1 John 4:7-21
My sister used to be in love with John Denver when she was between the ages of 3 and 8. Even if it was after our bedtime and he was on TV, my parents would come and get my sister to get i[ and see his performance. Yes, I was jealous! I called her the day he died to express my condolences and she had forgotten all about that. The readings today reminded me of a song of his, Take Me Home Country Roads, “Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong, West Virginia, mountain mama, Take me home, country roads.”
The readings this morning from the Bible are about roads and points of connection and about going home. They are about a longing for a place of belonging, a connection to place, to people, to something greater.
The Reading from Acts begins with Philip. He is somehow open to communication from God that asks him to go places without explanation or maps or anything. This is a relationship of profound trust that puts him on the country road, the wilderness road. The roads we travel lead us not only to a destination, but bring us together with others on the road and that’s exactly what happens between Philip and another child of God, the Ethiopian eunuch. Incidentally, the word “Synod” which we use in the Lutheran Church to designate groupings of Lutheran Churches means “On the road together.”
This man from Ethiopia had some roads opened to him and others closed as he entered the courts of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. Being a eunuch meant he was castrated. That meant he could be controlled, that certain distractions would be removed. But it also meant that he could serve in a high position, a court official, the Head Treasurer. His trusted position meant that he had some freedom to move about, enough time off for a vacation to Jerusalem, enough money to purchase a scroll of Isaiah, and enough freedom to pursue his unusual spiritual and religious path. It meant he learned to read, which gave him tremendous power to think for himself and to seek to understand.
His spiritual path led him to this road. He was on his way home from a spiritual pilgrimage. He was going home to Ethiopia, wondering how to interpret this scroll, wondering how not to lose this connection he was feeling. It turns out his journey is just beginning, because just then he meets Philip on the country road.
It is likely this man was interested in this particular passage from Isaiah for a reason. I think he could identify with what he was reading. Like the person referred to in the story, he has been sheared and gone under the knife. He was damaged goods. He was humiliated and yet he couldn’t open his mouth—he was powerless to do anything about it. So he was drawn to the one referred to in Isaiah, he wanted to know him. He wanted to know that someone else experienced suffering like he did and could understand his journey. He asks and Philip explains the good news about Jesus to him. Immediately, the man sees how their stories are joined and wants to be grafted into the vine.
Here is water! What is there to prevent me from being baptized, to finding the place I belong, from being grafted to the true vine. He had a longing in him and he finally found a connection that felt like home, so he wanted to take an action, have the experience of baptism to wash him clean of all that had gone before and signify his path on a new road to home in Jesus.
I imagine Philip was baffled. He would have been baffled by this man’s faith. In one moment he went from not understanding it, to getting it better than Jesus’ own disciples. This man didn’t fit the preconceived ideas of who would respond to the Good news. It was years that Christians argued who could be baptized. Did they have to be circumcised? Did they have to be Jewish first? And still we ask these questions about how to accept and welcome gender non-conforming people into the fellowship and love of Christ. This is what this eunuch was. He was neither male nor female. He was different. He didn’t fit into most people’s categories. Philip was certainly baffled by this. Which box do I check when I enter his baptism into the records? What is to prevent me?—in human terms, everything. In God’s terms, nothing. This man was another valued branch on the vine and surprise! Philip and all of us, we don’t have a say, nor should we, about who is on this vine with us. God made each one, loves each one, and prunes each one. We’re all on this country road together and God is calling us home.
1 John urges us to love one another. To love is to stay connected. It is to put aside any fears we have of people who are different from us, to put aside our fears of God, and stand in boldness on the road, remain in boldness connected to the vine. This is good for us, because we often live in fear and shame. We are not good enough to be connected to the vine. We don’t know enough. We’re not wise enough. We’re too sinful. We don’t fit into the categories. But it is God who is our Savior. We don’t save ourselves. It is God’s love that flows through us like sap, that nourishes our faith and brings us in connection with God and all the other branches.
The road and vine are very similar images. Both connect us. Both convey something, or provide a means to move along a path. So here is Jesus in another of the “I am” proclamations (“I am the bread of life, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd.”) This “I am” statement links Jesus with God’s utterance to Moses at the burning bush when Moses asks God’s name and God answers, “I am who I am.” “I am the true vine,” Jesus says. God is the vinegrower. We are branches that are connected to God. We get pruned. Even if we bear fruit, we get pruned to bear more fruit. I don’t think this means that people are cut off of that God takes them away from us to teach us a lesson or get something from us. Rather we get pruned of every part of us that gets too far from our life-source, from our true vine, Jesus, and from God the vine-grower. We get pruned of our fears, of our distractions, of our selfishness, of our materialism, of our prejudices, of our limited views. Those parts of us that are unloving, that are asleep, that keep us from seeing the truth, those things are pruned.
They are pruned that we may abide, that we may remain, that we would stay connected with source of our life and power, that would love our siblings on the vine with us, that we would be part of something greater
At the risk of ruining both a John Denver song and scripture, I’ve written words to Country Roads. “True Vine, nourish us, keep us in your love, prune us gently, bring your Kingdom, Lead us home, True Vine.”