Sermon Seeds: Abiding in Love
Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B
1 John 4:7-21
Additional reflection on Acts 8:26-40 for Immigrants Rights Sunday
Abiding in Love
by Kathryn Matthews (Huey)
Last week, the Gospel of John provided the image of a good shepherd to describe the close, caring relationship between God and Jesus, and between Jesus and us. Perhaps we’re not herders of sheep, or haven’t spent much time in an agrarian setting, but we get the idea of what John is talking about. First of all, the shepherd image is familiar to us from the much-loved and often-memorized Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” And, from childhood, we’ve seen many paintings of Jesus with a little lamb over his shoulders, the flock grazing peacefully around him. Our theme last week, “Enfolded by Love,” was reassuring, and reassurance was what the disciples and the early Christian community needed, especially John’s community. Just as the disciples must have been bewildered by some of the things Jesus was saying, and anxious about the negative response of religious and political leaders, so the early Christians a generation later, expelled from their religious home, also needed a word of tender reassurance from the risen Christ, telling them that they weren’t alone or abandoned.
In this week’s reading, John uses the image of a vine and its branches, to help – and challenge – that early community, and ours today, to claim our close relationship with Jesus. In Jesus’ time, people would have been familiar with the vine metaphor; it appears in the Hebrew Scriptures several times to describe Israel. But even if contemporary Christians have never tended a vineyard, most of us have seen a grapevine at one time or another. Looking closely, we see the many entwined branches, winding their way around one another in intricate patterns of tight curls that make it impossible to tell where one branch starts or another one ends. This is not just intricate; it’s intimate, and the vine shares with its branches the nutrients that sustain it, the life force of the whole plant. Even closer than the shepherd there on the hillside, this vine is one with the branches.
Intimacy and anonymity
Intimacy, and anonymity. Gail R. O’Day finds the “anonymity” in this metaphor “stark.” John isn’t interested, she says, in “distinctions in appearance, character, or gifts.” The many voices of the New Testament give us a fuller, richer picture than one voice would have provided, so here we could do a little Bible study by comparing this passage with the writing of Paul in 1 Corinthians 12. O’Day contrasts John and Paul’s writings, with Paul using the differences between the members of the body to define “what it means to be a body.” On the other hand, John, instead of highlighting our individual gifts and roles, “challenges contemporary Western understandings of personality, individualism, and self-expression.” For John, O’Day writes, “The mark of the faithful community is how it loves, not who are its members” (John, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
We hear that word, “love,” often in John’s writings. Love is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Love is the measure of faithfulness. Our readings this month linger on this line of thought, but they’re not legalistic or detailed. “Love” feels like a state of being, so the word “abide” almost jumps off the page in these readings from John. Fred Craddock understandably calls it “the central verb” in the passage, and emphasizes its importance in the entire Gospel of John (Preaching through the Christian Year B). Eugene Peterson translates “abide” in verse 4 a little differently, but with the same meaning, as Jesus teaches his followers, “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you” (The Message). Just as we need the air to breathe, we need food and nourishment to live. We need shelter and community; we need a home. The early Christians, who had in a very real sense lost their spiritual homes and perhaps, along with them, their family ties and their physical homes, were undoubtedly comforted by this thought.
Rise up and get moving!
