Sunday, April 26, 2015

Sunday 3rd May 2015 - Fifth Sunday of Easter

Theme: Love / Abiding in Christ / Vine and branches / God’s love for us, our love for others /Bearing fruit.

Sentence: God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them (1 John 4:16b)


Christ of the new covenant,
Give us the happiness to share
With full measure, pressed down,
Shaken together and running over,
All that you give us. Amen.


Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8


Acts 8:26-40

Note that Philip here is one of the seven deacons (Acts 6:5), and not Philip the Apostle, one of the Twelve. His evangelistic adventures have been told from 8:5.

How did the gospel progress from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth? A qualitative answer is “Not as well as might be expected.” Acts 8:1-4 makes the implicit point that the gospel was stuck in Jerusalem until persecution ‘began against the church in Jerusalem’ (1). This led to a scattering of Christians who ‘went from place to place, proclaiming the word’ (3). Philip goes ‘down to the city of Samaria’(5) with the gospel, thus fulfilling one specific detail in the Great Commission of Acts 1:8.

The next part of Acts 1:8, after reference to Samaria, mentions ‘to the ends of the earth.’ Acts will end in Chapter 28 with Paul proclaiming the gospel in Rome (though not as the first person to do so) and along the way we will have followed the progress of the gospel around the Mediterranean, anti-clockwise, from Antioch to Athens (so to speak), via three great missionary journeys of Paul.

But there are other ‘ends of the earth’ and the passage today tells us how the gospel went from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, a region in Africa to the south of Jerusalem, and a place where, indeed, the church is most ancient being wonderfully faithful to the gospel first shared by Philip with Candace’s unnamed eunuch (27).

Obviously there is an unusual if not unique aspect to this story which generally we do not and cannot follow by way of an example: ‘Philip’s Transport’ where there seems to be some extraordinary airlifting by the Holy Spirit at the conclusion of the encounter (39-40) and possibly in order to make the encounter happen (26-30).

But everything else in the story is worth pondering as example and guide in our own evangelistic work. Consider:

-          - Philip is open to the direction of God through his angel (26);
-          - The gospel is easier to explain to those who already have a point or points of connection with the things of God (noting the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship (27); was reading Isaiah when Philip turned up (28);)
-       -    There are ‘God moments’ we can ask God to provide for evangelism to be fruitful: the eunuch was not reading any old part of Isaiah but Isaiah 53:7-8 (Acts 8:32-33), a passage which applies to the life and work of Jesus Christ; the eunuch was an enquirer who sought to understand what he was reading (34);
-        -   Evangelists ask open ended questions which lead a conversation closer to God: The eunuch is reading so Philip asks ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’(30);
-        -   Evangelism is ultimately fruitful when hearers (a) believe and (b) are baptised (that is, enter into the fullness of life in the body of Christ the church);

One final note to observe here is the strategy of God. If we were Philip and had an Ethiopian mission in mind, we might rate ourselves pretty smart strategically if we found a key government official to convert. But Philip had no such strategy in mind! God had the strategy in mind and in an unusual mode of direction and transport, made Philip into an agent of his blessed scheme!

Psalm 22:25-31

In these verses from a psalm we mostly associate with the agony of Jesus on the cross, we find the psalmist entering into praise of the Lord with a vision which sees ‘All the ends of the earth’ remembering to turn to the Lord and ‘all the families of the nations’ worshipping him (27).

This vision is fulfilled in Acts, and our reading from Acts today tells us of one nation which will turn towards the Lord.

1 John 4:7-21

By this stage in the letter, if we have been reading every verse, we may be wondering why John seems intent on saying a few things repeatedly. One answer is that John is very concerned about the false teaching influencing his readers and thus takes the greatest of pains to make sure there is no misunderstanding about the truth (i.e. true teaching v false teaching).

We can note here that although John has previously written about ‘love’ (e.g. 2:5, 10, 15; 3:11-18, 23) he now does so more extensively than previously, and what he writes leads him to make the single most important statement about God made in all Scripture: ‘God is love’ (a statement made twice, 4:8, 16).

Reading the striking, challenging, inspiring words of verses 7-12, I am not sure that I want to ‘explain’ them. They need reflection, responsive action and should lead to praise and adoration of the One Who Is Love!

