Lectionary Reflections for May 6, 2012
- Acts 8:26-40
- Psalm 22:25-31
- I John 4:7-21
- John 15:1-8
Today’s passages call us to adventurous growth and creativity. We are the fruitful agents and companions of a fruitful and lively God. Faithfulness to God invites us to push beyond our comfort zones, claim our agency, and contribute to the fruitfulness of God’s mission. Living God’s mission emerges from our commitments to love boldly and adventurously as we embody the Divine Love that abides in us.
Acts of the Apostles has been described as the “unhindered gospel” and this surely is the case in the story of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. In this passage, mysticism leads to mission. An angelic messenger tells Philip to get moving and in the synchronicity of life, when we follow the Spirit, we venture “where the wild things are” – the wilderness and an encounter with the wholly/holy other. Philip and the eunuch are separated by race, ethnic background, religion, and sexuality. The eunuch is outside the community ethnically, morally, and religiously. Yet, this is precisely the encounter God desires. Love includes mirroring the other – hearing her or him into speech (Nelle Morton) – but it also involves embracing and nurturing authentic otherness in those we love.
Once the encounter begins, the Ethiopian becomes the messenger and Philip the follower – like Cornelius and Peter, Philip becomes the evangelist, who guides and inspires the one intended to bring him to Christ. After interpreting the words of scripture, the eunuch asks, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Philip may have swallowed hard at the question, because it challenged him to enter an untraveled spiritual wilderness. Philip says “yes,” breaking down the walls of division, opening a new frontier of inclusion, and then is whisked away by the Spirit to Azotus. Opening to the Spirit means embracing a life of surprise and adventure. We don’t know where the Spirit will lead us next when we listen to our dreams, insights, hunches, and random encounters, but our lives will never be boring. Moreover, evangelism is never unilateral but involves a give and take in which those to whom we minister often guide us in fulfilling our vocations.
The passage from Acts of the Apostles asks pastor and congregant alike, “Where is the Spirit leading us? What new thing is God’s Spirit calling us toward? What boundaries and barriers do we need to break down to be faithful to God? To whom do we need to listen to find our vocation in the present situation?”
Psalm 22 speaks of a faith that is universal in time, space, and impact. God’s word radiates to the ends of the earth and beyond. God’s salvation expends to the underworld and to unborn children. Surely, God is the circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
John 4 celebrates the love of God and calls us to love one another. Love is the primary characteristic of God. While some celebrate divine sovereignty, predestination, and power as definitive of God, John sees love as central to God’s character and relationship with the world.
We cannot fathom God’s majesty, but we can experience God – we can know God – in acts of love. Love is, for John, a type of knowledge that unites separate beings in a common destiny and experience. Personality is preserved but expanded as God’s love joins us with Godself and others. We become people of stature, whose love casts out all fear – of otherness, new ideas, diverse viewpoints, external threats, and death itself. As my good friend Rabbi Harold White has noted in many of our shared interfaith weddings, “The other is not always understandable, but he or she is embraceable.” Love is the embrace inviting us to truly know the Other – including God – in all of her or his mystery.
God abides in us, most especially, when we love. Abiding in love opens the door for us to have Christ-like experiences of congruence of our will with God’s vision for our lives and the world. Sacrifices for the greater community are not losses but invitations to become large-souled, experiencing the peace that comes when we align our well-being with the well-being of others and our planet.
God wants us to bear fruit and do great things. There is no competition between God and the world – the human adventure – if we see God primarily in terms of love rather than kingly power. Kingly power is typically “zero-sum” in nature: if the subjects gain power, the king is robbed of authority, power, and praise. In contrast, God’s power, described in today’s passages, is loving in character: any gain by the subjects in terms of healthy creativity and growth adds to the well-being of the whole and enables God to be more fruitful and active in the world. We increase God’s power by wisely using our own power. God wants us to do “greater things” than we imagine. Caesar can coerce and dominate, but he cannot transform. Only love can heal and transform, and the greatest love we can experience reflects God’s love moving in our lives to help us love others. That’s the point of the images of the vine and branches.
We are all connected to the vine. Apart from God’s omni-active energy, we would wither. Our true destiny is to be fruitful in our own unique way, blossoming and bearing fruit in partnership with the vine. The glory of God is a flourishing branch – a human being fully alive and fully in love.
Many years ago, I served as interim pastor for a congregation surrounded by orchards. One day, I took a tour of an apple orchard with one of the farmers; it was pruning season. I innocently asked, “Why do you prune the trees?” His response was “to let the light in.” Perhaps, that is the real point of the “pruning” statements in John 8: pruning may feel punitive to the branch, but it enables the branch to receive God’s lively sun energy. It keeps the plants from withering. In like manner, divine pruning orients us toward growth – it is the presentation of challenging possibilities, sometimes in contrast to our narrow understandings and self-interest to open us to God’s greater vision for our lives. Welcoming otherness can be challenging, and changing habits can be painful, but the new life that emerges enables us to be fruitful and creative in unexpected ways.
While John 15 and I John 4 do not intend to give us a complete theology, their message is clear:
- God moves energetically in all of our lives.
- God’s desire is that we flourish.
- Flourishing is the result a divine human partnership, in which God’s energy of love calls us to maximal creativity and freedom congruent with God’s vision for us and the world.
- When we abide consciously in God’s energy of love, we become more transparent to God’s vision, bear greater fruit, and enable the “vine” of divine energy to be more active in our lives.
- God prunes us with challenging possibilities intended for our growth, not diminishment or punishment.
- God does not compete but seeks creative, responsible, and lively responsiveness and freedom.
Today’s passages promise a great deal: they tell us that we can flourish, know God, and grow in grace and love. Experiencing God’s vision for our lives challenges us to take our role as partners in the Spirit by committing ourselves to loving relationships, listening to the Spirit’s messengers in our lives, and embracing healthy otherness.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.