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Sermon for Sunday 2 May 2021

First Reading: Acts 8:26-40

26An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Psalm 150

1Hallelujah! Praise God in his holy temple; praise him in the firmament of his power. 2Praise him for his mighty acts; praise him for his excellent greatness. 3Praise him with the blast of the ram’s horn; praise him with lyre and harp. 4Praise him with timbrel and dance; praise him with strings and pipe. 5Praise him with resounding cymbals; praise him with loud clanging cymbals. 6Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.  Hallelujah!

Second Reading: 1 John 4:1-21

1Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. 2By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, 3and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. 4Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. 5They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. 6We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error. 7Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. 8Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. 10In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 11Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. 13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. 15Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. 16So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. 17By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. 18There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. 19We love because he first loved us. 20If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.

Gospel: John 15:1-8

1{Jesus said,} “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. 2Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. 3Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. 4Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 5I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. 6If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. 7If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. 8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.”

Having the Right Connection

After Elvis Presley died in 1977, lots of people claimed to be related to him.  Tabloids published stories with headlines like “I was Elvis’ love child!”  Some of these claims were made by fans desperate to maintain some connection to the musical legend. Other made these claims in the hope of gaining publicity or money from Elvis’ estate.

Claiming a connection to Elvis Presley became so popular that Detroit-area disk jockey, Dick Purtan, began selling birth certificates for people who wanted to claim they were Elvis’ child.  Surprisingly, some 2,000 people paid $2 apiece for these fraudulent birth certificates.  And with Elvis’ popularity even now, I wonder what those fake birth certificates are worth today; I’m guessing it’s more than $2.  Sadly, there are many more stories of people pretending to be something they were not.

Sager Kopchak was once an esteemed member of the Boston society scene.  She married a man who owned a high-end boutique.  She attended all the fashionable parties and had closets full of designer clothes.  The people around her said that she and her husband were obsessed with fashion and status and the social scene.  Sager was generous in supporting charitable fundraisers, especially cancer research.  But her friends in Boston reported that she rarely shared details of her life, except to tell people that she had survived colon cancer a few years earlier.  But in the spring of 2016, Sager Kopchak’s life fell apart when the FBI arrested her for bank fraud.

It turns out that Ms. Sager had financed her luxury lifestyle by stealing more than $1 million from a former boyfriend.  A few years earlier, she had gained access to his accounts when she falsely claimed that she had cancer and moved in with him to live closer to the hospital where she claimed she was getting treatment.  When news of Sager’s arrest got out, her husband divorced her.  All but one of her society friends abandoned her.  She lost everything precious to her because she tried to build her identity and image on a lie, and by bankrolling her luxurious lifestyle with someone else’s wealth.

Now, before we laugh in condescension at the fake Elvis children or the fake socialite, we might want to consider that we too have often been tempted to base our identity on shallow, temporary things.  Isn’t it true that we shape our identity by the car we drive, or our careers, or friends, or family, or even our financial accounts?  Many times, we connect ourselves with our favorite sports team.  If they’re winning, we’re on top of the world and see ourselves as winners as well.  It’s human nature.

Every psychologist and sociologist who studies social media says that social media is having a tremendous impact on people’s notions of identity today.  Social media encourages us to link our identity with our appearance and the image we project.  It’s sad, but today, because of the social media influence, our identities aren’t based on our character, our intellect, or substance, it’s all about the image we portray.  Case and point.

Natalia Taylor is a social media influencer who has about 300,000 followers on her various social media channels.  Back in February 2020, Taylor posted some beautiful, perfectly posed shots on Instagram of her vacation to Bali.  After receiving lots of “likes” and “shares” and comments from her social media fans, Taylor revealed that she never actually went to Bali.  She and her photographer had taken all those gorgeous, exotic photos at their local Ikea store.  Taylor says that she set up the fake photo shoot deliberately, in order to teach her fans to question the images they see on social media.  As she said, “Sometimes, people want to lie about who they are.  It’s not hard to do . . . Today it’s easier than ever to become anyone you want.  In some aspects, that’s wonderful!  But with great power comes great responsibility.”  So the question before us today is, where do we find our identity?

The fact is our identity—who or what we identify with—shapes our life.  It impacts our values and choices and relationships.  If our identity is rooted in being an athlete, we’re not going to sit on the couch and binge-watch Netflix.  Instead, we’ll invest our spare time building our physical and mental endurance.  If our identity is rooted in being a parent, we’ll spend valuable time with our children and invest in their futures.