Some notes are worth making about the next verses, partly because they are more puzzling. 

What, for instance, does verse 13 mean? The confident elucidations of the Father and the Son in this epistle seem to falter when it comes to the Spirit: how do we know that we have received the Spirit who enables us to ‘know that we abide in [God] and he in us’? The answer seems to be implied rather than explicit: the Spirit is given to us to empower us to love as God has loved us (7-12), we understand that the Son has come into the world to be our Saviour (10, 14), we confess ‘that Jesus is the Son of God’ (15), and we have a sense that God loves us (16a).

When John speaks of themes of judgment/fear/punishment/perfection we are reminded of last week’s verses, 19-23.

(Thus we can surmise that in part the false teaching John was countering was a teaching which shattered the assurance which Christians ought to and can have, that if God has loved us first then we are loved and the power for us to love one another flows from the loving initiative of God who desires our blessing, and thus love in and through and from us may be perfected. Therefore we need have no fear of judgment by the God who is love).

The last few verses of the passage make clear that the love John is speaking of is not a theoretical love or a feeling of love: it is love demonstrated in the concrete actions of service to others, those whom we see and touch and thus demonstrate through our love for them that we love God who can neither be seen nor touched.

There is much more to say here. A thousand sermons will never exhaust the profound truth which permeates these verses. A specific omission in my comments above concerns the theme of ‘abiding’. To that theme we turn in the gospel reading.

John 15:1-8

Some passages of the Bible are more famous than others and this is one of them!

There is a haunting poetic quality to these words, which are part of the moving, poignant ‘last testament’ of Jesus as he sets out for his disciples what the future beyond his death is going to be for them.

Here Jesus assures them that he will always be with them and commands that they be with him. The Greek verb maneo is translated ‘abide’ in the NRSV and other translations, with ‘remain’ and ‘dwell in’ being offered by others. The sense is of a spiritual uniting of Jesus and his disciples – a uniting illustrated by the ‘vine’ and ‘branch’ imagery: the branch is nothing without the vine to which it is joined; the vine is not up to much if it has no branches.

We might (I suggest) think of the close bond of husband and wife who are united in body, soul and mind; or of two people who think alike and perhaps share feelings and attitudes in common, often described as ‘soulmates.’ We could say that Jesus is talking here about what it means to be his soulmate.

First, it means a relationship with a purpose. Jesus does not simply want us to be his ‘best buddies’, hanging out together in a closed circle. He wants us to ‘bear fruit’ (2, 4, 5, 8). Yet ‘fruit’ is not defined here! Perhaps that is because John reckons it is obvious what ‘fruit’ would be in this context. 

If so, then the obvious ‘fruit’ in a purposeful relationship would be fruit in keeping with the overall purpose of this gospel account of Jesus’ life and mission. When we go to John 20:31, we would reckon that ‘fruit’ is new believers in Jesus Christ.

Secondly, it means a relationship in which the purpose is not optional but intrinsic to the relationship. All the talk in these verses of the branches which do not bear fruit being at least pruned, if not removed is serious, pointed and (to be honest) somewhat scary (starting with verse 2). Disciples do not live for themselves alone but live to bear fruit, to bring more people into an abiding relationship with Jesus.

Thirdly, it means a relationship in which we are continuously soulmates of Jesus. We are not penfriends who occasionally ‘touch base’ with each other. ‘Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me’ (4). If we have any doubts, these words in verse 5 are decisive: ‘apart from me you can do nothing.’

So these words are challenging but they are also encouraging. If we abide with Jesus, allow ourselves to be pruned, then ‘Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit’ (5).

What then do we make of verse 7 which sometimes has been taken to mean that (say) when we want a new car, we just ask and it will be provided (with possible devastation to faith when we walk out to our driveway to find the same old battered sedan is sitting there). Noting that abiding is about being ‘soulmates’ with Jesus, we should understand verse 7 to mean that when we understand Jesus and what his will is for the world, we will only ask for what Jesus wants to happen. (Occasionally that might include a new vehicle!)

Jesus’ life, according to this gospel, has been solely focused on glorifying God. It is no surprise that those who abide in him will also be glorifying God (8).

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