The setting for these words holds great significance. Just before this passage, at the end of chapter 14, Jesus has finished the Passover meal (the Last Supper) with his disciples and is ready to move on. “Rise,” he says, “let us be on our way” (14:31b). But the very next verse, which begins this week’s reading and chapter 15 as well, continues his long farewell speech, full of instructions and exhortations for the disciples. Charles Cousar doesn’t skip over the significance of that last verse in chapter 14 or its connection to what follows: “Jesus’ words are a call to get moving.” Jesus is speaking to his followers, a community whose witness and service (perhaps it would be better to say “witness of service”) expresses a “distinctiveness from the world” that provokes “distrust and hatred (15:18-19)” (Texts for Preaching Year B). In a way, there’s a tension here: the word “abide” could suggest “planted” (like a vine, perhaps?), in place, rooted, fixed. But Jesus’ command to “rise up” puts us in motion, in mission, in works that bear witness and bear fruit at the same time. Sarah Henrich is helpful here: “Bearing fruit does not create disciples,” she writes; “bearing fruit reveals disciples. Both of these activities are dependent on abiding in Jesus, the real vine” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
The corporate: a word of reassurance for the church
Scholars take at least two different approaches to this passage. Some, like Charles Cousar, focus on the community, on the “corporateness” of this image, and on the centrality of “the indwelling Christ” to its ministries. Cousar finds words that are front and center for a church that seeks new life: “connectedness, permanency, vitality.” I love the image of green plants for church vitality, and Cousar would seem to agree when he associates the image of bearing fruit with “growth, usefulness, and nourishment” (Texts for Preaching Year B). Gail O’Day also emphasizes the communal nature of this life, a “model” of “interrelationship and corporate accountability” that challenges our unceasing attempts to stand out from, and rise up over, one another (John, The New Interpreter’s Bible).
But what about this notion of “bearing fruit”? If bearing fruit reveals disciples rather than creating them, as Sarah Henrich claims, we might search our church’s history to see how often abiding in Jesus can cause all sorts of trouble, just in case we’re forgotten that the early Christians were not the last ones to face opposition and persecution for their faith in Jesus. Stephen A. Cooper calls the roll of such disruptions caused by Jesus’ “radical” instructions: Paul, Anthony, Francis, Luther, Anabaptists, anti-slavery activists (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). One question for the church today is whether we find ourselves speaking and acting a word contrary to the “comfortable” within us and around us, where we face together, not alone, the forces arrayed against justice and mercy. What would happen if our congregations spent less time talking and worrying and working on our survival and more time on putting ourselves in the line of fire, as Paul, Anthony, Francis (and Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Archbishop Romero and the four American churchwomen murdered in El Salvador, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) and the rest did?
The personal: a word of reassurance for each one of us
However, the corporate reading of this passage is not the only way to approach it; in fact, this beautiful text deserves a fuller, deeper understanding. Not surprisingly, Nancy R. Blakely’s pastoral reflection on the text considers the personal relationship each of us has with Jesus, the vine. She reminds us that we find the best grapes close in to the vine, “where the nutrients are the most concentrated.” And she uses Peterson’s image of “making a home” in describing the peace that we long for in our hearts. This kind of abiding for Blakely is the way God “sustains” us and showers us with “shalom, which speaks of wholeness, completeness, and health.” Here, close to the vine, immersed in shalom, we find not only nourishment but also hope and joy, and we let God’s word “find a home in us through faithful devotion.” There, close to the vine, we find peace about all the things that we face, and all the things that we pray for, because our will will be aligned with God’s own will. She even reminds us of the value of a painful but redemptive pruning: “All that is extraneous is carefully and lovingly removed. What remains is centered and focused on God’s word” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2).
A word of challenge for us all
How do we bring these two streams together or, to be closer to today’s image, how do we graft them together, the personal and the communal? Blakely does just that when she reminds us that the Risen Christ in John’s Gospel is warning his followers in every age and every setting not to “go it alone, trusting in their own strength. On their own they would be cut off from their life source. They would bear no fruit.” This is really good news for us, no matter how much it flies in the face of everything we’re told about success and measuring up. It’s not up to us to dig deep down inside and make happen what needs to happen. Blakely reminds us that, if we stay close to Jesus, we have a source for all the grace and strength we need in our lives, and the result will be joy (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). The result will be fruit that blesses the world and reveals us as the followers of Jesus, a community of love. Together, we are so much more powerful than any of us can be on our own. However, this “together” isn’t out there, on our own even as a community, because our life force flows from the vine with which we are one. Barbara Essex perhaps puts it most succinctly: “The community that Jesus calls forth is one that embodies an African proverb: Because we are, I am” (Feasting on the Word Year B, Vol. 2). Amen!
