Abide in me as I abide in you. John 15:4
Lately I have taken to calling St. John’s a “both/and” congregation. We’re both liberal and conservative, Republicans, Democrats and Independents, straight and gay, young and old and everyone in between, rich and quite poor, PhD’s and people who were not able to finish high school, white collar and blue, unemployed and corporate, recent immigrants and people with ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War. Although we’re not very racially diverse, in so many other ways, we reflect the differences of our society and the world. In our Gospel for today when Jesus declares “I am the vine, you are the branches,” it makes me wonder just what kind of fruit both/and branches can bear.
This has always been the case with the church – from the very first day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the disciples and they spoke in other languages so that Parthians, Egyptians, Cretans and Arabs many more could hear about God’s amazing deeds and power. It was so unexpected the disciples were accused of being drunk, which Peter said was not possible because it was only 9 am in the morning. That day 3,000 people were baptized. The book of Acts tells how the Gospel spread from Jerusalem to Rome and throughout the world. One of my favorite episodes is our first reading for today about Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.
When we first meet Philip things are not going well in the Church kitchen. There’s fussing because not everyone’s being treated the same. The twelve disciples want to focus upon the word of God and not wait on tables so they appoint seven deacons to sort it out. Apparently, only five were necessary to bring order out of chaos and so soon, two, Stephen and Philip, take on other responsibilities. Stephen becomes a preacher who after a fiery sermon is stoned to death making him the first martyr of the Church. Meanwhile, Philip becomes its first missionary, preaching and baptizing in Samaria and operating as the front man for Peter and John. Notice that Philip has already crossed two boundaries. First, he gets out of the kitchen seemingly without the permission of the hierarchy. Second, he goes to Samaria, to a people who at worst hated the Jews and at best were deeply suspicious of them. Their response to his healing, preaching and teaching is phenomenal. Even Simon a famous magician is converted. When Peter and John arrive in Samaria to wrap things up, the Spirit ends Philip off to Gaza which located about 70 miles southwest of Jerusalem near the Mediterranean Sea. Just as it is a dangerous place now, so too was it then.
He’s on a wilderness road when a fancy chariot rumbles by, carrying an Ethiopian eunuch, the Secretary of the Treasury of the Candance, the queen of the Ethiopians. The Holy Spirit tells Philip to pay attention and to go meet this man. Has that ever happened to you? Something just says, “pay attention” to this person, or this experience or to what is happening. It has to me, and when I do so, amazing things occur. I see what I would probably have overlooked and am often surprised by grace. I call them “Holy Spirit” moments. That’s what’s happening with Philip, he pays attention and sets off running after the chariot. Upon reaching it, he hears the man reading out loud from the prophet Isaiah. “Do you understand what you are reading?” he asks. The man replies that he could use some help on one particular passage and invites Philip to get in and sit by him. Together they do Bible study, pondering verses from the Isaiah 53 that begins, “Like a sheep he was led to slaughter” and ends, “Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” “Who is the prophet talking about, himself or another?” the eunuch asks Philip. He tells him it’s Jesus – for he was as gentle as a sheep and as innocent as a lamb. He was unjustly humiliated and slaughtered. And because Jesus’ life isn’t bound to the earth any more, he belongs to all time and every generation. And just as what happens in Bible studies all the time and in fact happened right here at St. John’s on both Wednesday morning and evening last week, this Ethiopian eunuch experiences that these words were written for him, that this Jesus is his Savior too.
Then in this holy conversation all sorts of boundaries and walls come falling down. The first is race as Philip’s middle Middle-eastern with toasted brown skin; while the Ethiopian, from what would now be Sudan, is black as a moonless night. Next status, Philip’s from the church kitchen, the Court Official, the queen’s palace. Finally, sexual orientation. The eunuch’s is ambiguous and therefore he’s not allowed in the temple. While Philip is not and he’s welcome into the house of the Lord. Although it’s interesting that if they continued reading to chapter 56, they would have discovered the promise of God that eunuchs will be brought within God’s house and given an everlasting name. Indeed, God’s embrace of the eunuch and a foreign eunuch at that, shows that the promised age of restoration has begun to dawn.
Then there’s another “Holy Spirit moment,” this time for the eunuch for right in the middle of the desert wilderness, he sees a pond of water and asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commands the chariot to stop, he and Philip jump out and together they go down into the water where he’s baptized, washed in the water of grace and marked with the cross of Christ forever. In his grace-filled request, the eunuch sides with God. He sees in Jesus’ life the presence of God in his own life. He understands Jesus’ suffering and death as God being with him in his own suffering, his own dying. He experiences Jesus’ resurrection as evidence of God’s promised future and his own future too. In baptism the eunuch adds his own yes to God’s yes given to him in Jesus and the final boundary between life and death is defeated, once and for all.
The story ends with Philip being whisked away to continue his work. The next time we hear anything about him, he’s settled Caesarea where he and his wife along with their four unmarried daughters provide hospitality to Paul. Meanwhile the eunuch takes the message into Africa where Christian communities were among the earliest in the world. To use language from today’s Gospel, both abide in Christ, and no matter where they are, Christ, abides in them.
And abides in us. This is the only way a both/and church, indeed any church can survive and thrive. Christ abides in us and we are to abide in him. I love this old-fashioned word, from the Greek, meno, it means to stay, dwell, remain, belong, to be at home. During that short Bible Study in the chariot, Philip and the Ethiopian abided in Christ. It’s what we do in Christian community – whether we are in the kitchen preparing coffee hour, in the choir loft practicing an anthem, at a committee meeting planning mission and ministry, learning during Sunday School, on a Cape May Confirmation Retreat, praying and worshiping together. We abide with Christ and Christ abides with us. Christ is with us in our joys and in our sorrows. We are never alone, he abides with us that we may abide with him.
There was one of those unexpected “Holy Spirit” moments at a meeting of the Gun Violence Prevention Action Team a month or so ago. The group was preparing its next action – providing the congregation with a sample letter to send to elected officials, when we realized that we did not have enough voices in the room. One side was present, but not the other. So, the group strategized and specific invitations to participate were given. New voices were at the next meeting and it wasn’t always comfortable. But the group abided and found common ground in acting to prevent violence and in carefully listening to one another developed a better plan.
Let’s keep our eyes and ears open for the Holy Spirit moments in our lives trusting that Christ abides with us as we abide with him. With Christ at the very center of our community of faith, being a both/and congregation is quite an adventure. Amen
Abide in me as I abide in you. John 15:4