Friday, April 16, 2021

May 2, 2021 - 5th Sunday of Easter

                         Biblical Words                           [714]

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

The risen Lord, who gave himself in love, enables peoples and persons to be God’s love for each other.

Acts 8:26-40. 

The reading from the Acts of the Apostles describes the encounter of Philip the Evangelist with the Ethiopian eunuch. 

This man is described as the Minister of Finance to the Queen of the Ethiopians (verse 27).  Ethiopia was in the region of dark-skinned peoples south of Egypt (modern Sudan, Ethiopia, and their smaller neighbors).  The whole region is called “Cush” in the Hebrew scriptures.    

A word about eunuchs.  Eunuchs were male slaves who had been neutered as children, so that, being free of sexual drives, they could be trusted to oversee and manage the Women’s Quarters of great palaces, where all the royal wives and consorts lived along with their children.  (Sexually capable males were, of course, forbidden on pain of death from such quarters.)  These eunuchs were the educators and companions of young princes – and advisors to their mothers.  When the royal princes came to power they might retain their eunuch companions as advisors and even appointees to positions of power.  Over time, eunuchs often became important political figures in the kingdoms of the ancient near east.  Thus, our eunuch in Acts 8 has become the highest ranking financial officer under the Queen of the great Ethiopian kingdom.   

The Ethiopian eunuch has been to Jerusalem to worship and is reading the scroll of Isaiah as he rides in his chariot back toward Egypt.  He is, therefore, a “God-fearer,” one of those who admire and affirm the heritage of Judean faith.  But, being a eunuch, he could not be a member of “the assembly of the Lord” (prohibited in Deuteronomy 23:1). 

We know he was reading Isaiah, the passage we call chapter 53 (Acts 8:32).  Just three chapters later, there is a passage that the eunuch must have known well.  It is a special promise from God for eunuchs. 

For thus says the Lord:

To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,
            who choose the things that please me
            and hold fast my covenant,
I will give… a monument and a name
            better than sons and daughters (Isaiah 56:4-5, NRSV). 

But as he reads chapter 53 (the Suffering Servant), the eunuch is puzzled, and that provides an entrée, guided by the Spirit, for Philip the Evangelist to explain the gospel to him (verses 30-35).  Starting with the prophecy of the Suffering Servant, Philip explains who Jesus was and the saving effect of his death and resurrection.  Having heard the gospel, the Ethiopian is baptized as soon as they come to some water. 

Baptizing the Ethiopian extends the inclusiveness of the gospel of Jesus:  a prominent member of a distant people, who cannot be a Judean, becomes a baptized believer in the good news about Jesus.   

Psalm 22:25-31.  

We hear again the thanksgiving and celebrative part of this great passion psalm.  It was this part of the psalm that revealed so forcefully to early believers the big-picture consequences of Jesus’ death and resurrection. 

In the context of this Sunday’s readings, the emphasis is certainly on the acknowledgement of God’s rule by the families of the nations. 

All the ends of the earth shall remember

            and turn to the Lord;
and all the families of the nations
            shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the Lord,
            and he rules over the nations (verses 27-28, NRSV). 

This acknowledgement by the nations is because of God’s deliverance of this speaker from death.  This deliverance is a cause of joy to many:  to peoples far and wide, mighty and poor, Israelites and non-Israelites, including the living, dead, and yet unborn, all of whom are mentioned in verses 23-31. 

Guided by what they saw as direct references to Jesus’ crucifixion (22:1 and 18), early believers found in this psalm a warrant to expect that the nations would in time recognize and confess Jesus as Lord.  The book of Acts looks toward the fulfillment of that expectation on a large-scale. 

I John 4:7-21.  

The Epistle reading continues in First John, where we are offered a mini essay on the love of God, agape

It may be helpful to think of this essay as based on Jesus’ statement of the Great Commandment and its corollary, to love the one God wholly and solely and the neighbor as oneself (Mark 12:28-34). 

The First John passage, however, includes one additional ingredient:  God takes the initiative.  God starts the process of love that moves through the Son to all those in whom the Son abides. 

The bigger picture assumed by the discussion is that, apart from the coming of the Son, people are not able to love God – or other people.  Through the coming of the Son, the first part of the Great Commandment becomes possible of fulfillment:  “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”  (verses 15-16). 

Knowing and believing that God loves us makes possible the carrying out of the corollary of the Great Commandment – for us to love (ourselves and) each other. 

“We love because he first loved us” (verse 19). 

Those loved by God may stand with boldness at the time of the last judgment – they may stand without fear of condemnation.  And fear is the opposite of love.  The message of God’s forgiveness, accepted as certain (on faith!), frees people to love each other. 

And whether we love our brothers and sisters is the ultimate test of whether the love of God has truly come to abide in 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” (verse 20). 

In a very ironic sense, seeing is believing.  Loving the imperfect brother or sister one sees from day to day is evidence that we believe that God loves us, that God’s love truly rules our lives. 

John 15:1-8.  

This Sunday we hear the first part of the Vine chapter in the Gospel According to John.  (Next Sunday we will hear the rest of the passage.) 

The imagery of the vine or the vineyard is found in several powerful passages in the Hebrew scriptures. 

In the Song of the Vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7 God provides everything that a beautiful vineyard requires, but in return God receives only sour grapes.  The punch-line of the vine image is what the vine produces, its fruit.  At the end of the Song, when the imagery is dropped and its application to Israel is stated, the verdict is stark: 

[God] expected justice,
      but saw bloodshed;
      but heard a cry!  (Isaiah 5:7, NRSV)

John 15 focuses on the relation of the branches to the vine.  The branches are where the fruit of the vine, the grapes, are actually produced.  The branches can produce grapes because, and only because, they grow out of the main stalk of the vine.  

The passage refers to the work of a good vineyard-keeper who cuts back the branches from year to year so they produce more and better clusters of grapes.  The cutting back process is healthy and beneficial, but unproductive branches are cast aside to dry, then are burned. 

The vine-and-branches language is strong medicine for a gospel message that is mainly about love.  The branches are expected to provide “fruit,” and the failure to produce leads to discipline and exclusion. 

The main fruit that God looks for from the branches of the true vine is love, but the mutual love described here certainly includes, also, the fruit looked for from the ancient vineyard of Isaiah’s Song, justice and righteousness (Isaiah 5:7). 

No comments:

Post a Comment