Fifth Sunday of Easter
Listen again to 1 John 4:16, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” And hear again the words of Jesus from John 15:4, “Abide in me as I abide in you.” In those short verses we hear the word “abide” five times. In our Bible passages this evening, you heard that word thirteen times, over and over again—verses about the God who abides with us, and that we abide with God.
What does it mean to abide, to abide with God?—for you and me to abide with God?
Jesus offers the image of vines, vines that grow up and down and around, twisting and turning, a mess of branches. Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” To abide with God means that we are part of that mess of branches, that mess of branches we call the church. The church is a mess. We are a mess, but we find God’s life as we abide with one another.
Jesus offers the image of a vine, not a tree. We are like a vine, not a tree. That sounds right to me—to think of what we’re doing here, in the church, living with God, abiding with God, to think of this as a vine, a jumble of branches.
Trees grow in one direction—up, toward the sun. Vines, on the other hand, move in all sorts of directions, sometimes up, sometimes down, branches meandering this way and that way, feeling their way, looking for the support of a trellis. I’ve got vines in my back yard that creep along a fence then jump from one tree branch to another, moving between my yard and my neighbor’s, crawling around a tool shed. An olive tree, on the other hand, only goes up.
There’s a wildness to vines. In the story we heard from Acts, chapter 8, Philip finds himself in the wildness of God’s vine, with strange twists and turns. An angel shows up and tells him to get up and go south, down a wilderness road. “So he got up and went,” it says. Philip doesn’t know where he’s going, or why. He doesn’t know where he will end up, or what will happen to him along the way. Traveling the wilderness road by himself is risky.
As Philip walks, he sees an Ethiopian, riding in a chariot, reading from the book of Isaiah. It’s important for us to realize that this man doesn’t belong with God’s people. As far as Philip knows, God’s promises have nothing to do with this guy on the road, because he’s a foreigner and he’s a eunuch. Ethiopian eunuchs aren’t supposed to be invited into God’s family. The eunuch part is especially problematic, if you care about the authority of the Bible, as Philip certainly did. Listen to Deuteronomy 23:1, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”
We don’t know how Philip came to his decision to baptism this man. We don’t know how he was reasoning with the Scriptures, with God’s command in Deuteronomy, when the Ethiopian eunuch asked him, saying: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” I can think of reasons why the eunuch shouldn’t be baptized, based of the Bible, based on Deuteronomy. Why didn’t the Bible keep Philip from baptizing him? We don’t know. All we know is that for some reason, Philip decides to welcome a foreigner, a Gentile, into God’s people — and not just any Gentile, but a eunuch, someone who God forbids from entering into the assembly of the Lord, according to the book of Deuteronomy.
This episode does not follow the plan, Israel’s plan for faithful growth and stability. This baptism happens outside the bounds of the rules, beyond the outlines of Scripture. Philip is like a vine, reaching in a new direction, trusting that a trellis will catch him and this Gentile eunuch, and keep them as part of the true vine—that they won’t be pruned, cut off and thrown into the fire.
When Philip baptizes the eunuch, when he baptizes this stranger on the wilderness road, Philip puts his trust in the wildness of God’s vine. The Ethiopian eunuch stretches Philip’s faith beyond what he thought was possible, beyond what he thought imaginable, beyond what he thought was acceptable—that this stranger on the road could be part of God’s people, another branch of the vine.
There is a wildness to what it means to be God’s people. The church is a bit unruly, with branches heading out in all sorts of directions. And Jesus doesn’t say that God will cut off the wild branches, if they stray too far from the others, if they crawl too far down the fence, creeping onto a tool shed, jumping back and forth across my yard and my neighbor’s. The only reason why God prunes the vine is for the sake of fruit: Jesus says, “The Father removes every branch that bears no fruit” (John 15:2).
There’s nothing wrong with wild branches, with experiments in faithfulness, with baptizing a eunuch into God’s family. What matters, Jesus says, is that we bear fruit — that as we grow, as we stretch, that we bear fruit.
To bear fruit is to give life, to provide for what people need to live, not just to survive but to live as God’s beloved, to abide in God’s life, to feel ourselves sustained in the body of Christ, in the fellowship of the Spirit around tables, at meals, in our prayers, in the way we love one another, in gestures of solidarity in our congregation, among ourselves, as we learn how to love one another, but also beyond us, on the wilderness roads—acts of solidarity in the wilderness of this world, like the protests across the United States during the past few weeks, people everywhere crying out against police violence. More than 100 unarmed African-Americans were killed by police last year.[i]
What does it mean to abide, to abide with God?—for you and me to abide with God. It means finding ourselves along the wilderness roads, and learning how to love one another with the love of Christ, the wild love of God, as our lives are entangled in the lives of others, vines and branches holding one another, twisting and turning, holding each other with the love of God, all of us finding out what it means to love as God loves.
Christians like to come up with all sorts of rules about how to read the Bible, about how to read this verse or that verse, this passage or that passage—rules of interpretation, ground rules for disagreement, of what counts as evidence that you are right and they are wrong, or that they are right and you are wrong. What we learn from the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is that there is no secret, no key, no special rule, no tool of biblical interpregation that guarantees that you have the right meaning of a passage.
All we have is a question: How does this verse, this chapter, this book of the Bible, show us what it means to love our neighbors?—how does this passage invite us into God’s love here and now, to abide with God, as we are drawn to the person in front of us, to the person at our side, in our life?
Our Scriptures are an invitation to abide with God with one another, with our neighbors and with people who’ve been told that they don’t belong, that they can’t be part of God’s community, God’s people, God’s family.
I’ll close by reading again part of our passage from 1 John, a passage that calls us into God’s love, God’s life, all around us, sustaining us, growing in us, entangling us in the vines and branches of the wildness of God’s Spirit:
if we love one another, God lives in us… By this we know that we abide in him and he in us… God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them… Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars.