Easter 5B: Unless Someone Guides Me

philip_ethiopian2FIRST READING: Acts 8: 26-40

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

In this part of Acts, the author tells of the spread of good news to non-Jews in the Middle East. The writer has just finished telling about the spread of the gospel to the Samaritans and now we hear of the conversion of yet another outcast, a eunuch. (Per Deuteronomy 23:1, a eunuch could not be admitted to the assembly of the Lord. The eunuch is from Ethiopia. The “angel” is essentially an agent of the Lord of some sort that leads Philip to Gaza down this wilderness road. He comes across this eunuch, who was the financial officer for Queen Candace. He finds the eunuch reading from the Book of Isaiah. A few things can be surmised from this. First of all, the eunuch is probably an admirer of Judaism, although he cannot participate in its practice. Secondly, the eunuch is well-educated and probably fairly successful (since he is so high in the queen’s court.)

Philip proclaims the good news by showing the eunuch how the prophesies of the Old Testament are fulfilled through Christ. He tells the eunuch about Jesus. When the eunuch asks for baptism, Philip obliges. At that point, Philip is in some way whisked or carried or snatched or in some other way compelled away, where he finds himself in Azotus, proclaiming the good news to more non-believers.

The eunuch is cut-off from society, shunned. And yet, in the story of Jesus, he found a place. Here, human humiliation becomes the point of entrance for relationship with God. He was obviously open to this encounter, perhaps even deeply wanting it, since he was reading the Scripture. One interesting thing is that the eunuch did not ask for a teacher. He asked for a guide—someone to travel with him, rather than telling him where to go. Perhaps he already had this God-thing figured out.

From the standpoint of Philip, keep in mind that he had always been taught to be prejudiced against eunuchs and probably against blacks. This man was from Ethiopia; he was not like Philip. Perhaps God puts those who are different in our path to remind us that it is not our job to define the Kingdom of God. There are no membership cards. It’s just that often the church has to be poked and prodded beyond its comfortable walls.

The truth is, this IS a story of conversion, but not the story of the conversion of the eunuch. It is, rather, Philip’s conversion, the story of how he left his prejudices and his cultural preconceptions, his fear of those who are different, behind and instead followed the call of the Gospel. It is the story of Philip becoming who God called him to be.

But, truth be told, all of us struggle with that. After all, it’s much more comfortable, much more validating, to surround ourselves with those like us. And yet, how does that change us? How does that change the world? If we surround ourselves with mirrors, with those things that look and act like us, that reflect only who we are, how will we ever know how God is calling us to change? How will we ever know who God is calling us to be beyond ourselves? So, who’s to say? Who’s to say who can be baptized? Who’s to say who God loves? Who’s to say who has the right image of God? The truth is, we don’t know. It’s not ours to say.

The truth is, none of us have it figured out. None of us even come close to having possession of this wild and untamed Holy Spirit through which we live and move and have our being. None of us can ever limit the Christ that lives even today in this world. And none of us will ever completely know God. The best we can hope and pray for is that we will finally come to know that part of God that God has revealed in our lives. And in the meantime, we are called, called to be the people of God building the Kingdom of God. In the meantime, we are called to break the mirrors that limit who we are and follow where God leads.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Where do you see similarities in this story and our society today?
  3. How does that speak to outcasts today?
  4. How comfortable are you leaving your “mirrors” behind?



NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 4: 7-12

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage can be summed up in three words: “God is love.” This love originates in God This is the kind of love we have for each other. Being lovers, then, we are God’s children and we love God. If we don’t actively love, we don’t know God – because the very nature of God “is love”. God’s greatest expression of love for us, the Church, was sending Christ, sending the very Godself, into this far-from-perfect world, thereby giving us a way to know and live as God envisions. God took this initiative, this action restoring us to unity with God. So we have a duty to love each other. It is through Christ that we can see God. The flip side is: if we love each other, God (i.e. God’s Love) is “in us”: fraternal love completes God’s vision of total love.

This is obviously sort of a circular depiction of God’s love and God’s vision of who we are. But, here, the aim of love is to enable people to live, sharing life and love in the name of God with each other. Implicit in this passage is the assumption and the directive that we will love those even that we do not see, that we will love someone not because of who they are but simply because they “are”. So, from that standpoint, the shape of God’s love is continually changing, continually growing within us. As we encounter more and more of those whom we should love, God’s love grows beyond our own limitations.

If it is true that the very core of the universe is love, then God wants us to grow in love. In the Bible, God does not command us, “grow in intelligence.” If the very core of the universe was intelligence, then God would have said, “get smarter and smarter and smarter.” But God does not say that in the Bible. If the very essence of the universe was power or wealth, then God would BE power and wealth. But because the core of the universe is love, and God is love, then God wants us to be like God; to be more loving. God wants us to experience love, to grow in love. God’s command to love is simply the command to be who we are supposed to be, who God created us to be in the first place.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. How can this speak to us today?
  3. Why is this such a hard thing for many people to grasp?
  4. What does it mean for you to experience the “love that is of God”?


