Fifth Sunday of Easter May 6, 2012.
I John 4:7-21
"... future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn. ..." -- Psalm 22:30b-31a
Our first readings throughout this Easter season have all been taken from The Acts of the Apostles, volume two of Luke's writings. We have been led through a continuing series of stories in which the Spirit of God is depicted as wafting our earliest Christian forbears into ever new situations, presenting them with ever more challenging opportunities to proclaim and practice the gospel in circumstances increasingly remote from the old orthodoxy centered in Jerusalem.
In today's reading, the Spirit gusts the mission of the early church toward new frontiers of the gospel on a number of fronts, geographically, racially and sexually. The story is one of the most charming and exotic in all of Scripture. As do so many of Luke's stories, it begins with an angel, a messenger of God, directing Philip to "get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza." Our attention is immediately engaged because Gaza is a place of no little contemporary significance.
The text says simply that Philip "got up and went," no ifs, ands, or buts. What did Philip find on this remote desert road on the way to Egypt? Here Luke painstakingly describes the scene, piling up one adjectival phrase on another. For what Philip encountered was "an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury" who had "come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah." Luke uses seven highly descriptive phrases to engage our curiosity and set the scene whose action is initiated by Philip's condescending question, "Do you know what you are reading?" To which the man replies without taking offense: "How can I, unless someone guides me?" This is just the opening Philip is looking for to join the man in his chariot and read with him the scroll of the prophet, while proclaiming the "good news about Jesus." A pretty bizarre scene for the occasional camel driver passing by, I can't help but think, though, maybe no stranger than the sight of Philip dunking the man in a nearby pool of water in response to the man's query, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" "Nothing is to prevent," is Philip's unspoken answer after which the man "went on his way rejoicing."
It is a wonderful story, literally a story of wonder. But I find it particularly wondrous that having introduced us to this exotic person with such careful description it is the man's sexual condition as a eunuch by which Luke chooses to identify the man subsequently four times -- a person formally excluded by the worshiping community of Israel according to Deuteronomy 23:1. What's more Luke tells us that the eunuch is reading chapter 53 of Isaiah, just a short turn of the scroll earlier than chapter 56 where the prophet shockingly reverses Torah's exclusion of eunuchs and explicitly welcomes them into the covenant community "with a name better than sons and daughters. . . an everlasting name that will not be cut off" (v.5). Ouch!
"The welcome of eunuchs into the faith community is not the issue on the frontier of the church's mission with sexual minorities of our day. However, we know what is! "What is to prevent?", the eunuch's question, becomes the Spirit's encouragement to extend and include the welcome of the gospel and the offer of" baptism into the Way of Jesus to all, including as we'll see-in next week's reading from Acts 10, even uncircumcised gentiles -- the likes of" most of us. Acts is honest in portraying for us the challenges, discomfort, and resistance that some among the early church, including its leaders, evinced in the midst of these ever-expandingliminal situations in to which they were continually beingdrawn. Nevertheless, Luke wants us to be reassured that it is the gusting Spirit of God that is blowing the church beyond the covenant community's familiar boundaries.
Both today's Gospel from John 15 and Second Reading from I John 4 are one in describing the gracious gift of letting God" as together they no less than fifteen (!) times employ the same Greek verb meno that is usually translated into English as "abide" but that also carries the meanings remain, stay, live, last, endure, and "continue." I like the colloquial phrase "hang in there" or the fussier uperdure." The point of the word, like Jesus' image of the vine in our Gospel reading from John 15, is that our imperative is to "stay connected," to not opt out or try to go our own way but as 1 John 4 makes clear, to abide in love -- to hang in there even as God hangs in there with us.
This was a word that the Johannine community within the early church especially needed to hear and trust, precisely because of its own sectarian tendencies and desire to be a church of "true believers" (See Brown, The Community of the Beloved Disciple, p. 103 ff.). And it's surely a word the church of our day needs to hear and heed as the Spirit continues to waft us on to ever new frontiers of mission even as recent decisions regarding the inclusion of LGBT individuals grow in their reception throughout the church. JR
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|Title Annotation:||Preaching Helps|
|Publication:||Currents in Theology and Mission|
|Date:||Feb 1, 2012|
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