“O Blessed Spring,” as the Hymn of the Day goes, “where word and sign embrace us into Christ the Vine: here Christ enjoins each one to be a branch of this life giving Tree.” And this is exactly what happens when the Spirit, sends Philip, to meet the Ethiopian Eunuch, in our 2nd Reading!
First, just a bit of context, to orient us in this story, from the book of, The Acts of the Apostles. It helps, I think, to consider this story as the bridge between, 1) the church in Jerusalem, under the leadership of Peter and James, and 2) the spreading of the gospel to foreign lands under the leadership of Paul. The ministry of Peter and James – filled with power and a fast growing church that shares all things in common – runs into a roadblock of a sort, when, after calling, and laying on hands for seven new leaders, besides the Apostles, and one of them, Stephen, who was gifted in preaching, is stoned to death, for his confrontational message, delivered before the Council in Jerusalem.
But Philip, another one of the seven newly ordained with Stephen, who is also skilled in evangelism and healing, begins ministering to the Samaritans. The Samaritans were the fallen away Jewish cousins, rejected mostly for inter-marrying after the return from Exile. Then in our reading today – and Philip’s next sign of reaching out to include the outsider – an angel of the Lord directs him to simply get up and go on the road toward Gaza on the coast of the Mediterranean. And sure enough, he catches up to the Ethiopian eunuch, royalty, riding in his limo, the very Secretary of Treasury, from his far-away land. Except, I don’t picture a Timothy Geitner, Secretary of Treasury, an uptight, and staid, know-it-all. What I picture is a more flamboyant young 20-something, named Adumani, who I was introduced to by a mutual friend, a couple years ago, a sharp and colorful dresser, and a refugee, who had escaped Sierra Leone with his life, because of the persecution for his sexual orientation – an outsider, looking for a larger, life-giving truth, and a community where he would be welcome.
Philip, by the way, must have been young too, and in extremely good shape. You know – to have caught up with the Secretary of Treasury’s chariot, on foot! Hurry, says the Spirit, go over to this chariot and join it. So Philip ran up alongside it, and still jogging, heard the Ethiopian eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah. Hello there! “Do you understand what you’re reading,” asked Philip, a bit breathless? No, not so much, but please, get in and sit beside me!
Apparently the Ethiopian eunuch is attracted to the Word of God, but no one has actually taken the time to sit down with him and discuss it. A eunuch from Ethiopia, BTW, was triply impure, and not considered a good candidate for religious inclusion. Philip, however, has been ‘divinely directed’ to go to him. And, Philip has the gift of interpretation, as much as running!
And like Jesus who interpreted the scriptures to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus the evening of his resurrection, Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch is all about Jesus, the Suffering Servant, who died that we might live; who like a blessed spring, rose up from the cold dead earth, and now has blossomed into a holy vine; a prophet, a priest, the Christ; a life-giving tree. And no doubt Philip told the Ethiopian eunuch about the sacrament of baptism, which Jesus gave us as a mark of rebirth, that by water and the word, we too may be revived and joined to Christ the tree, forever. Because, when the Ethiopian eunuch saw his chariot pass near a pool of water, he got so excited, he stopped the limo, and was baptized by Philip, right then and there!
So begins the long list of radical inclusion in the Book of Acts, as the mission of the nascent Christian church is taken to the Gentiles far and wide throughout the Roman Empire: Eunuchs allowed? Yes! Roman soldiers, like Victor from Mauretania who we commemorate this week, and Cornelius in Acts chapter 10? Yes, them too! Women? Yes! Like the independently wealthy Lydia who met Paul and became a leader of a house-church in Greece. And like Philip’s own daughters, all three who remained unmarried so they could carry on their ministry of prophecy in Caesarea Philippi. Everyone was included, and no one was turned away, who accepted the new life, of this life-giving tree, the vine in which all are grafted on, a symbol of Christ in us, and we in Christ.
“I am the true vine,” said Jesus. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…”
How many more are driving in their limo’s and chariot’s, or are riding on the Red Line or the Broadway bus, who are reading, or looking for a Messiah and Savior, for them? How should we introduce them to this Countercultural King, the one who died as a silent lamb, and whose humbleness subjected him to a death, in the words of Isaiah, like so many un-named victims denied justice, throughout history: like ‘black lives’ snuffed out where no video camera happens to record what took place; like refugees fleeing war, and the chaos their countries are left in, in the wake of foreign army invaders, or civil unrest, who drown in boats not built for the likes of the Mediterranean Sea; like teenagers, lured from poverty into modern slavery and the sex-trade.
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, the Ethiopian eunuch read from Isaiah. And Philip, the runner, was able to explain how Jesus had taken on the mantle of Isaiah’s Suffering Servant, a new kind of Messiah and Savior, not removed in high places, but humble and born in a manger; armed only with the Word of God, and anointed by the Spirit so that “every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight…” a tree of life, who lived and died, for all.
“When we were baptized, we were given a new name: Branch,” says Susan Palo Cherwien, author of our Hymn of the Day. Christ is the vine and we are the branches. She was inspired to write this hymn, she says, because of the bronze sculpture that hangs above the baptismal font in her Minneapolis church. The artwork “depicts a tree with four branches growing out of a central trunk. Each branch represents a stage of human life: …and the central trunk is … a rising Christ, with arms extended skyward, …the tree's very life and form… The Christ image, wrote the artist, is at the center of this family [the Christian family] in every season of life.”
The tree of life, of course, is prominent in Judaism, as well as Christianity, and other world religions like Buddhism. One of my favorite trees, when I lived in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was the mysterious and holy, northern white cedar, which is now in serious decline. One hope for these cedars, is how wonderfully adaptive they are. They grow in shade and light alike, in swampy soil and on cliff’s edge. As recently as 1994, Canadian researchers discovered that “small, twisted cedars growing along the edges of Lake Superior, though modest in appearance and size, … Growing no more than twenty to thirty feet, …[are] part of a magnificent unacknowledged old-growth forest that actually dates back 400 to 800 years.” (Jon Magnuson: http://cedartreeinstitute.org/2012/12/healing-time-honoring-spirit-of-the-cedar/)
What are the ways that you and I can live and grow in Christ, our holy vine, and holy tree? Where age, and size, and species, don’t preclude anyone from being grafted in! How can our blessed spring in baptism, make us feel more embraced by Christ, and keep us strong and faithful when youth is past, and winter comes, as winters must? How deep are our roots? How well are we watered? Whose chariot are we being called to run up alongside of, to share this good news, that has saved us?
“I am the true vine,” says Jesus. “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit…”