The True Vine
May I speak in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
The Evangelists ‘Jews for Jesus’ often remark that Chapter 53 from Isaiah is the turning point in the conversion of many Jewish people, and today we read of Philip who was perhaps the first evangelist and of his encounter with an Ethiopian of high standing who was reading aloud some words of Isaiah.
Let me tell you about a young woman, let’s call her Elizabeth, who had recently been discharged from the best rehabilitation unit in the country. Every day she drove her newly converted car to Stratford where she watched the Olympic Stadium rise layer by layer from the ground.
Some of the builders noticed this and a few began to give her a wink or a whistle. When the day came for the scaffolding to come down a young man in a smart suit and a yellow helmet came over to her in the car park, he had noticed the ‘blue badge’ and he asked what made her come every day and just sit and watch for an hour and then leave. I think she must have liked the look of him because uncharacteristically she said, “If you have time for a cup of coffee, I will tell you my story”.
Elizabeth loved running, she had been in training, when, on an early morning run two years before, a car had skidded on a bend and knocked her twenty feet down the road. When she woke from the coma it gradually became clear that not only was her spine broken but also one of her legs had been amputated.
The love of her life, her passion for running had been snatched away just when she had a chance of running for her country, perhaps even to compete in the Olympics. Elizabeth’s spirit was crushed; most of her friends were athletes and had drifted away, she felt excluded from all that she had dreamed about, hoped, and planned for. Hold on to your feelings about Elizabeth’s situation, we will join her again later.
Returning to Philip and his encounter with the Ethiopian. This was a man, ritually unclean, who, because of his mutilation, was never going to be included in the Jewish faith, and yet still he loved the one true God of Israel. He was excluded from celebrating the festival, and yet still he wanted to worship, to be near the Temple and feel close to where God met with his people.
On his way home, in the middle of nowhere, and whilst reading from the scriptures, he met Philip, or rather Philip ran into him. The Ethiopian became aware of and invited Philip to join him. To discuss and flesh out what it was he struggled to see in Isaiah’s words. Philip did something quite remarkable, as we shall discover.
Scholars tell us that the passage in Isaiah, chapter 53, and the piece that we know as ‘The Suffering Servant’ had been interpreted in two quite distinct ways. The first saw the Messiah as the ‘new David’ a warrior and the sufferings as what he inflicted on the pagans and gentiles. The second view of the servant was one of the ‘righteous martyrs’, but they were not the messiahs. Philip, it seemed with a masterstroke married the two ideas together, and perhaps was first in applying both to Jesus. In Jesus, God had revealed his universal servant love for Jew and Gentile alike, in fact for all creation. Jesus had swept aside the old order and made the unclean clean and acceptable.
The Eunuch was baptised in a convenient pool of water, and went on his way as Luke records, rejoicing. Philip in some mysterious way was transported to Azotus where he too, full of the Holy Spirit, preached the ‘good news’ to everyone he met on his way to Caesarea.
The implications of Jesus’ resurrection were beginning to gel for the apostles. The symbolic vine of Israel from Moses forward had been kept pure for their God by the rules and regulations of the ‘Law’. Jesus, the true vine, now presented different symbols, the cross and the empty tomb, signs of healing and restoration for everyone. The old order had indeed been replaced, God’s overwhelming love for his creation now held no bounds.
Back now to Elizabeth’s story; as he got up to pay for their coffee Elizabeth noticed a slight limp in his gait. As he walked beside the wheelchair, back toward the car she asked what was wrong. He lifted a trouser leg just enough to show a prosthetic leg. As he closed the car door, he offered a ticket to the Paralympic 100mtr finals. Elizabeth refused it saying that she was competing too, in the wheelchair event.
Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as our self; John’s letter speaks of God’s overwhelming love; a love that is not so much an emotion but more of a call to action. This love in action is what prompted Philip to approach the chariot of a High Ranking Foreign official and the result, if we are to believe it, was the Ethiopian Church that thrives to this day.
Elizabeth and the young man, a soppy romantic story perhaps, but in everyday life we all make assumptions about other people. We sometimes exclude people from our groups because they are not like us, not good sports, not from the same place, not as clever, do not support the same football club. Think about Elizabeth and the young man and the disfigured Ethiopian and as N. T. Wright reflects, “Physically unfit, ritually excluded; all that way and no entrance ticket when he arrived…” As Disciples of Christ, we remember the Church is open to all, the prisoner, the poor, the disabled, the smelly; Jesus the Suffering Servant has made us servants too.
May we, like Philip, by the grace of God, be moved by the spirit of love in action, to approach the stranger and impart a little of God’s overwhelming love for us all. Amen.
The Rev'd Mo Lunn, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 02/05/2021