In the independent film, “Jeff Who Lives at Home,” a comedy/slash/drama, the anti-hero, Jeff believes, pure of heart, in ‘the interconnectedness of everything.’ But it seems like a bad joke when we discover he’s 30, still living in his mother’s basement, and, has no job, save the little errands she concocts for him each day. His older brother is supposedly the successful one, a paint salesman, but is obsessed with making the world spin around his own selfish needs – and ends up blowing up his marriage. So it turns out that Jeff, though a dreamer, really is the most focused and single-minded, and works the hardest at fulfilling his call in God’s world. Okay, it’s a crazy vision – that he’s connected to someone named Kevin, who he’s never met, has no clue how to get in touch with him, or what he’s supposed to do if he does! And so, there are some hilarious comic dead-ends along the way, but in the end he is vindicated when he rescues a drowning man, who just happens to be named, Kevin. In the final scene, Jeff is back in his basement apartment, but now we see him in a new light, the one who really is connected up to everything, because he did not give up on his calling. Success is measured not by material wealth or status, but by his connectedness to God’s purpose.
In Acts, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch gives us some clues too. This court treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia, is a powerful player, and who, in his spare time, is determined to fulfill a spiritual journey. In the empire, most eunuchs become slaves, but some, like our protagonist, find favor in high places. Their reliability as keepers of the king’s harem, for example, was noted in the book of Sirach. (Sirach 30:20) But this Ethiopian eunuch has risen higher yet, and is incredibly well connected politically, and well-off financially. Yet for all his clout, he cannot buy his way into Israel’s monotheistic religion, his deepest desire. He is a faithful follower and “god-fearer”, who came all the way to Jerusalem just to worship at the Temple. But his sexual identity cuts him off from full inclusion. Still, he refuses to let that deter him from practicing his faith. His love of God is palpable, reading from the prophet Isaiah, as he travels back home to Africa, somewhere on the Nile south of Egypt, to the edge, and margins, of the known world. The Ethiopian Treasurer knows he is connected to everything, and everything is connected to him. Instead of being cut off from the God who made all things, he’s determined to find his place in the creation, working harder than all the rest – well, except perhaps, the Holy Spirit!
It’s the Spirit, who directs the connection of everything to everything else, in this story, and she calls on the disciple Philip to be the human connection, the vehicle and hired actor, by which the eunuch comes to be grafted on to the tree of life, though any disciple probably could have been chosen. Philip works, because, he has just been in Samaria, bringing those disconnected and outcast Jewish cousins in the hill country into the fold. Just as Jesus had reached out to the Samaritans, calling them examples of neighborliness in the parable of the Good Samaritan, instead of cutting them off for their intermarriage during the Exile years, now the Church reaches out across ancient walls of division and re-connects the Samaritans to the Spirit-led movement in Jesus’ name. So, Philip works too, for this god-fearer, from the ends of the earth!
“Get up [Philip],” the Spirit calls, “and go… down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” When he finds the Ethiopian’s chariot, “the Spirit said to Philip, ‘go over and join it.’ So Philip runs up along-side, the Spirit huffing and puffing, agitating and inspiring, him! – and, taking an active role for the first time, he calls out, ‘do you understand what you are reading, [sir]?” ‘Who can make this stuff out,’ says the Ethiopian, ‘unless you have a guide? “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,” and “in his humiliation justice was denied him,” I don’t even know if it’s about Isaiah or maybe somebody completely different!’
So Philip, interpreted to the Ethiopian, how Jesus, like the innocent “suffering servant” in Isaiah, came to re-connect us, if you will, through forgiveness, and overcoming barriers of division, in the cross and resurrection. Excited, the Ethiopian Treasurer asks to be baptized. And when they came “up out of the water,” it says, the Ethiopian “went on his way rejoicing,” and Philip was transported by the ‘Spirit of the Lord, “snatched away” it says, to a city some 20 miles north. Have you ever felt like God is putting you in a certain situation you didn’t plan being in – but were able to help connect up someone in need? ‘Everything is connected to everything else in the universe.’ But we would say, human relationships are connected by the Spirit, for holy purposes, that we may be vehicles to help break down barriers that cut us off from one another through forgiveness – through us, who “burn with justice, peace, and love.”
Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches,” we’re connected, connected to everything. In this way, Jesus formed a new social group, the church, making new connections between families, religion, education and the economy. And so the early church in Acts lived out this initiative that Jesus started, overcoming the family and clan barriers of hierarchy and patronage. When Jesus’ family came calling for him, Jesus said, who are my brothers and my sisters? And pointing to those gathered around him, he said, here are my brothers and sisters and mother, the faithful – engaged in the journey.
The Ethiopian eunuch, of course, could not have a ‘family’ of his own, but was cut off from that life. But in baptism, he was grafted on to the vine of faith, one branch among so many other believer-branches who, abiding in Jesus the true vine, bear much fruit, and who each have, in their own way, life from its source, from the Tree of Life. In one strand of church history tradition from the 4th C, Eusebius says that the Ethiopian eunuch returned home, and was the founder of the Ethiopian Christian Church there. How are we connected? How can we be the healthy and abundant branches of the vine who in turn bear good fruit. How is the Spirit calling us and connecting us up? Who is our root?
The church today has also changed in some ways from the early church in Acts. The idea of plentiful fertile fields just lying in wait for us to spread the seeds of the gospel there, is pretty much long gone. We still need to continue sharing our faith with our family and friends and neighbors. But the mission fields, especially here in our neighborhood, are those who feel like they already know the vine, Jesus, and are not just waiting for us to arrive and enlighten them. They understand the metaphor of the vine, and how we are ‘interconnected with everything.’ And so our calling in the world, is to partner with our neighbors, for the life of God’s world that we live in and share together. We are called with a single-minded devotion to connect up with those we live with, whoever they are, beyond the walls of our self-righteousness and any barriers we have put up in our minds. Instead of a church demanding allegiance because we have all the answers, we must be the church in the world, be the vehicles of connectedness where there is division, running up along-side the chariots along the way, to make common cause, which strengthens and enlivens the whole community. We are called to be connecters, and to be bridge builders. The way of the church – which is the people – is to be a Eucharist without walls, to be partners for the good of God’s world, by the work of the Spirit.
The gospel cannot be walled in by wealth, or ethnicity, or race, or gender, or sexual orientation. Today we celebrate the faith of the Ethiopian eunuch, and the work of the Holy Spirit to make us the church. The barriers that once cut us off from one another are overcome in the resurrection life of Jesus, the vine, that connects us up with everything in God’s universe.