More fruitfulness

Easter 6B (RCL)
Acts 10:44-48
Psalm 98
1 John 5:1-6
John 15:9-17

Last week, I preached about the eunuch, who wouldn’t have been allowed in the temple, but whom Philip baptized, showing that the christian community was open to those considered “unfruitful” by the rest of the world. I went on to talk about the passage from John’s first letter, about how hard it is to live in community. It’s easy to love God, because God will never annoy me, but you on the other hand . . . So John tells us that if we say we love God, but don’t love our brothers and sisters, we are liars. We must learn to love in the real world. The passage from the gospel then talked about fruitfulness, and being grafted into the community as the only way to be fruitful. Advent, not unlike many other pastoral sized congregations, ties up much of its identity in size: we like the fact that the rector knows everyone’s name. Consequently, we don’t grow any bigger. Fruitfulness usually means making more of something. Evangelism means getting more bodies in church. I suggested that if we changed our identity to being mission oriented, we’d stop caring what size Advent was, and others, like the eunuch, could find their way in. We needed to concentrate on living sappy, juicy, fruitful lives by ministering to others (doing the works of God, as John says so often in the gospel).

So, now, we have more fruitfulness language, and love language. Bearing fruit and being disciples is the same thing, and if we are bearing fruit, then whatever we ask God, God will do. And the commandment that gets us to this point is, “Love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, than to place one’s life in the trust of one’s friends.” (to lay down one’s life for one’s friends is a really bad translation — the Greek says literally, “to place one’s life (or soul) over (or on behalf of) one’s friends.” Julian Hill says it comes from Greek military poetry and accompanied the act of surrendering one’s sword to one’s comrade, hence entrusting one’s life).

My experience in Lui is the most profound instance of this for me: I had to entrust my life to the other missioners and to my friends in Lui. Once I did that, I had a fruitful time there, learned and taught many things, made deep relationships and had a transformative (one could even say, conversion) experience.

As we minister to other people, especially those outside our safe community, we are forced to give up our false sense of security, and entrust our lives to others and to God. When we have aligned ourselves with others in this way, could we even say that we have invested our lives with them? That our fruitfulness or salvation is tied up with their fruitfulness and salvation? Is that what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us, and to “lay down one’s life” for others?

This is a very different kind of messiah than we often expect, a very different kind of ministry than we often expect to do. We expect the messiah to “save” us and others, and we expect to “save” others through our ministries, to improve their condition. But Jesus doesn’t “save” us in that way. He invests his life with ours, surrenders the divine life into our care. That’s why the writer of the letter has to say, “Whoever trusts that Jesus is the messiah” conquers the world. It takes trust to see things this way, to entrust ourselves to others.

Peter is speaking to Gentiles when the spirit falls on all who were in the conversation. First Samaritans, then a eunuch, now Gentiles! Where does it end? When we are engaged in holy conversation with others about salvation, theirs and ours, when we have entrusted our life alongside theirs, the Spirit will fall on all involved in the conversation, no matter where we may have drawn the line.


Easter 5B (RCL)
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

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!