Sunday, May 10, 2009

Five Easter
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same beareth much fruit: for apart from me ye can do nothing.

I don’t have a green thumb. As a matter of fact, it is pretty brown. I can barely keep a plant alive. I bought some hanging baskets of petunias a few weeks ago, and I’m already seeing them droop and turn brown. We’ve been pretty good at watering, but we must be doing something wrong. I’m not surprised; it is typical of all our plants. Anything I buy usually looks pretty for a few days or weeks, but it doesn’t take very long before they are dead in the dirt.

So, I’m no expert. I know that there are people who do wonderful things with plants, not only professionals but also people who create magnificent gardens with flowers and food. They know what to do to make the plants grow up healthy and strong. Some plants need a lot of water, some need special plant food. Some need a lot of light; others need a nice cool shady spot. Special care needs to be taken on plants that are vulnerable to pests. A good gardener knows just what to do to deal with all those problems. The best I can do is enjoy their gardens and shake my head in awe over the incredible things they can do with plants.

Absolutely fascinating is the process called grafting. Grafting is a process that takes the branch of one type of plant and growing it into the roots of another. This process makes a plant healthier and stronger. In one type of grafting, the gardener takes the roots of a plant that does well in certain soil conditions and splices to it a plant that generally does not do well in that environment. For example, a gardener might take the roots of a drought resistant plant and add the stem of a flowering plant that needs more moisture. The roots of the plant will become strong and healthy despite the lack of water, while the branches will grow to be beautiful. Other grafting can be done to combine types of plants, like different varieties of apples on one tree. Grafting can provide pollinizers within one tree, such as grafting a male and a female holly bush together. It can used to repair damage, create a dwarf plant or to make it easier to propagate the plant.

The people in Jesus’ day were not agricultural experts, but they were familiar with the language of gardening. Grafting has been around for millennia, the Chinese did it two thousand years ago. The Romans used the technique and for the Greeks it was commonplace. They would have heard the words in John’s gospel and would have understood the idea of grafting. We are grafted into Jesus, He is the root. We are the branches. With Him as the root, we are made stronger and more resistant to the dangers of this world. We grow beautiful because of what Jesus gives to us. We are joined together into one plant. Even though we are different and we produce different fruit, the fruit is good because it comes from the good vine. Bonded together in this way, we also encourage one another to healthy growth. As part of the new plant we find healing and strength.

Now, I came up with that information about grafting by googling the term on the Internet. It is amazing what you can learn with just a few key strokes and the click of a button. The Internet has also made this a very small world. We can keep in touch with people regularly, through email or through networking sites like Facebook. We are able to see what’s happening all over the world instantaneously. If war breaks out in Africa, we can see the faces of the suffering children within minutes. Twenty years ago we might not even heard about that war.

Of course, the immediacy of the news also means we get a lot of information before we have all the facts. Perhaps this week’s swine flu scare is an example of that. It may have been right for the schools to close because enough children were sick, but we were not given enough of the information in the beginning. At first it was only rumors and guesses.

The past week or so has been interesting. The first school to be closed by the swine flu is in our school district. The rest of the schools in our district quickly followed, so Zack has been out of school for over a week. We haven’t locked ourselves in our home as if we have been quarantined, but we have not gone out very much. We’ve taken a few short trips to the grocery store. I took Zack to the golf driving range a couple of times. But in a way this ‘vacation’ has been nice. We’ve been able to enjoy our home, to live in it, to love our kitties and watch television. Zack has cleaned his room and made it livable. We have dwelt in our home, been comfortable and safe.

All too often our homes serve simply as a place to sleep, bathe and occasionally interact with the people who live with us. We spend so much of our time at school or work and then our evenings are filled with meetings or activities. Some kids are scheduled for lessons every day of the week. All too many of us do not even eat meals together at the dining room table. Oh, we might wolf down a happy meal on the way from one activity to another. I might even suggest that some families spend more time together in their cars than in their homes. Is that living? I can’t look my kids in the eye because I have to keep my eyes on the road. My kids often have ear phones in their ears, so they can’t even hear what I am saying. All too often our homes are not even home, they are just places we pass through on our way to something else.

