Our gospel lesson for today is a familiar image. It is often represented in religious art, such as stained-glass windows or wood carvings, that depict a grapevine and may include the inscription: “I am the vine and you are the branches.” This story takes place right before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion when he was attempting to explain to them as much as possible about his mission and the kingdom of God. It was like a cram course in preparation for their future vocation of sharing the gospel message, a calling that would dominate the rest of their lives.
The grapevine is one of a series of “I AM” symbols that Jesus used in an effort to identify who he is. (I AM the bread of life, the light of the world, the Good Shepherd, the resurrection and the life.) Vineyards were a common sight throughout Israel and were important because wine was the beverage that everyone drank at that time. The image of the grapevine is found throughout Hebrew scripture. In this case it is meant to be a beautiful image of community – God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are intimately bound together with “you” – and you is plural throughout. This is not about a private relationship but rather the home, or dwelling place, that God in Jesus provides for all believers.
Many of us have seen grapevines thanks to all the wineries out in eastern Long Island. Each grapevine consists of a main vine with smaller branches coming off of it. In the vineyards the branches are supported horizontally on strings or wires and they are carefully pruned so that the best fruit will be produced. This idea of the grapevine as community is both comforting and challenging. It is comforting to know that we can accept the invitation to be bound up with God in such a strong abiding place. We feel supported and protected. It is also challenging because we must submit to pruning. We may be asked to give up things that are unnecessary or a lifestyle that is counter-productive or destructive to our well-being. And, let’s be honest, sometimes pruning hurts, although it is necessary to produce good fruit. It is actually kind of startling to see how many branches are clipped off from vines that were full with leaves and fruit in the summer.
Jesus evoked this image of community in order to invite us to be part of a dynamic relationship in which everyone plays a part. Before any grapes appear, the vines are pruned and cleaned, withered and dead branches are removed. The vines, like the community of faith, are always changing. And the ultimate purpose is for all members of the community to bear good fruit.
Our first lesson for today tells how Philip did just that. Philip was among a group of believers who had left Jerusalem in fear for their lives following the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Like Stephen, Philip had been set apart as a deacon Luke tells us in Acts that “those who were scattered went from place to place, proclaiming the word.” Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the gospel message with great success. His testimony to the Samaritans bore much good fruit and many were baptized. Then an angel of the Lord told Philip to travel south, down to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. Although Philip is “on the run” away from the religious and civil authorities, he isn’t hiding, he is listening to and obeying the words of God sent to him through the angel and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. It is pretty amazing that in a short time after the resurrection of Jesus the gospel message was already spreading north, west and now south in the Roman Empire.
On the road to Gaza, Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch who served as treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia. This was an unusual encounter. Philip was probably looking rather haggard since he had been on the road for a while. The eunuch was a man of some authority and a high social rank. We believe his name is probably omitted from the story because he is meant to represent many people. Ethiopia was considered to be very far away from Palestine. There aren’t even any Ethiopians mentioned among the many Jewish pilgrims in Jerusalem on Pentecost. As a eunuch, he also represents people on the margins. Eunuchs could convert to Judaism but were prohibited from full participation in temple rituals and the Jewish community. As far as we know, the eunuch was the first black person to spread the good news, in his case south to the African nation of Ethiopia, where a flourishing Christian community would arise.
This story testifies to the great possibilities of personal encounters and it demonstrates Christianity’s vast inclusion of those who are geographically and/or ethnically from far away as well as those who are “different” from society. Philip was a vagabond at this point. The Ethiopian was a learned man, able to understand all that Philip offered to him from scripture. Yet in spite of their obvious differences, and in spite of the many social taboos that normally would have prohibited their conversation with one another, the Ethiopian invited Philip to ride with him in his chariot. Both demonstrated humility in their willingness to interact with one another. It may seem unusual that the Ethiopian accepted Philip’s word about Jesus so quickly that he asked to be baptized on the spot. It is clear that the Holy Spirit was working in him, enabling him to be receptive to the message that Philip was inspired to share.
The interaction of Philip and the eunuch reinforces the model of community that is found in the image of the grapevine. Even though we are invited to abide with God in the safety of community, we must accept that the community is not static, but always changing. God’s Holy Spirit is not confined by our human expectations and limitations. If we read through the Book of Acts, we find that Luke tells story after story of the Holy Spirit acting in people’s lives. Sometimes it is visible, as in the flames of Pentecost, but more often it is not, as in the heart and mind of the Ethiopian. We often like to confine God into our own carefully constructed image of who God is and what God does. We tend to stay in our comfort zone when we define who is included in God’s community of faith. Yet that is not the way God operates. God usually chooses radical inclusion, grafting many different types of branches onto the vine. That is why the Holy Spirit is described as the wind which blows as it pleases.
As the gospel promises, God invites us to abide with Father, Son and Holy Spirit in an intimate community of faith. Yet within that safety we are always challenged to submit to pruning and to bear good fruit for the world. As the story of the Ethiopian promises, God will seek out people from all over the world, people of all ethnicities and cultures, with a variety of physical, emotional and intellectual characteristics, to experience the gift of God’s love and the power of the resurrected life. As members of God’s community of faith, we are safe but not comfortable. We are loved but also challenged to be open to new experiences and unexpected or unconventional encounters. When we are willing to accept those challenges, we will bear good fruit that will help to fulfill God’s intentions for humankind. Amen.