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
A Bible study version of this reflection is at http://www.ucc.org/weekly_seeds_abiding_in_love.
For further reflection:
William Sloane Coffin, 20th century
“I think, therefore I am? Nonsense! I love, therefore I am.”
Richard Rohr, 21st century
“True religion is always a deep intuition that we are already participating in something very good, in spite of our best efforts to deny it or avoid it.”
Confucius 6th century B.C.E.
“Heaven means to be one with God.”
William Pickens, in a speech to a meeting of Congregationalists, Oak Park, Illinois, November 2, 1932
“Living together is an art.”
Jean Baptiste Lacordaire, 19th century
“We are leaves of one branch, the drops of one sea, the flowers of one garden.”
A Message of Inclusivity
Most often, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is interpreted as an event that foreshadows Paul’s evangelizing ministry to Gentiles. As we dig deeper, we see that Luke is spreading the welcome of the Gospel message much wider than Gentiles. Rather, this is an intentional story of being led by the Spirit to accept and bring in those who are most often marginalized in our society.
In antiquity, eunuchs belonged to a group of men generally discriminated against and ridiculed, often slaves who had been castrated to inflict punishment or enact servitude. Even if they were able to gain a position of prominence, they could not escape the stigma (F. Scott Spencer, “The Ethiopian Eunuch and His Bible: A Social-Science Analysis,” Biblical Theology Bulletin). It could be argued that the term “eunuch” was merely a title, commonly used in official roles to the extent that even those with a normal physical condition were frequently called “eunuchs.”
Some embrace a literal meaning of Ethiopian in the Greco-Roman world as “black-skinned” or someone from Africa (William Willimon, Acts: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching). Since he was returning from worship in Jerusalem and was found reading scripture, we might assume he came from a Jewish tradition, so was likely not a Gentile, as Judaism had also spread to Northern Africa. However, the eunuch was clearly interpreted by mainstream society as a sexual minority, and would have been excluded from Jewish worship.
Through this story Luke continues to expand the theme of widening the welcome through traveling to all peoples as the Ethiopian represents – not the beginning of the Gentile mission but the inclusion of the marginalized people of God as foretold in prophecy (Isaiah 56:3-5) (Raymond Perkins, “The Conversion of the Ethiopian”).
Messianic Prophecy or Rising Up of Jews in Exile?
Philip’s interpretation of Isaiah seems to lift up Jesus as the prophet of whom Isaiah spoke, which appears key to the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch. The notion that Jesus was also persecuted for who he was might resonate with the eunuch’s own experience. If we look closer at a Jewish interpretation of this Hebrew text, it becomes clear that Isaiah’s prophecy was more centered on the movement of the Jewish people in exile who had been oppressed by Babylon. Isaiah refers to the people of Israel as God’s Servant (41:8, 49:3) and this Servant Song is more likely centered on the return to power and rising up of the Jewish people. Only later did Christians shift the hermeneutics of Isaiah to focus on Jesus as the Messiah figure, when in fact it was about the rising up of a people oppressed by colonialism (Marsha Roth, “Isaiah 53: The Suffering Servant”).
Mass Incarceration and Immigrant Detention
As we prepare our sermons, we should always “read the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other,” as Karl Barth famously said.
As we prepare for potential good news from the Supreme Court that would allow marriage equality in all fifty states, we recall the ways in which the UCC has been an incredible leader in LGBTQ equality. Yet, still, many immigrants, transgender people and people of color suffer the reality of systemic oppression on the streets and in the jails.
Baltimore has risen up in protest in response to Freddy Gray’s unfortunate and unnecessary death while in custody of Baltimore Police. The calls of officials to adhere to non-violent principles fail to recognize the way systemic violence is perpetuated by practices of racial profiling that criminalizes and targets people of color and the poor. These practices have been institutionalized through the War on Drugs and the lobbying efforts of the prison industrial complex.
