Fifth Sunday of Easter
Readings: Acts 8 26-40: Ps 22: 1 John 4 7-21: John 15 1-8
Hymns: O sons and daughters let us sing; May the grace of Christ our Saviour; Lord to you we bring our treasure; Thy kingdom is upon you
“Everyone who loves is a child of God, and knows God, but those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters.” This crucial statement describes life in Christ lived without that fear which all too often dissuades us from loving God and all made in the Image of God. But the lines between loving and suffocating, loving and controlling, loving and destroying are tricky. Take a woman who ‘loves’ her family so much she accepts not being treated as having her own value, and takes rudeness or idleness of family members as the cross she must bear: such lack of love for herself makes it unlikely her family becomes healthily mature. The man who ‘loves’ his work so much he devotes little time developing either himself or his relationships is not preparing for those long years of retirement, when his isolation or ineptitude may become burdens for his family. Martyrs might live with Saints but no sane person chooses to live with either if godly love and respect for the other is not balanced by godly love and respect for the self.
Love, a foundation stone of our faith, so easily evokes images of a gentle Jesus, which doesn’t reflect that lived reality, but in its undemanding placidity is less challenging to, being a world apart from, the everyday dilemmas of our reality. Perhaps more crucially, a placid Jesus less readily challenges our unintentional abuse of ourselves or of others.
Acting in love based on God’s love for us is acting with integrity, care and reflection, uncorrupted by intentional manipulation, self-seeking or self-abnegation, and it means acting with equity towards every person irrespective of their rank, their gender, and their ethnicity. Integrity is what was restored to the Ethiopian whom Philip met on his long journey south to Ethiopia, studying the Bible in his chariot as he went. Following the spirit and acting in love for this man, Philip answered his questions regarding the Greek translation of Isaiah the Ethiopian Queen’s Chancellor was using: after the shortest catechumenate ever, he baptised him. This story exemplifies the most revolutionary aspect of the Christian honour for and inclusion of all beyond the hitherto closed circle of the chosen, a beginning sparked off by the Syro-Phoenician woman who challenged Jesus to recognise her right to follow him, and further helped by Paul’s passion to bring the ragtaggle of humanity into the faith of God, creator, mediator, comforter.
As a eunuch, the Ethiopian was not only foreign but counted neither as man nor woman. However hard he read his Septuagint, he could never be fully part of Jewish rituals, never counted in the minyan of Jewish men assembled for prayer, for Moses in Deuteronomy 23 had excluded eunuchs, whether born or made, on the grounds that they were as anomalous as pigs or eels. It’s interesting that the man was studying Isiah 53, 7-8, the foreshadowing of Christ, because a little further on, in Isaiah 56, comes the foreshadowing of salvation for eunuchs: ‘thus said the Lord: keep justice and righteousness… And for the eunuchs who keep my Sabbath… I will give in my house and within my walls an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’ Christ having indeed died for love of all people in the kairos, or due time, for that salvific event, it was the proper time for Philip to bring Isaiah to full fruition through Christ by including and affirming the hitherto impure Ethiopian god-fearer.
That’s what living in love is. Endless patient niceness may express unalloyed love neither by the weary carer nor the bitter antagonist, though may be a necessary part of life and relationships: being a voluntarily trampled-on doormat for the selfish egoism of others is neither loving nor helpful to them or to ourselves in the here or the hereafter. Living in love means living in fearless risk-filled freedom: “there is no fear in love.” That does not mean freedom to do whatever we want, but freedom based on fidelity and commitment. Living in love as a Christian makes massive demands. And we are up to them, all of us, if we base that living on Christ
Ministers have not always been willing to allow such freedom to their flock – which is why reflection of love was long drowned out by screaming on sin. Looking forward to a sermon some years ago on I John 4 in Borneo, I was irritated when the visiting preacher substituted Jesus in the boat amid the storm: “Follow all the rules and you will not drown” he yelled at us for well over an hour! None of us felt loving to him after that, nor enlightened either. True, our gospel reading does make clear that there is a penalty for wilfully rejecting life in God as withered or rotted grapes are cut off, but threatening a congregation frequently has more to do with control by the Minister than teaching of love to live in freedom with responsibility. Christ is the eternal vine, but a grape is of value only when used, whether eaten fresh, turned into juice or wine, or dried for storage: fruits of the field, as the fruits of love, are to be shared, given, and received.
We cannot love God unless we are willing to risk loving and being loved by, caring and being cared for, other people as equal children of God: snobbery, elitism, martyring self-abnegation, arrogance, and abuse oppose love. We can risk acting in love to others and to ourselves because we know God loved us first and loves us last. Acting in love within and beyond the self is a rather inadequate return for what has been freely given: the grace of God which passes all understanding. May our love bring life to others, as Phillip’s words, his care, his time, brought the black foreign eunuch peace in Christ.