it referred to the nation of Israel itself, 2. That it referred to the prophet Isaiah and 3. That it referred to the coming messiah.
We can infer that Philip told the Ethiopian that the passage he was reading was about the coming messiah and that Israel’s messianic hope had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus who had so recently been taken up to heaven and had sent the Holy Spirit on the church and we can only presume that he also then went on to speak about the importance of being baptised as a follower of the messiah because as soon as they come to a bit of water the Ethiopian cannot contain his enthusiasm:
“Look, here is some water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And the answer was apparently nothing because, without an order of service, or an appointment and even without a rota, they simply went down to the water and Philip baptised the Ethiopian and, when they came out of the water, the spirit snatched Philip away to carry on his evangelism elsewhere and the Ethiopian, went on his way rejoicing!
Now we don’t know what happened to this Ethiopian, as he doesn’t appear in the bible again, but we do know this – I have another fact about Ethiopia for you – not only does it have an ancient Jewish population but it is also home to one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which claims its heritage at least in part from that man who returned from Israel as a baptised believer.
As someone charged with carrying out baptisms, as I shall be doing later this morning, this story tells me that both the call to baptism and the results of baptism are not within our control – but that the grace of God is quite sufficient – like Phillip we merely play our part in the drama of God’s relationship with his people, but it is God who sows the seeds, it is God who prunes in due season and the harvest of our fruitfulness comes from him and belongs to him.