1 John 4:7-21
Today, we heard Jesus refer to himself as the vine, and we are the branches. So, I brought along some different branches here. This one is a wreath that was made out of an actual grapevine. You can still see a leaf or two, maybe. Is it alive or dead? Why is that? Yes, because it was cut off of the original branch.
This one is a branch from a forsythia bush that someone brought in. It also is cut off. Is it alive or dead? Yes, it’s still living a little—it’s in water, and it’s blooming. But it won’t keep on living for much longer because it can’t get the nutrients it needs to grow and create new blooms.
So, you all know what a plant needs to stay alive, right? We’ve talked about it before. You need…sun, and water, and soil. And how does a plant get what it needs from the soil? It comes up through the roots. If a plant doesn’t have roots, then it won’t get far in life. If we don’t have roots, neither will we.
For us, our spiritual roots are found in the Body of Christ. We have to stay connected in order to grow and live and create new life around us. So, like last week, what do you think it takes to stay connected to God? Part of it is prayer and Scripture. But a huge part of it is community—staying connected to each other. It’s in worship and group study where we take in the nutrients we need to grow into strong trees of faith.
I’ve got another vine here that I made. And today, we’re going to imagine that this vine is Jesus and that it is rooted in the soil of God. And I have leaves here, too. I’m going to have you write your name on a leaf, and we’ll attach it to the vine as a symbol of you being connected to the community of God through Our Saviour’s. And I’ll have lots more leaves in the Atrium so that everyone here can attach a leaf with your name in connection with community.
Let’s pray. Dear God, keep us connected to each other and to you. Help us stay rooted and fed through your Word, Jesus Christ. Amen.
A young woman’s husband died when her children were still quite young. Over the years, her kids began to wonder why she never remarried, but they didn’t ask, accepting her decision. However, the topic resurfaced as the son began preparing for his own marriage. He finally asked his mom why she had never wanted to remarry.
Her response was, “I wasn’t ready to take a risk and bring a step-father into your lives, just in case the man was more like the evil step-mother in Cinderella.” It was a poignant moment because the young man was preparing to marry a woman whose husband had died, and she had a 14-year-old son. But he was very much not an evil step-father, and he and the son got along great.
They slipped easily into introducing each other: the father would say, “This is my step-son, Michael.” And the son would say, “This is my father, George.” One day, at a family gathering, the son seemed to be out of sorts. When the dinner was about to get under way, he stood to offer a toast. He said, “George, do you love me?” Startled, the father said, “Of course I do.” “Then why do you introduce me as your step-son? I always introduce you as my father.”
George said, “You’re my son in every being of my heart and soul and mind. But I could never presume to claim the title without your approval. But since the subject never really came up until now, I want you to know that I consider myself your father.” And Michael responded, “Well, you are my father in every being of my heart and soul and mind. From now on, please introduce me as your son.”
Belonging matters. Knowing that you belong matters. But belonging isn’t the same as fitting in. I like the movie “13 Going on 30.” A 13-year-old girl in the middle of the 1980’s tries so hard to fit in to the cool group of kids. She dresses the part, picks up the language, and even does their homework trying to get them to like her. She goes so far as to shame her best friend because she knows it will make the others laugh and be more accepting of her. She discovers, however, that the choices she makes takes her down a path that gives her everything she thought she wanted—but a life her 13-year-old self was disgusted by. Given a second chance to return to her 13th birthday party, she recognizes where she belongs and stays rooted to her true self.
How many of us have been through similar challenges—trying to be who we aren’t in order to fit in somewhere? I imagine that is something the eunuch from Ethiopia felt as he stood outside the Temple for worship. Though he was a foreigner and though he was physically not accepted in the Temple, he still longed to belong. But there was nothing he could do to change himself in order to fit in.
Perhaps that is why God chose him as an example for us all. He couldn’t change his skin color or his race. He couldn’t return to a time before he was castrated. He had absolutely no way of even attempting to fit in. And yet, he continued to connect to the people of the faith—reading Scripture and trying to live in the word. That’s when the Spirit brings Philip alongside the man to guide him in Scripture.
The passage the eunuch was reading was from Isaiah 22, and I wonder if he was making a personal connection. Was the psalmist like himself—cast out at a young and tender age and mutilated unjustly? It says, “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him.” Sounds a lot like what the eunuch would have experienced.
So, he asks Philip who it’s about. And Philip shares the good news of Jesus—of his life and his death, and especially his resurrection. He shares what has been happening in the Church since then—the baptisms and community growing up around him. And when they happen upon water, the eunuch asks, “What is to keep me from being baptized?”
It’s a loaded question. As far as the Jewish faith is concerned, the eunuch doesn’t belong because he doesn’t fit in. But Philip is learning that fitting in has nothing to do with belonging. If Jesus could welcome the leper and prostitute and tax collector, he could welcome anyone who would have been denied by the Temple. Our God is one of welcome and acceptance.
That’s the big reversal that happens in Jesus. Jesus takes a religion that is grounded in purity and rules and opens it up into a faith rooted in mercy and grace. Though we are like step-sons and step-daughters, God invites us into a relationship that simply centers on Father, Son, Daughter, Beloved. We are connected to God because God says so.
But our human challenge is this–the more closely we are connected, the more difficult it is for someone new to enter the group. The more tightly knit, the smaller the openings. Our call as Christians is to live both connected and open–bound to one another, to Christ, and available to make new connections. Never is it our mission to exclude, cut off, or send away.
Because it is clear in today’s gospel that 1) if there is pruning to be done, God will do it; and 2) Jesus is offering a message of comfort here, not condemnation. He is preparing the disciples for his imminent death. He’s encouraging them in the fact that even though he will soon be gone, their connection will not be severed. Their relationship will not be cut off. His love for them—and for us—transcends death. And most importantly, we come to know true and abiding love in his death and resurrection.
This world is already filled with enough law and judgment, exclusion and hatred, domination and superiority. We don’t need the Church to throw more around. We do need the Church to proclaim and to hear the gospel—the good news of grace. We need to know that we belong and that we don’t have to fit in. We need to know that God connects us—not because of who we are but because of who God is and what God has done for us.
Pastor Tobi White
Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church