Hi, there. How was your day? We got a little rain, but not enough to make me not want to go for a walk.
The texts for Sunday, Easter 5: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, and John 15:1-8.
Acts 8:26-40. Just a little context first. Philip is mentioned several times in scripture—in all the gospels, but the largest number of references are in John. It’s there that Philip is called, and in turn, he calls Nathanael (“Can anything good come from Nazareth?”). Philip, like Peter and Andrew, is from Bethsaida. It’s Philip who first takes the Good News to Samaria (in fact, that’s earlier in the chapter we’re reading from today).
The Ethiopian Eunuch is a minister (Gk. dynástēs) in the court of the Candace (pron. kan-duh-see) of the Ethiopian kingdom of Meroë. In those days, references to Ethiopia mean anything in the upper Nile. Our text says that the eunuch was the “treasurer”—the Chancellor of the Exchequer—of the Candace. It’s significant that he’s a black African; as such, he’s the first African Christian.
The Candace was the “Queen Mother”. Some say she performed duties for the king. Others say she was the force behind the throne, the real ruler. That’s entirely possible; many African societies are matriarchal.
In our reading for today, an angel of the Lord tells Philip to go to the road leading from Jerusalem through Bethlehem to Gaza. This road feeds into the coast road along which travel thousands of travellers to the north and to the south. In this case, the traveller, the Ethiopian Eunuch, is travelling south, back to Ethiopia. Our text says he had come to Jerusalem to worship (is that sort of like making a pilgrimage to Mecca?). If that’s the case, then there are a couple of possibilities: 1) he’s a convert to Judaism or 2) he’s part of a small Jewish population living outside of Israel.
We know that the latter is a very real possibility. There was, for example, a relatively large population of Jews in Egypt—which is, remember, in North Africa. We know that’s where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus fled to when they were escaping from Herod. Who knows how far up the Nile that population spread? Did they intermarry with black Africans?
But we also know that many admired the monotheism and the strict moral code of Judaism, and they sought to ally themselves with the Jews. The eunuch could have been one of two possible things:
- A God-fearer/God-worshipper. These people attended synagogue and read the scriptures.
- A proselyte. These people were converts. They took on the Law and were circumcised, the sign of true belonging to the people of God.
But it is precisely this—genitals—which may have been the basis for the eunuch’s reaction to Philip. In Deuteronomy 23.1, it stipulates, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” This man is a eunuch, so on the one hand, he’s either a Jew or a convert—his heart is with the Lord—but on the other he’s just been held at arm’s length in the temple in Jerusalem. Note: there is a later text which reverses what it says in Deuteronomy:
3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,
‘The Lord will surely separate me from his people’;
and do not let the eunuch say,
‘I am just a dry tree.’
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
who choose the things that please me
and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls,
a monument and a name
better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)
But who knows what they were actually doing in the temple in Jerusalem at that time?
Here’s what we do know. Philip was sent to the road leading to Gaza. There, he encountered the Ethiopian. The Ethiopian is reading—out loud because that’s the way people read in those days—from Isaiah 53, one of the Suffering Servant texts. Philip, who’s trotting along beside the Ethiopian’s chariot, boldly addresses this important official: “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Amazingly, this eminent man is not too proud to admit the truth: “No. How can I without someone to help me? Hop in and tell me about it.”
Then, just as Jesus had done with the disciples in the Upper Room and with those on the road to Emmaus, Philip opened the scriptures for him. On the one hand, the text refers to Jesus, the one who suffered, and that’s the first thing we leap to when we think of the conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch, but on the other hand, let’s dig a little deeper. Bets on whether the Eunuch had been in Jerusalem at the time of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection? Did he already know some of the facts? And add to that the potential rejection he himself probably had suffered. He was already open for the Spirit to come rushing in like the wind at Pentecost.
His reaction? “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Had he already been prevented in the temple? Was he still smarting from that? And now, there’s Jesus whom Philip has laid before him—the Jesus who encourages/includes—and he wants that! So, he asks to be baptized. Then, he goes on his way rejoicing. And Philip? The Spirit whisks him away to Azotus (Ashdod).
