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Connection & Belonging

This morning I want to talk to you about connection and belonging. Connection and belonging are two of the most important facets of a human life. If the pandemic taught us anything, it was how much we need connection and belonging in our lives.


Last week was Good Shepherd Sunday, and one of the things that Jesus says to his disciples as the good shepherd is the following:


“I came that you may have life, and have it abundantly.”


We all want abundant life. Life lived to the fullest, life which gives us a sense of purpose and well-being and moments of joy.


But it’s hard to have abundant life without connection and belonging.


Which is why the disciples are in crisis in the gospel reading from John that we just heard. Today’s gospel is set on the night before Jesus’ death, after the last supper. Jesus has told them that he is leaving, that he will be put to death, that they can’t go where he is going - and they’re terrified. They’re afraid of being left alone, afraid of losing the connection and belonging that sustained them, that they had shared with Jesus.


In response to their fears, Jesus offers reassurance. And he does so in today’s gospel with the beautiful image of the vine and its branches:


“I am the vine and you are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” Have you ever been to a vineyard? The vine is an amazing plant. It’s so inter-connected, it’s hard to know where one part ends and the next part begins. The vine and its branches are an image of connection and belonging, an image of nourishment, mutuality and growth. It’s a metaphor that scripture uses often to illustrate what it means to be the people of God. How God’s people are connected with each other and with their Creator.


Jesus is trying to reassure his disciples, in fact, he’s making them a promise. No matter what happens, I will be with you. Somehow, his imminent death and departure will make way for a deeper intimacy, a more profound experience of belonging, a connection that we may think of as mystical but which is no less real. And because they will remain connected, because the disciples will continue to belong to Jesus and to each other, they will experience the abundant life that arises from connection and belonging. That is, in the language of the vineyard, they will bear fruit. “I will be with you, stay connected,” Jesus is telling them. Without connection, it’s hard to live abundantly, it’s hard to bear fruit. If the branch isn’t connected to the vine, it withers. That’s not intended to be a judgment or a punishment, it’s simply the truth about the human condition.


We need belonging. Jesus has promised us belonging, promised that there is a place of belonging for us in the family of God.


But belonging is still a challenge for us.


So many things can get in the way. We pigeon-hole people, we create barriers and boundaries that separate us from others, we decide who’s in and who’s out, what’s acceptable and what isn’t. We struggle with relationships, we battle with expectations, we experience isolation. Do we all get to belong, or is this promise just for some people? Are there strings attached?


Perhaps no one knows the struggle with belonging better that the eunuch from Ethiopia that we encounter on a lonely wilderness road in our first reading from Acts. Where does the eunuch belong? He’s not a woman. But, according to society, neither is he a man. He’s a person of tremendous wealth and privilege but at what cost? We don’t know his story. Was becoming a eunuch his choice, or was it imposed on him? How does he feel about it? We don’t know. But what we do know is that when we meet him, he is alone, and he is clearly looking for something in his life.


These days we might call him a seeker. He’s on his way back from a long, arduous pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship, to seek God at the Jewish Temple. But upon his arrival, he would have been turned away from the inner courts of the Temple, and barred from offering his sacrifice.


“What is to prevent me from entering?” he may have asked. “What is to prevent me from worshipping God?”


The answer, in accordance with the ancient religious tradition, would have been given:


“You are a eunuch.”


Can you imagine the humiliation that the Ethiopian eunuch must have experienced in that moment of being turned away?


Which is perhaps why when Philip encounters him on his way home, he is focused on a particular passage of scripture from the prophet Isaiah:


“In his humiliation, justice was denied him.

Who can describe his generation.

For his life is taken away from the earth.”


Philip is the most talented evangelist in the early community of disciples. He’s the first one to take the gospel outside of Jerusalem. He’s been warmly received in Samaria, where many were baptized. But now, in an unlikely move, the Spirit sends Philip to the desert, to the wilderness road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza, where the chance of encountering another living soul is pretty slim. It’s a reminder that when God’s Spirit is in charge, the church may find itself going in surprising directions.


On that wilderness road Philip encounters the Ethiopian eunuch riding past in his chariot, reading out loud, as was the custom, from the scroll of Isaiah. The Spirit says to Philip, ‘go over to this chariot and join it”, and so Philip runs after the chariot to catch up. In the book of Acts, people are always scrambling to catch up with what the Spirit is doing.


The eunuch asks Philip about the Isaiah text, this same text that we read together on Good Friday: “this one who is humiliated, about whom is the prophet talking?” And beginning with this text, Philip proclaims to the eunuch the good news about Jesus. About how God sent Jesus to be with us, to show us what God was like, about how he was put to death on a cross. Jesus knew humiliation. Jesus knew shame. Jesus knew isolation. Yet God raised Jesus from the dead and glorified him.


And the eunuch gets it. He gets the good news, not just the good news about Jesus but also how this is good news for himself. He realizes that despite his humiliation, despite his shame, despite his isolation, he too is included. He too belongs. The promises of God, the promise of Jesus that he will be with us always, like a vine and its branches, that promise of connection and belonging, is for him too.


So he puts it to the test. They come upon some water, and the eunuch says to Philip,


“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”


You can imagine all sorts of answers to that question. You haven’t done any baptismal preparation. There’s no priest out here. We don’t have foreigners in our community. You haven’t made a profession of faith yet. Or perhaps the answer that he’d heard so often, that he dreaded the most: you’re a eunuch.


But Philip gets the good news too. Jesus’ promise of connection and belonging is for all people, all nations, all gender identities. It may have taken the early church a while to figure that out, in fact even today we’re still figuring it out. But the belonging promised by Jesus has a trajectory of inclusion that is constantly surprising us, expanding and defying our expectations.


Philip gets it. Philip raises no objections. He baptizes the Ethiopian eunuch right there and then. You too belong in our family, the family of the God who created each and every one of us in God’s image.


And the Ethiopian goes on his way, rejoicing. Because the promise is for him too. I am the vine and you are the branches. Connection and belonging. So that we can bear fruit and have life in all its abundance.


It is one of my favourite stories in scripture.


Yet it does pose a challenge for us as church. There have been throughout history, there are still today many people who don’t feel welcome in church. Who don’t feel like they belong. Who don’t have the connection they need in their lives. For a whole variety of reasons.


How do we let people know that whatever their stories, whatever their life circumstances, they too belong? How do we become a community where that belonging is made real? How can we offer connection?


“I am the vine and you are the branches.”


Connection and belonging. It’s what we all need. And it’s also what we’re called to do.



Homily. Yr B Easter 5, April 28 2024

Readings: Acts 8.26-40; Ps 22:25.31; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8

Image by Aaron Logan, Creative Commons



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