Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of the one true and living God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
“I am the vine you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them will bear much fruit.” That is probably one of the best known and most beloved metaphors in the Gospel of John. And it seems particularly apt today as we look at the other Scriptures appointed for today and see in them the great diversity of the branches that flow forth from that vine. And this morning, I would invite you to explore with me the great good news, contained within the story that you heard from Acts, of the Ethiopian eunuch, the Holy Spirit, and Philip working together. Why was it so important then and what that good news has to continue to say to us today.
First, a little bit of context. We know from the details of that story that the Ethiopian eunuch was a person of very high stature in his own country and context. He oversaw the queen’s treasury. He travels to Jerusalem in his own chariot, a symbol of his stature and his authority. We know that he is wealthy because he possesses a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. We know that he is well educated because he reads and speaks Greek. And we know that he is devout because he has taken it upon himself to engage in a long and arduous journey from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship. What does not seem to be in question in those details is his social status in his country, in his context. What does seem to be in question as we listen to the conversation between Philip and the Holy Spirit and the Ethiopian eunuch is his spiritual status, his relationship with God.
We hear in the story how the Holy Spirit summons Philip to go on this wilderness road where he encounters the Ethiopian eunuch. He hears him reading that passage from Isaiah and he asks him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” And the Ethiopian eunuch replies, “How can I without someone to guide me?” And there is the window, the opening, the door being pulled back for Philip and the Holy Spirit to begin to share—to share the story of Jesus, his life, his death, his resurrection. It was an extraordinary story for the Ethiopian eunuch to hear on several different counts. One, you have to understand that in that day and in that context the men who would come to work in the royal courts were routinely castrated because that would make them less of a threat to the power structure. And as a castrated male, the Ethiopian eunuch would’ve been forbidden to enter the temple, to enter the assembly, because he was ritually impure, an outcast despite his devotion. The fact that he was from Ethiopia, not Israel, a person with a different color skin had its own impediments to full acceptance and inclusion.
So the Ethiopian eunuch by most measures was a double outcast and yet you can hear in those Scriptures his yearning to understand, his yearning to belong. And he asked Philip of the passage from Isaiah, about whom it is the prophet referring, himself or someone else? The Ethiopian eunuch might as well have been asking, “Could my story possibly be contained within that story? I, too, have suffered; I, too, suffer.” And after hearing the story of Jesus, the Ethiopian eunuch begins to dare to believe that it could be his story, too; because you see if you continue to read on a few chapters in Isaiah, the prophet makes it clear, unequivocally, that the foreigner and the eunuch will not be cut off from the assembly. That the eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and are faithful and hold fast to the covenant, will be welcomed into the house of God within its walls and of them the Lord will make an everlasting name. This double outcast dared to believe after hearing from Philip that that might mean him. And so when he sees the water and understanding that baptism was true initiation into Judaism and into being a beloved and belonging member of the people of God he asked Philip, “Is there anything that would prevent me from being baptized?” And, of course, the answer is absolutely not. It’s the story of the first conversion in Acts of the Apostles. The Ethiopian eunuch who doesn’t even merit a name; we know him only by his physical condition, not who he really is, but by what circumstances have done to him. He heard the good news; he received the good news; he believed the good news and then he was baptized and belonged.
What keeps us or anyone from receiving and believing and claiming for ourselves our place as a branch on that vine? Sometimes I think it’s these human distinctions and divisions that we have created, not God. If you remember, from the very beginning God created humankind in God’s own image and proclaimed us “very good.” There weren’t any qualifiers or subcategories that followed. God created us and claimed us in God’s own image as being very good. There were no divisions created by color of skin, land of heritage, foreign-born, native-born, illegal immigration—immigration papers that are in order, no immigration papers, gay, straight, wealthy, poor, well educated, poorly educated, baptized, not baptized. These are human distinctions, not God’s and sometimes I think they get in the way of our fully claiming our place as a branch on that vine. And sometimes I think it’s things that we do to ourselves. When we reflect on our own lives, we can’t forgive ourselves for some of the things we’ve done how can anyone else possibly forgive us and surely not God.
One of the members of the congregation recently shared a story with me from his own prison ministry. He and his Kairos brothers were gathered in prison with a few inmates and they were in a small group session. And one of the hardened, hardcore inmates who’d been in prison for many many years began to open up. And he looked at the group and he said, “I wrote her a letter.” And he held up an envelope and said, “And she wrote back.” But he had a look of terror on his face because he was too frightened to see what it might say. You see, this inmate had been on death row, for murdering a man, for decades. Twice he’d been sent to the death chamber and twice the courts had stayed his execution. The third time he went it looked unlikely that the courts would intercede. He was strapped to the gurney and praying that God would spare his life. But when they inserted the needles he prayed, “Your will be done.” And then the phone rang and it was the court system, yet again, and they had commuted his death penalty to life in prison. His life was saved. He’d had a lot of time in solitary confinement to think about his life, the mistakes he’d made, and he finally decided that he had to write to the widow of the man that he had murdered and to beg her forgiveness. He did that and now she’d written back. And he was afraid of what she might say. So another inmate took the envelope, pulled out the letter, and read it. And she wrote, “I forgave you 20 years ago and I’ve been praying for you every day since.”
You see, the love of God surpasses all our understanding. There is no contrite and hurting heart that is beyond the redemption and the restoration of God. So today, in this service, you will have heard the good news in word, in song, and sacrament. Will you receive it? Will you believe it? Will you claim it as your own belonging, and worthy as a branch on that life-giving vine and like the Ethiopian eunuch, will you leave this place rejoicing in all that God has done for you? Amen.