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.
1 John 4.7-21
It took the genius of the author of 1 John to sum up the Christian message in three words: God is love. The phrase appears twice in this passage, and nowhere else in the Bible. What it means is quite concrete: we recognise the love God has for us because we have seen the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We experience his love in imitating him by loving one another. God has taken the initiative, and we follow. Once again, the message of Christ is spread, and the Church built up, through ordinary human interaction, transformed by the Spirit into life with God.
‘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 letter of 1st John says, “Beloved, let us love one another. Because love is from God.” But what gets in the way of this love from actually being seen and experienced?