May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
I did my seminary internship at Grace Lutheran Church in Fairmont, Minnesota. Located only 9 miles north of Iowa in the middle of the state from east to west, Fairmont is a small predominantly farming town of about 12,000 people. It was rural and lived up to the description that you may have heard if you ever listened to Garrison Keiler talk about the fictional town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.
Grace Lutheran had a tradition of taking their final year catechism class on a weekend retreat into the inner city of Minneapolis/St. Paul. It was a chance to see a different world for them, a much more multi-cultural one that they were used to in Fairmont, where the biggest difference in culture is if your family's history was Swedish or Norwegian! We helped feed the homeless in a soup kitchen and explored other inner-city ministries. On the Sunday morning of our stay, we worshiped at an African Methodist Episcopal church, which is very different than Lutheran worship! Besides the fact that there were about three different offerings taken, the preacher's sermon was nearly an hour long. The entire service was about two and a half hours in length.
I will always remember that sermon from about 26 years ago because of the way that this preacher fleshed out this message: You have been grafted onto the body of Christ. It was obvious that this man had done great research, not only on the theology of the message, but on the botany of his illustration! He described in great detail the process of how a branch can be grafted onto a tree, done in such a way that it becomes a true part of that tree. And in the same way, we have been grafted onto the body of Christ so that we all truly are part of Jesus in the world today. It was an uplifting, exceptional message I will never forget.
I think about that sermon every time I hear Jesus' words, “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.” By virtue of our baptisms, we have been grafted onto the vine of Jesus by the vinegrower, God. Here we abide, here we bear fruit. Here we are included and beloved by God.
There is a strange but valid irony to the choice of Acts 8:26-40 as the accompanying first reading to this Gospel text. Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch on the road, shares the good news of Jesus with him and baptizes him. What is a eunuch, you may ask? Well, here is a way to delicately describe it, which I found in a study Bible: “Officials in royal courts were often physically altered so that they could not father children.” These are eunuchs. Having this done not only had a physical effect on the person, but in regards to the Jewish religion, it had a communal effect as well! Being physically, “incomplete” this person and others like him were not fully accepted into the faith. It is ironic that this is what literally keeps him, “cut off” from the rest of those Jews since he seems like such a faithful person; after all, he has travelled about 1,500 miles to worship in Jerusalem in the Temple, and he would not have even been able to go into the Temple. He would have only been allowed in the Court of the Gentiles! But Philip enlightens him to what the scriptures say about – that Jesus was the suffering servant, and in him we all are loved by God. Who cares that your skin is much darker than mine, that your body has been altered and that you live a much different life than I do? “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” he asks. “What is to prevent God from grafting you onto the vine of Jesus Christ?” Philip thinks. Nothing – there's some water, let's do it now!
I dare say that there is plenty that cuts people off from each other and from Jesus today. We live in a time of division, of cutting through our communities to focus on the special interests of individuals based upon their categories – age, gender, sexual orientation, political affiliation, socio economic class and race to name a few. The tactics of the presence of evil in our society is to cut each other off from their community – their support, physically and spiritually. But all of our lessons this morning remind us of God's universal intention to include all in the family of love; to graft all people of all classifications into this family so that we may abide in Jesus, and so that Jesus may abide in us. It grieves us that, even though God's intentions are universal, our tendency is to look who we can leave out, to judge who is worthy of being a branch on this vine. We tend to judge who we think will produce fruit and who we think will not.
I am sure that you have seen lots of images from Baltimore this past week. It has grieved me deeply to realize that the racial boundaries that have been present in our country for so long seem to be just as present now as they were in the 1950s and 60s. As a middle-class white man in this country, I get confused when I see young African-American men and women angrily throwing rocks at police and other citizens, looting stores that are owned by their own neighbors, burning cars and buildings. I wonder what has built the hatred that is lived out in this way. I naturally begin to classify people as, “us and them” and I hear people calling these people, “thugs” and the mob mentality that is lived out in those streets is lived out through me in my comfortable living room in front of a flat screen television.
A number of years ago, parents were encouraged to use language with their children that avoided condemnation of their character to direct it where it is more appropriate – on their actions. Instead of telling a one year old that he is a bad boy for biting his sister, we correct them for the biting itself – it was a bad decision and action; you aren't a bad person. I wonder if we can do that as we remember images that we have seen in Baltimore and other places of violent protest, or of police actions that have incited those protests, or of any kind of actions that cause us to want to cut someone off because we would never do something like that or be like that.
I guess that the biggest factor in making people adopt an attitude of difference is fear. We fear what we do not totally understand; we fear losing power over someone, and that when someone has power over us, they won't treat us as brothers and sisters. In our second reading, the author writes that perfect love casts out fear; He also says that those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters are liars. Love – the kind of love that Jesus showed, otherwise known as, ‘agape' – is the fruit that we bear by being grafted onto the body of Christ, the vine.
How do we love like Jesus? Can I tell myself that I need to try harder to love people around me? Do we bear fruit by squeezing it out ourselves? No – we bear fruit by abiding with Jesus and allowing him to abide in us. We are extensions of the vine; we have been pruned by the gardener, God, who wants us to be fruitful and to be drawn into the unity of the Father, and the Son through the Holy Spirit. God's love, presence and pruning are gifts, but we choose the abiding place for our souls! If we want to love like Jesus, to bear Jesus' fruit, then we are to choose to abide in him. We are to center ourselves on that which gives us life as branches of the vine, and the love of Christ will flow through us.
Philip was centered in his relationship with Jesus, and he shared the love of God with a strange man in a chariot. He knew that there was nothing to keep him from being baptized because it is God's intention that all be grafted onto the vine, Jesus Christ. Abiding in Christ and seeing others around us in this way is the beginning of bearing Jesus' fruit in our lives. Before I end I just want to ask – is there anyone here in this church this morning that has not been baptized – who has not been grafted onto the vine of Jesus Christ? Because I have water right there, and there is nothing to stop us from baptizing you today!
-If so, “Welcome to the family of God! Come now and join me at the font! Thanks be to God! Amen.
-if not, “Thanks be to God that we all have been grafted onto the vine of Jesus Christ! May we truly abide in him and bear his fruit. Amen.