In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus gives us our “birth certificate”—our identity—and it’s not a fake one like the child-of-Elvis certificate.  Jesus reveals the source of our identity, and it’s out of this identity that we find hope and strength and the foundation for our lives.  Jesus said, “I am the vine, and you are the branches” (John 15:5).  Have you ever stopped and thought about how much hope is packed into that little sentence?

We find our identity in being connected with someone or something; generally someone or something bigger than we are.  Our external locus is guided by our connection to our parents and family, our teachers, coaches and friends.  We’re shaped by our church family and our community.  When another person sees us and values us and wants the best for us, that too influences our identity.  We’re formed by the people who influence us, and we find our identity in our connection to others.  Herein lies the caution. 

We cannot choose our families, our school connections or in many cases the community around us.  However, we can choose our friends and those with whom we associate.  Because our friends and peer pressure have such an influence on us, we must choose them with care.  This is why our church community, and our Christian connections, are so very important.

In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus gives us the ultimate gift.  He says, “You are connected to Me.  And you are not just connected to Me—you are now a part of my substance.  Therefore, you are not alone.  Your life is not random or meaningless.  The divine nature, the wisdom, the life, the joy that flows through Me now flows into you.”  When we stay connected to Christ, we have meaning and purpose in our lives.  For us, this means Jesus is the source of complete nourishment and sustainment, body, soul and spirit; it is He who nourishes us and provides for our every need. 

Sadly, too often, we seek in vain when we look for nourishment and sustainment in other places.  When we disconnect ourselves from the Source of Life, the Creator God, the God Who claims us as His masterpiece, then we’re tempted to find our identity in some poor and worthless substitutes.

In the 1930s when the Great Depression devastated households across the nation, a young mother named Mary had a crisis of faith and identity.  Mary and her husband had five children to feed.  After her husband’s pay was cut, Mary took in laundry and ironing to make a little money.  But they were barely scraping by.  One day, the local grocer accused Mary’s oldest son of stealing food.  If you’ve ever felt like your life was spinning out of control, and you can’t see any hope for the future, then you understand the dark place Mary was in.

Distraught, Mary went home, turned on the gas heater in the house, lay down on the bed with her youngest daughter, and waited for the gas to kill them all.  But as they lay there in the quiet, Mary heard the radio playing in the kitchen.  She had forgotten to shut it off.  And the song it was playing was “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.”  This song was written in the 1800s by a young man who had suffered some terrible tragedies himself.  And yet, he was able to write the words, “What a Friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear!  What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.  Oh, what peace we often forfeit, Oh, what needless pain we bear, all because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!”

In her own words, Mary says, that as she listened to the song, “I realized that I had made a tragic mistake.  I had tried to fight all my terrible battles alone . . . I jumped up, turned off the gas, opened the door, and raised the windows.”  She spent the rest of the day in prayer and in thanking God for the blessings she and her husband had.  Mary and her husband still had struggles ahead of them.  They lost their house.  But they and their children made it through the Depression.  Many years later, Mary was able to look back at that day when she almost ended her life and the lives of her children and say that she is so thankful that God “woke her up” to the blessings all that He give.

When Mary was at her most desperate, hopeless point, she was reminded that Jesus loves her.  That He is our hope and strength.  And she had forgotten her connection to the God who loves her, who sees her needs, who came in human form to experience her struggles and heartbreaks.  Once she rediscovered her identity, her connection to Jesus Christ, she fought back against despair and with God’s help, reclaimed her life.

There are some who seek what they need in their neighborhood tavern.  Some will seek it sitting in front of a television set or staring at their smart phone hour after hour after hour.  Others will look for it in art, in philosophy, some in bizarre personal indulgences.  Some will try to shape their identities through wealth, power, or notoriety.  Many of course seek their identity through social media.  But the truth is, any other avenue, except through Christ, are dead-ends.  We must accept this fact.  It’s not our outer circumstances that determine our inner happiness.  True peace and happiness can only come from God.

