Eunuchs, Vines, and Love: The Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

Eunuchs, Vines, and Love: The Lectionary for the Fifth Sunday of Easter April 26, 2015

 

Vine motifs, like these in the Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus in Rome, decorated many early Christian spaces. While they may have been simply decorative, these vines might also have been an oblique reference to John 15. This image is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.
Vine motifs, like these in the Catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus in Rome, decorated many early Christian spaces. While they may have been simply decorative, these vines might also have been an oblique reference to John 15. This image is from Wikipedia and is in the public domain.

Acts 8:26-40

What It’s About: This is the story of the Ethiopian eunuch, who met Philip on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.

What It’s Really About: What is this really about? That is a GREAT question. There are few passages in Acts where there is as much going on as there is in these few verses. On the surface, this is a story of the conversion of the eunuch (who does not get a name) by Philip. But there is so much more going on than that. There is the spatial dimension: the eunuch is traveling from Jerusalem to Gaza. Then there is the political dimension: he is a foreigner, and a highly-placed one at that, serving in the court of the queen of the Ethiopians. There is the economic dimension: he is in charge of the treasury, and being conveyed on a chariot (with room for a guest), which suggests that he was a person of some means. And then there are the dimensions of gender and sexuality: this person is a eunuch.

That is a lot to have going on in one passage. And it presents a magnificent set of options for the exegete. It makes me want to start with a question I often find myself asking: Why is this text in the bible? What is meant by the inclusion of this tale, particularly with all its details? It would have been easier, I presume, for Luke (the author of Acts) to leave this story out or simplify it by editing out the specifics, but he (or she, we actually don’t know for sure) keeps it in with all its complexity.

I wonder if it could be as simple as this: we are meant to encounter this Ethiopian eunuch in all of his personhood. We are supposed to meet him in the multiplicity of his identities, in the same way we all hope to be met in the multiplicity of our identities. One of my favorite book titles is “Also A Mother” by Bonnie Miller-McLemore, because the title conveys in a very succinct way we elide our identities and hide some of them behind others. When we meet someone, we ask “what do you do,” or “where are you from,” as if we can be distilled to occupational or geographical essences. But this pious and enthusiastic and (by the end) newly baptized Christian is presented in such a way that we can’t ignore all the parts of who he is. He is powerful, and perhaps wealthy, and he is religious, and he is not a native in the land where he travels, and he has had sexual violence committed against him in the mutilation of his genitals. And yet here he is, fully human. There’s a lesson in that.

What It’s Not About: This isn’t really about Philip, is it? Philip plays a small role, to be sure–he does the converting, as it were. But the Spirit prods him to action, and the eunuch invites him into the chariot, and then suggests baptism. Philip is really a prop here–almost an automaton. It’s stunning, the amount of agency that this Ethiopian eunuch holds.

Maybe You Should Think About: Make a list of all the modern-day equivalents of the list we’re given about this Ethiopian eunuch. What jobs would make someone suspect? Who “doesn’t belong” in our land? Whose embodiment troubles us, and against whom has sexual violence been committed? Make a list of how Luke might write this character if he (or she!) were writing today. Then, preach that.

 

Psalm 22:25-31

What It’s About: This is about how wide the word about God will spread: to the congregation, to the poor, to the nations, to the unborn, and even to the dead.

What It’s Really About: This psalm reveals the universalistic streak that Judaism had. Christians sometimes like to claim that they were the first ones to ever have the idea that God was interested in people outside of Israel, but that’s not true at all. Christianity, after all, was a sect of Judaism, and as such it picked up on already-existing trends and ideas from within the faith. The idea that God would be recognized and worshipped outside of Israel was one of those. This psalm points to the God of Israel as the God of everyone–everyone who has been, and everyone who is to come. It doesn’t get much more universal than that.

What It’s Not About: It’s not about the first 24 verses of this psalm. I’m not sure why it bothers me when the lectionary chops the psalms up like this. It doesn’t usually bother me with any of the other texts. But for the psalms, it somehow feels like a violation. It’s like the psalms were meant to be a holistic unit, more than other kinds of texts were.

Maybe You Should Think About: As I suggested with the text about the Ethiopian eunuch above, maybe it’s important to think about what this text is calling us to in modern terms. Israel saw the world in ethno-religious terms: there was Israel, and then “the nations.” This psalm is about bridging the us/them divide. We have different ways of dividing up the world, but just as much need to build bridges. So who’s our “them?” Preach that.

 

1 John 4:7-21

What It’s About: Love. This is about the love of God, and the way God’s love is manifested among people.

