Christian love, 5 Easter (B) – 2015

May 3, 2015

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

The word on the street is that love is easy. We just do it. We talk about chemistry, and indeed, the scientists tell us that chemistry has something to do with physical attraction. However, we know that love goes further than physical attraction. We love our parents and our children. We love our friends. There’s a whole neglected tradition of love between friends that has nothing to do with physical attraction. If we think about it, physical attraction does not necessarily have anything to do with love.

Tomorrow is the feast of Monnica, the mother of Augustine of Hippo, the great scholar, writer, preacher. We know from Augustine’s autobiography what a pivotal role she played in his path to Christianity. Augustine must have driven his mother to distraction as he went off on tangents, had a liaison with a woman out of wedlock who bore him a son, and then, just as he set off for North Africa to begin his career as a bishop, she died. The love she had for her son was a suffering love. And therein lies our problem. Love for us is all bound up with bliss and happiness. The very idea that love includes suffering seems repugnant. Surely if suffering intrudes on love, something is wrong. Embracing suffering seems deviant: a form of masochism. Yes, love may bring us suffering, but that means, we think, that something tragic has occurred.

To our minds, loving and liking are allies. We don’t tend to like someone whose behavior offends us, or at least if that person persists in doing things that annoy us. In short, love, we think, has something to do with affinity.

Many parishes pride themselves on being very loving. When the parish is in search, it assures prospective rectors that everyone loves everyone. Just try being someone who has braved coming through those red doors, found a vacant pew, tried to negotiate the liturgy and then found his or her way to coffee hour. The visitor then sees love in action. Groups of people form impenetrable circles. Each group is made up of people long accepted in the circle, bound by an affinity made up of shared backgrounds, longevity, perhaps political beliefs and shared interests. Even if the visitor manages to gain entrance, the subjects discussed involve an element of shared experience foreign to the visitor. Love turns out to mean an easy acceptance of people we know well.

In today’s lessons we meet an uncomfortably different form of love. The lesson from Acts recounts a meeting between Philip, the Jewish convert, a deacon, with the non-Jewish Ethiopian court official. Immediately, the two men are divided by race, religion and social class. Yet Philip is instructed “by the Spirit” to approach the Ethiopian. The Eunuch is reading Isaiah, one of the passages the new Christians identified as prophecy about Jesus:

“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.”

Philip has the difficult task of explaining that the crucifixion, where Jesus was killed like an animal sacrifice, was the most sublime offering of love. How on earth was he going to do that?

To begin with, Philip has to remember that the love he has for God, is a love that acknowledges that God loves him so much that his own follies, mistakes, unkindnesses and cruelty don’t stop God piercing through into the depth of who Philip really is. Philip knows that, as the writer of the First Epistle John will write later, loving God and being loved by God demands that we love others. Philip also knows that the only hope he has to get through the barrier of differentness is to claim what happened to him when he was baptized. In baptism he was grafted into Jesus, the true vine. Jesus’ love alone enables Philip to love the Ethiopian enough to share what he has come to know, what has enabled him to become a disciple. And now that loving discipleship is going to bear fruit as he leads the Ethiopian to a pool and there to be baptized, adopted, grafted, welcomed into the Kingdom. The Queen of Ethiopia’s servant is to become the servant of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

We were once given that priceless gift when those who loved us brought us to baptism. Did they also know that we were being invited into living suffering, costly love? Do we accept that we are being drawn toward the sacrifice of true love? In our natural selves, we run from relationships that turn into hurt for us. We may even physically recoil from such pain, the opposite of physical attraction. That is why we hold our hands out today for Bread and Wine, for Christ Himself. He alone can give us the strength to overcome that which separates us from that person who needs to be baptized, or needs to revisit his or her baptism, that person whose lifestyle, habits, opinions are so different from our own offends us, make us want to walk away. Believe it or not, by being Christians we accept that our vocation in life is to bear fruit – the fruit of love – and to make disciples.

As we read in today’s epistle:

“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.”

 

— Fr. Tony Clavier is a retired priest and a missioner in the Diocese of Springfield.

Is there an app for abiding?, 5 Easter (B) – May 6, 2012

By Stephen P. Hagerty

(Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8)

Unfortunately, some of us feel that if we don’t check our smartphones every few minutes, we will miss out on something crucial, maybe the event of the year or the e-mail that will change the course of our lives. And it is even more embarrassing when we don’t seem to be aware that we are doing it, and someone brings it to our attention – often the person we should have been listening to!

