After Stephen has been executed and Saul was ‘ravaging the church’ and imprisoning believers, Philip becomes the main character in Acts for a while, preaching the gospel in Samaria (north of Jerusalem and Judea) and performing cures. In this week’s reading, Philip meets a most unusual man: an Ethiopian eunuch who had been worshipping in the Jerusalem Temple.
Back then, Ethiopia was, or included, what is now Sudan – it was very distant from Jerusalem and seen as the back of beyond. Ethiopians, however, had a reputation for being very religious. This man had been in Jerusalem on business for the Queen, the Candace. In the Temple, as an Ethiopian he would not have been able to go beyond the Court of Gentiles, and as a eunuch he would never have been able to convert to Judaism. So he represents a certain sort of pious Gentile who prays in the Temple and reads Scripture. Philip joined this anonymous Ethiopian as he travelled home on his modest and no doubt slow wagon, where he sat reading Isaiah in the Greek Septuagint translation.
The passage that stumps the Ethiopian is Isaiah 53.7-8, so he asks Philip who is the ‘servant’ who does not open his mouth as he goes to his unjust death. Is this the prophet himself, or someone else? It is an intelligent question. Philip explains that the servant is not Isaiah, and then moves from Scripture to the whole gospel about Jesus. It must have been an extensive exposition because it ends with the Ethiopian asking for baptism. Luke has already told the story of Philip converting the Samaritans, and now uses this incident to show the spread of the gospel beyond Judea and Samaria to far distant lands.
New Testament 1 John 4.7-21
The author tells us that love comes from God, and it is here that we find the much-quoted ‘God is love’ (v.8). God’s love is revealed in the sending of his Son as an atoning sacrifice, a concept taken from the ritual of the Jerusalem Temple. The ritual acts out God’s forgiveness for the penitent, and this is metaphorically applied to Jesus. Because of this expression of God’s love in his Son, we are told that we ought to love one another.
You can see the direction of John’s thought: love originates in God the Father, goes through the Son, and results in the love we enact in our own lives. God might be the origin of love but for us it begins at the other end. Twice John tells us that no one has ever seen God, so how can we know what God is like? This knowledge, he says, comes in the first place through loving each other. It is not a knowledge that comes through logical thinking or experiment but through the life we live – it is a practical, loving knowledge. Despite the images of punishment that Christianity has produced over the centuries, with the best of intentions to encourage people to live good lives, John says that truly loving others – and God – has nothing to do with fear and punishment. Perfect love casts out fear and allows us to know God as God is.
Gospel John 15.1-8
‘I am the true vine’ is one of John’s seven ‘I am’ sayings. In the Old Testament, ‘vine’ is an image used of Israel (Psalm 80.8; Isaiah 5.1-7; Jeremiah 2.21), but here it is transferred to Jesus. It is a strange, inanimate image that is as much about God the Father, the vine-grower, as it is about Jesus. The Father lops off branches that have aged and withered. However, branches that produce fruit are pruned to be even more productive. The disciples are the first of these branches. Yet it is the vine – Jesus – that nourishes the branches and enables them to produce fruit. The growth and harvesting of grapes in this parable corresponds to the fruitfulness of the lives of the brothers and sisters who love each other in the previous reading. The place of Christ is similar in each, whether as vine or as a sacrifice bringing forgiveness. In these two images of vine and sacrifice we have interesting examples of how to read Scripture poetically.
The links between the readings
In the Gospel, Christ the vine tended by God the vine-grower enables the disciples to be fruitful. In the first letter of John, fruitfulness is seen in the way that brothers and sisters in Christ love one another. The Ethiopian in Acts shows the instant response that promises fruitfulness.