United Presbyterian Church of West Orange


“We are the Branches”

April 28, 2024

Rev. Rebecca Migliore     


Last Week we talked about how the gospel of John helps us know who Jesus is by “I Am” statements: I am the Bread of Life; I am the Light of the World; I am the Door; I am the Good Shepherd; I am the Resurrection and the Life; I am the Way and the Truth and the Life; I am the Vine.  And we talked about how all these images were connectional—connecting Jesus to us.  We explored one of the images—the Good Shepherd. 

Today we are going to explore another—the Vine.  Jesus says “I am the vine.”  But he also overtly states the connection between us and him—“I am the vine and you are the branches.”  What is Jesus saying with this image?  What is a vine?  What are branches?  What does it mean for us?

Ann Marie and I love to spend time during the year in the Finger Lakes region of New York State—an area known for its wineries, and for its acres upon acres of grape vines.  And so, I have had the pleasure of watching grape vines and grape branches grow.  It is quite fascinating.  At this time of year, the vineyards look paltry.  There is the architecture of metal stakes or poles, widely spaced, with wires running across them.  The only living thing, although it doesn’t look very living right now, is the main vine itself—as it ages, it gets thicker and more gnarled.  But it basically looks like a small tree trunk.  No evidence of greenery.  And you wonder why there is so much structure around what essentially looks like a thick stick in the ground.

But soon, there will be shoots that will come out of the vine, shoots that become the branches.  These “branches” are the green part, the growing part of the vine.  They grow and twine around the wires, expanding ever wider, until they begin to interweave with the next closest vines.


       Over the summer, the branches will fill out and eventually produce grapes that hang from the branches, which are in turn hanging from the wires, which are fed life-giving nutrients from the main vine, which has sunk its root structure into the ground.  And in the fall, when the grapes are ripe, they are harvested.  The branches, now dried up and brown, are trimmed back, leaving just the main vine for the wintertime.  And the cycle continues.

You can see why Jesus might use this image as a symbol of who he is, of the connection between himself and his followers.  The vine provides life.  The vine anchors the whole plant.  The vine spreads its roots far and wide to absorb water and nutrients.  The vine then sends out the branches which produce fruit.  “I am the vine, you are the branches.”  Jesus is the way and the truth and the life.  But we are not supposed to be like moons, orbiting around Jesus the sun.  We are not stuck in static motion.  No, we are made to grow and expand—but still stay connected to our source.  We are the extension of the vine, we are the storytellers, we are faith builders, we are to be the hands and feet and heart of God reaching out into a world of need.

What does that look like?  How does that work?  How do we become branches?  Well, our other Scripture lesson for today gives us a snapshot of such an experience—although it is an extraordinary experience to be sure!  Philip and the Ethiopian—and that is what I’m going to call him, “The Ethiopian.”  Because we shouldn’t be labeled based on our sexual status.  A word about that. 

This man had been surgically altered by order of someone else.  It was a product of his being in servitude.  But I think it is mentioned only because it points out how much of an outsider this man was.  We assume he looked very different from Philip.  And he wasn’t just a foreigner, he was an Ethiopian (in those days considered to be someone from the ends of the earth).  But he has made the best of his situation.

      He was presumably wealthy, being in charge of the queen’s entire treasury; I imagine he was royally dressed, and he is traveling in a chariot (when most people were lucky to have a donkey), and he had possession of a book (a scroll), which he could read!  Even with the advantage of wealth, he was one of those on the periphery of society.  And here he was, one forced into the ambiguity of being different.  Here he was, in the in-between space of the wilderness road.  Here he was, hoping to find his way before God.

I don’t know if Philip would have approached this man on his own.  But the Spirit (the presence of God with us today, prodding us) put Philip on the same road.  And then after Philip was in the right place at the right time, the Spirit nudged him, “Go over to that chariot and join it.”  Notice that Philip does not get into a discussion with the Spirit about the safety of reaching out to a stranger, especially a stranger that was so unlike him.  No, Philip runs to catch up with the carriage.    