A common lament, whether working in an office or as a full-time parent, is that there simply are not enough hours in the day. Schedules are too full, responsibilities too numerous and commitments too demanding. Given this, a common reason as to why we don’t eat better or exercise more or even pray more regularly is simply, “Who has the time?”

We can easily mishear the invitation in today’s gospel passage as yet another demand on our time. We can make the mistake of assuming that what often works well in one aspect of our lives, works equally well in our spiritual lives: in this case, the motto of every controlling and rushed person – which is all of us at one time or another – “If I don’t do it, it won’t get done.” But listen to Jesus today, “I AM the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower.” And Jesus goes on to tell us very clearly who is doing the work, and it is not you or me, my friends. “He removes every branch in me that does not bear fruit.”

This image of the people of God as “God’s vineyard” is a very old one, going back to the Jewish psalms, as well as other places in the Old Testament. Listen to part of Psalm 80: “You brought a vine out of Egypt; you drove out the nations and planted it. You cleared the ground for it; it took deep root and filled the land.” Again, notice that it is God who is doing all the planting here, not us. And think of all the other I AM statements found in the Gospel of John: “I AM the light of the world,” “I AM the gate,” “I AM the resurrection and the life.”

All these I AM statements in the Gospel of John point to the reality of God’s availability. It is ironic that Christianity has the reputation of being an other-worldly religion, focused almost exclusively on how to get into heaven. Maybe you have seen the bumpers stickers declaring, “Jesus is coming, look busy!” or “Friends don’t let friends miss out on heaven!” It may sound surprising, but this kind of theology of a “distant god” is what most of us are comfortable with, because it ultimately pushes God to the sidelines and we can remain in control. We are very good at being busy and taking responsibility, and we rather prefer this to being on the receiving end of change. But as Jesus in today’s reading, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

In today’s gospel, Jesus addresses us twice with the phrase “I AM the vine.” There is a promise here. “I AM the vine, and you are the branches.” Jesus is asking each of us to simply be with him. This sounds deceptively easy. Listen to the words of the Collect for Purity, as if for the first time: “Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid.” It’s OK to relax a bit and stop worrying about hiding those parts of ourselves that we don’t want others, and surely not God, to see. We can abide with God, instead of busying ourselves to keep God at a distance.

The promise of Jesus, the Vine, the Gate, the Light, is abundant life here and now, not just in some future time. God is doing more in our lives than any of us are aware. God in Jesus is simply inviting each of us to take the time to notice. But the trick, of course, is to let God do what God needs to do and for us to get out of the way. Jesus is very clear on this point when he says: “I AM the vine, you are the branches.” That is what abiding in the power of the Word is all about, not placing impediments in God’s way by trying to do for ourselves what God wants to do for us: reshape our hearts, bodies and minds to receive the forgiveness being offered.

Hopefully, now, you can hear Jesus’ words as the beautiful invitation it truly is: “Abide in me as I abide in you.”

 

— Stephen P. Hagerty is a postulant in the Diocese of New York and will be pursuing his Masters of Divinity at Yale Divinity School in the fall of 2012. He currently resides in Brooklyn with his spouse, Fred, and two Chihuahuas, Mojo and Kiki.

The work of the Holy Spirit, 5 Easter (B) – 2009

May 10, 2009

Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Philip the Deacon was one of the seven appointed deacons Luke mentions in the sixth chapter of Acts, and he is perhaps more properly thought of as Philip the Evangelist. His preaching mission in Samaria not only brought the followers of Simon Magus to be baptized as followers of Jesus, but also converted the magician himself, who was amazed at the signs and miracles that were taking place around Philip’s preaching. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Philip is nudged by an angel of the Lord to put himself in the way of meeting a very powerful person indeed: the chief treasurer, who was also a eunuch, from the court of the Candace of Ethiopia.

This ancient Chief Financial Officer had been up to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home down the wilderness road to Gaza on the coast. Philip saw the great chariot and the man in it, reading aloud from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. After the Spirit tells Philip to join the eunuch in his chariot, the two men began reading Isaiah together, and Philip explained what we would call one of the “Suffering Servant” songs as a reference to Jesus. After further conversation, the man was baptized and Philip moved on again, as it says in verse 38, “snatched away by the Spirit of the Lord.”

