The Fifth Sunday of Easter
A prophet once came to a city to convert its inhabitants. At first, people listened to his sermons, but gradually drifted away until no one was left to hear him. One day a visitor to the city asked him, “Why do you continue to preach if no one comes to hear you?” The prophet said, “At first, I was preaching to change the people. Now I shout to prevent them from changing me.”
I know that there are many people who take the Bible literally and believe that we all should do likewise. I’m sure some of them are well intentioned. I’m deeply grateful for Richard Hooker, one of our most important theologians who gave us Episcopalians the gift of the three-legged stool as a metaphor for interpreting scripture: equal reliance on scripture, tradition and reason. In other words, we need to engage our brain when we red scripture.
So I’m amused when we get to a passage like today when Jesus says something like “I am the true vine.” Is he telling us that he twined himself around trees or grows on poles? Was he taught to spread over stone walls? Jesus also said that he is the bread of life. Was his essence sourdough or rye? Absurd as this seems, the point is that the Scriptures, and especially John’s Gospel, are very metaphorical—not literal—and we get a prime example in today’s Gospel.
Hardy, robust vines were found everywhere in Palestine in the time of Jesus and the Old Testament often used the vine as a metaphor for the people of Israel. The Prophet Jeremiah used the image of the vine that had grown wild to illustrate how the Hebrew people had failed to fulfill the purpose for which God had planted and nurtured them.
John’s image of the “true vine” suggests the uniqueness of Jesus, the one in whom we find abundant life and expresses the importance of intimacy between believers and the Risen Christ. It also suggests the corporate nature of our faith community. There are no “individual” branches nor is there “going it alone” in Christian community. We interweave and intertwine and encircle each other, all living together and drawing from the same source of grace in Christ.
Several years ago, I had a lot of vines removed from the side of my house. It reminded me of this passage and suggested something else about vines: they cling. They hug and cleave and latch onto whatever they can. On the right surface it may be attractive; on the wrong surface like the wood siding of a house they can be destructive. To what do we as branches of the vine cling? What do we grip, hold on to? I thought this a particularly salient question in a week where we followed the escalating loss of life in India—3,000 people a day—due to COVID19 and the lack of life-saving equipment, medical supplies, and vaccines.
To what can we the “vine branches” cling in the face of such profound loss and apparent hopelessness? There’s been a lot to process in the past week. Actually, there has been a lot to process in the last year. So, thinking again about that prophet who came to a certain city I’m wondering what the rest of the world is hearing in these readings today. Or have they tuned out? Does the world hear the shouts of prophetic voices?
We hear a story today about radical hospitality in the reading from Acts. The Ethiopian was clearly the outsider here, what the Greeks would call “ξεινος” (xaynos)–a stranger or alien. Here was diversity for sure: a Eunoch who was not a Jew and whose ethnicity indicates he would have looked very different from Philip with his very dark skin. Philip engages in conversation with him, shares the Good News of God’s love and acceptance, and, when the man asks to be baptized, Philip did it. Here we see the Spirit acting in the courtier and in Philip.The Ethiopian asked, “What prevents me from being baptized?” Today the stranger might stand in our midst and ask “What prevents me from coming to God’s Table this morning.” The answer: “Not a thing; absolutely nothing.”
Our lives as branches and our stories as followers of Jesus, clinging in hope to the True Vine, tell us that we are all connected to each other and to God in Christ, to the people in our own faith community and to the suffering people in India What we can cling to is the authentic good news of God’s love and we can raise our voices like that prophet to shout out about radical hospitality as we see it manifested in the reading from Acts.
We can unashamedly claim our place in the wider church as a community that affirms and rejoices in diversity because it was God’s idea first and we can as a faith community unabashedly and without apology open our table—God’s Table—to all who come hungry and thirsty for the feast God freely offers there. We can cling to this community. The vine of Christ, and use our financial resources to support its work to stand up for the truth of the Gospel.
“I am the vine,” Jesus tells us today. And we are the branches—the life bearing, life giving instruments of God’s love in the world who can make a difference. Sometimes, like that prophet, we can’t sit still and be silent. Sometimes we not only need to hear what God is saying. Sometimes we need to say something; sometimes we need to do something. In the end, we all have a little prophet in us.