Easter 5B (RCL)
1 John 4:7-21
The RCL places the reading from Acts in juxtaposition to the saying in John’s Gospel about the vine and the branches, which the old BCP lectionary did not. I wonder if that was intentional on the part of the designers of the lectionary?
The reading from Acts concerns Philip’s preaching to the eunuch from Ethiopia. He has just been preaching to the Samaritans, who were despised by good Judeans. Now, here he is preaching to a eunuch, some excluded from the covenantal congregation (Lev 22:24; Deut 23:1). He may have gone up to Jerusalem to worship, but he would have been prevented from entering the court of the Jews. So, on his way back to Ethiopia, he is reading Isaiah 53:7-8, a passage about the suffering servant, an outcast like himself. Interestingly, just a few verses down (Isaiah 56:1-5), in speaking about the return from Exile (while the servant songs had concerned the Exile itself), Isaiah says, “Let not the eunuch say to himself, I am a dry branch.” God will set up in the Temple an everlasting memorial for all those castrated in the Exile. Shame it never happened.
But nothing prevents the eunuch from being baptized. That goofy christian community will accept all comers, whole and sound or not. And then, we hear the vine and the branches. Anyone who does not remain in community withers and dries, and will be burnt. But those who do remain in community will bear much fruit. What a great thing.
The passage from John’s first letter carries all the confusion of boundaries for which John is famous. By the time we finish reading, we wonder “who remains in whom?” Love is what keeps one in the other: God in us, us in each other, us in God. And we do this not out of fear of punishment, because mature love casts out fear. So different from much evangelical preaching about punishment and reward. We love God not to get any reward, but because God loved us. We love others, not to get any reward, but because God loves us. Love is the sap which flows through the vine.
So, what does it mean to be fruitful? Obviously, it’s not just children, as the case of the eunuch shows. It’s living a juicy life, full of sap, overjoyed at the love of God for all, extending it to any and all, because there is more than enough. It means including even the seemingly fruitless in the community of God’s people, accepting the broken, damaged and dry (which we all are at one time or another) and nurturing them with the sap of God. Sometimes, it must mean cutting off what is unhelpful in our lives, learning to prune carefully, or letting God prune, for the greater harvest. And then enjoying a great vintage!