Sunday, May 18, 2003

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30 (25-31, NIV)
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8 

Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world.

The Psalmist began today's Psalm with the depressing words, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Jesus cried these same words from the cross, that final moment when He was separated from everyone He loved, including God His Father. David, the writer, and Jesus much later seemed to be suffering from incredible pain. He was persecuted, surrounded by men with evil intentions and his strength was gone. Yet, his attitude turned to praise in the end. Though times were bad, David, and Jesus, knew God was close by, that salvation was near. "The meek shall eat and be satisfied; They shall praise Jehovah that seek after him: Let your heart live for ever."

Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy found in this Psalm. He came to bring salvation to those who seek the Lord, life to those who turn to Him. And one day the whole world will remember God, for it all belongs to Him. The rich and the dying and all those in between will serve Him and they will worship Him and feast at His table. But there was a time when the people did not remember. They had gotten all caught up in themselves, in their self-righteousness. That time is now for all those who do not dwell in the heart of the Lord. They are like the vine that has been cut off from the roots, withering away on the compost pile.

That's what the people of Israel risked in the days when Jesus walked in Jerusalem. Several times in the scriptures the writers refer to Israel as the vine or the vineyard, but it was rarely used with a positive perspective. Isaiah tells us that when God looks at His vineyard, he does not see justice or righteousness, but rather He sees bloodshed and distress. (Isaiah 5:7) Jeremiah says that even though God planted them as a choice vine, she turned corrupt and wild. (Jeremiah 2:21)

But the Jews did not notice their own self-righteousness or lack of mercy. They were obedient to their interpretation of God's Law given by Moses, but they did not serve God with their hearts. They were far from God and did not even know it. They thought they were the vine, specially chosen by God to dwell in the Promised Land and bear fruit, but they were trying to do it their own way, a way that was far from God because it was not founded upon love.

That's why Jesus took this image of the vines for today's Gospel lesson. He was teaching the disciples that they are not able to do anything for God without Him. They aren't the vines, He is. They are simply the branches, growing out from the roots, which is the foundation of their faith. The roots also provide water and nutrients and they give the plant stability to grow. The branches cannot bear fruit unless they are connected to the roots. That was the trouble with the Jews by the time Jesus came -- they had lost touch with God and were doing their own thing like a wild vine.

In today's Gospel, Jesus said, "I am the vine, ye are the branches." This "I am" statement is the final of the seven descriptions Jesus uses for Himself in this book. John records that Jesus called Himself "the bread", "the light", "the gate", "the good shepherd", "the resurrection and the life", "the way, the truth and the life" and "the vine". These seven "I am" statements reveal the character of God as found in Christ Jesus. He feeds us, gives us sight, guards and protects us, gives us new life. There is only one way, one truth and one life and it is found in Jesus. He is the foundation of our faith, the roots of all things planted that will grow and bear fruit.

I do a bit of gardening, but I really don't know what I am doing most of the time. I do know that the flowers in my garden grow much better when I spend some time caring for them. If I pinch off the dead blossoms, the plants grow fuller and produce more flowers. I do not know anything about keeping grape vines, but I understand it is necessary to cut off some branches each year to keep them from spreading too far from the roots. This focuses the water and nutrients close to the trunk and helps to produce more and better fruit. It takes a master vinedresser to know which branches should stay and which should be cut.

God is that master vinedresser when it comes to the vineyard of His people. He planted Jesus into this world and all who believe in Him become part of the same vine. Together we produce the fruit, which brings others into the kingdom, grafted into the roots by the grace and love of Christ. Jesus told His disciples that it is to God's glory that we bear much fruit, but we can only do it if we stay in Him. "If a man abide not in me, he is cast forth as a branch, and is withered; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned."

Verse 9, though not part of today's reading, is a good transition between the Gospel lesson and the Epistle. "Even as the Father hath loved me, I also have loved you: abide ye in my love." The way to stay connected to the vine and the way we know that we are in God is by love. "Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is begotten of God, and knoweth God." What does it mean to love? It is about mercy and grace, willingly giving beyond expectation for the sake of another. We could not know love at all if God hadn't first loved us. "Herein was the love of God manifested in us, that God hath sent his only begotten Son into the world that we might live through him.  Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.  Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another."

We know we live in His love because He has given us His Spirit. By that power, we stay connected to Jesus, dwell in His heart and have the gifts we need to go on with His work in this world. That was how it was for Philip the Evangelist.

Our story from Acts begins with an angel talking to Philip. "Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza: the same is desert." This was a dangerous place to be wondering around alone. Yet Philip didn't think twice about going. He was empowered by God and obedient because of His love. On the road he met a caravan of people from Ethiopia, including a high official of the queen. The Spirit told Philip to go near the chariot. Can you imagine how that might have been? This would be much like someone telling you to go near the President's car. The Secret service agents wouldn't be very happy about such a situation and would do whatever was necessary to stop you. The same was probably true of Philip's approach to this Eunuch. And Philip did not just walk up, he ran.

Philip noticed that the Eunuch was reading from the scroll of Isaiah. Philip asked if he understood what he was reading. "How can I, except some one shall guide me?" So Philip joined the Eunuch in his chariot and told him all about Jesus beginning with the passage from Isaiah. In love for His people, Jesus was like that lamb sent to the slaughter, deprived of justice and killed. After Philip finished talking, the Eunuch asked to be baptized. One man was saved because Philip was in the vine. Out of love for God and His people, Philip was obedient to the call from God despite the danger he faces. The Eunuch came to believe in Jesus and went on his way rejoicing. He was drawn into the heart of God and became part of the vine.

We were like the Eunuch at one time, not knowing what it was we were reading in the scriptures. But thanks to God's love and mercy, someone like Philip came along, despite the dangers they might face. They told us about Jesus, helped us to become baptized and sent us on our way rejoicing. Now we go on in love, connected to the vine so that we too can bear fruit for the glory of God. As the Psalmist wrote, "They shall come and shall declare his righteousness Unto a people that shall be born, that he hath done it."

The stories today show us how everything we are as a Christian begins first with God. We love because He first loved us. We are righteous only when we dwell in His heart and live according to His ways. We only bear fruit when we are part of God, a branch connected to the vine. We may despair with the problems of living in this world, but God is with us to help us through. We can't do it on our own. We need Him. In Him we can't help but shout with praise and thanksgiving and live according to His good and perfect word of life. "Herein is love made perfect with us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment; because as he is, even so are we in this world." Thanks be to God. 

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