And thus begins this amazing tale of two unlike people, each willing to be open to the other.  The Ethiopian desires to learn, in fact he has been to Jerusalem “to worship” (although our commentaries tell us that he would not have been allowed in the temple compound because of the damage to his body making him unclean.)  And Philip desires to share the good news of Jesus.  And starting with where the Ethiopian is, starting with what he is reading (the prophet Isaiah), Philip does just that.  

And when the Ethiopian hears, he must recognize that this story is for him too.  For when he sees water, he asks what would prevent him from being baptized.  This servant of the queen has made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the holy city, desiring to know more about the God that he has heard of, that he is reading about.  We don’t know how much satisfaction he got when he was there.  But along the road, in this interaction with Philip, in the telling of the grace and love of Jesus, he imagines being included in the kingdom of God.

Was there any anxiety when he asked “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”  Is he used to people looking down at him, for his skin color, for his sexual identity, for his servanthood?  Is he imagining that there will be a catch, there will be a footnote he hasn’t heard yet, there will be something, somewhere, that will exclude him yet again? 

And what about Philip.  These are the early days, the beginning of the followers of Jesus trying to figure out what they are doing and how they are supposed to be doing it.  There is an active and heated discussion right at this time among the leadership about how one becomes a Christian (does one need to become a Jew first?).  And there are questions about who Jesus’ message is to be carried to (even though Jesus himself commands that they go from Jerusalem to Judea to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.)  Philip isn’t one of the high mucky-mucks.  This is way above his pay grade.  He must know he is stepping into uncharted territory.  An Ethiopian.  One who is unclean, and can never be clean in some eyes. A stranger on a wilderness road.

Does the Spirit intervene?  Does the Spirit embolden the Ethiopian to command the chariot to stop?  Does the Spirit whisper to Philip “What would Jesus do?”  We aren’t told.  But both the Ethiopian and Philip climb down, and there, in the water by the roadside, Philip baptizes him.  And before they can feel awkward in the aftermath of this special moment, before they can think to have a discussion about a celebration dinner, or make travel plans back to the “mother ship” Jerusalem—the Spirit takes over once again.  Philip is beamed up to another place.  And continues his work of telling the story to others.  And the Ethiopian goes on his way, rejoicing.  And to hear the Ethiopian Orthodox Church tell it, he becomes the one who begins the spread of the gospel in his land.  

Vine and branches.  Philip and the Ethiopian.  In this story, Jesus is the vine and Philip is the branch that then connects the Ethiopian to the vine so that he might become another, separate branch.

      The Spirit is the glue, the invisible structure, that brings Philip and the Ethiopian within sight of each other.  The Spirit is the One who gives Philip the courage to run after a chariot, the openness to hear the Ethiopian reading, and the enthusiasm to share what Philip knows about God and God’s love for us.  But Philip had to run after that chariot.  Philip had to engage in conversation with a stranger.  Philip had to be willing to baptize in the muddy water of the wilderness.  And Philip had to then move on where the Spirit led him.

And although we are not told his story here, the Ethiopian obviously became a branch in his own right, spreading the news, telling the story of Jesus and the story of the way he was welcomed into the family.  He too followed the Spirit as it manifested itself in his life.  What a wonderful example of what we are supposed to do with our own lives.  Because whether we are Philip or the Ethiopian, we are to be on the lookout for where the Spirit is leading us; we are to be ready to act out, speak out, in grace and friendship; we are to believe in the wideness of God’s mercy and the steadfastness of God’s love; and we are to stretch ourselves and make sure we have growing edges, each and every season, each and every year, for as long as we shall live.

I take comfort in the idea that we don’t have to be perfect at the outset—that we are first a shoot, and then a tendril, and then a climbing branch winding its way around the wire.  I take as a challenge that each of us is asked to be, in the end, a steady support for the fruit of our lives.  I acknowledge that no branch can be productive without being tied to that vine.  And I am grateful that Jesus wanted us to remember who we are as well as who he is.  Each time we come to the Lord’s table we are asked to remember.  To eat of the Bread of life.  To drink of the fruit of the Vine.  To promise once again to be who we are: God’s branches in this world.  Amen.