Fifth Sunday of Easter

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40

26An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
 “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
  and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
   so he does not open his mouth.
33In his humiliation justice was denied him.
  Who can describe his generation?
   For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Psalm: Psalm 22:25-31

25From you comes my praise in the great assembly;
  I will perform my vows in the sight of those who fear the Lord.
26The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
  Let those who seek the Lord give praise! May your hearts live forever!
27All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord;
  all the families of nations shall bow before God.
28For dominion belongs to the Lord,
  who rules over the nations. 
29Indeed, all who sleep in the earth shall bow down in worship;
  all who go down to the dust, though they be dead, shall kneel before   the Lord.
30Their descendants shall serve the Lord,
  whom they shall proclaim to generations to come.
31They shall proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn,
  saying to them, “The Lord has acted!”

Second Reading: 1 John 4:7-21

7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
  13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
  God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Gospel: John 15:1-8

 [Jesus said:] 1“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. 2He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. 3You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide 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. 5I 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. 6Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”


Now listen carefully.  Jesus told a parable in Matthew 21:35 about a landowner who “planted a vineyard.  He put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower. Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.”

         Let’s see who listened carefully.  How did the landowner prepare his vineyard? (allow congregation to share: wall, winepress, watchtower)

         Now, how is the parable like Bethany’s garden?  Do we have a wall?  Perhaps we don’t have a winepress but what do we do with our harvest?  What might be our watchtower? (scarecrow or workers)  Who is the landowner? (God)  Who are the renters? (Bethany) Last question to ponder – What must the plants do to benefit from being in the garden? (abide)

Let us pray:  Lord may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart be pleasing in your sight, my Rock and my Redeemer.


We are in the fifth of seven Sundays in the Easter season, building up to the Ascension and Pentecost.  Easter Sunday we celebrated with those early disciples who found the grave empty and the body missing and who started to hear reports that Jesus was alive.  We who have 2,000 years of witness to the resurrection probably have become numb to the shocking events of Easter.  Easter season, the 40 days after Easter, in the liturgical calendar, traces proof of the resurrection and its implications.  We look at personal testimonies from that time but we look for how the resurrection was predicted and its implication for life following the resurrection.  Jesus did not rise just to let us know that he is alive.  Lives of the disciples began to change and new phenomena began to appear – the church – the kingdom of heaven on earth.  Yes sin is paid for but also we will have eternal life like Jesus’ resurrection demonstrates and we also live with a purpose today.

         Last week we looked at how Jesus is our Good Shepherd and actively cares for us.  We may not see him but feel his love, protection, and guidance.  We recognize his voice in prayer, in music, in friends, in his word.  He did not leave us to our own ways.  Today’s text adds another dimension.  Resurrection life is like garden life.

         A second major imagery that is used in the Bible to describe the relationship between the Creator and his creation is the garden.  God is a landowner who plants a garden.  We understand that to be the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus talked about, that has been planted, is growing, and to which Jesus will someday return to govern.  Resurrection is not just about believing that Jesus rose but it is also about transformed lives. We are part of a vine with a purpose to bear fruit.

         In our text we have three characters: God the vine grower, Jesus the vine, and we the branches.

         “This is my father’s world,” is a song we love to sing.  We teach our children, “He’s got the whole world in his hands.”  Unlike several of the garden parables that Jesus tells where the owner goes off on a trip to a distant country only to return, Jesus here has the vine grower personally involved with his plants. 

         God is involved.  God is not sitting off in the heavenlies waiting for messages from angels or waiting for the final judgment.  He is personally involved.  I sometimes think we confuse God and Santa Clause.  We think that if we are good and produce lots of grapes that God for sure will reward us and if we are lazy then he will punish us.  The Jews felt the same way.  The man born blind must have sinned.  The Pharisees who fasted must be holier.  The woman caught in adultery was the guilty person.  We believe if we are good then we should have the good life.  This passage says, though, that God throws away the dead branches but prunes the good branches so they will be more productive.

                  As we read the Gospels, we see Jesus praising the widow who gave only two mites, all she had in her poverty, and not the rich who may have helped to build the Temple.  We see him praise the faith of the Canaanite woman who begs for crumbs from the master’s table so that her daughter may be healed.  He praises the Centurion who does not feel worthy for Jesus to even enter his home.  God is not in the business of picking on the poor and rewarding the rich.  He is watching over all his plants.

