Staying Connected to the Vine means Radical Discipleship
John 15: 1 – 8 and Acts 8: 26 – 40
It’s not often that one is presented with two passages that provide…very conveniently, first, a theory…. and secondly, the practical outworking of that theory.
I’m going to begin with the passage from John, which I think contains the theory. Put simply, the only way to bear good fruit is to remain always connected to Jesus.
Then I’m going to talk about the passage from Acts, the practical outworking of the theory, which shows us that if you are connected with Jesus, you just might find yourself riding in a covered wagons with all sorts of unusual people.
Chapters 14, 15, 16 and 17 of John provide us with some of the most profound teaching in the New Testament.
And here in chapter 15 we have this very well known image of God being the gardener, Jesus being the vine and we, the branches that are part of the vine.
Picture for a moment a vine. It could be any plant with vine-like tendencies. We presume that this teaching must be about the grapevine because it talks about the fruit that it will bear, and in first century Palestine, vines were for growing grapes to make wine, but clematis or wisteria or jasmine or Virginia creeper are all climbing vines.
We have a clematis in our garden and it is just about to flower. And I am always coming across tendrils that are an extraordinarily long way from where the plant originates. It sends out shoots and branches and as long as I don’t inadvertently sever a branch or a shoot it will give us flowers along half the length of a wall. As long as all the tendrils are connected to the main plant, it can do amazing things.
You can see where I am going with this.
This image of God being the gardener and Jesus the vine and us the branches is to do with one long line of nourishment.
Keep connected, and the good stuff flows.
Verse 4 says, no branch can bear fruit by itself, it must remain in the vine.
As I know to my cost, if I prune off the wrong branch or cut off a shoot by mistake, all the tiny budding flowers die, and we loose the abundant beauty that we are expecting.
Of course in this passage there are references to pruning because as any gardener knows, pruning is vital for growth.
But the pruning is not the main message for us today. The main message today is about being connected.
Verse 3 reads that we, the branches, are already ‘clean’ because of the word spoken to us. The careful tending by the gardener has already happened. We have been pruned and all the dead wood has been removed … we are clean and ready for use.
You and I don’t have to worry or to stress about bearing fruit, we have been made clean through the word and if we remain connected we will discover that the fruit will come!
Apart from Jesus we can do nothing. With Jesus we can bear extraordinary fruit and as I have already said, it isn’t about our effort it’s about Jesus and what he can do through us.
HE is the plant that sends up the vital life-giving nourishment and we will receive it as long as we stay connected. Let the words of Jesus remain in our hearts and souls and we will bear fruit as his disciples.
So … now you ask yourself… now I ask myself, okay what does this fruit look like and what does this mean for me?
We turn to the passage in Acts.
Here is one of the best stories in Acts that show us what happens when you stay connected with Jesus. Following the stoning of Stephen, ‘ great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered’, and so Philip goes down to a city in Samaria where he tells people about Christ. He does miraculous signs and the people all pay close attention to what he says.
So even though Saul is doing his best to eradicate the fledgling church, Philip is so connected to Jesus that he can’t stop preaching the gospel, even though fellow Christians in Jerusalem are being dragged from their houses and thrown into prison. When the sap is flowing in our veins, we can’t keep our mouths shut.
So Philip is connected, he has a direct line to God and the spirit tells him to go south to the road – the desert road – that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. He meets an Ethiopian Eunuch in his chariot, walks alongside the chariot, hears the Ethiopian reading Scripture, is invited into the chariot (which was probably a covered wagon with four wheels) to explain the meaning of the passage, speaks about Jesus and finally baptises the Eunuch before going on to further preach in other towns.
Think about it.
We HAVE to seriously consider just how amazing this story is.
Try to picture it in your mind. Historians tell us that the road was paved so that a chariot would easily travel on it. It is possible that the incident takes place in the middle of the day… the phrase ‘south’ may be taken as meaning ‘at noon’. So, in the midday heat on this wilderness-road, a chariot containing a stranger who is exotic, powerful and pious rolls along and Philip keeps pace with it and hears the man inside reading from the book of Isaiah. The man is black, from Ethiopia, so to Greek and Romans, he has literally come from the southern edge of the world. He’s dressed in strange and perhaps glamorous and flamboyant clothes. Everything about him reeks of money. He is from the ancient Kingdom of Meroe, a very wealthy kingdom because of iron smelting, gold mining and trade. He has the air of someone who commands and is obeyed. There’s a wonderful painting by Rembrandt that shows this man and Philip by the water just before the baptism. The Ethiopian is wearing a shirt of flamingo pink and has huge earrings and is swathed in white fur.
We also know he is either a proselyte, a Gentile converted to Judaism, or a God fearer, a Gentile who adheres to the Jewish monotheism and piety.
But, and here is the sad thing, in spite of his piety he will have been excluded from the Temple. He is a eunuch, probably literally, we don’t know for certain, but because of his sexual difference he will have been excluded from the Temple and from Jewish worship.
So here we have a man for who is different because of his skin colour AND because of he is of a sexual minority, and Philip finds himself welcoming him into the Christian faith.
