April 29, 2018: Easter 5B (English)

Easter 5B, April 29, 2018. Zion, Baltimore.
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
Pastor Eric Deibler

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John is one of those texts that has always troubled me. It troubled me because it seemed to be all judgment and little if any grace. It troubled me because of the whole withered-branches-being-gathered-and-thrown-into-the-fire thing. The reading from 1st John tells us that God is love, but I couldn’t see that here.

I’m sure that it has to do in part with my nature. I have a bifurcated personality when it comes to my basic orientation in life. On the one hand, I am a Christian: an orientation which is inherently optimistic and altruistic. What could be more optimistic, after all, than believing in something like resurrection. What could be more optimistic than believing in perfect love and ultimate forgiveness. I tend to have a positive view of people until proven wrong. I usually assume that everyone has the best of intentions, until they demonstrate otherwise.

On the other hand, I can be pretty cynical and pessimistic. While I tend to trust individual humans, I have far less faith in humanity. The one t-shirt that I truly regret not having bought was the one that read, “Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups”. And although as a white, male, Christian, I’m firmly entrenched in the normative hierarchy of our culture, I am even less favorably inclined towards cultural institutions than I am to humanity in general.

On balance, however, I would say that I tend more towards the latter than the former. The scales tend to be weighted more towards the cynical/pessimistic side of things than the optimistic/altruistic. As a result, when I encounter something that even hints at an unfettered exercising of power, like ripping out unproductive, withered branches and casting them upon a blazing fire, to be consumed and destroyed, my defenses go up, and my eyes, ears, and intellect shut down. Which is probably why it has taken me early 25 years of preaching to see something in this text that I’d never seen before. Something which totally transforms my response to it.

This is not something that was my own insight. My personal biases, which I’ve already laid out, would probably have prevented me from ever discovering this for myself. For this insight, I have Dr. David Lose, former president of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia, to thank. In his weekly lectionary commentary, Dr. Lose noted the following regarding this text:

“As I abide in you.”

That’s the line in this week’s Gospel reading that helps me find a way to preach this passage. Without it, much of what Jesus says feels like a threat. You know what I mean? Abide in me or else – be pruned, wither, be thrown into the fire, and die! All voiced as a threat to bully people into staying loyal and faithful.

But Jesus doesn’t just say “Abide in me.” Rather, he says, “Abide in me, as I abide in you.” And that changes everything. The other statements about pruning and withering and the rest are not threats of intimidation but rather statements of fact, descriptions of what happens when we do not abide in Jesus, when we are separated from his love and acceptance, we run or hide or think we can do it on our own or decide to stand alone or whatever. Branches don’t do that well when separated from the vine. At best they, like cut flowers, have a burst of color and bloom but then fade and wither.

Perspective is everything. These are the consequences of separation, not statements about a lack of righteousness. It describes the reality of disconnection, not the determination of who is in and who is out. Without Jesus, without being attached to the true vine, we will wither and die. This is a declaration of fact, not a pronouncement of retribution. Jesus leaves his disciples with an image that communicates the unquestionable connectedness between them and Jesus, even in the face of Jesus’ absence. It is an image of absolute dependence, certain reliance, and a binding relationship that is severed only when we choose to walk away. The only judgment here is on us -- when we decide to abscond from abiding in Jesus.

And maybe that’s also part of what rankles me when I read this text. Because, like most of us, I don’t necessarily like the idea of being completely and utterly dependent upon someone else. Even if that someone is Jesus. I have an innate, obstinately independent streak. My mother once told me that one of the first words I learned was the declaration, “Self!”. As in, I want to do this, that, or the other thing by myself. This was something that was affirmed twenty years later when I underwent my psychological evaluation during my time at seminary. So, just to be clear, when I point my finger and talk about our propensity to want to go it alone, and to attempt to exercise our independence I am fully aware of the other three fingers that point back at me. I’m as guilty as anyone, of the sin of Adam and Eve, the sin of wanting to be like God.

The ironic thing about it is that, when I allow myself the luxury of recognizing my dependence upon God, my life is better. I mean, it’s silly, really. You would think that after fifty-two years I would eventually learn that my life truly is better when I am willing to accept the abiding presence of Christ in my life and the necessity of my abiding in him. And yet again and again, with the benefit of hindsight, I am able to see that the times when things fall apart for me…; the times when I crash and burn…; those are the times when I recognize that I have been furthest away from Jesus. It’s three-year-old Eric declaring, “Self!”, all over again.

