Fifth Sunday of Easter
John 15:1-8 Acts 8:26-end
There’s something to be said for slow roads. In the days of the early Church and for almost two thousand years after, the speed at which people travelled was determined by the power of a horse. Until the days of steam powered engines changed that. But in the record of Acts chapter 8, about Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch, slow travel meant that somebody could actually come up to a chariot and walk a little beside it, to capture what the person inside was saying. This meant that Philip, who had heard the man read aloud from the prophet Isaiah, could then explain what it was all about. A chance encounter? I think not. The fact that we have this episode in the story recorded would suggest otherwise, especially with the mention of the Spirit seemingly directing events. I love this story, not just for the encouragement it offers about the very ordinary ways in which the Good News of Jesus Christ can be proclaimed, but also because of what else we can glean about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.
For that, I refer to the Gospel reading from John chapter 15: Jesus saying that he is ‘the true vine, and his Father is the vinegrower’ and he also says, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.’
I confess here that I am a bit of a haphazard gardener. I enjoy being out in the garden and doing some work, but I’m not there every free moment and I’m certainly not an expert. I am one who doesn’t even know all the names of the plants that are in there, and who would refer to them as those ‘green and yellow leaves’ or ‘pretty edges and of a kind of deep green’. Well, that would narrow it down, wouldn’t it!
But what Jesus is referring to here is that of an image that the people would be very familiar with and that explained something about what it means to have a relationship with Jesus, and through him, with God.
As even I would know, a plant needs to have roots, it needs to have a stem or a trunk, with branches with leaves etc. You know the drill.
The most obvious thought here is of course that all the parts are connected. A branch without a stem will die. And in order to yield a good crop, sometimes the dead branches need to be cut back, or the flowers reduced. So far, that’s a pretty simple picture, that is not hard to understand. However, the image that Jesus would want for the people to really take in, is that of the absolute necessity of the branches drawing nutrition from the trunk or stem, so as to bear any fruit at all. In other words, you have to ‘remain’ or ‘abide’ in Christ, which means that you listen to his words and take them to heart – draw in as nourishment – in order to lead fruitful lives that honour God. How do we do that? Well, reading the Bible regularly, praying and meeting with other Christians and joining in worship are the obvious means to that end, as we also learn from the story in Acts 8. Philip knew the words of Isaiah; he had learned them through hearing and reading for a long time. Then, he had come to see them fulfilled in Jesus himself, so that he was now able to proclaim the Good News to the eunuch he had met. Philip was a branch that was bearing fruit, as he obeyed the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The story finishes with the baptism of the Ethiopian, who then ‘went on his way rejoicing’, while Philip was taken on to another place, where he could continue his mission. How extraordinary! And how beautiful it is that the ‘remaining’ and ‘abiding’ in Jesus equips us for moments of the Spirit. It may be a bit of work but then a beautiful garden doesn’t happen overnight, as I will readily admit! Amen.