The Eunuch

Sermon May 2

The Eunuch

Acts 8:26-40

John 15:1-8

At first glance our two readings appear very different. From Acts, we have the meeting of Philip with the Ethiopian eunuch, and a lesson based on Isaiah, telling all about Jesus.

Then our Gospel reading is another of Jesus’ great I Am statements. I am the vine.

Of course, the thread running through both is that of faith in Jesus, in the person and work of Jesus.

The Ethiopian eunuch – we never hear their name – is returning home after worshipping in Jerusalem. This tells us that they were a Jew. There is still a strong Jewish population in Ethiopia, and the Ark of the Covenant is thought to have been taken there, to rest at Lake Tana. In fact, Ethiopians claim a blood-line back to Solomon – when the Queen of Sheba – Ethiopia – returned from visiting Solomon, she was carrying his child. The late Emperor Haile Selassie was said to be of that line.

So, it’s not surprising that a high court official from Ethiopia had been worshipping in Jerusalem. In an interesting aside, eunuchs were not regarded, according to Deuteronomy, as complete people, so they could not worship fully. But here we have a person who is of the third gender, if you will, starring in a story about the spreading of the Gospel. This is one of many cases where the Gospel message goes further than usual cultural and societal norms, and the queer community claims this scripture as being affirming of gender-diverse people in the church.

Let’s get into the story. Philip hears from God a new assignment, to go on the road to Gaza. We don’t know how he travelled but he was on foot, running, when he met the Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading aloud. People didn’t read in their heads in those days – Philip heard the words. It’s obvious when someone is reading something they don’t understand – the words are right but they make no sense, they have no life. This is when Philip began to help the eunuch understand the words of Isaiah, -a prophecy about Jesus standing silent before his slaughterers. This was really just a hook to let Philip tell the whole story of Jesus, and it must have been effective, and leapt to life in his hearer’s heart, because the eunuch asked to be baptised there and then! Faith grew quickly!

Up till this point the eunuch had been a cut-off branch of the faith – having received some of the old nourishment in the form of the Torah, the Jewish scriptures, but had no sap. This is when they were re-connected into the vine, so the living words of God could flow!

Jesus talks about himself as the vine. We are the branches! When I look at my grape vine – which did very well this season – there’s a twisty sort of vine-trunk, which then spreads out and at some point I suppose I could say it is branches. There is no discernible point where the main branches begin. These branches are well-connected into the vine. Some Christians are like that, indistinguishable from the vine, there is so much of Jesus flowing through them, there is so much wood and solidity.

Then some smaller branches come off the main ones. These are thinner, younger. They are not hard and woody, but full of life. They carry the spurs for the fruit every year.

If I don’t prune my grape vine each year, there will be lots of woody structure-type branches, well-connected, but not bearing the fruit.

Jesus talks about pruning the branches so they will bear more fruit.

What does this mean for us? Would you like to be pruned, have bits chopped off? No, I’m not talking about your toenails, or your moustache. How about habits, tendencies, character flaws? We all have things about our lives that are not fully lined-up with the character of Jesus and our ministry as His ambassadors in the world. The Christian life is a long journey of pruning first one thing, then another, then another wee snip here.

Pruning a vine doesn’t mean taking to the whole thing with the chain saw. May a little bit that is too woody and doesn’t bear any more. It doesn’t mean cutting it all off with the loppers, just some of it. It doesn’t mean attacking all the little shoots with the secateurs, just a few of them. In the same way, Jesus is not asking us to undergo the scorched-earth way of pruning, with a chainsaw, or even just the loppers. There will be some big things that need to go, but not all at once. A gentle shaping at first, a tweak here and there as we go on.

Often when people first enter into the Christian life, it is a bit like pruning an old vine or tree that has been neglected for years. The chain saw needs to come out. But being connected into the vine of Jesus grows our new life in the right direction, and the pruning becomes less intense, more a gentle guide.

Sometimes in order to bear good fruit, a vine needs to be thinned. If all the grapes grow there will be lots, but all small, and without the opportunity to

really develop their sweetness. If you are spreading yourself too thin in your Christian life and ministry – it’s the same thing really – everything you do with be meagre, without any one thing really developing into the blessing that it could be. Maybe it’s time to let something go, so you can fully focus your care, attention and prayer onto a few areas which are ready to grow.

It can be hard letting go of something that has given us joy, and where we have seen growth and life come into hearts. It’s a good idea from time to time to step aside from the busyness, from the doing, and let God tell you where to focus your attention, and if anything needs to pruned away from your ministry.

Philip listened to God. He got up and went to the Gaza road which was a dangerous one that went through the wilderness, in obedience to God’s instruction. He could hear from God. Sometimes we might say we don’t hear from God, but maybe we are not listening enough. Getting too busy gets in the way of these times of hearing and being pruned.

What does Jesus tell his disciples and us to do? Abide in me, as I abide in you. Stay there, in other words. Don’t walk away from the vine. Don’t leave the connection with the source of life. This can mean making a decision to keep following Jesus even when it’s really hard, even when you don’t think he can hear you, even when the world seems to ridicule you for it. Abide in me, Jesus says.

This week, may you feel that connection with the one true vine in everything you do, and in your quiet time, contemplate where you might need to let him prune you.