[Jesus said:] 1 “I am the true vine, and God is the vinegrower. 2 God removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit God prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3 You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4 Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. 6 Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7 “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.
8 God is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Please pray with me this morning, church:
Make us to bear good fruit.
Prune away in us that which
Prevents us from proclaiming your love.
Open our hearts and ears to receive
Your incredible Gospel message of
Compassion and love and belonging.
Help us to hear and internalize that
Good news from whomever it might come.
We’re not supposed to have favorites.
In seminary, they even tell us, “We know it’s hard…but you can’t have favorites. You just can’t, because your parishioners will probably resent you.”
Well, I heard the advice of my seminary professors…I did. But I do have to confess to you, my siblings in Christ, that I, your Pastor…I do have a favorite…
I do have a favorite sacrament…and it’s not the Eucharist…
I know……I’d ask your forgiveness, but the truth is, I’m not repentant…
Yes, my favorite of our 2 sacraments, as held by the Confessions of the Lutheran Church, is baptism. You probably could have guessed that by now, what with my splashing around and asperging and spraying water everywhere during non-pandemic times, but I do feel the need to be upfront with you again, and tell you again, that against the sage advice of my seminary professors, I do have a favorite sacrament, and it’s baptism.
And our story from Acts that we heard this morning is a huge reason why.
But first, a brief theology lesson, a little Lutheran catechism, for you this morning. A lot of you, most of you, maybe even all of you…were taught like I was, that baptism is necessary for salvation. I take issue with this interpretation. I would call it an incorrect interpretation.
Yes, it’s true that Luther, in the Lutheran Confessions lists salvation as an outcome of baptism, but I think it’s a misunderstanding to say that baptism is necessary for salvation. Because if our salvation is dependent on whether or not we’re baptized, then our salvation becomes dependent on us, and not on God. And this is at odds with what Lutherans believe about salvation. Salvation is God’s gift to us, given to us as grace, given to us in spite of our sinfulness and the ways we separate ourselves from God and from one another, grace given to you through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Salvation is God’s action, not ours. We’re saved because of what God did, and what God does, not because of what we do.
Baptism isn’t an insurance policy. Baptism is an invitation into consequential Christian community.
Baptism is an exchange of promises between us and God, and between the baptized person and the community that receives them. We make promises to draw near to God and strive to live closely to how God calls us to live and to strive to continue learning more about this Christian life of faith to which we are called. As a church, a community of faith, we make promises to the baptized person to walk alongside them and help them in keeping these promises. We make promises to the parents of young ones that we’ll support them as they shoulder the bulk of keeping these promises, and we promise to support them in this work.
Baptism is a series of promises made between members of a community of faith.
Baptism is belonging.
Back to our verses from Acts 8. It’s no wonder, then, that this person, when they hear from Philip about Jesus of Nazareth and the good news of the Gospel, it’s no wonder that their immediate response is, “Look! Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?!?”
Nothing, dear one…absolutely nothing.
Oh that the Gospel would grab hold of all of us like that…
But I want to unpack what this story’s about and why it’s so mind-bendingly scandalous. Your bible says, “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship.”
Ok, so, it’s important to know that this person is from Ethiopia…Africa…an ethnic outsider on their way to Jerusalem. This person had come to Jerusalem to worship. Ok…so, Jewish…? Maybe…? But maybe not… What is important is that this person was not yet a Christ-believer, so from the context of the first Christ-believing communities that we’ve been talking about in Acts, this person was a religious outsider. This person was also a court official, high ranking, in charge of the queen’s treasury. This person had power and influence and an enormous amount of responsibility.
Now the eunuch piece…so, you need to know that in the 1st century and for many centuries after, “eunuch” was a blanket term that didn’t just mean someone who had their sexual organs altered. “Eunuch” was a term, often pejorative, for someone whose physical outsides, particularly their sexual organs, fell outside of what was considered societal norms. But “eunuch” could have also referred to people of different gender identities or sexual orientations. A gender or sexual outsider.
My friend and colleague Pastor Ashley Dellagiacoma, Pastor of Kindred+ in Montrose and who’s preached in this pulpit before said it this way, and I think it’s perfect: “The reason these folks were especially common in royal courts and given positions of such power was that all of that access and power and influence could be a substantial threat in a royal court system, especially if that person was also male, and especially if they were to be entrusted with access to powerful women. So powerful households would employ people that they perceived to be incapable of exerting sexual power…incapable of producing heirs to challenge the status quo.
The word “eunuch” can refer to a castrated man, but it also had a broader definition in ancient times that could include homosexual men or intersex folks. A eunuch can be someone whose genitalia does not match the societal expectations or is altered in some way, either because they were born that way or because they were subjected to sexual violence by the empire. It can also be someone whose gender expression does not match societal expectations, what we might identity as trans, or non-binary, or queer.
Biblical eunuchs can represent a number of sexual and/or gender identities that were foolishly thought to be dismissible. I say foolishly because the Bible has several stories of eunuchs who turn that assumption into opportunities for the glory of God.”