Sadly, that’s often how we live with God. We are always on the run, constantly moving from one task to another, rushing through worship and hurrying through our prayers. Sometimes we do not even stop to listen. We just throw up a cry for help or beg for the things we think we need, rarely even considering whether or not it is God’s will for us. Just as we do not dwell in our homes, we do not dwell with God.

I have always been fascinated by the story of Philip in today’s first lesson. Philip is introduced in the book of Acts. “They therefore that were scattered abroad, went about preaching the word. And Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and proclaimed unto them the Christ. And the multitudes gave heed with one accord unto the things that were spoken by Philip, when they heard, and saw the signs which he did. For from many of those that had unclean spirits, they came out, crying with a loud voice: and many that were palsied, and that were lame, were healed. And there was much joy in that city.” (Acts 8:4-8, ASV)

So, the disciples were scattered, but they didn’t go into hiding. They went to the four corners of their world to preach the Gospel message to the nations. Philip was one of the deacons chosen in Acts 6, so he wasn’t one of the twelve gifted and sent. That didn’t stop him from doing the work of the kingdom. And, it appears from this passage, he was succeeding. The people were experiencing the joy of the Lord, watching Philip do incredible things. He was healing and casting out demons and they believed what Philip had to say because of the work he was doing.

This is terrific. I’m sure most pastors and evangelists out there would give their lives for a congregation willing to listen to everything they have to say. They would be very happy to have such a successful ministry. But we read on in Philip’s story that an angel whispered in his ear, “Go now.” “Now?” we would ask. “But I’m just beginning here. There is too much work left to do. There are too many people left to save!” We might even reject the voice, claiming that it is the devil trying to confuse us and make us lose our place in God’s work.

That’s not the way Philip responded to this call. Luke tells us that Philip “arose and went.” He was so confident in the word of God that he willingly left a successful ministry to go into the unknown. It was not only an uncertain command, but it was dangerous. The road from Jerusalem to Gaza was infested with criminals—killers and thieves. It was not a place where one would wander alone. The Ethiopian eunuch was certainly not alone. He was probably accompanied by a large entourage, including soldiers, servants and guests. He was representing the queen of Ethiopia, so he had the resources of the kingdom at his disposal.

So, as Philip is walking down this road, he hears the voice again, “Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.” Again, we think, “Are you kidding me? Those soldiers don’t look like they would welcome my presence so near to the official.” I surely would not run toward the group. Philip, however, ran to the chariot. In the story we hear, along with Philip, that the eunuch is reading the book of Isaiah. He was probably taking the scroll back to Ethiopia where there was a small but faithful community of Jews from the days of Solomon. It is not only amazing that this man had a scroll, they were rare and expensive, but he also knew the language. We know now that this was obviously where Philip is really meant to be. He believed the voices he heard because he was dwelling in God. He was abiding in Christ. While we might have had doubts that the voice was really from God, we can see the work Philip had to do: the Ethiopian community needed to hear the Gospel message, too.

So, Philip asks, “Do you know what it means?” The Ethiopian admits that it doesn’t make sense, so Philip joins him in the chariot and tells him the story of Jesus. The eunuch is so transformed by the story that he asks to be baptized, so they stop the caravan by a puddle at the side of the road and Philip welcomes him into the kingdom of God. Philip immediately disappears as the Holy Spirit whisks him off to another mission and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing.

From this story we learn several things. First of all, we learn that we might be called out of a successful mission into the unknown to do something that seems dangerous and ridiculous. We also learn that what seems like an insignificant moment or ministry (to one person) might have an incredibly large impact on the world (as is seen in the faithful Christian community in Ethiopia.) Finally, we learn that we should be ready for anything. Could you explain Isaiah 53 to a stranger in a chariot if God called you into that mission? Yes, God is with us when He takes us into the world to preach the Gospel, but we should keep actively in the scriptures so that we will be confidently ready with an answer whenever we are called to give one.

