The preacher can portray the dual identity of this Ethiopian. There is something exotic about him and his native land, home of the Queen of Sheba, the mysterious source of the Nile, perhaps the place where the ark of the covenant has rested all these centuries… But then he’s black, he’s African, and he has an alternative sexual identity.
He’s been to Jerusalem – and we know that because of his identity, he wasn’t admitted. Stunning: he still went, still was obsessed with the Scriptures even though he was excluded! I’ve noted this in United Methodism: people we exclude, whom we don’t “condone,” who can’t receive the church’s blessings, keep showing up, keep coming back, keep seeking to be a part of the community that ostracizes them. Some miracle in that… reminding me that this text appeared in the lectionary the Sunday after our 2012 General Conference, and I could not help but comment on the parallels (video here).
The text’s question, Do you understand? intrigues – as this Suffering servant text (Isa 52-53) still is a puzzle. But for all of Scripture, we need guidance – we the clergy, and we the people to whom clergy preach. There is a study/intellectual level at which we need guidance; but more importantly, we need real life practical guidance. St. Francis was the master interpreter of Scripture – not because of any clever insights he had, but because he read the Bible, and it became his to-do list for the day.
The text’s next question, Does he speak of himself, or another? is still batted around. The answer, certainly, is Yes. The prophet has been afflicted in his ministry to the exiles; yet his servant role is theirs, unfulfilled, or perhaps one they are being summoned to fulfill. We can read Jesus in, as Phillip and the Ethiopian did – but the original text stands well enough on its own; I’d commend John Goldingay’s lovely exposition (in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah) of how a prophet suffered for his message, and that suffering came to be understood as redemptive – and this does give us some clues about how God chooses to be God, and hence what God was doing in Jesus.
And the text’s third question, What is to prevent me being baptized? quite tragically gets answered. There’s a class, you have to be a member, you have to believe and repent, you can’t be this identity unless you repent, you have to be touched by a duly ordained person, etc. What a rich text, teeming with homiletical possibility.
Psalm 22:25-31 is certainly fascinating – if we reckon with the notion that Jesus, in utter agony on the cross, called to mind a Psalm he had learned as a boy from his mother, beginning “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did he, as many did, hold in mind not just that phrase, but the entire Psalm – which as we see here winds up with dramatic words of steadfast hope in the face of severe adversity?
1 John 4:7-21 goes on a bit of a ramble – but his points are well-taken and entirely preachable. I shiver a little when people say something like God’s love is the love people share – but 1 John surely underlines that when we love, we do partake of God’s love. But for him it’s not only that God’s love = human love – which is a dicey proposition. It all begins, continues and ends in God’s love for us – and not a mood in the heart of God, but a specific, concrete action in the crucifixion of Jesus.
“Perfect love casts out fear” is the text’s best line – although discerning what “perfect” love is can be elusive. I admire Scott Bader-Saye’s great book, Following Jesus in a Culture of Fear. His wise reflections on good and necessary fear versus irrational, overstated fear – and then how the desire for security, especially in our post-9/11 world, crowds out faith, courage, boldness, discipleship. “We fear excessively when we allow the avoidance of evil to trump the pursuit of the good. When we fear excessively we live in a mode of reacting to and plotting against evil rather than actively seeking and doing what is good. Fear causes our vision to narrow, when what is needed is for it to be enlarged… Our overwhelming fears need to be overwhelmed by bigger and better things, by a sense of adventure and fullness of life.” Or we may well say, by the love of God in Christ Jesus.
John 15:1-8 exhibits yet one more of Jesus’ riveting “I am” statements. His identity, and thus the revealed identity of the very God Moses inquired into, is declared – but in images, like living water, the good shepherd, and here, a vine. If you can, interview somebody who knows about growing things, how vines work or don’t, how they bear fruit or don’t.
Gisela Kreglinger has written a fascinating book called The Spirituality of Wine. She grew up in a wine-producing family, and teaches us much about how alienated urban people are from the land and what unfolds there. As archaeologists have found thousands of winepresses all over Israel of Jesus’ day, we realize he spoke to people who knew vines, vineyards, winepresses, and so his very vivid image of life with him would have been utterly memorable – and as listeners found themselves back at work, pruning, pressing, keeping the bugs away and such, would have seen, felt, and smelled quite tangible images of their relationship to Jesus.
