Year B 5th Sunday of Easter, 29 April 2018
St. Paul’s Anglican Church, Kumasi, Ghana
“Bearing Much Fruit”
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. 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. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: ‘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.’ The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
I am the Vine, says our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. We, he says, are the branches. We must abide in Him, so that he can abide in us. And why? So that we can bear the fruit as branches are made to do.
I greet you brothers and sisters, in the name of the Vine, Jesus Christ, grace and peace to you. And I also bring greetings from Bishops Shannon, Bishop Goff, and Bishop Robert from the Diocese of Virginia, as well as Bishop Paul from the Diocese of Liverpool who I was able to see last week. My name is Father Rock Higgins. I am the priest of St. James the Less in Virginia. The Bishops have all commissioned me and my counterparts the Rev. Canon Malcolm Rogers, and the medical doctor Joshua Campbell, both from Liverpool to come and prepare to bring pilgrims to the third and final leg of the Triangle of Hope Youth Pilgrimage. Good Lord willing, we will be able to bring participants from the first two pilgrimages to Liverpool and Virginia here to Ghana to finish their spiritual and educational pilgrimage looking at the triangle of trade that enabled the horrific slave trade for over 200 years. I thank his Grace, Archbishop Daniel Sarfo, Archdeacon Joseph, and Father Kessie for helping and welcoming us since Tuesday. It has been a wonderful and unbelievable week.
I grew up about 10 miles from where the first slave arrived in Virginia in 1619, 400 years next year. This was long before Virginia became a part of the United States, about 150 years before. And we imported slaves stolen from Africa for two-hundred-years. Part of our history that is so shameful, and so hurting, it is very easy to ignore it and want to let it go.
When I went to Liverpool, I learned how their banks and ships made enormous amounts of money bringing manufactured goods here to the Gold Coast, buying human cargo, crossing the middle passage of the Atlantic to Brazil, and the Caribbean, and to the States in America, and yes, to my home state of Virginia. And here the ships filled with raw materials of tobacco, cotton, and other products to take back to the factories and shops of England.
For the last few days, the Venerable Archdeacon Joseph Osei and Father Nana Kessie have given us another home here in Ghana. It has been a beautiful journey, the forests and the coast and the peoples, I have had my heart opened to Africa, and the beautiful people of Ghana. We have seen much. The most moving has been the Last Bath and Cape Coast Castle. The heartbreaking reality of what people could do to one another is staggering, and I will never be the same. Together we have made the prayer, “Never Again! Amen” a part of our journey and all its stops.
But you did not come to Church today to hear a stranger speak of his journeys, we come to Church to meet the Risen Christ, and how we can serve him in our lives. Where I started today is where I will resume.
I am the Vine, you are the branches, said Jesus. And we must abide in him. Think of a vine. The vine grows, and stays connected to its source, just as Jesus remained connected with God the Father. The vine grows and leads the way. The branches do not, and could not go first. They are the result of where the vine snakes and winds. And from the vine springs the branches to bear much fruit. Most likely Jesus here is speaking of a grape vine. We have many vineyards in Virginia, and sometimes on a special day my wife and I will go out and visit them. You can see the vines, clinging to their arbor, the structure on which they can grow, and after sufficient time, dangling down from the vine are bunches and bunches of grapes, each from their own branch.
The whole point of a branch is to bear fruit. That is all. And if we are the branches, then maybe that is our point as well.
The reading from Acts for the day is one of the great success stories of the early church. It was transformative.
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. He had no idea where he was going, but he trusted the Lord. 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 most likely papyrus.
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.
When Christ calls us, we need to go. Think on this. Phillip, instructed by an angel to be at a certain place at a certain time, does so. Now Jesus, the Vine, had already laid the way for what was to come. He is the vine, he grows on ahead, so that we can bear fruit. And that is what he did. This particular man had the importance and the influence to change an entire country. The effects of his ministry are still being felt. What Jesus, the Vine, got started that day, and what Phillip, the branch, was able to accomplish is STILL BEARING FRUIT.
I believe that so many occurrences have arranged themselves to make the Pilgrimage possible. Funding became available for us to come and be here with you. On Monday, there was a delay of our plane by 6 hours. Because of that we changed our seating. And because we changed our seating we met a man who has already contacted us here in Kumasi to helps Christ’s work become real. Our dream is that we will have youth from Liverpool, and Ghana, and Virginia visit each other's countries, and learn from each other, grow with each other, and become the leaders of the church where the vine of the diocese of Kumasi, and the vine of the diocese of Liverpool, and the vine of diocese of Virginia can all braid themselves together so that Christ can be glorified, and we can bear much fruit. Christ leads the way.
Christ led bishops to meet at the Lambeth Conference and find common ground there in London. Christ led my life to be at the right place at the right time to help lead one of the first trips. Christ has made so much happen across three continents, only a blind person could claim not to see God’s hand at work.
My prayers for you, brothers and sisters, is that you can and will follow Christ’s call when it happens, abide in him to his honor and glory, and bear the fruit you are called to produce. I would ask that you would pray the same for me and for our common pilgrimages. Lastly, thank you for your hospitality and welcome, and remember us as all serve the Risen Lord. Amen.
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