Fifth Sunday Of Easter

S. Easter 5.24 Acts 8, John 15

“I am the vine, you the branches; whoever abides in me and I in him bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”

If there is a single sentence that sums up Xnity, this one would be a strong contender. I mean, there isn’t a one sentence summary of the faith. The 750,000 words of the scriptures barely give a hint, a mere outline of the mystery. But this sentence gets pretty close to the heart of the matter.

To abide in Christ Jesus, commune with him, to live in, by, with, for, and through him, is the whole deal. That’s life in a nutshell. And to be separate from him—a free agent, a rugged individual, is to whither and die like a dead branch that’s good for nothing but burning.

Amen. May the peace…

Well, we could end there. It would help lower our Synod record of the 43 minute full Divine Service and you know it’s a competition not an exhibition, and I’m in it to win it. I think a really good sermon is one that everyone complains is too short. Always leave them wanting more…

But; that admirably short and sweet sermon begs the question, an important one: Hmm… how would I do that?” to quote Ian McKellen on how he would portray the wizard Gandalf when he’s not actually a wizard. *

Our Old Testament reading, which, this morning is, oddly, from the New Testament 😉 shows us how an Ethiopian eunuch, a God-fearing Jewish worshiper returning from worship in Jerusalem, gets hooked up with Jesus.

Whoever paired these readings was being clever and a little mischievous. As one emasculated, the eunuch would not be eligible for full membership in the Jewish synagogue—the circumcision thing apparently won’t work for him. He’s a dry tree, a dead branch.

Jesus doesn’t just take wild branches, living branches, as Paul illustrates in Romans, and graft them into his tree. He takes the dead branch, the lifeless tree, good for nothing, and brings it to life by abiding in the dead branch and the dead branch comes to life abiding in Jesus. This is how communion with Christ is established…

It’s not a do-it-yourself project. No.

Jesus does it, by his Spirit, through the means of grace administered by the pastors he apostles, sends. This is the way! Let’s look closer…

The Angel of the LORD (who, I presume, is Jesus) speaks to Philip (not the Apostle Philip, but the Philip who was one of the 7 deacons appointed by the Jerusalem church who clearly holds the pastoral office as the first 70 Christ appointed, and may well have been drawn from those 70 for service) and tells him “Arise and go toward the south along the road which goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza” (bad neighborhood, then as now 😉

So, Philip arose and went. Along the way, he runs into an Ethiopian eunuch, a high official in the court of Queen Candace, returning from worship in Jerusalem. The Spirit of the LORD tells Phillip, “overtake the chariot”, which he does.

He hears the eunuch reading his bible, the part from Isaiah about the lamb led to slaughter and how will the dead lamb have any offspring since he’s… er, dead?! (How does Philip know what the eunuch is reading? Great question! We learn from Augustine that all ancient people always read aloud, even in groups, Ambrose being one of the first to do silent reading which made them wonder if he was possessed or just weird).

Philip asks if the eunuch understands what he’s reading and he answers: “How can I unless someone guides me?” then asks: “is the prophet saying this of himself or of some other man?” And, in one of the loveliest passages of scriptures, “Philip opened his mouth and, beginning at this scripture, preached Jesus to him.”

Under the spell of Calvin (“Marx and Lenin in one person,” according to C.S. Lewis in his history of 16th century English literature we’re reading on Wednesday evenings right now) we think the eunuch is on the right track by his private reading of the bible. Surely that would have brought him to faith, right?

And, uh… NO! It wouldn’t have. Nowhere in the scriptures (or our Lutheran Confessions) is private reading of the bible counted as a means of grace that produces faith. Nope! Such a Calvinist idea comes from treating the Word of God as mere information, a religious philosophy we must master and apply to our lives if we are to be saved. This makes Xnity a DIY project, destroys the mystery of Christ, demotes the pastoral office from Christ’s divine agents to mere imparters of information, and the sacramental liturgy of the church from the means of grace, to mere information technology—which has been the ruin of modern Christendom.

St. Paul shows us the way, in Romans 10:14ff, asking: “How shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? (Greek: apostled). As it is written: ‘how beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, who bring glad tidings of good things!”

You can read the bible all day, every day, many times through, and you’ll never get IT… unless a pastor sent by Jesus preaches him into your ears and heart—just as we see with Pr. Philip and his charge, the Ethiopian eunuch.

It’s not the case that salvation is us mastering information about Jesus, applying it to our lives, sharing it with others, and passing some Final Exam on it at the Last Day. NO! Faith comes by hearing the pastors Jesus sends us, as he tells the 12 and the 70 when he first sends them: “He who hears you hears me; he who rejects you rejects me.” It can be jarring, I know, but how you respond to me as Christ’s servant is the clearest indicator of faith or rejection of Jesus.

Because, it’s not what we know of Jesus that matters, but whether he knows, recognizes us as his—as he says in Matt. 7: “Many will say to me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord,’ have we not prophesied in your name, cast out demons in your name, and done many wonders in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you who practice lawlessness!”

Not a DIY project. A Jesus Project he does through his apostled pastors.

Pr. Philip obviously cites baptism (NT replacement for OT circumcision) as the way we get hooked up with Jesus, and the eunuch jumps into that pool head first and laughing! In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says to eat and drink his body and blood into his remembrance—as the sure way we get hooked up with him so he always recognizes us as his own branches.

This is the way: word, sacrament, given out freely to you—here, now, to hook you up with him in whom is Peace surpassing all understanding, guarding your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

About Pastor Martin

Pastor Kevin Martin has served six Lutheran congregations, beginning in 1986 as a field-worker in Trumbull, Connecticut, and vicarages in Arlington, Massachusetts and Belleville, Illinois. He has been pastor of congregations in Pembroke, Ontario and Akron, Ohio. Since 2000, he has served as pastor of Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh. Pastor Martin is a lifelong (confessional!) Lutheran (even though) he holds degrees from Valparaiso, Yale, and Concordia Seminary St. Louis. He and his wife Bonnie have been (happily) married since 1988, and have two (awesome!) adult children, Bethany and Christopher. Bonnie is an elementary school teacher. The Martin family enjoy music festivals, travel, golf, and swimming. They are also avid readers and movie-goers.

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