May 6, 2012
Pr. Franklin Wilson
1 John 4.7-21
“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down… and I shall live for him.”
“We love because he first loved us.”
“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.”
Philip asked the eunuch, “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” It’s the first of the eunuch’s three questions: “How can I (understand) unless someone guides me?” “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” And, finally, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
The eunuch was a castrated male employed by an Ethiopian queen—the Candace; he managed her entire treasury. The primary purpose of castrating such men was to ensure that the servant could not inseminate a royal female and thereby pollute royal bloodlines. Erotic desire being what it is, there was apparently no other way to prevent the lustful conception of a servant’s child in a royal woman; rape, I suppose, might also have been a worry: witness the Genesis account of Potiphar’s wife and her accusation against Joseph. In the parlance of our time, castration would have nipped such concerns in the bud.
But this eunuch was a “God-fearer.” That is, he went up to Jerusalem to worship. And he could read. When Philip found him, he was sitting in his chariot reading the Prophet Isaiah, presumably from a scroll, which meant someone else must have been driving. Clearly, he was a well-educated and inquisitive man: he understood that, without a guide, he could not understand what he was reading; he understood, that even though he might be able to read Isaiah’s words, without a guide he could not understand Isaiah’s message. In other words, (and on Cantate Sunday this is vital) there’s a difference between the notes and the melody—between musical notes and musical melody. Isaiah’s melody cannot be heard apart from interpretation. And interpretation requires another.
So Luther can say in comment on the 3rd Article of the Creed, “I believe that by my own reason or strength, I cannot come to my Lord Jesus Christ or believe in him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel and enlightened me with his gifts….”
The eunuch understood this: that he could not hear Isaiah’s melody without guidance. Thus, the Holy Spirit sent Philip—called by through the gospel and enlightened with the Spirit’s gifts—to guide the eunuch into Christ Jesus—the Vine from whom all life and faith grow, flower, and bear fruit.
It helps to consider the Isaiah passage here quoted:
“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 was taken away from the earth?”
Perhaps the eunuch views himself in similar terms. Maybe servile castration was like a sheep being slaughtered, like a silent lamb before its shearer. Perhaps in humiliation he felt that justice had been denied. As a eunuch, he could have no generation: deprived of his testicles, he could generate no children. His life had been taken away from the earth. It’s difficult to imagine a passage more poignant to a castrated man, and especially to a castrated God fearer—perhaps a proselyte Jew who had no hope beyond his own cut off life.
Starting, then, with Isaiah, Philip proclaimed to the eunuch the good news of Jesus. In other words, Philip told the eunuch about one like himself unjustly deprived of life whom God had raised up; a dead one in whom there is new life. In the crucified and risen Christ—the Lamb of God, the Vine from whom all fruitful life grows—in the crucified and risen Christ there is new and eternal life—especially for all those cut off from life. In him, the crucified and risen one, there is new and everlasting life. Grafted by baptism into Christ, all who have been cut off and left for dead like branches pruned for the fire, all these bear fruit.
No wonder the eunuch seeks baptism. He is cut off and lifeless. Yet, the Spirit joins him to Christ. Philip’s witness brings him insight and hope. Baptism grafts into the true Vine. Castrated and fruitless, he now bears the good fruit of faith, love, and obedience to the will of God. Lifeless, he now lives. Reproductively dead, Christ is born in him; dead, he is reborn to eternal life.
“I cannot by my own reason or strength come to my Lord Jesus Christ or believe in him. But the Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel and enlightened me with his gifts….” The eunuch shares Luther’s great insight. So do we, and all who affirm baptism into the death and resurrection of the crucified and risen Christ. Apart from Christ the true Vine, we can do nothing. Even as the eunuch required Philip’s witness to believe, so also Philip required the Spirit to find the eunuch. None of us believes on our own. None of us serves by ourselves. None of us bears fruit alone—but all by the grace, mercy, and self-giving love of Christ.
Thus, the Second Lesson can say, “In 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.” Our love gives, our faith believes, our service works, our understanding perceives, but not by itself, never alone, but in only relation to Christ, and Christ in relation to all. Christ is and remains with us, that we might be and remain in him. He abides in, with, and under our feeble selves. He binds us to himself precisely because we can do nothing apart from him. Cut off like fruitless branches, he grafts us in. He bears fruit when we are fruitless and—like a vine bearing splendid grapes—he remains in the background while we deliver the fruit in the foreground and receive the accolades.
Let there be no talk of our love apart from Christ’s love for us. All love belongs to Christ, and the intersecting cross is his sign. Christ gives all his love away for the least, the last, the lost, and the dead—and today a baptized eunuch is the re-generational sign—he goes on his way rejoicing. And Philip is snatched away to Azotus, somewhere near us, that the good news might be heard and believed here and now. Dead we live: in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.