We often wonder why Jesus speaks in parables and metaphor, and wish the message could be a bit more clear. For Jesus’ listeners, the metaphors were often subjects that everyone would understand ... wheat and chaff, shepherds and flocks, and today, vines and fruit. Today’s gospel explores Biblical botany. Jesus begins talking about vines and fruit, and he is speaking the people’s language. Vineyards were common. Everyone understood the hard work required to tend the vines. The vines must be pruned, weeds must be pulled, and the vineyard must be protected from animals and thieves. Even the harvest was a laborious task. The reward was a livelihood for the vinegrower and life giving food and drink for the community.
But Jesus’ hearers would have had a deeper understanding. Throughout scripture, the grapevine is a metaphor for Israel. Jesus replaces this understanding with a bold statement, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Jesus proclaims that God’s chosen people are no longer limited to a select group of people with a particular lineage, Law, and liturgy. Jesus is the true vine of God, and all those in relationship with Jesus are vines connected to the true vine, the stem, and the vinegrower. The purpose of vines is not simply to exist, but to bear fruit. The vinegrower works among the vineyard, loving and caring for the crop, trimming and pruning as necessary to produce a bountiful harvest. Pruning back to the stem is a common gardening practice to cleanse the vine and make the vineyard more fruitful. These sound like words of judgement, but Jesus states “you have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.” This suggests more than audible reception of the Word, but understanding and acceptance. By this, we are inextricably tied to Jesus as vines are to the stem. Vines cannot survive if cut from the true vine, the stem. Cut and disconnected vines might as well be thrown away to wither, ultimately to be burned. Abiding in Christ relates to abiding in his live by keeping his commandments and bearing fruit. We are to recognize our intimate connection to the stem, the true vine, acknowledge our identity and purpose, and bear fruit. Jesus’ meaning would have connected to his audience, but what does this mean in the real world?
An Ethiopian Eunuch, a disciple, and the Bible are riding in a chariot down a wilderness road ... . Sounds Iike the beginning of a joke. But the circumstances are no joke. The disciples were persecuted and fled from Jerusalem after Stephen was killed for his faith. It might seem like Philip is running away, but he receives orders from an angel to head south, so he does. Philip understood these instructions came from God. He is still connected to the true vine and the vinegrower. He comes upon a most unlikely character, an Ethopian Eunuch. As a eunuch, he could not be a Jew. Clearly a Gentile, he is in service to the queen of a foreign nation. As head of her entire treasury, he exercises considerable power. We should also realize as a eunuch, he was likely castrated as a boy, ridiculed for his sexual status, and destined to live a life of servitude. Though he has been to Jerusalem to worship, as a Gentile the Eunuch would be restricted to the outer court of the Temple. Perhaps he is seeking a connection and acceptance denied in his life. Perhaps he hopes to be grafted into the true vine.
The Spirit urges Philip to join him. As Philip is connected to the vine, he obeys. Still seeking, the Eunuch is reading scripture. From Isaiah, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter ... in his humiliation justice was denied him.” The Eunuch would know about humiliation and denied justice, and might wonder if God, through this prophet, is speaking to him and to his own experience of being an outcast in Israel.
Philip strikes up a conversation. The Eunuch requires a guide to understand. So connected to the vine, Philip does what comes naturally and bears fruit. The resurrected Jesus explains “things about himself” from scripture. Philip follows the example and shares the Good News of Christ. The Eunuch must have been listening, understanding, and is compelled to participate. “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” I imagine the Spirit whispered into Philip’s ear, “absolutely nothing!”
Walls of prejudice and prohibition that had stood for generations came tumbling, blown down by the breath of God’s Holy Spirit, and another man who felt lost and humiliated was found and restored in the wilderness by the grace of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Immediately after the Eunuch is baptized, the Spirit transports Philip to Azotus, a city about 22 miles north of Gaza near the Mediterranean coast.
The Eunuch sees Philip no more, and must have acknowledged that he disappeared, but his only reaction is to go on his way rejoicing. We will not see the Eunuch again in scripture, but later church tradition suggests he becomes the first Christian missionary to Africa. However his story goes, the Eunuch has been grafted into the true vine, and goes forth rejoicing and bearing fruit.
And what about Philip? He blinks and he is in another city. Ever connected to the true vine and vinegrower, he spreads the Good News as he makes his way to Caesarea. He continues to bear fruit, because that is what vines are supposed to do.
The source of life is the vinegrower, and we are connected to true life by the stem, the one true vine. We are left to ponder what ways are we connected or disconnected from the vine. Are we discerning and choosing connections with God and each other that are life giving, or are we withering away? We can do our own pruning, aligning ourselves with God’s will, to bear maximum fruit.
And how are we bearing fruit? An Ethiopian Eunuch, miles away from home, reading the Bible? How often do we encounter such opportunities to share the Good News and love one another? Perhaps some scenarios are so mundane we miss them. Perhaps others are so strange we cannot see God’s possibilities. Philip obeys the Spirit when it speaks to him. He seizes the opportunity to share the love of Christ, no matter how bizarre. When transported to a new situation, Philip continues to acknowledge his connection to the vine, bearing fruit by sharing the Good News, acting with radical inclusion and radical love for God and others.
And what is our fruit to bear? When we hear Jesus talk of vines, we probably assume the fruit is grapes. There is no mention of what kind of fruit we are to bear. It could be love and charity in the church. Loving neighbor as we love ourself. Care of the poor, the sick, the widow, the orphan, and the elderly. Inviting the marginalized, accepting the outcast, companioning the lonely, and comforting the suffering. For some, it is missionary activity, spreading the gospel to the ends of the earth. Perhaps a life of public works that will inspire non-Christians to glorify God in their own way. We might bear all kinds of fruit ... grapes, pumpkins, and tomatoes. “Bearing fruit” is to do something, not just passively relish in being connected to the vine. And no matter the harvest, God’s fruit is brought forth in following the command to love. Love is not just the gushy feeling of a Harlequin novel, love is an action verb!
Love God, love each other ... this is the source of our call to bear fruit. It is love that establishes the vine, nourishes the vine, and prompts the bearing of fruit. Which comes first, love of God or love of neighbor? The answer is “Yes!” It is not an “either/or”, rather a “both/and”. Today’s lessons argue it is always both. Love is the fundamental nature of God, and our connection through Christ. In God, love is not an abstract quality, but one we experience very directly as activity. God acts lovingly towards us, thus we know that God is love. We must reestablish the bonds of love between all humanity, so that we can stand firm in the midst of adversity and crisis. The world will recognize us as disciples of Christ, connected to the true vine, living in mutuality with Jesus, and bearing the fruits of love. Amen.