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You Are the Branches

St. John’s Lutheran Church
28 April 2024 + Fifth Sunday of Easter
Acts 8:26-40; John 15:1-8
Rev. Josh Evans


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He doesn’t even get a name, and yet he gives us one of the most profound stories of belonging in all of Scripture.

“As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’”

Not only does Philip not have an answer, but it’s the unnamed eunuch who commands the chariot to stop, taking bold initiative in claiming his place and his belovedness.

Often, we hear this story referred to as the “conversion” of the Ethiopian eunuch – and there is conversion here – but it goes both ways.

The eunuch is baptized and initiated into Christian community. And Philip, too, experiences a kind of conversion. It’s not as obvious because it happens precisely in what is not said – in the stunning silence after the eunuch’s question: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What is to prevent me? Nothing.

In the fledgling early church struggling to find its footing, Philip’s unique evangelical opportunity on a wilderness road becomes occasion for an expansion of his worldview about who belongs.

There is nothing – neither his gender identity, nor his ethnic origin, neither his position of great privilege, nor his outsider status – that can prevent this unnamed Ethiopian eunuch from experiencing the fullness of God’s grace for him.

There is nothing that can prevent him from belonging.

***

It might have felt a little different for the disciples – on the cusp of losing their teacher and friend to an imminent future they were only beginning to come to terms with. It might have felt like their belonging was at risk.

Jesus’s hour has come. Already the disciples know that one of their own will betray him. Soon Jesus will be arrested, tried, and killed – leaving them alone.

Everything the disciples have come to know and rely on for the last few years together is about to change.

It is into this climate of anxiousness and uncertainty that Jesus offers a timely metaphor and promise:

“I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.” Jesus starts by reasserting the special relationship he shares with the Father – a relationship of mutual dependence: The vine, of course, needs its vinegrower – to carefully tend to it and cultivate it so that it can grow and produce. The vinegrower, too, needs the vine – so that the vine can produce in such abundance to make sustenance and life possible.

It is for this reason that the vine – the Word – became flesh and lived among us: so that all may have life and have it abundantly.

But the metaphor doesn’t end there: “I AM the vine … YOU ARE the branches.”

Each of Jesus’ I AM statements offers us a glimpse into his identity: Jesus is the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, the resurrection and the life – all profound statements of promise of the abundant life to which Jesus invites his disciples.

Here, in the last of such statements, Jesus adds a twist: I AM … YOU ARE.

It’s no accident that this I AM statement comes last of all – as Jesus is saying goodbye, as his disciples face an unknown future.

Here is both promise: “I AM the vine.”

And possibility: “YOU ARE the branches.”

In one breath, Jesus reminds them of the fundamental truth that their life comes from him and their connection to him – and that’s not going away, even if it feels like it.

In the next breath, Jesus offers them a framework for continuing to experience life together in his absence. They are connected to each other.

They belong to God – and to one another.

“I AM the vine, YOU ARE the branches.” As if to say: It starts with me. It continues with you – and it only grows stronger in community.

Notice, too, that it’s not “you have been the branches” or “you will be the branches” – but “YOU ARE the branches.” (Karoline Lewis) Here and now. In this troubled moment – and into the future.

There is nothing – neither death, nor resurrection, nor ascension, neither Jesus’ absence, nor the disciples’ fearfulness – that can prevent them from experiencing the fullness of abundant life in relationship with one another.

There is nothing that can prevent them from belonging.

***

On the wilderness road, around a makeshift baptistry, mutual dependence gives way to a profound and expansive conversion experience of belonging.

In the final poignant moments shared among friends, mutual dependence reaffirms a profound truth of what it means to belong to each other – a belonging that not even death can tear apart.

In the community of the church, mutual dependence beckons us, time and time again, back to Christ our vine, around this table – and to the branches that enfold us along the way.

We belong to Christ and to one another. The vine needs its branches, just as much as the branches need their vine.

We need the vine and the branches – a reminder of our rootedness in Christ and our connectedness to one another.

WE ARE the branches – extending ever outward in welcome, until all belong, until all come to know this truth:

There is nothing that can prevent you from belonging – nothing that can prevent you from experiencing God’s abiding love for you.

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