The fact that this convert to Christianity is from a sexual minority and a different race, ethnicity and nationality surely calls Christians to be radically inclusive and welcoming.
And Philip was radically inclusive and welcoming, because he was connected to Jesus and could therefore be a conduit to pass on grace and mercy and acceptance of others. When human beings connect with Christ, then they can’t help but find themselves connecting to ALL others, because for Jesus there is no barrier.
Things are changing at the moment at a dramatic rate, aren’t they, in terms of our re-orientation towards gender? But still many of us need to be challenged to see that our traditional understanding of gender is so terribly coloured by binary rules that don’t go back as long as we think they do. One commentator suggests that our current binary roles only go back to the Agricultural revolution. The gender stereotypes that we are familiar with, are just socially constructed behaviours and differ by culture, rather than absolute truths or tenants of the Judeo Christian tradition.
It is very sad that the church can be so ignorant and unable to see the truth here.
The WHO understands how damaging these socially constructed roles can be.
‘Gender refers to the socially constructed characteristics of women and men – such as norms, roles and relationships of and between groups of women and men. It varies from society to society and can be changed. While most people are born either male or female, they are taught appropriate norms and behaviours – including how they should interact with others of the same or opposite sex within households, communities and work places. When individuals or groups do not “fit” established gender norms…. they often face stigma, discriminatory practices or social exclusion – all of which adversely affect health.’
How sad that parts of the church fail to see what is so obvious to an organisation dealing with people’s health; that our so-called ‘norms’ are the result of social constructs. We in the church should be at the forefront not trailing behind.
‘When Christians label LGBTQIA individuals as inherently sinful or disordered, we hurt those precious people and limit ourselves. Fear of indifference creates a very constricted, exclusive and small religion and life, the very opposite of the abundance into which God invites us.’
But it isn’t easy. To quote Richard Rohr:
‘Gender seems to be a very deep archetype in the psyche. As long as we read reality in a non-contemplative, dualistic way, any gender identity that doesn’t follow our binary “norm” will invariably be challenging and usually resisted’.
I would like to suggest that it wasn’t easy for Philip. But he was connected to the spirit and the spirit sent him very specifically to connect with a Eunuch.
The New Testament teaches us that we are neither male nor female, for you and I are all one in Christ Jesus. We are all ‘hidden with Christ in God’.
Jesus talks about eunuchs in Matthew 19
‘Some are eunuchs because they were born that way and others because they were made that way by men, and others have renounced marriage. ‘
It has been argued that it is likely that Jesus is here talking about all sexual minorities.
But remember, our gender is not in the end the big picture.
As Richard Rohr says, ‘Gender is not the essential self, but merely a pathway to wholeness. The gospel says to each one of us ‘ I am a precious, beautiful being created in God’s image and likeness and we all share in this identity equally and in common.
An aside here; if the Bible teaches that we are essentially neither male nor female, it does not mean for one moment that we are not sexual beings. Our sexuality is a vital part of each one of us as physical beings, made sacred because Jesus took on bodily form. The core energy of personal/sexual love must reach out to the wider realm of humanity that includes love of neighbour, friendship, and love of the stranger.
Sexuality and spirituality emerge from the same foundation and have the same goal: universal love.
I would have loved to have talked to Philip after his strange meeting on the wilderness road. I wonder if it was a shock to him?
We don’t know what was going through Philip’s mind, but I would like to suggest that because he was a branch well and truly attached and drawing nourishment from the vine, he reached out to and loved the Ethiopian eunuch just as he reached out to anyone the Spirit led him to. And it just shows that allowing the spirit of Jesus flow through you can lead to some pretty radical adventures. Do we fail to see the fruit that is promised because we fail to really connect with Jesus?
When we connect with the vine we will find that we connect with all those who are marginalised, segregated and ostracised. Being connected to the vine means that our hearts are open.
And of course we instinctively know, don’t we, that if we reach out to connect with someone we just might find ourselves getting involved. When we connect we walk in someone’s shoes and then we understand what that person is going through.
So, we ask ourselves, how to we connect with the vine? And I hope you will forgive me for simplifying something that is of course deeply profound … but I suggest you just hold out your hand.
Hold hands with Jesus and you will find that you will end up holding hands with all sorts of extraordinary people!
Shut your eyes and hold hands with the person next to you. That wasn’t too difficult was it? As we hold hands with one another we hold hands with Jesus. We are now attached to the vine and we can feel the nourishment flow.
And while you hold hands I am going to quote two lines from a song written by a performance poet. Luke Nephew.
He wrote these lines for the BLMM, the black lives matter movement.
‘I can hear my brother crying ‘I can’t breath’
‘Now I’m in the struggle singing ‘ I can’t leave.’
‘I can hear my brother crying ‘I can’t breath’
‘Now I’m in the struggle singing ‘ I can’t leave.’
Holding hands we are connected and the nourishing breath flows through us. We connect with one another and know that a brother can’t breath. Once we are connected with them we can’t leave them, and like Philip in the chariot, we reach out and enfold them in the love of Jesus.