Fifth Sunday of Easter: Year B
I have been doing a lot with the Sacraments this week. This week seems to be the Sacrament week. It all began last Sunday when our Confirmation class began its exploration of the Sacraments with a study of Baptism. Then, on Monday, I taught a First Communion Class. On Wednesday our Synod hosted a ministerium day where church leaders from all over the state came together to talk about the Use of the Means of Grace- particularly about whether or not unbaptized people are welcome to the table for Eucharist. Now, we come to today’s texts about the Ethiopian Eunuch’s spur-of-the-moment Baptism and Jesus’ speech about being the Vine.
This week has me thinking about the Sacraments quite a bit and I am convinced the more I think about it… it is really confusing stuff. How do you talk about the Sacraments? I think it is especially difficult for Lutherans. I sort of envy the Baptists and others who believe that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial- that eating the bread and wine reminds us that Jesus gave his body and blood for us. I sort of envy the Roman Catholics who believe that the bread and wine truly become Jesus’ body and blood and use metaphysical arguments to explain just how it happens. Lutherans also profess that Jesus is truly present in the bread and the wine- that it is his body and blood- but we stop there. We don’t try to explain how this happens. A faithful Lutheran answer to what the Lord’s Supper is might be, “A meal of Jesus’ own body and blood given for the church.” A faithful Lutheran answer to the question, “How can bread and wine become Jesus’ body and blood?” might be “I don’t know. Jesus said so.”
My conundrum is figuring out how to stretch out “Jesus is really there in the elements and I have no idea how,” into a two-hour long First Communion class. Jesus is truly present with us in this meal. That seems like a simple enough statement, but when you think about it, when Jesus is present, things change, things get complicated, and abundant life begins.
Nothing stays the same when Jesus shows up. Consider the disciples themselves. Most of them were fishermen, one was a tax collector, but they all had pretty predictable lives. Jesus shows up and beckons them to come follow him. They do and they witness miracles, powerful teachings, and the resurrection of the dead. They all go on to lay down their lives for the sake of the Good News of Jesus.
Jesus shows up and everything changes.
The same is true when Jesus encounters us in the water of the font and the bread and wine of the table. Our lives are forever changed. The way Jesus describes it, we are branches attached to a great vine. We receive abundant and eternal life in this encounter with Jesus. We also become a part of something bigger- we become part of the mighty plant that connects countless other branches. We all share the forgiveness and abundant and eternal life that comes from Christ the Vine.
We don’t become one branch though. We remain unique, but now we are a part of a whole. All you have to do to see that that is true is look around the sanctuary. We are very different branches. We differ in our race, our financial background, our gender, our orientation, our age, and our gifts and passions. Everyone bears the fruit of God’s life and love. It will look a little bit different with each person, but it is there. You may bear the fruits of encouragement, music, art, laughter, compassion, organization, or many of the innumerable fruits that God nourishes us to grow.
We may be very different from each other, but we are all together- connected to the Vine of Christ and nourished with his life. We are connected with all those who are thirsty for the nourishment that comes from God. The implication of receiving such loving nourishment is that we are to love our newfound neighbors on the vine. We are to love each other because God first loved us. We bear the fruit of God’s love for others to eat.
When we gather around the waters of Baptism or around the table of the Lord’s Supper we find ourselves close to all those whom Jesus gathered to himself- namely, the thirsty, the hungry, the downtrodden, and the tired.
The love of Christ connects us to each other. At the Unity Walk which traveled to all the 2015 murder sites of Trenton, Rev. Lukata Mjumbe spoke about those who were killed and urged all of us to view these men as our brothers, our sons, our cousins, and our friends. The love of God binds us together.
For all the differences that we might have, the miracle of God’s love is that it connects us to others so that we might love them and experience love from them.
We are to love our neighbors in Nepal who are trying to make sense of the world after an earthquake killed thousands of people and displaced countless others.
We are to love our neighbors in Baltimore who are overwhelmed with fear, racism- systemic and personal, violence, and loss.
I don’t know about you, but I am overwhelmed when I try to imagine loving someone else- especially someone who is so different from me. I am not a police officer, I am not a young black man, I am not from Baltimore, I am not Nepalese. There may be some similar experiences that I or you may have to another person, but in the end we’re still different branches. When I think about that, I am not sure how to even begin to love my neighbor, but the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch give us a beginning.*
I cannot imagine two people who are more different than Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. Philip is middle-eastern and the eunuch is African Philip is of a lower financial class and the eunuch is a high court official for the queen of Ethiopia, so very rich; Philip is a man and the eunuch is physically not. God brings these two incredibly different people together on a wilderness road and the first thing they do is they listen to each other. Philip listens as the eunuch describes his struggles of faith as he wrestles with the Scriptures. Then, the eunuch listens to Philip as he shares his experience of Jesus of Nazareth. When very different people come together in Christ, love begins with listening.
In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper Jesus is truly with us. With Christ’s abiding presence comes forgiveness, life, and salvation, but with that comes change and new, often different neighbors. Christ is the nourishing vine that connects many different branches. Nourished by God’s love, we each bear the fruit of that love. With the abiding presence of Jesus with us, share love because God first loved us. Be like Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch and listen to the struggles and joys of our neighbors. And know that Christ is with us and all those who hunger and thirst for food, for relief, and for justice. We are the branches and Christ is the Vine.
*Thank you to Rev. Dr. Wil Gafney for your helpful reflection (http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/preaching-reflections-on-freddie-gray-and-baltimore/)