The section is part of Luke’s careful literary composition. It shows in the first few chapters of Acts, before Paul’s conversion and travels, that the Good News of Jesus Christ crossed several boundaries in a rapid and Spirit-filled expansion of apostolic witness – as it says in verse 8, “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Like the people of Samaria, who were considered only half-Jews, the Ethiopian convert is beyond the social boundary of Temple Judaism in Jerusalem. He is presumably still a gentile, but given his interest in Isaiah, he might well have been one of the God-fearers who clustered around synagogues at this time. At any rate, when he is baptized by Deacon Philip, the unnamed foreigner of wealth, power, and influence becomes a representative of the spread of the gospel to gentiles.

The epistle reading for today is one of those ecstatic pieces of John on the subject of love. Its thrust echoes the gospel reading in which Jesus holds forth about uniting together in him and with him like branches on a grapevine. Only with such uniting love, and with such persistent steadiness of “abiding” can we be sure of bearing the fruits of the Spirit. As we move through the Easter season, the thrust of the Holy Spirit in the workings of new life in Christ comes more to the forefront.

Deacon Philip’s evangelism is not usually equated with the work of love, but he embodies the commandment to love our neighbors, especially when those neighbors are strangers, people who are entirely “other.” Practicing evangelism is often no more and no less than learning how to encounter strangers with the openness and readiness of Jesus himself. And Philip shows us how there is a whole lot of love that needs to be expressed on the way to conversion and baptism.

Deacon Philip seized the opportunity to join the Ethiopian on the man’s own terms, reading what he was reading, answering the man’s questions, bringing the conversation around to Jesus. To proclaim our faith in the risen Jesus as a work of love among all our neighbors needs the gentle nudges as well as the motivating powers of the Holy Spirit. And we had best abide firmly and deeply rooted, planted in the ways of Jesus himself.

Recall the Jesus portrayed in Luke’s gospel, the Jesus who encountered strangers and loved them as if they were his kinfolk – whether they were lepers who needed to be touched to be healed, a nameless woman bleeding to death, a young girl who was deaf, a Roman centurion. The list in Luke and in the other gospels goes on and on.

The work of the Holy Spirit that brings us deeper into new life in the risen Christ is the same work of the Holy Spirit that teaches us to love the strangers we encounter, and how to honor and respect the dignity and integrity of the “other,” the “different” and the “alien” among us.

 

— The Reverend Angela V. Askew is priest-in-charge of St. Ann and the Holy Trinity, an Episcopal church in Brooklyn, New York.

Abide in me as I abide in you, 5 Easter (B) – 2006

May 14, 2006

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

Theologians through the ages have written about Christians’ penchant for a “milquetoast Jesus,” who is, in today’s parlance, something of a wimp. Dorothy Sayers, better known for her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries than her essays, wrote in exasperation in her book The Greatest Drama Ever Staged:

“We have very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him ‘meek and mild,’ and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies.”

We don’t have to look very far to see this image played out in liturgy and song. Think of the hymn:

Awake, awake to love and work!
The lark is in the sky;
The fields are wet with diamond dew;
The worlds awake to cry
Their blessings on the Lord of life,
As He goes meekly by.

Jesus is depicted here as meekly passing by.

Walk into church halls across the land, and any depictions of Jesus will be soft, solemn, composed.

The scripture passage we call “The Beatitudes” – or as the writer Robert Schuller publicized them, “the Be (Happy) Attitudes” – is much preferred over Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple. Jesus welcoming children is more often cited as descriptive of our Lord than his pronouncement “I come not to bring peace, but a sword.” In an odd sort of way, all of this is consistent, too, with our current trends toward inactivity and obesity. Overall, in our lives as in our faith, it is much more comfortable to sit still – to take a load off and rest awhile – than to be active.

Jesus tells his disciples, “Abide in me.” Oh, this is comforting! These words are alluring and welcoming and warm. We love to hear the reassurance that comes with our Lord inviting us into a kind of security, a resting in the everlasting arms of Jesus just like the old hymn proclaims. These words have been offered for generations as words of comfort. They declare the loving goodness of Jesus, the gentle savior.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. … Abide in me as I abide in you. … If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.”

