The Adventurous Lectionary -The Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 2, 2021
I John 4:7-21
God is still speaking, so says a motto from the United Church of Christ. Creation abounds with revelation for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Today’s scriptures are mystical, energetic, and empowering. Angels inspire and divine energy flows, giving life to all creation and fruitfulness to persons of faith. Moreover, each of the reading provides enough material for a stand-alone sermon. The adventurous preacher may integrate all four passages as part of a scriptural tapestry or simply focus on one of them
Revelation is unbounded and democratic, extending far beyond the boundaries of Israel or our sexual stereotypes. Revelation touches all and reaches out to all. The Pentecost spirit is unconstrained and flows to all people. An angel challenges Philip to hit the road. Not knowing exactly what’s in store, Philip nevertheless follows the angel’s guidance and comes upon an Ethiopian eunuch yearning to understand God’s good news. Philip’s evangelistic approach is guided by the Ethiopian’s questions: he does not harangue but listens; he has no ready-made answers but responds to the Ethiopian’s spiritual needs. He lets his conversation partner lead the way. He even breaks the color and sexual barrier by baptizing the Ethiopian, also a eunuch, at his request. God’s revelation welcomes all people regardless of sexual identity and salvation is for Africa as well as Judea. Divine hospitality is for outsiders as well as insiders, unclean as well as clean.
Today’s readings open us to issues of race and sexuality, since the Ethiopian is marginalized racially and sexually according to traditional interpretations of Jewish law. Historically, eunuchs are looked down upon and yet in God’s eschatological dream, even eunuchs will find a home in God’s realm of Shalom. We are still living toward that dream and we can be the first fruits of its realization.
The encounter of Philip with the eunuch also gives us a vision of relational evangelism in which we receive as well as give and let those we encounter shape our sharing of God’s good news. We have a story to tell, but this story needs to be framed in terms of the questions, values, and experiences of those with whom we interact. Revelation is always relative to the receiver. Good news is always spoken personally and concretely, not abstractly and uniformly. What is the good news you need to hear? What is the good news your community and neighborhood need to hear? What is the good news your congregation needs to hear?
The passage from Psalm 22 continues the theme of universal revelation. Despite our experiences of divine absence and forsakenness, we trust the promise salvation and guidance is made available to all creation. God’s care embraces the poor; the vulnerable are the object of God’s love, turning upside cultural values which privilege the wealthy and powerful. God’s sovereignty extends beyond Israel to the whole Earth. All mortals are the objects of divine consideration and care. God’s sovereignty is made perfect in loving and inclusive relationships.
Theologian Thomas Oord asks us whether love or power is the primary defining characteristic for God. (See Oord’s “The Uncontrolling Love of God.”) It is clear that I John sees love as God’s very nature. Love is not weak, but embraces all creation, seeking salvation for all. God’s love powerfully transforms lives and sets us on the path of wholeness. God’s love flows to and through us, and as we love, we share in God’s loving and healing power. Those who are loved must let love flow through to themselves to the vulnerable and poor. In loving one another, we abide in God; and in that loving relatedness, God abides in us.
Love banishes fear. In loving relationships, we experience God as our deepest reality, and discover that despite the vicissitudes of life, we are safe in God’s care and guided by God’s providential love. Yet, in this time of pandemic, violence, incivility, and climate change, we are often fearful and out of our fear, we turn our backs on one another. Love invites us to live in love or as I John says to “abide in love.” If love is the beginning and end of life, the creative force in the universe, then ultimately we have nothing to fear. God’s over-flowing, ever-flowing, and sacrificial love gives us strength to sacrifice and love one another even when it is challenging and difficult.
John 15 speaks of God/Christ as the vine and us as the branches. The branches survive and thrive because they are connected to the vine. Christ is the energy of life, flowing through all things, inspiring all things, and energizing all things. Yet, our values and commitments shape God’s flow of energy, expanding or contracting its impact on our lives. When we are connected with the vine, we flourish. Disconnected we wither and die spiritually. The unfruitful branches are removed and this appears to be warning, if not a threat. Pruning may be necessary. We may need to change our pathways to be more attentive to the healing and loving energy flowing through us. We may have to let go of spiritual cumber to allow the fullness of divine energy to flow in and through us.
John 15 invites us to consider how we stay connected to the vine. It opens us to practices of spiritual horticulture. These practices include intentional abiding in God by prayerful opening to divine energy, cutting out what is inessential or harmful to us, and seeing our intimate connection with the other branches of the vine. In our care for one another, we expand the flow of divine energy flowing in and through us. Although the vine is the source of life and energy, the branches are not passive; they must nurture their own fruitfulness and support the fruitfulness of the other branches. There is an intimate interdependence between God and us: while God’s existence doesn’t depend on our fruitfulness, our bearing fruit enhances God’s life and mission in the world. In tending the branches – our own branch and others – we share in God’s healing presence in the world and advance God’s vision in our time.
Love abounds, energy abounds, life abounds, all embracing in scope, and ready to give us more than we can ask or imagine.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over 60 books including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTION; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; PROCESS THEOLOGY AND POLITICS; and 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR PEACEMAKERS AND JUSTICE SEEKERS.