What It’s Really About: If you hang around churches and/or seminaries long enough, you’ll eventually hear about how there are three Greek words for love. This passage is talking about agape. Preachers and commentary-writers alike can sometimes make too much of the distinctions between these three words for love and their uses, but in this case, knowing that it’s agape can actually make a difference. This is a deep love. This is a powerful thing that 1 John is evoking–a love that transcends and overcomes.

When paired with the psalm and the Acts texts above, this text from 1 John becomes a very powerful word. “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear….” Indeed.

What It’s Not About: This is not just about piety towards God. Look at verse 21. “Those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.” Must. Loving God is all well and good, but that’s the easy part. Loving each other is much more difficult. Especially when we all appear here in this world with our various forms of messiness, brokenness, and sinfulness. Loving God is a piece of cake compared to loving your enemies–as Jesus liked to remind us.

Maybe You Should Think About: What prompted the author to write these words in 1 John? And could that situation have been much different from what your congregation is facing today?

 

John 15:1-8

What It’s About: Viniculture!

What It’s Really About: This passage is in sharp contrast to the others for today’s lectionary. Where those are inclusive and emphasize God’s encompassing love, this passage emphasizes an almost ruthless efficiency on God’s part: “Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.” Sheesh. That’s pretty harsh. That kind of no-nonsense approach might work in viniculture or other kinds of horticulture, but it feels pretty draconian when applied to persons.

From the beginning, Christianity has allowed room for multiple visions of God’s ultimate designs. On one end of the spectrum, God “saves” relatively few, and the rest are condemned to oblivion, or worse, eternal punishment. On the other end of the spectrum, you find ideas like Origen of Alexandria’s apokatastasis, where all are ultimately redeemed. And, of course, there are many positions in the middle. This passage from John would seem to give evidence for the former, harsher position. But the metaphor of a vine and a vine-tender can also be a metaphor that speaks to care and cultivation. The difference is in how it’s read. And the beauty of scripture is that it allows multiple readings. Jesus often spoke this way: not in lectures, where we are simply to accept information, but in semi-riddles, where we are asked to find our own meanings of out less-than-clear words.

What It’s Not About: Notice the shift in pronouns. When Jesus is talking about the bad branches, it’s “them” language. When Jesus is talking about the good, fruit-bearing branches, it’s “you” language. And the Greek is plural (“y’all remain in me,” as the superior second person plural option among American dialects puts it), so this isn’t about individual piety or righteousness. This is a communal message about those who remain–together–as a part of the vine.

Maybe You Should Think About: The vine image could make for a provocative motif for decorating the worship space, the bulletin, or prayer stations. Real or symbolic vines have very evocative power; maybe finding a place for one or more would enrich the worship experience.

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  • Onos

    A casual observation, you seem very Catholic in your selection, attention to history, lexicon, etc. Are you sure you aren’t Catholic?

  • Jon-Michael Ivey

    Note that the verb “airo” in John 15:2 is properly translated as “lifts” rather than “removes” as the linked translation uses. (Other translations are even worse, and say things like “cuts off.”) The word certainly can imply removing in some contexts, but can also mean holding up and supporting off the ground.

    In ancient viticulture it was common for the vine-dressers to lift and support weak branches (especially those too young to bear fruit) by driving stakes into the ground and tying the branches to them. This allows them to get adequate sunlight, and protects them from insects and molds that could attach the more easily at ground level.

    The verse can be interpreted to mean that God won’t just throw away those who remain in Christ because they do not yet bear the fruit of the spirit, but rather will protect and support them long enough that they can grow spiritually and bear good fruit later.

    At the same time, it could still mean that those branches which never do bear fruit despite the support will be taken away.

    The only ones who are gathered up and burned are those which have both fallen away AND DRIED UP, not merely those who have been broken off from the vine for a time. It is possible that a branch could fall away for a time but then be rescued before it dries up and dies, so that it may be grafted back onto the true vine. Grafting techniques were well known in the first century Roman Empire, as we can see from Romans 11. There the broken branches are promised to be grafted back onto an olive tree rather than onto a grape vine, but I believe the parables are closely related.

  • Eric Smith

    Jon-Michael, thanks so much for those additions. I too think of Romans and the grafting language when I read this. I wonder if Paul knew a tradition of this saying?

    Defensor, I’m not Catholic, nor have I ever been, but I am glad to be confused for one. I’m ordained in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), have worked at a UCC congregation, and am on the faculty (history and NT) at a United Methodist seminary.