Meanwhile, Sherriff Joe Arpaio, six-time elected Sheriff in Maricopa County, Arizona, recently made headlines for his contempt of court hearing after continuing his program of racially profiling Latinos even after a court ordered him to stop. In a 32-page complaint, the Justice Department argues that Arpaio’s campaign of sweeps of homes and workplaces, and in traffic stops and jail practices, are indeed aimed at Latinos, regardless of status or citizenship (Fernand Santos, Fernand and Charlie Savage, “Lawsuit Says Sheriff Discriminated Against Latinos,” May 10, 2012 The New York Times).
We now recognize that the U.S. has 5% of the world’s population, and 25% of the world’s incarcerated. Since 1970 our prison population has grown 700%. Over the last ten years immigrants have been the fastest growing group of incarcerated people (ACLU of Texas, “Warehoused and Forgotten: Immigrants Trapped in our Shadowed Private Prison System”). The Immigration Customs Enforcement has a quota of 34,000 detention beds maintained at all times, a quota set by U.S. Congress. There are somewhere around 23,000 immigrants filling prisons that are owned by multinational corporations like Corrections Corporations of America and Geo Group. Most of those incarcerated at these Criminal Alien Requirement facilities were arbitrarily chosen to be criminally prosecuted for illegal entry or illegal re-entry at the border. Until recently these offenses were only met with deportation proceedings through a civil court system, but as part of the initiative for increased border security the Administration has escalated these unnecessary prosecutions that result in 6-18 months of incarceration in which time inmates cannot see or provide for their families.
The private prisons have spent $11 million over the last six years in lobbying efforts that support policies that keep people detained and incarcerated so that they can make billions of dollars in profit from our tax dollars.
Widening the Welcome and the Movement for Social Change
The United Church of Christ believes in an extravagant welcome to all people. We must work together to further understand what this means and how to follow the Spirit in this day and age. Just as Isaiah imagined a world were the oppressed who were in exile would rise up against colonial power, we must also go out and be part of the social movement to stop mass incarceration, to change policy, to push back against the War on Drugs, to stop police practices of stop and frisk or racial profiling, to end the bed quota and stop needless criminal prosecution for non-violent immigration-related offenses. As we work to build an inclusive theology we must include LGBT people, transgender people, people of color, and immigrants marching together towards freedom. As people of faith, we must also hit the streets and go out into the community to build the realm of God here and now and carry on towards a new world where all are welcome.
The Rev. Noel Andersen serves with the UCC National Collaborative on Immigration.
Resources for Immigrants Rights Sunday Here:
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.
But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
From you comes my praise
in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear God.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek God shall praise God.
May your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
shall remember and turn to God;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before God.
For dominion belongs to God,
and God rules over the nations.
To God, indeed, shall all who sleep
in the earth bow down;
before God shall bow all
who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for God.
Posterity will serve God;
future generations will be told about God,
and proclaim God’s deliverance
to a people yet unborn,
saying that God has done it.
1 John 4:7-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.
And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. 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. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved 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. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
[Jesus said:] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings.
Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
Lent and Easter
Ash Wednesday begins the season of Lent. Violet throughout Lent is in wide use, but some churches have begun instead to use browns, beiges, and grays (burlaps and unbleached fabrics, for example) to reflect the mood of penitence.
There are many variations in the use of vestments and color during Holy Week. Some common practices: Red, the color of martyrs, for Palm/Passion Sunday up to Maundy Thursday, when White is used for Holy Communion; stripping of all chancel paraments at the conclusion of the Maundy Thursday service, with no adornment until the appearance of White and/or Gold at Easter Vigil or Easter Sunday; the use of Black, Red or no color for Good Friday; the use of Scarlet during Holy Week instead of the “fire” Red of Pentecost.