         God prunes the good plants so that they bear more fruit.  It is when we are going through what is called “the dark night of the soul”, those times of suffering, that we are tempted to think that God has abandoned us or is punishing us for some sin we did not confess.  Prunings are trials that deepen our faith and drive us to seek God more.  Bad things happen to good people and not all the troubles we have come from God for we live in a fallen world where we also deal with the powers of evil.  But ultimately we are promised that all things work together for him who believes and trusts God.  Jesus assures us that we have been cleansed by the words he has spoken to us as we cling to them in faith, trusting him during dark times.

         Our text concludes by reminding us that the purpose of the vineyard is to glorify the Father, not to glorify ourselves.  The evil one loves to sit on our shoulders and whisper that when trials come it means that God does not love us and has abandon us.  That is a lie and a temptation to turn our eyes from God to ourselves or others and play the comparison game.  The owner of the garden positions the plants as he sees fit, prunes the plants as he sees fit, gives manure to the plants as he sees fit, and ultimately the vine grower receives the awards even as Bethany did.

         The second hymn that comes to mind as I read this text is “Abide with Me”.  Henry Lyte wrote the hymn in the early 1800s as he struggled with illness all his life.  It was first sung at his funeral.  Abiding in the vine is the quality the vine grower is looking for in this passage.  It is from this abiding that the branch is able to produce fruit. 

         As we all know, the garden does not produce fruit or vegetables all year round.  I know you people at Bethany know more about this than I but generally, I think, there are seasons for planting, for growing, for harvesting.  The grapes are not always there on the branch to be picked.  One of the marvels to me of the Midwest was the change of seasons.  Winter when trees are just sticks and barren does not mean they are dead or not valued.  I would suspect that it is easy as elders, which most of us are, and in retirement to feel like we are the unproductive branches, getting ready to die.  Our culture puts so much value on productivity that when we are sick, unemployed or old, we feel useless.  We see much of that view reinforced in the news these days.  So I would prefer to think of productivity as not just the size of our church but the size of our hearts and souls, the extent to which the fruits of the spirit are displayed in our lives individually and corporately. Galatians 5:22 says “But the fruit of the Spirit is love joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.  Against such things there is no law.”  These spiritual qualities are not dependent on our age, our wealth or our ethnicity.  They are dependent though on being connected to the vine, to Christ.  When I am tired, when I am in a difficult situation, I need his energy, his guidance, his power to flow through me.

         It is probably obvious to us that the plants not in the vineyard do not receive the same care as those in the garden.  It is also obvious that a garden has various kinds of plants even as a vine has lots of branches.  The church around the world is part of the vine and we are challenged to work together by this passage.  I am not prepared to say all roads lead to Rome, that all plants are connected to the vine, but the branches connected to the vine of Jesus and that abide in him will be supervised by God and pruned for growth. 

         The reflective question might be to ponder what interrupts that relationship with the vine, with the source of life?  Am I too busy, too tired, too stressed, too what ever to be tuned in to my relationship with God?  I do not find it coincidental that we use the phrase, “burned out,” to talk about just being too hassled to feed our own souls.

         The benefit of a abiding relationship is that Jesus says we can ask whatever we want and it will be given us.  Now that is a promise worthy of a whole sermon and it does imply an open relationship of sharing and trust where the vine carriers the needs of the branch and the branch is the outgrowth of the character of the vine. Abiding is open, two way communication.

         God is the vine grower, supervising his vineyard, and we are the branches abiding in that vineyard.  The vine is Jesus.  He is our source of life and energy.  Without him we can do little of eternal, not worldly, value.  So let us go back to our children’s sermon about the vineyard God plants.

  • It has walls.  There are boundaries in God’s vineyard.  God is not just love and acceptance.  There are standards.  We will be pruned for our own good.  It may not be a question of whether we are in or out but are we moving to be in the garden and wanting his care.
  • There is a winepress.  God wants us to be productive, not necessarily popular, famous and rich.  Bethany takes its produce to food shelters to help the needy.  For others of us our productivity can be seen in lives and hearts that bear fruit – fruit of the Spirit.
  • There are watch towers.  Being in the garden does not mean there are not enemies without seeking to destroy, bugs eating at us from within, and environmental seasons that affect us.  Even as the workers at Bethany guard your garden, God’s word, God’s Spirit, and God’s love guards us.

What is the secret to a productive plant and garden?  Abiding in Christ.

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide
The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide
When other helpers fail and comforts flee
Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day
Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away
Change and decay in all around I see
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless
Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness
Where is death’s sting?
Where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me…

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