The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 3 May 2015
I John 4:7-21
St. John 15:1-8
Background: African Queens
The story of Philip and the eunuch would been exotic in and of itself, but we are given more information that is equally exotic. We are told that the eunuch was “a treasury official” of the Candacem Queen of the Ethiopians. This is not the only reference we have to these ruler, or “queens regent” in Kush in the Nile River Valley. The term may be translated as either “Queen” or “Queen-Mother”, but it is definitely a title rather than a proper name. It is not only Luke who recalls this event (and Luke may be attracted to the exotic, here, because it sees the Gospel being given to more than the Gentiles of Europe), but also Pliny, Strabo, and Eusebius note not only the office, but the people whom the Candace ruled. Legends about these remarkable women are many, some involving Alexander the Great, and the Emperor Augustus. We know their names, and we have some idea about events in their lives (mostly frome Before the Common Era). Their area of influence extended from Northeastern Africa over to the Red Sea. On the edge of the classical world, their history seems to have sprung from the Indus River valley, where St. Thomas would make his mark.
An angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it." So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth."
The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?" Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?" He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
With Philip we meet a complex character. He comes to us with a sense of privilege: title, transportation, the ability to read, and possesses a scroll of Isaiah (in Greek) – so he is probably at least bi-lingual at least. There is another aspect to this character, however. He is truly an outcast. He is an Ethiopian, so he comes from a distance and from a different tradition, but is none-the-less drawn to Jerusalem. He is a person of color, and he is a eunuch, some one who stands outside of the purity code of Israel. In his own context, the eunuch is a person of influence and power, but in the context of Israel, we is something other and strange. This is the complex situation to which Philip is introduced.
And as sauce for the goose, he is reading one of the Suffering Servant Songs from one of the latter Isaiahs. Philip brings a new eye to the reading of this snippet from the Song. For Philip it is clear that the servant is none other than Jesus, and his silence and humiliation are accounted for in the verses of the song. There is one other operative presence, however, and that is the Spirit. An angel directs Philip to the fortuitous intersection, but it is the Spirit who sends. In this manner, Philip becomes a “sent one” an apostle. And in the nexus that the Spirit arranges, believer, preacher, Word, and water, something astounding happens – baptism. Philip is fully participating in the manner of the Risen One that he appears to breathe the Spirit upon the eunuch, and then disappears. Just as Jesus does, he enters the situation and announced the Kingdom of God. One almost wants to continue the journey with the eunuch.
Breaking open Acts:
- How does the eunuch stand outside of the social standards of the time?
- Do you stand outside current social standards? How?
- Have you ever been “sent” like Philip? Describe the situation.
Psalm 22:24-30 Deus, Deus meus
My praise is of him in the great assembly; *
I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied,
and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: *
"May your heart live for ever!"
All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the LORD, *
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
For kingship belongs to the LORD; *
he rules over the nations.
To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship; *
all who go down to the dust fall before him.
My soul shall live for him;
my descendants shall serve him; *
they shall be known as the LORD'S for ever.
They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn *
the saving deeds that he has done.
Our familiarity with this psalm is recent in that the ceremonies of Holy Week and the Triduum have made them available to us. Here, however, we focus on the later verses of the psalm where the locale changes from the familiar to places not so familiar, “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord.” The verses are a good commentary on the ministry and preaching of Philip in the first reading (above). The connection with Christian theology even extends to life in the nether world, and one is tempted to think of Christ’s harrowing of hell as we read the words, ‘To him alone all who sleep in the earth bow down in worship, all who go down to the dust fall before him.” This is a song of a lasting relationship. The eunuch in the reading above has just begun his relationship with the Lord, but here, the psalmist luxuriates in the connection with God, and God’s grace. It is a relationship that extends beyond himself to “a people yet unborn.”
Breaking open Psalm 22:
- Where would you not expect to find God in your life?
- How might you see God there?
- Have you ever sought out someone for good purposes? Describe the situation.
1 John 4:7-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God's love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
One commentator gives a refreshing perspective that can help us understand the meaning of I John’s author. The Gospel of John gives us eyes to see in Jesus the Divine, while this author gives us eyes to see Christ’s humanity. God’s presence is seen in the love God bears toward us and that we ought to bear for one another. It is in this human act of caring and loving, that the author hopes we will perceive Jesus – the anointed one. There is a series of causalities here that connect us all in love – so that we can understand the nature of God, and our own nature (in Christ) as well.
Breaking open I John:
- What does love mean to you?
- Where is it evident in your life?
- Where is it seen in your church?
St. John 15:1-8
Jesus said to his disciples, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."
Just when we had left Lent and were thoroughly ensconced in the Sundays of Easter, this pericope from the Farewell Discourse in John comes to greet us. It is a proleptic view of the community that will arise out of the Easter witness. Of special interest is the passage, “I am the vine, you are the branhes.” These are not two separate entities, but rather a whole. This goes beyond the notion of the “Body of Christ” which Paul uses. In his book, Choosing the Kingdom, John Dally notes that this goes beyond a spiritual and theological point of view to a practical assertion of the Kingdom of God. He writes:
“In Luke’s narrative we glimpse an apprenticeship model of training, one in which the master and the pupils are engaged in identical work, rather than a hired-servant model in which the servants remain perpetually dependent on the orders of the master. This way of thinking about preaching has proven more difficult for students in my classes who are accustomed to thinking of the work of Jesus and their own work as being quite distinct.”
In many respects this is a good point of view to test our imaging of the relationships between Jesus and the People of God. There is a mutuality here that is not seen in the Good Shepherd images. The sheep are helpless, the apprentice is not. After all this is the community upon whom the Spirit has been breathed – it is a capable community. In addition this is not a static or passive relationship. An outcome is expected, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit.” Non productive aspects are thrown into the fire. What remains produces fruit –and it will be the imagination and ingenuity of the Church (or really the collective of witnesses) which will determine what that fruit might be.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- How do you work with Jesus in your life?
- How is your congregation and example of community effort?
- What kind of fruit does your congregation bear?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller