Sunday, May 3, 2015

Easter 5 2014 "A Bunch of Fruits"

Easter 5 2015, May 3, 2015
St. Thomas’ Richmond, VA
“A Bunch of Fruits”

A lot of people ponder what it means to be Christian, I have books upon books asking this most simple of questions.  Is it proper belief?  Adherence to the Creeds?  Proper actions?  All of these could be right, or a part of being right.  All of these could also miss the boat.  We don’t want to be the guy at the airport waiting when his ship comes in.

So what does it mean to be a real Christian?  Like most things, it can be easier to look at what it does not mean to help us narrow it in on what it does mean.

Being a real Christian does not mean being serious and holier than anything and everybody we encounter.  Look at Jesus’ parables and we see a lively and poking-the-authorities-in-the-ribs sense of humor.  St. Teresa of Avila has a well-known prayer, which may be apocryphal but is very true to the spirit of her writing:
“From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”  

So true.  Being a Real Christian means being a Real Person.  Jesus said he came that we might have life, and have it to the full.  We laugh when it is funny.  We cry when it is sad.  We get bored.  We get tired.  We are honest with ourselves and with others.

Out of the broadness and richness of our many Christian traditions we can take our devotions, those things which draw us closer to Christ.  If a Christian devotion works for you, do it.  God made us different and unique for a reason.  We are fearfully, wonderfully, and thankfully differently made.  Thanks be to God.  “From silly devotions and sour-faced saints, good Lord, deliver us.”

But if being a Christian is not about not doing something, or being people we are not, then what is it about?

We are given three beautiful images today.  I John, Acts, and the Gospel of John all drive us closer to what it means to be more fully Real in Christ.

In First John, the author pleads for Christians to be seen as those who love:
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

No one has seen God, but if we live in love, people see that love.  And when we see that love, they see God.  God in us, God with us, and maybe they can even envision God in them.

This is so close to what we see in the account from Acts.  Philip, at the prompting of the angel of the Lord, is instructed to go on the wilderness road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza in the south.  Following the ambiguous instructions, Philip sees an Ethiopian eunuch in his chariot heading home to Ethiopia.  
Acts 8: Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Now there are several parts of this story do not come readily to mind to our ears.  First, this man was very important, Queen Candace’s Treasurer.  He owned a chariot that he could sit down on.  This is like someone going on a trip by Tour Bus today.  He has fabulous wealth.  

Second, he can read Hebrew and has enough money to buy a copy of the Isaiah.  We do not know how much of the Hebrew Bible was on his scroll.  It could have been the Nevi’im, the Prophets, or maybe just a few of them.  But that he could buy a book and that he had the education to read it meant that this highly educated foreigner was a rare bird indeed.  This scroll was not purchased in a gift shop at the end of the tour.  It would have had to have been hand-copied on sheets of vellum, prepared lamb skin.  

Third, that he had taken the time, effort and hardship to worship in Jerusalem shows the level of his devotion and his hunger to know more of God.  He was already an outsider as being African, and a God-fearer instead of convert.  But despite his outsider status, he continued.  This is moving, because this same religion to which he was so drawn would have rejected immediately for his status as a eunuch.  Hebraic thinking understood that the purpose and function of marriage was procreation, and that if one emasculates themselves that can NEVER be a part of the congregation of Israel.  Deuteronomy (23:1) is very clear about this.  Even if this was done to the young man in his youth, probably as a slave.  Also, depending on how he was made a eunuch, it may have been impossible for him to be circumcised.  But despite this condition, he still saw hope and beauty in the faith of Israel.  Historically there had been ties since the time of Solomon.

So our rich, powerful, devout eunuch is struggling with the Scripture, Isaiah, where it is a prophecy of God’s suffering servant.  
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."

Who is this, the eunuch wonders.  Philip then proceeds to calmly clarify his understanding that this sheep that was led to the slaughter was Jesus of Nazareth.  Philip continues, pointing out all that happened just months before they met.

Then the pivotal question is asked.  And this is the miracle of the story.  Now later Philip is snatched up and taken 30 or so miles away, maybe miraculously, but the real miracle here is when there is a choice between the Law, that Philip would have known SO WELL, and to love the person who there next to him wanting to join in Christ.  The question was:
"Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"

Remember, he had just come from Jerusalem where his status as a foreigner and as a eunuch permanently barred and prevented from fully participating.  It is hard to circumcise a eunuch.

We have no information on what was going through Philip’s mind.  Was he wrestling with what he had always heard, how this man was an abomination?  Did he wonder if he was doing the right thing?  It may have helped that he felt led to be here, at this road at this time to talk with this chariot’s driver.  Whatever he thought or felt, most important was what he did.

[The eunuch] commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

The Coptic branches of  the Church mark this as the beginning of their part of the body of Christ, when the eunuch came home and evangelized those who became the Church.  The miracle was this, when Love trumped Law.  And millions over time point to this moment as when they were welcomed into union with Christ.

Philip’s faith was defined by what he did, not by what he did not do.  In his union with Christ, he saw with Christ’s eyes this man desperate to be loved and accepted.  Philip looked on this man and loved.

In our relationship with Christ, may we do the same.  In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about what that will mean for us.  (John 15)

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

When I think on how we abide in Christ here at St. Thomas, I am deeply moved.  We have a beautiful church.  We are blessed with so much.  While our church here is well-used and often a little worse for wear, I would rather be in a house of God that opens its doors to almost anyone who asks than to be in a perfect place that was closed both physically and spiritually.

I am glad to say to whomever asks that I go to church with a bunch of fruits.  Not the crazy kind, but the bountiful kind.  Huge, laden fruits.  Great big bunches that can only come from one source, the Vine.

As Jesus pointed out in his beautiful metaphor of the Church, he is the Vine, and we are the Branches.  Apart from him, we can do nothing.  

May we always strive to be true to our calling, like Philip and the Eunuch.  May we be thought of as the most loving place we could possibly be.  

When we are asked, “What is to prevent me from joining in?” or “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” let us stop our chariots in our tracks and, like Philip, say, “Nothing, nothing at all.”  God loves all.  No conditions.  No qualifiers.

I have shared this prayer before, and today I share a portion because it fits so well what we have looked at today. In our desire to abide in Christ, may Thomas Merton’s prayer be ours as well.

“Lord, ...I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it…”  Amen.

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Blessings, Rock