Pruning Yields Better Fruit

The Reverend J. Howard Cepelak

Trinity Church

Waltham, Massachusetts

Easter VI – 6 May 2012 – The Sacrament of Holy Communion

Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, I John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

From the Book of the Acts of the Apostles:

Under the influence of the Holy Spirit, Philip encountered the Ethiopian eunuch reading Isaiah’s account of the suffering servant. He asks Philip, About
whom, pray, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?

From the First Letter of St. John:

In an eloquent discourse on the nature of holy love, St. John wrote, In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of
judgment…There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment….

From the Gospel According to St. John:

Jesus said, I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, he takes away, and every branch that does bear
fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.

Let us pray.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer, our Strength and our


Although I have entitled this morning’s homily, Pruning Yields Better Fruit, obviously taking these words from the assigned Gospel lesson, the message
concerns itself not only with pruning – a painful kind of trimming or cutting back – but also with suffering in general, its meaning and purpose.

Why we suffer in this life remains a central question entertained by both theologians and philosophers and nearly every one else for that matter. This is not new, yet it seems that every generation thinks of itself as the first to deal with this essential issue of human life. Yet the issue is, in fact, as
old as time itself.

The Book of Job, perhaps the oldest story in the Bible and found in the sacred writings and folklore of other ancient civilizations, deals precisely with
the issue of suffering – especially when a good man suffers unjustly. And this story, in one form or another, is just about as old as human history.

In the current malaise of secular humanism, the question virtually haunts those who do not believe in the divine sanctification of suffering – a
sanctification that can be found exclusively in Jesus Christ. Without the cross, the meaning and purpose of suffering never comes clear. No matter how much
thought, speculation and intellectual conversation one may indulge, no satisfactory answer ever arises. The ancients failed to come to a satisfying answer
and contemporary thinkers fail as well. Hence, the modern humanist experiences the void of meaninglessness that in the extreme can be a living hell.
Imagine an empty, angry, futile and meaningless life.

Without the cross on which our Lord unjustly suffered and died so that we could live – without that divine reference point, suffering in this life can only
lead to that state of bitterness and despair – a condition from which they flee taking refuge in sex, drugs, reckless thrill seeking and even in violence.
But I am ahead of myself. Let’s look at our lessons.

When the Holy Spirit led Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch, a servant to the Queen Mother of his nation – for Candace is the title given to the Nubian Queen
Mother – he is reading aloud from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. In fact, although a gentile, he finds himself attracted to Judaism. No reason is
given for his interest. He just is.

When he meets up with Philip, the eunuch is returning to his home country after having just visited Jerusalem to worship in the Temple – or near the Temple
for gentiles were not permitted in the inner courts of the Temple. But just being close to the Temple, the center for the worship of the One True God in
the ancient world, apparently, was enough for him. He found something compelling in the religion of The One True God as opposed to the religions of his own
country involving many divinities.

Whatever the case, he was reading Isaiah – the part about the unjust suffering of the servant of the Lord. Meeting and conversing with Philip, he asked the
apostle if Isaiah is refereeing to himself or to someone else. Philip then explained how the prophet was speaking of the Lord’s servant and how this
prophecy had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. With that explanation, the eunuch requested baptism and Philip, led by the Holy Spirit, baptized the man.

Now, I think that it’s safe to say that for the Ethiopian, like most people of his time, suffering meant that one had incurred the disfavor of the gods and
was being punished. Sin brought punishment. People feared the divine wrath.

In fact, the fear of suffering in all of its forms from physical illness to a condition of blindness or paralysis or suffering inflicted by someone else
like a beating from a thief or torture at the hands of one’s enemies – all of it meant that somehow and in some way, you had sinned- either intentionally
or unintentionally – it didn’t matter – the result was the same; the gods were angry with you. You were being punished.

Fear of calling down the wrath of the gods served as a prime motivating factor in most religions. (It continues today in one major world religion. Fear of
the wrath of God motivates grotesque behavior.) Hence, in order to avoid angering the gods, one offered sacrifices of appeasement. Worship, being primarily
the offering of such sacrifices had very little to do with the divine and holy love of God for His creatures but much more so with the fear of suffering.