Most of all, we are reminded to abide in Christ. He is our root, we are His branches. When we abide in Christ, we hear and believe His voice and do the work He calls us to do. That voice won’t always come to us as angels. Sometimes it comes to us from the community of faith. Sometimes it comes to us as we are presented opportunities to serve others. The more we abide in Christ, the more we’ll recognize those opportunities and do what God is calling us to do. The thing He is calling us to do is to love.

“We love because God first loved us,” are the words to a favorite children’s song. Without God we can not love because God is love. This is what John is trying to tell us in today’s second lesson. Love is a gift from God. Without Him it would be impossible for us to love. Though I know many people who do not believe in God do love people, and they can do this according to the most common definition of love from Merriam-Webster dictionary: strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; attraction based on sexual desire; affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests. Sure, all human beings are capable of this kind of love.

We are also capable of apathy. Hate is not, as we might expect, the opposite of love. Apathy is the opposite of love. Not caring whether someone lives or dies, is happy or sad, is sick or hungry or unclothed is the opposite of love. This is true when we look at another definition of love: unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another: as the fatherly concern of God for humankind or brotherly concern for others. This is the kind of love that we can’t give without love of our Father on which to build. But it is also this type of love that we often forget to share.

John writes, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.” Here we see the use of the word “hate” as the opposite of love, although this has a much different meaning in the ancient languages. To hate is to separate oneself from another. It means to ignore, reject, turn our back on. When we hate someone, we purposely do not meet their needs. Love is active. It is sacrificing oneself for the sake of another. Hate is sacrificing another for our own sake.

If we think so highly of ourselves that we can ignore or reject the cries of our brothers and sisters, it is impossible for us to love God. It is in and through the needs of others that God manifests Himself to us in this world. It is in the thirsty that we are given the opportunity to love God by offering them a drink of water. It is in the hungry that we are given the opportunity to love God by sharing with them our lunch. It is in the sick, imprisoned, unclothed and homeless that God appears to us and we love when we love them with our resources and our actions. If we ignore those needs, we hate those who are needy and therefore cannot possibly love God. The love God gives to us is not meant to be held between God and each individual. It is a gift given to be shared with all. We love because God first loved us, and because God first loved us we are called to love others. It is a trait we have been given by the God who has saved us from ourselves.

John writes, “Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he is in God.” This confession of faith is the product of God's presence in our lives, and love is the evidence. Jesus tells us in today's Gospel that we can not bear fruit unless we abide in Him. He is the vine and we are the branches. We can do nothing unless we are part of Christ, a part of His body.

John writes, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Jesus, the Son of God, suffered the humiliation of the cross, quietly died for our sake, paying the price for our sin. This is what Philip told the eunuch on that road to Gaza. This is the Gospel message: that God so loved us that He sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him.

John writes, “If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” This is harder than it would seem because we are very human. We are concerned about our own needs and desires. We have doubts; we are uncertain about so many things. We, like Philip, hear the call of God, but all too often we do not believe that we are hearing His voice. Or, we think we know best, so we do our own thing. Unfortunately, when we go our own way our efforts fail and we do not bear fruit—because we are not abiding in Christ.

As grafted branches into the root which is Christ, we dwell in Him as part of His body, as part of His Church. We are individuals, but we are made part of the whole. We do not glorify God on our own. Without Christ we would be like those withered and dying plants I keep trying to grow around my house. In Him, with Him and through Him, God is glorified and made known to the world. God is the master gardener who prunes the bushes, but even in the warning we hear in the Gospel lesson, that God will remove the branches that do not bear fruit, there is comfort and grace. As we abide in Christ, we have nothing to fear. God knows what He’s doing: He is the Master. He only prunes what is necessary to make the vine grown strong.

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