Good news! Comforting and encouraging words! But is that all? So often this seems to be the sense of this lesson, indeed of the entire Gospel message and of Jesus. But there’s more to it than that. If we stop with the comforting words, we miss the message.

This passage also includes the message of pruning, and being thrown away, and withering – of being thrown into the fire and burned. That is the part we often don’t hear, and it is sobering.

The message of Jesus is clear when read closely and in its entirety: he expects something of us. He is not meek and mild, and doesn’t expect us to be. Our call is his call.

Another excerpt from this same gospel reading demonstrates. “Abide in me as I abide in you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” These words are from the same gospel reading, and even use the admonition “Abide in me.” But listen closely to the difference: “Abide in me as I abide in you.

How many ways can we say this today?
– Quid pro quo.
– No such thing as a free lunch.
– What goes around comes around.

In other sayings of Jesus we hear:
– Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
– Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.
– Love one another as God loves us.

However it’s phrased, it’s a two-part deal. The responsibility goes both ways. There is mutuality, reciprocity, an even exchange. Just as Jesus is not the meek and mild savior, neither are his disciples expected to be lazy and inactive.

The image of the vineyard is common throughout Old Testament scriptures and was a familiar image for Israel. Perhaps it was rooted in the Garden of Eden and the tension between being cast out and longing for return. Vineyard language – rich, harvest language – is used throughout the Hebrew scriptures to describe Israel and the promise of God’s restored goodness. Here, though, the vineyard language describes our relationship to God through Jesus, and makes clear the expectations of discipleship.

This is the time of year when many of us (gardeners at heart), begin planting seeds, or hailing off to the local nursery for bedding plants, or tending the shoots emerging from winter soil. We know that just because we want something to grow doesn’t guarantee that it will. We also know that getting our roses to bloom means cutting back the canes; that encouraging the growth of the tomato plants means pinching off the gangly stems; that getting a second bloom from the impatiens, or the pansies, or the sweet peas and zinnias, means cutting back the early flowers.

If something is growing where it doesn’t belong, we pull it out and call it a weed. If something is dead, or not growing well, we cut it off. If something is too big, or too small, we move it, stake it, tie it back. This is what John’s gospel describes of God and the disciples’ learning process. Gardening is not an armchair activity, and neither is faith. There are choices to be made. It is difficult work.

This passage from John’s gospel utilizes the image of vinedresser and vineyard to describe the relationship between God and Christian believers. What is the purpose of such care and tending? That we will bear fruit. That we may perhaps have a clearer understanding of our relationship to the vine.

Today is Mother’s Day. Many of us are mothers. Many of us have mothers. Any understanding of motherhood includes cajoling, guiding, and giving – as well as taking away, in the form of grounding, being put on “time out,” or being sent to our room. Isn’t this a bit like God’s role as the Vinedresser? God tends, mother guides. God counsels, mother teaches. God prunes, mother takes away, or puts on “time out,” or in some way lets us know that we will behave!

In both cases, the aim is to grow good fruit. For Mother, we are to become strong and wise and educated and courageous and ethical and use very good table manners. For God, well, for God we are to abide in God. Abide. Find our home in. Stake our claim in.

That sounds so easy, doesn’t it? We have only to glance again at the epistle reading from 1 John to realize how hard this is. We must love our brothers and sisters.

Imagine this in the family scenario: What does Mother do when we don’t love our brothers and sisters? Remember the old expression “gettin’ smacked upside the head”? John’s gospel uses the more elegant language of pruning to describe the vineyard scene, but it amounts to the same thing. We are to grow, to develop, to learn well from our teachers and to live the life to which we are called. And it’s hard work.

All of this conviction that we are called and expected to answer our Lord’s love with action, with fruit bearing, is rooted in our baptism with the promise “I will, with God’s help.” There’s that give-and-take construction again. In this Easter season it is good to remember that for the earliest Christians, baptism was the claiming of faith and being claimed by God. It was the nurturing and tending of the seedling until the tender shoot grew strong. The preparation for baptism took months and even years to accomplish because of all there was to learn and do in order to take on an active role in the community of faith. We stand on the shoulders of these saints in our present-day faith, charged to remember that the activity of faith is not easy or optional.

“Abide in me as I abide in you.” Jesus said. This doesn’t mean settle down, it means get busy.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religion and philosophy at Park University near Kansas City, following twelve years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys growing roses, raising children, and making chocolate desserts.