Psalm 22:25-31. If you go back and read this psalm from the beginning, you’ll recognize it as the one we read on Maundy Thursday during the “stripping of the altar”. The part of it which really sticks with people is the first verse:
1 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
The first two thirds of the psalm are heavy with fear and sadness—with the sense of abandonment. But suddenly, at verse twenty-five, the mood reverses. The sense of abandonment is overcome by the goodness and power of God. The mood is now delight. The psalmist calls on family, the congregation, and the whole world to praise God for what has happened to him; he’s been saved. He makes an extravagant promise: he’s going to pay his vows to God “before those who fear him.” That was no small matter. It usually meant paying in kind and paying in an extravagant way. It often meant throwing a huge banquet and inviting all sorts of people who, themselves, couldn’t afford such a thing.
Then the praise takes a new twist: all the ends of the earth, all people, will remember the wonderful thing the Lord has done. Also, all who have died and all who are yet to be born will remember. And then it hits us; this isn’t just the psalmist talking anymore. It’s Jesus. And this takes us back to his Crucifixion, death, and Resurrection. Jesus is the Suffering Servant, and this is a list of the awful things he suffered.
Do you pair your wine carefully with your dinner? Whoever paired this psalm with the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch did a great job!
1 John 4:7-21. We need to talk about love. It occurs 731 times in scripture: 413 in the Hebrew Scriptures (HS), 228 in the Christian Scriptures (CS), and ninety times in the Apocrypha. 228 times is a lot in a body of scripture which is only 30% as large as the HS. But then look at the concentration within the CS; occurrences in the Gospel of John alone amount to thirty-nine, and the Letters of John account for another thirty-three. You don’t have to be a statistician to see that that’s huge.
Another important word in this passage (and in the Gospel of John) is abide. Abide occurs only forty-six times in all of scripture, twenty-four of them in the CS, and of that, twenty-three occur in the Gospel of John and the Letters of John.
We have to talk about this because of what 1 John says. We commonly experience love in the family, but it comes from God. God is love. Our love for one another is an extension of God’s love for us; it’s God’s gift, not a human accomplishment. Finally, John makes an important distinction; the opposite of love is fear. Hatred is what happens when we’re afraid.
John 15:1-8. I take this opportunity to talk about love and abide not only because of what’s going on in 1 John, but also because of today’s gospel reading. (I’d like to have this one read at my funeral!) But again, I have to start with some context. The image of a vine was important in ancient Israel. There are many occurrences of vine as a symbol for Israel, itself, and it was important for the vine to bear fruit. Yet many of the prophets take issue with Israel about that; they criticize Israel for being fruitless or for bearing bad fruit.
So, Jesus describes himself as the “true vine”; not “true” versus “false”, but “true” in the sense of what’s expected from the vine. Second, if he’s the “true” vine, he’s the “true Israel”; he represents what God intended for/from Israel: to be a blessing to the whole world.
Again, the imagery in this text fits well with the audience at Jesus’ time; most of them were from a farming background. The best we can do is gardening, but even so, we understand that many plants do their best if we prune them. If you want good flowers on that forsythia bush, you have to prune it. The same goes for roses. The same goes for grape vines. But there’s a difference between pruning out and pruning back.
Pruning out is what we do with branches which are dead or not fruitful. We just cut them off and throw them away or burn them. Pruning back is what we do for branches which are doing well, but could do better. But the fact is that we, as branches, have the option either to remain in the vine or to separate ourselves from it, to go it alone, Being in the vine—abiding in the vine—gives us sustenance. Being away from the vine means we lose that sustenance; we lose life. So, what does it mean for us to abide in the vine?
The most obvious abiding would be going to church, but that only scratches the surface. Again, the most obvious sign of abiding is bearing fruit. What would that mean? I’ll give just a few examples. One would be prayer, constant honest conversation with God, being open to the will and urgings of God, listening; being in good relationship with God—and that enables being in good relationship with others. Another bearing of fruit would be discipleship—learning from the Master, helping us to be more intentional and intelligent about how we stay in good relationship. Another sort of fruitfulness would be glorifying God. We glorify God in a well-lived life, especially when others see it and understand. Again, these are just a few. Ultimately, it comes down to living our lives in love—having a heart for others—which comes full circle to what we just said in our look at 1 John; it’s a natural extension of the gift of love which God gives to us.
We should finish by looking at pruning one more time. Abiding in the vine doesn’t mean we don’t get pruned; we just don’t get pruned out. But we do, on occasion, get pruned back. On occasion, we’re horrified by the realization that our life of love could be even better. Through hearing the Word, or by reflecting on the sacraments, or by prayer, we suddenly see that we’re doing something wrong—and that has to be pruned back. Pruning is painful, but it does make a healthy branch even better.
Oh, just a little question. Do you see Suffering Servant in all of today’s scripture?