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Be Ye Doers of the Word and Not Hearers Only

Easter 5 – Year B

In our lesson from Acts this morning, we have the wonderful account of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. In this story, Philip is traveling down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. As he travels, he comes upon the elaborate entourage of a foreign official – an Ethiopian slave who is so trusted by his master, Queen Candace, that he has been placed in charge of all her money. Led by the Spirit, Philip takes the risk to strike up a conversation with this foreigner when he hears him reading from the Book of Isaiah. I should explain that reading out loud was the norm in those days, even when you were alone. Most people, who could read, read aloud. Interestingly, I discovered in my research, reading silently didn’t become common until the fourth century, following the rise of monasticism. For some reason this eunuch, perhaps he is being led by the Spirit as well, invites Philip, a complete stranger, up into his chariot to explain to him what he is reading. For a modern parallel, just imagine a foreign diplomat in D.C. inviting a street preacher to join him in his limousine for a Bible study.
In any case, this foreign official was reading Isaiah 58:7-8. The full text reads – “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” This seems like a random passage until you realize that this official, in spite of his wealth, was a slave. He lived and died at the pleasure of his master the Queen of Ethiopia. Most likely he was a former prisoner of war captured in battle and unjustly enslaved and taken away. Moreover, because he was a eunuch, I imagine he had a certain sympathy for the lamb who stood silently before its shearers – if you know what I mean. In any case, what this Ethiopian slave wanted to know from Philip was – did this passage apply to him? Did God care about the likes of his kind?
Now Philip was the fifth of the twelve disciples. He had been with Jesus throughout his ministry; he was an eyewitness to the resurrection and a recipient of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. Patiently, compassionately, he explained the good news of God in Christ to his companion. He explained how Jesus was the lamb referred to by Isaiah who was denied justice and led to slaughter. But God raised Jesus from the dead with the promise that everyone who trusts in Jesus can find new life and will one day rise as well.
The eunuch was so impressed with what Philip had to say that as they passed a small spring of water he asked if there was anything that prevented him from being baptized. Philip could have raised several objections. This man was not a Jew as all the other disciples were. Also, according to Jewish purity laws, eunuchs were unacceptable in God’s eyes. Moreover, as a stranger from a strange land he was loyal to a foreign sovereign. But Philip, led by the Holy Spirit, saw none of these things as barriers to the good news. He baptized the eunuch on the spot, and a man who felt lost and humiliated by his life’s circumstances was found and restored in the wideness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Now, in our gospel reading from John, Jesus said, “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,” (John 15:5). If God is the vine-grower and Jesus is the vine, then all of us, like the Ethiopian eunuch, are branches that have been grafted into the vine of Christ. We are grafted in by virtue of our baptisms and each of us is no more deserving than was this Ethiopian slave. Baptism is a gift, it isn’t earned, it can only be given. But as a result of our baptisms, we are meant to bear fruit. We are meant to find our strength in the way of Jesus and live lives that build the Kingdom of God.
After all, a grapevine is intended to be a productive plant. It is meant to bear fruit. No vine grower is foolish enough to invest time and effort in cultivating vines merely for the foliage on its branches. The grower looks for results. As the branches of Christ in the Kingdom of God, we are expected to produce the fruits of the Spirit. St. Paul once listed the fruits of the Spirit as: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is what we are intended to cultivate in our lives. This is the work of the baptized. The fruits of the spirit are not church attendance, or Biblical knowledge, or your individual stewardship. Even though all of those things are important, the true fruit of the vine can be summarized as a loving and compassionate life. How well I remember the very pious woman in a previous church I served who carried her Bible everywhere she went. Everyone remarked at how religious she was. But in reality she was the most judgmental person I have ever known. She had no compassion for the poor or the lost, no mercy for the sinner or openness to the stranger. She was full of judgment and little else. Yes she was religious, but she did not produce the fruits of the Christian life.
The interesting thing to me about Philip and the eunuch is that both of them knew that God can do wonderful things in our lives and we can be conduits for God in the lives of others, if we are open to the movement of the Spirit. Philip had to be crazy enough or faithful enough to believe that he might just have something to offer to this traveling stranger. The eunuch had to be curious enough and open enough to believe that a wandering Hebrew might just have something to teach him. Philip’s risk to step out and share his faith brought about the fruit of faithfulness in the life of the Ethiopian traveler. That one conversation changed that foreigner’s life forever and, as the scripture says, he went on his way rejoicing – newly grafted into the vine of Christ.
My question for you this morning is – Are you bearing fruit for the Kingdom of God? Do you live your faith? In your family, in your working life, in your community relationships are you producing any – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control? Would you be willing to share your faith with a good friend much less a complete stranger as Philip did? We have all been grafted into the vine of Christ. We are the branches but our job is to bear fruit. To live our lives in such a way that others can see Christ in us and know that we abide in Christ. That’s what makes this life meaningful. And that’s the work of the baptized. Amen.

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