The dark black African man was jostled along the dusty road as his chariot lunged forward by the strength of the muscular oxen. This man was on his way home, enduring the tedious and treacherous 5-month journey to the place he belonged, the court of the queen of Ethiopia. He carries with him a heavy heart. He came to Jerusalem for the festivities, making the long and arduous pilgrimage of a life time to be within the temple, to hear the priest’s absolution of his life-long sins, to sense the healing presence of the divine, the God of Israel, in the place where God resided, the holy of holies. This God-fearing Gentile was a eunuch, which meant due to his physical condition, caused by the mutilation which was necessary for his role as eunuch, so that he could be considered safe among the queen and her court of ladies, he was prohibited from entering the temple. The laws in Deuteronomy were adhered to by the Jewish officials and because he could not be circumcised, he could not enter the temple, he could not be where God resided, he could not have his sins absolved, he could not make his sacrifice unto God. He was ostracized to the outdoor Court of the Gentiles. He leaves Jerusalem feeling bereft, unfulfilled, marginalized, and confused. He thought this God was for everyone. His trip home would be a pensive one filled with much pondering and reflection.
At another place and time there were two olive-skinned men, walking the same dusty road outside of Jerusalem, leaving after a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to the temple. There were no oxen, for there was no chariot, for their path led them home, just seven miles away at Emmaus. Their hopes had been so high, the hearts so filled with expectation, they thought something magnificent was going to happen, that the oppression would cease, but events didn’t unfold the way they had imagined, and they left feeling bereft, unfulfilled, marginalized, somewhat scared for their lives, and certainly confused. They weren’t far from home, yet far from hope.
In another place and time, there is a young dark-skinned African girl from the Congo, oceans away from her native home, distanced from her country and family where oppression is the norm and terror and danger reign. She finds herself staggering, not down a dusty road outside of Jerusalem, but on a city street where she resided for months until the pressure of poverty plunged her into despair. She came filled with a heart full of hopes and promises for a good future, a life of safety and wholeness, and after a few months here, she felt bereft, unfulfilled, marginalized, scared for her life, and certainly confused. Our 14-year-old girl was far from home and far from hope.
The eunuch was traveling along, reading aloud, trying to make sense of this scripture passage which his heart seemed to be stuck on from the book of the prophet Isaiah. Lost in his own thoughts, when a stranger suddenly appeared out of nowhere, ran up to him and blurted out this rather odd question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” our eunuch replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” Unknowingly or not, he opened the door for further conversation around the passage from Isaiah, the one about the sheep going to slaughter, who did not open his mouth.
Our two men, with the heavy hearts plodding their way home, were talking about what happened in Jerusalem, when a stranger suddenly appeared out of nowhere, ran up to them, and blurted out this rather odd question, “What are you talking about?”. It was an odd question because this person must have been the only person in all of the Jerusalem area who didn’t know about Jesus’ death on the cross. But these two men, so deep in despair, needed very little prompting to spill the whole sad story about their dashed hopes, the horror of Jesus’ crucifixion, and then this bizarre story related to them by the women of their group about an empty tomb. The words of the one who intruded upon their conversation, broke apart their despair and opened the door for a conversation about the meaning of the scriptures they had heard so often.
A priest, a stranger to the girl who suddenly appeared in the doorway of a hospital room in the psychiatric unit met this young girl with compassion in her eyes, and through the use of a translator asked her a question that broke apart her despair and opened the door for further conversation. “Are you a Christian?” the priest wanted to know for she had hoped for a common thread to draw these two very different people together. The young girl was startled enough by the odd question to blurt out a reactive response. “Yes, I am.” she replied, having remembered as a child walking into the village holding her grandmother’s hand, walking into the whitewashed church, looking at the altar with the colorful plastic flowers adorning it, and seeing the cup and the bread waiting for her. “Do you remember any words, any prayers, any scripture?” the priest asked. And she did. “This is my body, this is my blood.” This memory had been hidden deep in the recesses of her soul for over a decade, but now it all came flooding back into her heart. Jesus died for her, she remembered that. Jesus died for her sins. A dark cloud enveloped her countenance, for her sins of the recent months came to her mind and heart and she erupted into sobs.
The eunuch found hope in his conversation with Phillip who offered him a new perspective on these scriptures which he had been working so hard on to understand. The eunuch knew there was a truth in these words but he couldn’t grab onto by himself. With Phillip’s encouragement and explanation, the eunuch suddenly saw a bigger picture. He suddenly understood the law in Deuteronomy permitting only circumcised males into the temple, which had been the prohibitive which had been applied to him, needed to be seen within with this new thing that had happened, this amazing story of events in Jerusalem a few years ago, the fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah, the text his heart had been drawn to, about a messiah who would free the oppressed, draw in the marginalized, raise up the lowly, and give hope to the poor. Jesus’ self-giving love was for him. Jesus’ death and resurrection brought him, a sheep cast out of the fold, into new life, where everyone was included. The rushing water of the river spilling over the rocks was right there, his heart was ready, and Philip baptized him, finally and completely cleansing him of the sins he had brought with him to Jerusalem and bathed him in the sacrament of new life.
