Staying connected to Christ, as a vine and branches, keeps us connected to the flow of the Spirit’s love, changes us, and helps us embody God’s love in the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday of Easter, year B
Texts: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8 (added 9-11 from start of next week’s Gospel; will read again on 6 Easter.)
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It all started with a problem of widows and food distribution.
After Pentecost, the newly born Church shared everything in common. Money, food, possessions, all belonged to all. But there were two groups of Jewish Christians, those who spoke Aramaic, and those who spoke Greek. In Acts 6, Luke calls them the Hellenists and the Hebrews. And the Hellenists said the Greek widows were being neglected when the food was shared.
The Church lifted up seven leaders to help, including Philip, whom we met today, and Stephen. Philip’s first job as a Christian leader was to make sure everyone was fed, regardless of their ethnicity.
You see, as we heard a couple weeks ago, these believers learned that love isn’t love if it’s just a theory. They saw God’s love embodied in Jesus, fully revealed on the cross, now living in the Risen Christ himself, and in the Spirit-filled new Church. But you can’t preach love and have people not getting enough food. Love is only love when it’s embodied.
This early Church was shaped by this mutual love, by its willingness even to love others beyond the circle of believers. They embodied Jesus’ command.
The writer of 1 John is crystal clear today: We love because God first loved us. We cannot claim to love God, whom we do not see, the elder says, if we don’t love our sisters and brothers whom we do see. Love isn’t love if it’s just a theory.
Philip, and Stephen, and the other deacons, were just another way the Church made Christ’s love concrete and real. Stephen did more than serve food. He became an evangelist and preacher, and when he was martyred, Philip went out doing the same.
But he wasn’t alone. Filled with the Spirit at Pentecost, Philip was joined into the life of God. He was part of the Christ vine Jesus talked about. He was commanded to love, yes. But he was empowered in that love by staying connected to his Christ. The sap of the vine of God’s eternal love flowed through the Spirit into Philip. And he listened. He followed. And he loved.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch begins and ends with the Holy Spirit.
Philip was out telling the Good News and God’s angel told him to go to a certain place on a common highway. When he got there, the Spirit sent him to a man in a chariot, reading the prophet Isaiah out loud.
And Philip went. That’s the wonder. The Spirit said, “Go talk to him,” and Philip went. He sat in the chariot for hours talking about Jesus and the Scriptures and helping this man hear the Good News. He started with Isaiah, what the man was reading, and next thing we know this official knows about and wants baptism. Philip covered a lot of ground that day, literally and figuratively.
And then the Spirit gave Philip a great gift of love and welcome: the answer to the Ethiopian’s hard question. He asked, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And Philip answered him with love, offered baptism, and changed this man’s life forever.
But apart from Christ’s love, Philip would have given a very different answer.
Because the answer had always been “everything prevents you.”
As a eunuch, Jewish law prevented this man from full fellowship in Jewish community, from being a Jew at all. Deuteronomy is clear. This mattered because this official was a God-fearer, a person drawn to Jewish teaching and to the God the Jews proclaimed. There was a large Jewish community in Ethiopia, he likely learned to love God there.
Philip meets him on a Palestinian road because this official travelled all the way to Jerusalem to worship. He came to worship, even though his sexual status prevented him from full participation. He was even reading a scroll of Isaiah aloud as he returned home.
This man was intelligent and worthy of great trust – he ran the treasury for a major African nation and its queen. But he could never become a full member of the faith community he was drawn to so deeply. Imagine his courage to ask Philip if he would also be excluded from the community of Christ.
Why does this matter? Because this is the love the Spirit wants to grow in us. Love that is real, not a theory.
Philip was Jewish. He knew the law, that people who were castrated weren’t welcome. But he didn’t hesitate. He listened when the Spirit said, “Go to that one.” He got into the chariot and spent time with this Ethiopian. Gave him the grace of listening and teaching.
Philip witnessed to the embodied Suffering Servant love of God that Isaiah spoke of. He told the Ethiopian enough about God’s love in Christ that the Ethiopian threw all caution to the wind and asked if he might also be baptized.
How can you claim to love a God you haven’t seen if you don’t love a sister or brother you have seen? That should be carved over every church office, over the entrance (or exit) to every Christian worship space. This is the love Philip embodies, a love that ignores inconvenience in order to be present, a love that overcomes innate prejudice and fear, a love that teaches and shapes a heart to see all people as God sees them.
And today Jesus gives us tremendous news, how we’ll be able to love like this.
This repeated commandment to love could overwhelm us. Love your enemies, pray for them. Give to whoever asks. Turn the other cheek. Be a peacemaker. Welcome back all who stray. Be willing to lose everything to love another. These are daunting. We’re well aware of the command; we care deeply about obeying it. But how can we ever love as God loves?
Stay connected to me, Jesus says. I’m the vine, you’re the branches; you’re part of me. My love runs in you like sap, and you will, you will bear fruit. Abide in my word, Jesus says. Live with the Scriptures, engage them, and I will guide you. Take and eat, take and drink, and I will fill you with my life and my love. Be in servant community with each other, and I will surround you with people who literally embrace you with my love. And watch for this: I will send you the Holy Spirit.
Apart from me, Christ says, you can do nothing. But connected to me, there is no limit to the love you will bear.
As we deepen in faith and in connection with Christ the True Vine, we will be transformed into God’s embodied love. You need to be ready for that. Ready to be open to Christ changing your mind, or saying you’re on the wrong path. Ready for your prejudice and certainty of ideas to be broken apart. Ready to hear the Spirit nudge you to love. Ready when the Spirit says, “There’s the one I need you to meet, go.” Or “here’s the situation you can make a difference in, go.”
But the joy of living in the Vine is you are connected permanently to the life and love of God that heals and loves the universe. The Spirit will make you able to do anything needed. And that’s a path of joy and delight.
Come, Spirit, join us to the vine, fill us with the sap of God’s love, nourish our lives to embody this love always.
In the name of Jesus. Amen