The lesson from Acts shows us how effective we can be in ministry when we truly allow ourselves to be fully dependent upon the resurrected Jesus and directed by the Holy Spirit. In it, we see another of those ironies which come about when we become too consumed by circumstances and fail to see beyond ourselves.

Remember that it’s the disciples who were commissioned by the risen Christ to go to the ends of the earth. Acts 1:8 “8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” In the book of Matthew, the command is the much stronger imperative to “19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

But what have the disciples actually been doing? Well, they’ve sort of been doing their own thing. They’ve stayed in Jerusalem, devoting themselves to the word and prayer. So much so, in fact, that when the first real conflict arises in their midst, concerning the distribution of food, they punt. Rather than remembering that Christ himself had served them at table and taking care of the problem themselves, they appoint seven others to see to it that the widows among the Hellenists are taken care of, becoming the first century equivalent of what we would call a deacon today. Philip is one of those seven deacons. Those who were commissioned to go from Jerusalem to all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (that is the apostles) simply hang out in Jerusalem while everyone else, through persecution, gets pushed into the mission of God in Judea and Samaria. (Acts 8:1) In Acts 8 we pick up with one of these table-servers, Philip, far from the controversies of food distribution, navigating the linguistic and cultural tensions of being in foreign territory.

He first brings the gospel to Samaria (Acts 8:4-25), in fulfillment of Jesus’ promise and command in Acts 1:8. The Spirit then sends him to this particular eunuch, as unlikely a character as there ever could be, who will carry the message into Africa. The deacon turns out to be the real apostle!

When we open ourselves up to the power of the Spirit, when we willingly relinquish our claim upon our own lives, we open ourselves up to miraculous possibilities. Philip is propelled by the Spirit to be at the right place at the right time, and he is encouraged by the spirit to approach the Ethiopian’s chariot. The Ethiopian eunuch, a man who according to Jewish custom at the time was doubly unacceptable because he was a foreigner and a eunuch, just happens to be reading the scroll of Isaiah. And just as the resurrected Christ had done for the apostles on two occasions, Philip starts with scripture, and proclaims to him the good news about Jesus. And suddenly, at precisely the right time, right there in the midst of the arid middle-eastern wilderness, there is a source of water. Perfect for baptism! “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” And the answer, of course, is “Absolutely nothing!” Not when you are allowing yourself to abide in Christ and he in you. Not when your allowing yourself to bear the fruit that is yours to bear when you are part of the vine.

The story ends pretty much the same way as it began: God sees to it that the gospel rushes to the ends of the earth, even as those commissioned for that particular job continue sit at home in Jerusalem. The eunuch himself will takes the message of the Gospel into Africa. And the Spirit whisks Philip away to preach along the shores of the Mediterranean as far north as Caesarea.

It’s a truly astounding story. It’s the story about the bursting forth of the Kingdom of God. We have this beautiful reversal of circumstances and station that embraces the previously-excluded eunuch. But there’s also the more unsettling reversal in which the one commissioned to tend the table at home finds himself setting the table in dessert places, while those sent far and wide by Jesus’ command quietly slip from the story of God’s redeeming work.

What it says to us is that God won’t wait for us. We are called to mission in this place. But if we don’t take that mission seriously… Or if we entangle ourselves in disagreement and argument… Or if we simply refuse to heed the call of the spirit and stubbornly insist upon going our own way… God will find someone else who is up to the task.

“Abide in me.” Alone, these words are, at best, good advice or encouragement and, at worst, a threat. But, “Abide in me, as I abide in you….” These words are pure promise; gracious words of presence and providence. They’re words of pure Gospel. They’re words that need to be shared, whether shouted from the rooftops or whispered in a moment of tender and vulnerable stillness.

“Abide in me, as I abide in you.” They are words of unmitigated promise. And what they promise is the power to do ministry as the body of Christ. What they promise is the power to live resurrection lives that will change the lives of those around us for the better. What they promise is the power to be a Christ-based agent of positive change and growth. What they promise is the power to be a source of joy and hope in the city of Baltimore. AMEN

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