Sermon: "Bear Fruit; Be a Bold Disciple," April 29, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Easter
Andy Gilman

St. George's was pleased to host Andy Gilman, chair of Comox-Nanaimo Presbytery and an active member of St. Stephen's United Church in Qualicum. Andy is married to Beth and they have 4 grown children and 4 grandchildren.

Work-wise, Andy is a health scientist and has been actively involved internationally in risk assessment and developing regional and global initiatives to control the long-range transport of environmental contaminants that can affect human health and the environment. His focus has been on environmental health issues in the Arctic and the Great Lakes and on First Nations, Inuit and children.

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now 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.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As 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?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When 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. But 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.
— Acts 8:26-40 (New Revised Standard Version)
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide 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. I 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
— John 15:1-8 (New Revised Standard Version)

Our readings today are about good news. Actually, great news!

We get some clear teaching from Jesus in a metaphor about managing the vines in a vineyard. That is something we can all relate to in BC….vineyards and the products they produce are near and dear to us in BC….not so much in Alberta these days.

We also get an encouraging story in Acts of the apostle Philip who steps out in faith and boldly practices discipleship. I will come back to these stories, but first I want to rewind the clock to the events of Easter and shortly after.

The disciples were aware of some of the conflict brewing toward the end of Jesus’ ministry….they must have been, right?.

They were present for the ugly encounters with the Pharisees, the no-win questions posed to Jesus to try to trip Him up, the push back. But did any of them think that it would all end in a criminal execution, in a crucifixion?

It seems to have taken them completely by surprise…even though Jesus told them several times that His earthly life was coming to an end.

Has this ever happened to you? You were there all along and heard and saw everything, but you missed seeing the final outcome? I have. And I remember thinking, how could I have missed all the signs? How could I have been so blind….it was right there in front of me. Hindsight always has 20/20 vision, doesn’t it?

Research tells us that the grief process takes us through predictable stages. Each of us responds differently in the intensity and time spent in those stages, yet they are all present.

The Disciples missed the obvious signs and suddenly their world was turned upside down….Jesus was taken, crucified, buried in a three day period. He was definitely gone.

There was disbelief, denial, anger, and then fear for the future….for their safety…long before there was finally acceptance and a new beginning.

And out of all their reactions, it was the fear which held them back, kept them closeted away, waiting for the authorities to knock on the door. Its what fear does. It paralyzes us….and we cannot be who we are when we live in fear.

About 5 years ago Beth and I went to see the film ‘The King’s Speech’. Perhaps some of you have seen this remarkable film?

It is emotional, humorous, and filled with is a recreation of a time many in our aging community of Qualicum Beach remember personally.

The film depicts the story of the abdication of King Edward and the ascension of King George V. It is a story of a man living with deep pain, who perseveres with the help of a supportive wife and a speech therapist, and ultimately triumphs.

In the final scene, the King delivers a difficult speech in a time of great national need and great change. In order to succeed he must face his childhood past and place his trust in an under-educated commoner. Until King George is prepared to set aside his pride, anger and fear, he is not able to move forward. And moving this case speaking with less stammering..... was a life-time struggle for the King....he has to skirt the fear, and replace it with trust and faith….which he does until his death at age 56.

Sometimes, we just have to trust God, when instead we would rather just manage everything ourselves and turn away, sometimes burying the bigger challenges facing us,

blaming others for what is imperfect,

blaming God for how things have turned out.

I would say in my life, it has been very hard to trust God. I mean that! I struggle with trust. And a lot of the time, I don’t welcome too much change.

Now, when things are going well and the sun is shining, and I am in right relationships with family and friends, and there are few changes and problems….it’s pretty easy. After all, where is the need to trust God? Life is rolling along just fine.

How many times I’ve told God that everything is good right now and he can take a break....I’ll handle things…..

Now that probably puts a really big smile on God’s know that I’m handling things.

And then, there have been times when nothing is going well. Home issues, job issues, illness issues, financial issues, the loss of someone I loved dearly, feeling unloved and alone, confusion which will not clear, fear. Now where is God? And why doesn’t He do something. It’s God’s job!

So I cry out.... “God help me....where are you....I NEED you….it’s all changing too fast for me”

Has this ever happened to you? I’m pretty sure it has. And has it been easy to trust God when things were grim, when fear grips you? When so much was changing?

So, back to our story. Jesus has shown Himself to the women at the tomb, to the disciples walking to Emmaus, to other disciples in the upper room, and to many more. The risen Christ has been all over town.

He has done all he can to convince them he is alive, raised from the dead…. ‘Look at my hands and feet. Its me. I’m not a ghost…give me some fish to eat’

And he promises them a gift….wait here for the Holy Spirit. Like a roaring wind, the Spirit fills them and they are empowered to speak boldly, to step out in faith. The fear is banished, its gone, and now they are unleashed for the work of the kingdom. What a gift! What a time the disciples had talking to the crowds that day, speaking boldly in ways they did not even know they could.

I wonder if the disciples remembered the metaphor of the vine…the need for pruning…the joy that follows in the form of more beautiful flowers and more abundant fruit.

Did they remember that Jesus was the vine…. the solid, functional, supportive base for the branches.

Did they start to understand how they were the branches which reached out to the world.

Did they get that Jesus had shown them the way and that the Spirit would lead them into discerning what God needed to prune, what they needed to change in behaviour, attitude, confidence?

Did they comprehend fully that once detached from the vine, the branch cannot function…it dies?

Jesus was succinct and clear: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”

And with an echo of the Great Commission, Jesus tells his disciples: “This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”

I think Jesus’ message is pretty clear….

‘Go out there and do it for Me’.

And that brings us to Philip, one of the disciples who does not get a lot of page time in the Bible. Best as anyone knows, Philip travelled with Jesus, learned from Jesus, was there fearful in the upper room, saw Jesus alive again and received the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps one of the ‘prunings’ that he received was to trust that when he was asked to go, he went….no questions, no excuses, no requirement for an explanation or a detailed memo.

The Angel tells him “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” He is not told what he is to do on that desert road, only that he is to go. And the very next bit of text says “So he started out….” Now that is obedience.

Then, the Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” And he does that too. I love that Philip just started a conversation with the Eunuch….he didn’t start to preach the gospel…he just showed an interest in what the Eunuch was doing, and the Spirit took it from there.

His willingness to listen to the Spirit, his obedience and his faith turn a ride for an Ethiopian Eunuch into a life changing exchange, a baptism and perhaps, one can imagine, the start of the Coptic Church.

I love that the Eunuch left “rejoicing”!

Philip, imbedded in the vine, freed from impediments, bears witness and much fruit. Where there might have been fear, it was set aside. The Spirit called, and Philip acted.

This is a story for us. It is a great story. Imbedded in Jesus, and with the power of the Spirit, we can go out and bear much fruit in our homes, our communities, in the world. We can be a Philip.

I do recognize that each of us has a busy life and that we are all at different stages. Life is fluid and seems to happen while we are making plans. I recognize that change is difficult and can lead to fear and anxiety.

Our United Church is dealing with change, all denominations are dealing with change, numbers of Christian worshippers are falling rapidly in much of the world (especially in North America), churches are closing, values appear to be shifting….. What will become of us?

I believe that rooted to the vine -  rooted to Jesus - we can have the courage to look at Spirit-led change.

It does not matter how young or how old we are. Nor man or woman. Nor new believer or long-time believer. We can, each one of us, ask God to prune away the fear of change and replace it with the fruit of hope, delight, and expectation. We can be branches imbedded in Christ and bear amazing fruit.