Acknowledging the woes of alcohol mis-use, Kreglinger shows how flowing wine is a constant image of the dawn of God’s kingdom. Then, her details drawn from viticulture are intriguing – and preachable. Sap from the rootstock journeys through the vine and gives life to the grapes. There’s this: “When a vine lacks water and is under stress, it is forced to develop deeper roots… The deeper the roots, the more the roots interact with and drawn from different layers of soil, and the more complex (and desirable) the wine becomes.” Vintners can’t just grow the maximum amount; sustainability requires some restraint, a long-terms care for the soil.
And then there’s this: “Left to themselves, vines grow like weeds… Part of cultivating the vines is to prune their branches and tie them onto wires….” Pruning has its homiletical possibilities – and Kreglinger suggests that the wires onto which vines are tied “are like the structures and rules in a religious community; we need them… they give us support and stability.” I find all this to be wonderfully suggestive, and may well preach a sermon in which I reflect in a leisurely way over vines, roots, being stressed, pruning, trellising (especially if I can track down a vineyard worker for an interview!). After all, monks back in the Middle Ages became the great wine producers, and tended their vines as a spiritual practice accompanied by prayer. Even we grape-juice Methodists, with our peculiar and unhappy relationship with fermented grape juice, can ponder with profit the image of Jesus as the vine.
This business of fruitfulness is always ripe for preaching. (Pun intended). Bearing fruit, from the vine’s perspective, is different from the way we think about being good. Ripening fruit doesn’t grit its teeth and strive really hard to get bigger and change color. It’s a passive thing, nutrients being pumped into the fruit, entirely dependent on uncontrollable rainfall and sunshine, and processes that are hidden underground where no one can see. Holiness is like this; do you remember how the doctrine of Sanctification actually works?
And then I recall when I was in the thick of writing on The Will of God. I asked a bunch of theologians about the subject – and one replied quite simply by saying “If you want to do God’s will, start with the Fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. That can keep you plenty busy for the rest of your life.”
Prepositions matter in theology. A lovely hymn prays, “Abide with me.” But Jesus doesn’t speak of being beside us, but actually in us, and we in him. Mind you, Jesus isn’t going for any bland “I feel God in me” or “God is in each one of us.” It’s way more serious, and downright fleshy than all that. Jean Vanier rephrased it, “To abide in Jesus is to make our home in him and to let Jesus make his home in us.”
Raymond Brown rightly says this vine language has “eucharistic overtones.” To think of the Lord’s Supper – in my book, Worshipful, I quoted Austin Farrer and then explored this thought and its inversion: “Jesus gave his body and blood to his disciples in bread and wine. Amazed at such a token, and little understanding what they did, Peter, John and the rest reached out their hands and took their master and their God. Whatever else they knew or did not know, they knew they were committed to him… and that they, somehow, should live it out.” When a disciple is filled with Jesus, he remembers what his physical body is to be: a temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19)… As N.T. Wright rightly suggested, when we eat and drink at the Lord’s table, “we become walking shrines, living temples in whom the living triune God truly dwells.”…To ingest Jesus is intriguing: we take Christ into ourselves, and he is then within us. This goes beyond even the closest human relationship, even sexual intimacy. If Jesus is in us, there is zero distance between us. Over time, creative theologians would reverse the image: we are consumed by Jesus. We enter into his body; we get inside Jesus himself. Bernard of Clairvaux spoke imaginatively about this: “My penitence, my salvation, are His food. I myself am His food. I am chewed as I am reproved by Him; I am swallowed as I am taught; I am digested as I am changed; I am assimilated as I am transformed; I am made one as I am conformed.”
He lives in us, and acts through us – and so as not to thwart this, we need to be cleansed or pruned. Jean Vanier speaks of asking to be pruned of our fear, compulsions, our frenetic pace in life, sense of failure, spending ourselves on success and power. “Choice implies loss Fidelity in love can cost a lot. To grow in love we have to pass through pain and anguish. It is the same in our relationship with God. In order to be more present to God, we have to be less present to other things.
My book, Worshipful: Living Sunday Morning All Week, now has a study guide with videos, making it more useful for small groups!