Last week we had a shepherd and his sheep. This week it’s a vine, branches – and an Ethiopian in a chariot. We’re still in Easter Season and still getting a sense of who this Jesus is that was crucified then resurrected.
Our reading is set before the crucifixion and is part of Jesus giving his final download of important information to the disciples before his arrest. We’re in the few hurried hours between the washing of feet and the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus is telling them all the critical stuff that they need to know – and he may very well be walking and talking at the same time.
This time Jesus is taking an OT image of God’s people being God’s vineyard. You’ll find it in the Psalms (80:8-16), Isaiah (5:1-7; 27:2-6), Ezekiel (15:1-6) and elsewhere. If Jesus and the disciples are on the move, then it’s possible that they’re going past the Temple at this point since there was a visual aid of a sculpted vine decorating the entrance to the Sanctuary.
And Jesus links the idea of the vine with that of ‘abiding’. John uses abiding a lot. 64 times if you add-up its use in the Gospel and in the 1st letter of John. John clearly likes to abide! And abiding is important since it implies that our life in Christ starts here and now.
Because a few verses earlier Jesus says: “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” So, if you prefer to keep your God remote and at a distance, then this isn’t for you. This is a God that abides with us and makes his home with us.
Twice Jesus tells the disciple, and us, that: “I am the vine”. I am. Like God said to Moses at the Burning Bush. I am. Jesus too says I am.
And we are the branches. It’s more than an image to help us think about things. This is a promise to us. If we abide with him and he abides with us, then we are his branches. So, just like last week where we follow and are cared for by a Good Shepherd, so too this week we are branches that cling to and are nourished by the True Vine.
But we are branches that need to bear fruit. We’re not here for the sake of it. Repeatedly in this passage we’re reminded about bearing fruit. And repeatedly we’re told that pruning will take place. That pruning may be to remove parts that aren’t working properly or to make the good even better.
I had a look on the Royal Horticultural Society website and it had this to say about pruning grape vines: The main pruning season is early winter but they need regular pruning and maintenance throughout the growing season to keep them manageable and productive. Degree of difficulty: difficult. No matter where you grow your grape vines, you will need to put up some sort of support system, either against a wall or wires & posts if in open ground.
And if you think about a real vine then too much pruning means too much sun getting to the fruit and too little means not enough sun. It has to be just right. We have to trust that the Father and Son, who make their home with us, get that difficult degree of pruning on us just right.
So, we’re being called to be part of a community that’s being pruned – constantly changing and being adapted to make the best of us. Perhaps when we are at our most dormant there will be a main pruning. But we should expect some regular care and attention throughout the season to keep us manageable and productive! How manageable and productive are we?
But we also need to think about what the RHS called the support system. What support, locally or as a wider church, do we give, or do we get, to allow people to grow and be fruitful?
The passage is telling us that we won’t grow or thrive as individuals or as a congregation unless we abide, hold closely, to the teachings of Christ. And in John, Jesus keeps it really simple. He has just one commandment – and that is to love. Love God and love our neighbour. So, we should be out there, doing, showing that love.
Afterall, the fruit on the vine is for the benefit of others, it’s not for the benefit of the branches. And it’s hard to believe that any church would struggle for numbers if every congregation and each individual abided with the Father and the Son and followed that commandment to love.
How we are called to love, to bear fruit, may be very different for each individual here today. It’s helpful to look at the passage in Acts that we had this morning because we may get asked to do things that we hadn’t expected.
Here, we have Philip and the court official from Ethiopia. In any normal circumstance the 2 of them would never have met. Most of us are familiar with the story. The official, is in his chariot, reading from the prophet Isaiah and he doesn’t understand it. Philip comes along and not only explains about Isaiah but about Jesus too. The official asks to be baptised, which Philip does – and then off he’s whisked.
Wrong people and places
On the face of it, this is a meeting of the wrong people in the wrong place. We’re in the wilderness. A dangerous place to be. The Ethiopian Treasury official is presumably well-off and well-dressed. A prime target for any robber or bandit.
We’re guessing that the Ethiopian is interested in the God of Israel since he’d gone to Jerusalem to worship and he was reading Isaiah. But, being a eunuch, he couldn’t fully participate in worship since it was precluded in Leviticus (21:20) and Deuteronomy (23:1). He wouldn’t have been allowed to take part in Temple rituals or be accepted into the community of Israel.
However, a few chapters on from where the Ethiopian is reading, Isaiah (56: 3-8) has a vision of a new future where God embraces the eunuch and the foreigner and gives them a place within his house, within his walls. Dare I say, in a place to abide with God. Our Ethiopian is both a eunuch and a foreigner. And, so, this encounter with Philip indicates that a time of restoration, a new way of looking at things, really has begun to dawn.
And Philip was supposed to be in Jerusalem doing a very specific task. He’d been given the job of looking after the distribution of food and diplomatically navigating some cultural difficulties with the new believers. Yet here in Acts 8 he first of all heads north from Jerusalem to preach to the Samaritans. And now he goes south to meet up with our man in the chariot. And then at the end he’s taken off west to the coast. We come across Philip later in Acts, living in Caesarea with his four daughters.
Philip and the Ethiopian would have looked very different, dressed differently, spoken differently, had different family situations. Yet they shared an interest in God. As the 2 of them are rolling along the road in the chariot, I love the line where it says: ‘Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus’. There’s an echo here of Jesus talking to the 2 disciples as they walked along the road to Emmaus.
Our passage in Acts tells us that God is no respecter of job descriptions or established religious norms. We may think that we have pinned down who does what in the church – but whilst we’re doing that the gospel runs off in a different direction in the hands of those given other jobs to do.
This is a wonderful story of the Kingdom of God bursting through, both in the way that it includes the previously excluded eunuch but also in the way that someone designated to tend table at home finds himself out preaching and teaching in a desert place to the last person that he’d expect to meet there.
Which takes us back to being fruitful. Sometimes we just have to roll with what life serves up. To be flexible and adaptable and to give what’s needed to whoever God puts in our path. It might not be doing what we thought we would be doing or with whom we would expect to do it. But, if we’re abiding with the Father and the Son, then we’re to do it anyway.
And, if you feel different or excluded, then God says there’s a place for you. A place within his house, within his walls. A place to abide. Amen.
- Card, M. (2014). John – The Gospel of Wisdom. Downers Grove: IVP