This is where we find this person today. The story of an outsider, in every sense of the word, using their story as an opportunity to glorify God.
The Bible is full of archetypes. Distressed heroes, rescued travelers, redeemed souls, sinful and broken yet restored humans… What the author of Acts calls this eunuch from Ethiopia is the archetype for the marginalized and outsider. This is someone who existed on the very edges of every societal class.
And it’s this person who receives the Gospel with such joy that nothing will prevent them from being baptized.
Would your witness or testimony have that effect, church? Would your story about where God has shown up in your life compel someone to throw off all abandon and run toward the nearest body of water asking to be baptized?
This is someone who had every reason to be distrustful, skeptical, resentful, even fearful of anyone coming in the name of someone in power, whether religious or imperial power, but especially the church…this is someone who could be killed for simply existing…and yet, their experience of the good news of God’s incredible love for them is so overwhelming, they leap to the nearest water they can find.
In the Gospel, they heard something about their worth. They heard something true about their belonging.
In recent weeks, in the latest rounds of culture wars, lawmakers from numerous states have taken aim at trans folks, particularly trans youth, over their decisions about their identity and their access to healthcare. I want to be exceptionally clear, any attempt to deny someone their humanity—their personhood—is an affront, is blasphemy, is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Full stop.
One more time.
Any attempt to deny someone their humanity—their personhood—is an affront, is blasphemy, is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
This conversation is especially important for churches and for those who call themselves Christian. The church has historically been and in many ways, continues to be openly hostile and even hateful toward the LGBTQIA2+ community. Folks in this community have zero reason to trust the church or give any attention to what Christians have to say. And you may wonder what is the point of being clear and explicit, and it may feel cumbersome to you, and maybe it feels like a lot, and you might not think it’s important, and you might wonder why I go to such great lengths to be clear and explicit in continuing to lift up and name the folks who identify with this acronym—LGBTQIA2+……church, it is because these are people. These are identities. This is about belonging, and a place to feel welcome and to belong. Being clear and explicit in order to specifically name their identity…that matters. And if you’re wondering whether or not it matters, ask them. And it is literally the absolute least I could do as someone who stands in a position of power in an institution that has historically and to this day, in many ways, still oppresses and marginalizes those who identify as part of this community.
A disciple is known by their fruit.
What fruit are you bearing, church?
The fruit you bear is demonstrative of the vine you’re attached to. Are you bearing the fruit of love and inclusion and compassion and mercy and repentance and gentleness and peace…? Or is your fruitless than reflective of the God of scripture? Hatred and vitriol and divisiveness and self-righteousness and hurtfulness…?
If you abide…if you dwell…in Christ…you will bear good and tasteful fruit. Any branch that doesn’t will be pruned. So let’s be clear, we’re not the ones doing the pruning, church. We’re not the ones determining whether the fruit is good or not. God is the vine-grower. Your job, Christian, is to bear fruit. So bear good fruit, disciple.
Continuing with our theme over the past few weeks, what an opportunity to say something true and beautiful and meaningful about the Gospel truth of God’s incredible love for all people…especially the ones considered to be outsiders and on the margins…especially those marginalized for their sexual or gender identity.
As we begin to make our way out of this pandemic, church, I’ve noted before and I’ll note it again, things are going to look very different. We’ll be presented with an opportunity to explore something new about ourselves, to learn something new about ourselves. In many ways, we’re being given an opportunity to restart, to be resurrected. It’s an opportunity to take a good, hard look at who we are, and what we’re about. To take a good look around our community of faith, to take a good, hard look around our neighborhood, and to ask the kinds of questions that seek to discover how our community of faith might be more reflective of our neighborhood.
What an opportunity to say something true and beautiful and meaningful about the Gospel truth of God’s incredible love for all people…especially the ones considered to be outsiders and on the margins.
What will your witness be, church?
What gifts and passions and energies might they bring to enrich our community?
Or to change up the context a little bit…so often we characterize ourselves as the saviors, right? We’re Philip climbing into the chariot and opening the scriptures, we’re the ones bringing the good news, we’re the ones doing the baptizing……but what if we’re more like this eunuch…? What if we’re the ones eagerly awaiting to hear something true and beautiful and meaningful about God’s incredible love from those that have been historically and continuously oppressed and marginalized?
What Gospel might they tell us?
What witness will they give?
What gifts and passions and energies might we learn from them?
It’s all about belonging.
It’s all about a place where people can be fully who they are, and hear that who they are is deeply loved and cared for and affirmed and celebrated by God. And not just by God, but is also deeply loved and cared for and affirmed and celebrated by those of us who call ourselves Christian.
Look, communion’s important, I get it. And I do love the Eucharist.
But I think you’d be hard-pressed to find something more consequential, more meaningful…than belonging.
Belonging to a vine that bears good fruit.
Sustaining, nourishing, delicious…good fruit.
That’s a vineyard I’d like to belong to.
That’s a vineyard I could invite others to.