The pace of the two men along the dusty road changed from trudging along with heavy hearts to fairly dancing down the path, for something new emerged within them. They could feel their hearts lightened and be pulled toward this strange man’s voice, their minds opened to a new perspective on what had happened in Jerusalem. The stranger seemed to be continuing on the path as the men approached their home on the outskirts of Emmaus and they blurted out an invitation to come and stay with them, for night was near and they could share a meal together. The risen Christ sat with them, broke bread, said, “This is my body, given for you” and their lives were changed. This messiah was real, for them, for each one of them gathered in that dining room, and for each sheep scattered throughout the world.
The priest stretched out her hands and laid them firmly yet gently on the young girl’s head and she prayed with all her heart, calling upon the grace of Jesus, for healing, for cleansing, for love to touch and transform this poor young girl’s wounded heart and soul. The young woman’s sobs deepened and the priest abided with her, until the sobs began to subside. The priest made a cross on her forehead and said the words, “May Almighty God in mercy receive your confession of sorrow and of faith, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life.” The young woman, healed, forgiven, and restored, uttered am amazingly bold, “Amen.”
In all of these stories, the Holy Spirit, through the presence of Phillip, who was told to appear out of nowhere to the eunuch, through the presence of the Risen Christ who suddenly caught up to the heavy-hearted men along the road to Emmaus, through the presence of the wise and tender priest, who trusted her instinct to make this pastoral call to someone she didn’t know, broke through ordinary lives where things so often go wrong or end in despair or are filled with lost hopes, and drew those individual lives into the bigger salvation story of Jesus, making sense of the death and resurrection of Jesus in their lives.
The Holy Spirit is that which connects us to that saving grace. The Holy Spirit is that which opens our eyes to the scripture which sets our ordinary lives within the framework of the story of the good news of Jesus. The Holy Spirit is that which connects us to one another, so we may be each other’s spiritual guides and mentors, for as the eunuch says, “How can I understand without a guide?” Philip shared the bigger picture of inclusivity with the eunuch who had been excluded; the Risen Christ opened the living presence of the divine with the men from Emmaus who had believed it was lost forever; the priest used no words, but was a silent and powerful guide who made the healing presence of Jesus real through her hands and her compassion. The Holy Spirit always connects us to the greater reality of a love which touches all parts of us, that we so often can’t find or bear to see alone.
We are celebrating the season of Easter, when our scriptures open up for us the many ways Jesus will continue to be revealed to us, through a new perspective on scripture, through the bread and the wine, through our love given and received. The scripture lessons during this season also present the framework for the way to be church. As our gospel story reveals to us today, Jesus, the grace of God, the presence of the Holy Spirit, is the vine, that which connects us, that which gives us nourishment and life, that which draws us into one being, one Body of Christ. This connection can heal our soul and body, provide us hope in our times of darkness, reveal to us our belovedness, move us from despair to hopefulness, from fear to courage, from loathing to loving.
In our ordinary lives when things sometimes go terribly wrong, sometimes people break the bond between themselves and someone else, severing the tendril which God intended to connect the branches, through their actions or perspectives or hurtful words, and they innocently or foolishly imagine they can still be connected to the vine, even if not connected to the branches near them. I don’t think it works that way. I think to be solidly connected to the vine, we need to be connected to all the branches, those near to us and those afar. It is true, the vine, the source of divine love, is always extending out tendrils to draw everyone in, but if people have disconnected themselves from another branch, through harsh words, through hurtful actions, through rejection, they are also disconnecting themselves from the vine, and the whole Body of Christ is damaged. Our gospel story can tell us that if you are not loving your neighbor, then you are not loving God. Now maybe that’s where the pruning comes in, where God steps in and chops away at the hardened parts of one’s heart or casts away that hurtful tongue into the burning fire, or prunes away the hurt within their own souls, so the whole Body may be healed. It is the Holy Spirit which draws us to one another, which places the yearning within us to receive the body and blood of Christ, and to be spiritual guides to others, ushering souls into the new life offered us all.
It all comes back to allowing our eyes to be opened to the scriptures and to allow them to transform us in ways we may not imagine. The nature of God is such that that Word of God, which was in the beginning, which was made real in the person of Jesus, and is present to us in the breaking of bread, runs up alongside us, often blurts out a startling question, and grabs our hearts, always surprising us, always offering us grace, always enveloping us, especially when we had previously thought we could contain it, and always to build up the Body of Christ, to strengthen the connections between the branches and the vine.
May you allow the scriptures, the Word of God, to roam free in your hearts. Receive them and live.