+ A sermon for The Fifth Sunday of Easter (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on April 29, 2018 +
Texts: Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
Grace to you and peace from God our Creator and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to spend a day in the California wine country.
While I’ve visited vineyards before, I was struck by the beauty of rolling hills filled with grape vines that were being warmed by the sun.
I also remember how the vines were almost uniform – trained and pruned by the vine-growers to grow in a specific way.
Maybe you’ve seen these vines before – one stock goes up and then splits into two branches that grow vines along a wire, which is where the grapes grow.
It’s a beautiful sight – but in a way, it’s not natural.
These carefully manicured vines are the result of great care and pruning by the vine-growers.
Left to their own devices, these vines would not look like this. Wild grapes have vines that grow up anything they can – like ivy. They’ll crawl up anything that is available like trees or structures. They require pollination to produce grapes and their fruit is smaller and less sweet.
That’s why over the millennia, vineyards have developed ways to care for grapevines to produce fruit that is delicious to eat and able to be transformed into wine and grape juice.
Today we hear Jesus use the metaphor of the grapevine to describe our relationship to him, to God, and to each other.
“I am the vine, you are the branches” Jesus tells us, “and my Father is the vine-grower.”
These words come to us from what is called the farewell discourse in John. Jesus is preparing his disciples to continue his ministry after he is gone.
Jesus is telling them that they will always find life and purpose in him – in living into the ministry that Christ has shown us and abiding in the life he brings.
But he is also telling us that we are not alone in this work.
By abiding in Christ the vine we live in him but also live in each other in a web of interconnectedness – and this vine is tended, pruned, and cared for by God the vine-grower.
Like the vines of the vineyards that produce fruit for our table, God tends to this vine and cares for it.
God guides the vines to grow in the way God sees fit and trains it to produce the fruit God intends: sweet fruit worthy of fine wines, sturdy fruit that is fit to withstand any weather, fruit that will last – fruits that show forth God’s love in the world.
The author of First John tells us that to abide in God – that to abide in Christ – is to abide in God’s love.
Not in some sweet, surface-level way, but in the deep love of God that casts out fear and cares for those around us.
This is the love that binds us together, the love that brought Christ to earth, and the love that he showed us how to live.
It’s a self-giving love that cares for those around us.
It’s a love that reminds us of the expansiveness of God’s creation and urges us to love all the siblings we have in God.
It’s a love that must be shared to be a living and true love.
And it’s a love that leads us beyond our selves, beyond our own community, to love all people around us.
It’s the same love that came to each of us, broken and flawed as we are, and reminds us that God has not rejected us or forgotten us.
It reminds us that despite our sins and failings, God the vine-grower chooses to prune us, to bind us up, and dress us with love so we may bear fruits of that same love.
And these fruits are not only for our benefit, but for those around us.
Through our lives, all of our siblings, all of the creation, can experience the sweetness of God’s love for them through the fruits that we bear in sharing that love in word and deed.
Through his life and ministry, Christ gave us an example of this love.
He reached out to those who were outcasts of society, he lived among those living under oppression and fear, he fed those who were hungry, and crossed just about every social boundary to do it.
He comes to each of us despite our own brokenness to love us, to heal us, and to inspire us into lives of love and service.
And we are not left to our own devices in this life of love and service, but are bound together in Christ and the love through which we all find life.
And we are guided in this life and love by God, the vine-grower.
We are not like the wild grapevines that must scrounge for anything to grasp onto, but God has come among us to help us thrive.
Like the vineyard dressers that grow grapes for wine, God has guided our life in Christ and leads us to share this love in the places were God directs us.
Most of the time, these are not the places where we ourselves would go on our own devises, but are places were God has called us to share the love that we have received.
A beautiful example of this guidance is shown in our first lesson today – the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.
We hear how an angel called to Philip and led him down a wilderness road so that he would meet this eunuch, whom tradition has named Simeon Bachos.
Now Simeon was by all accounts an outsider. He was a foreigner, likely followed a different religion, and, as a eunuch, lived outside the gender binary of male and female.
God led Philip to Simeon so that he could share the good news of Jesus and of God’s love for all people, including this foreign eunuch.
And after Simeon hears this good news, after he hears of God’s love for him, he asks Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
What is to prevent him, this triple outsider?
If it were left to human decisions, I imagine that Simeon would not have been baptized because the barriers that prevent him in our human perspectives are clear.
But this is where God had led Philip – this is where God guided Philip to show him and us how expansive God’s love is – so Philip could bear the fruits of God’s love to Simeon.
And so they find water and Simeon becomes the first non-Jewish person to be baptized into the church.
This person who was of a different faith, from a different government, a different skin color, and outside of any sort of gender norms was one of the first converts to the gospel of Jesus as if God is showing us exactly how expansive this gospel really is.
As if God is telling us exactly how massive this love is.
As if God is grooming us to help us grow beyond our own limits and comfort levels to spread the fruits of God’s love beyond our own self-imposed human boundaries.
I doubt any person in the early church would have expected someone like Simeon to be the first convert or the desert road to be the place of conversion, but that’s exactly where Philip is led.
And we can see the expansiveness of God’s love and the surprising places it bears fruit in the world through this story.
My friends, we may not have an angel appear to lead us to the places were God’s love is most needed, but we have the example of Jesus to guide us.
We have the example of scripture and the guidance of God to show us where the fruits of God’s love will grow.
And Jesus has led us to the places where we are called and goes with us.
The same Spirit that spoke to Philip on the desert road speaks to us, emboldens us, and calls us into action.
To spread God’s love to those living on the margins of our society.
To show God’s love to people in our day who are outside of the gender binary – like trans people – who are so often rejected by their families, their churches, and by society.
We are called to be a welcoming place that will embrace our trans siblings as we work with them to protect their rights and dignity as our siblings in Christ.
To challenge the forces of individual and systemic racism that continues to degrade, devalue, and damage our siblings of color.
To recognize our own complicity in these systems and repent so we can work together towards the day when we are all truly valued regardless of the color of our skin.
To welcome foreigners who migrate here – regardless of immigration status – and show them hospitality and compassion.
To protect those who dream of a better life here in this country and to welcome them here among us in these pews.
To embrace them in the spirit of Christ and help this be a place of radical generosity and safety.
To go outside of our normal comfort zones and reach out to the outsiders in society and those living on the margins and show forth the love of God in word and deed.
These are the places where we are called, this is where the vine of God’s love grows to produce its fruit.
And we can see some fruits of this love warming us in the pews today. Fruit that have been harvested by our quilting group and will be sent all over the world through Lutheran World Relief, down the street through Compass Housing Alliance, and so many more to provide a tangible example of God’s love for people who need warmth and to experience that love.
Christ reminds us today, beloved, that we are joined to him and the whole creation through the vine of God’s love that unites us all.
In a few minutes we will be rejoined again into this vine through its fruit that we will share at this table.
And through Christ the vine, we see where God is leading us, where the vine-grower is training us to go, and God is showing us where God’s love is to be spread.
We can see where God is leading us, where Christ has called us, and we are reminded that we are never alone in this calling.
That we are all bound together in Christ who will never abandon us but will support, love, and grow with us as we show forth God’s love to all creation.