The idea of divine and holy love of which St. John so eloquently writes – a love so perfect as to cast out fear – well such a love had no place in the
gentile religions.

Again, I want to emphasize that Christ’s suffering on the cross for the sake of our salvation changed – and changes – everything. His suffering proves
God’s perfect love. His suffering takes onto Himself the punishment due to fallen mankind. His suffering saves because His suffering is the only perfect
intersection of God and man – of the divine and the human – of holy love casting out human fear – the only intersection that can save.

After the cross, suffering can no longer be thought of as just a punishment for sin. Jesus taught us this most important lesson in the healing of the man
born blind. His disciples asked Him, Who sinned this man or his parents that he was born blind. And Jesus answered that it was not an issue of sin but
rather an opportunity for the works of the Lord to be made manifest in this man’s suffering through his healing. Holy love once again trumps human fear.

Yet suffering can be a consequence of sin. Sin carries with it it’s own punishment – at least in some cases. And when we, as the children of God, do bad
things, God, because He loves us, disciplines us. This discipline – which often hurts – is our pruning so that we will become better people, bearing better
fruit of salvation and bringing honor and glory to the God who loves us with a perfect and holy love.

If we think about it, some of our lives’ most important lessons – lessons well learned -resulted from our sufferings. We learn to avoid danger because it
hurts. Playing with matches can burn. Burning hurts. Hence, we learn how to use matches rather than play carelessly with them.

His love – not our fear -saves us. And He proves His love by taking on our suffering, sanctifying it. And when I say He takes on our suffering, I mean that
He takes on the totality of our suffering – the suffering that we experience as part of our human condition as well as the suffering that we bring onto
ourselves because of our own willful and bad behavior. You get the point.

He who had no sin became sin to remove sin. So says St. Paul. He takes our sin and redeems it. And in the redemption, He removes it as a barrier to
salvation. And salvation means eternal life in an ever increasing joy resulting from God’s perfect love.

With God the Father’s self-sacrifice in God the Son – on the cross – He ends – once and for all – the felt necessity to offer any sacrifice for appeasement
or expiation. His broken body makes us whole. His shed blood redeems the soul. He was – and is – and will be forever – the one full, perfect and all
sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world. All blood sacrifice ends with the shedding of Christ’s blood – His blood shed for the remission of

And I feel compelled to say to all those who in their secularism and in their humanism do not believe in the redeeming nature of Jesus Christ, that they
can be set free from their anger, meaninglessness an despair by a simple act of faith in the power of God. Like the Ethiopian eunuch, they can find the
truth – if they will accept it.

And if anyone should believe that Christ’s saving sacrifice is not important in this world, please look at another world religion that believes that by
shedding Christian and Jewish blood- as well as pagan blood – they can cleanse themselves from their sin and gain eternal reward in heaven. By killing the
so-called infidel, they gain the remission of their sins – so they erroneously believe. A religion based on the fear of divine wrath, they murder in a
divine name. Believing they gain heaven, they inherit hell.

Like Philip – and St. John as well as all the other disciples and apostles, our job is to proclaim the eternal Truth of the redemption available only in
and through the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. Nothing else can save us. Nothing else can save anyone else. Simple as that.

Proclaiming this message – boldly -constitutes the bearing of the good fruit that God expects from His people. It honors and glorifies God.

As He offered Himself on the cross for the sake of our salvation, so He continues to nurture us as we receive this great Sacrament of Salvation.

So come to this sacred table – not because you must but because you may – and eat the bread of heaven and drink of the cup of salvation.

Let us pray.

Heavenly Father, bless your church on earth with the full conviction of the Truth of your saving grace. Bless all who believe with the courage to proclaim
this to those who do not believe that in our proclamation, innocent lives may be saved from ungodly killers. Grant the full realization of your kingdom and
deliver us from all evil – both now and forever. We ask this in the name of

and for the sake of

your Son, Jesus Christ,

the only Saviour of the whole world,

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