Some people who surround themselves with every convenience and luxury wallow in inner despair.  Evidence of this can be seen in Hollywood and among the elite in our society.  Yet, others in the most adverse of circumstances, with God’s help, rise above those circumstances and claim amazing victories.  It all depends on who we’re connected to.  Jesus is the vine.  We are the branches.  Jesus is the source of all that nourishes and sustains us and through Him, we are all inner connected.  We not only have connections in high places, we’re also connected in low places and all the places in between.  In Jesus, we’re connected to one another as individual branches and linked to the true Vine, Jesus Christ.

A woman named Stephanie posted online about the members of her church and their love for a teenage boy who was undergoing treatment for a brain tumor.  During the pandemic, no one could visit the boy because the cancer treatments suppressed his immune system.  But his church family was determined to show their love and support.  So, they organized a community “drive-by.”  Hundreds of cars drove slowly past his house, honking their horns and flashing their headlights, to let the young man know that his church members were praying for him.

We live in a world that can be awfully lonely whether you’re at the top or at the bottom.  We need to affirm and embrace the idea that we are a family, a part of a Christian family with every true believer in Jesus in this world.  How could anyone be lonely with such a family?  This leaves one more thing for us to consider.  Jesus is the true Vine, we are the branches, and He is the One who gives us what we need to bear fruit.

The fruit Jesus is talking about is when all our actions are motivated by, and reflect, the spirit and character of Jesus.  Bearing fruit means letting the spirit of Jesus inspire all our actions.  And not just our actions in the church, but our actions on the job, on the sports field, at school, when we’re in public or out with friends and on social media.  Bearing fruit means Jesus can be seen in us in everything we think, say and do.  This is true even when we’re all alone and nobody is looking.  Bearing fruit for the kingdom is what life is all about.  When we stay connected to Jesus, when we’re shaped and pruned by the Father, His spirit and values will fill our minds and hearts.  And our actions will reflect His actions.

In their book, Same Kind of Different as Me, authors Ron Hall and Denver Moore tell about a time when Mr. Moore was living at a homeless shelter.  One day, a car drove up, and an elderly man was pushed out onto the sidewalk.  The man was drunk, and when Denver Moore tried to help him up, the man spat at him and cursed him and used vile racial slurs to get rid of him.  However, instead of reacting in like manner, Denver helped him up off the pavement and took him inside the shelter.  The elderly man’s name was Mr. Ballantine.

Denver soon learned that Mr. Ballantine hated people of color and he hated Christians; Denver was both these things.  But in spite of Mr. Ballantine’s treatment, Denver kept reaching out to him.  He brought him hot meals.  When Mr. Ballantine was put into a government-run nursing home, Denver visited him and cleaned his room.  At every visit, Mr. Ballantine cursed him and called him names.  One day, Denver brought a friend to visit Mr. Ballantine, and that friend later sent Mr. Ballantine some personal supplies he had requested.  Mr. Ballantine was troubled by this gesture.

“Why would that man buy me hygiene items when he doesn’t even know me?” Ballantine asked.  “’Cause he’s a Christian,” Denver answered.  “Well, I still don’t understand.  And anyway, you know I hate Christians.”  Ballantine protested.  Denver paused before telling him, “I’m a Christian.”  In that very moment, Mr. Ballantine experienced a change of heart.  He began apologizing for all those times he had cursed Denver and called him horrible names.

Denver explained that the reason he had spent the last three years taking care of Mr. Ballantine was because he knew that God loved him.  Mr. Ballantine responded, “. . . I’ve lived too long and sinned too much for God to forgive me.  On the other hand, I’m too . . . old for much more sinning.   Maybe that’ll count for something!”  That was the last day Mr. Ballantine called Denver Moore any rude names.  And not long after that, Mr. Ballantine attended church with Denver.  He was 85 years old, and it was the first time he had ever set foot in a church.

Because Denver Moore found his identity and his hope and his strength in Jesus Christ, he was able to reflect the spirit of Christ in his words and actions, even to a mean-spirited old man filled with hate.  And Denver Moore’s Christ-like actions bore fruit in the life of Mr. Ballantine.  Imagine how much your life could change if you found your identity in your connection to Jesus.  What changes could we see and how many lives could we impact if our life consistently and authentically reflected the spirit of Jesus?  

There is no need for us to settle for a mediocre life.  We don’t need to spend our time and energy on this earth chasing after meaningless sources of fulfillment.  When we seek to be sustained by the true Vine, He will provide everything we need to have a meaningful and fulfilling life and we will also have a true purpose, to bear fruit for God’s kingdom as we reflect Jesus’ spirit.


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