GOSPEL: John 15: 1-8

To read te Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

The passage begins with a familiar image: the vine. Perhaps the “true” vine is the writer’s way of distinguishing this newfound faith in Christ from the image that was used for Israel. But the focus is probably more on the need to remain in the vine and bear fruit. Remaining in, abiding in, the vine is crucial for life. For the writer of this Gospel, salvation is a relationship with the Christ and God through Christ. So, using the vine image, branches need to insure that they remain connected.

The vine will be pruned or purified and new life will spring forth. Fruit-bearing probably refers to the bringing of others into this relationship with Christ. Evangelism which is not understood as abiding within the aspect of love becomes a form of manipulation. But, like a vine, we are all interconnected, nourished by God’s love. That is life. That is abiding. The whole thing is not about horticulture; it’s about abiding.

We love because God first loved us. Love is the highest form of abiding, of being present for one another. Thich Nhat Hanh says, “If our love is only a will to possess, it is not love. We must look deeply in order to see and understand the needs of the person we love. This is the ground of real love.”

In a commentary about this passage, Walter Wink says this:


What does it mean, “to abide”? Deep strata of memory are excavated by those words: a former piety, a profound but now defunct Christ mysticism, prayer without ceasing, attempts to implant myself in God and an entire libretto of frozen feelings, from “I tried that” to “pious claptrap” to “let’s get on with living in the real world.” For me “abide” once meant: Think only of Jesus. Drown out all other voices. Choke down the rebellion. Manhandle the resistance. Deny the inner darkness. For me, it all added up to a religion of repression.

But we grow with the text. I had somehow mislearned to regard the command to abide as a personal admonishment. I took the “you” as singular. My God and me, and all that. But that “you” is plural, providing a rich image of the body of Christ, of Christ seeking a body in the world. Had I thought of it as plural, I would have understood it as a reference to the church. Now I would leave it loose, to apply to anyone who abides, whatever his or her beliefs or affiliations….

In such a time, the words “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love” .may not come as unmitigated comfort. Look at how God loved Jesus! From baptism to crucifixion, Jesus kept abiding, and the Powers maintained their menace. Did Jesus have to undergo pruning? Is that what the Temptation was all about? And Gethsemane? And how much more we never hear about? This pruning business can get a lot more painful than anything I’ve ever known.

Someone who does know more about the painfulness of pruning than I stresses that the pruning is not to be identified with an original act of trauma, abuse or injustice. Elaine V. Emeth says that the pruning metaphor works for her only if she thinks of God as a gardener who grieves while watching a violent storm rip through a prized garden. Afterward, the gardener tenderly prunes the injured plants in order to guarantee survival and to restore beauty and harmony. Pruning is not to be confused with the tragedies that overtake us; it has more to do with clearing away the debris they leave behind. (From “Abiding Even Under the Knife”, by Walter Wink, in “The Christian Century”, April 20, 1994 available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n13_v111/ai_15177815/?tag=content;col1, accessed 6 May, 2008.)


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does it mean to abide in Christ? What does it mean to abide with each other?
  3. What image does the vine mean for you?
  4. How do churches today fall short of this image?




Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


God is always bigger than the boxes we build for God, so do not waste too much time protecting your boxes. (Richard Rohr))

We must love them both, those whose opinions we share, and those whose opinions we reject, for both have labored in the search for truth, and both have helped us in the finding of it. (Thomas Aquinas)


All your love, your your stretching out, your hope, your thirst, God is creating in you so that God  may fill you…God is on the inside of the longing.  (Maria Boulding)




Close by reading the excerpt from There Is a Season, by Joan Chittister, p. 111:

An ancient wrote:  Once upon a time a disciple asked the elder, “How shall I experience my oneness with creation?”  And the elder answered, “By listening.”  The disciple pressed the point:  “but how am I to listen?”  And the elder taught, “Become an ear that pays attention to every single thing the universe is saying.  The moment you hear something you yourself are saying, stop.”

Peace will come when we stretch our minds to listen to the noise within us that needs quieting and the wisdom from outside ourselves that needs to be learned.  Then we will have something of value to leave the children besides hate, besides war, besides turmoil.  Then peace will come.  Then we will be able to say…I fear nothing, I hope for nothing, I am free.

Easter 4B: All We Like Sheep

Shepherd and sheepOLD TESTAMENT: Acts 4: 5-12

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

Last week, we read that Peter and John had gone to the Temple to pray and Peter had healed a crippled man. Peter then exhorted the crowd to repent and turn to God that their sins might be wiped out. While all this was happening, the religious authorities became very annoyed and arrested them. John and Peter now appear before the council and are asked to explain their actions: Who empowered you to cure the lame beggar? Peter, “filled with the Holy Spirit”, responds that it was done in the power and name of Jesus Christ (whom, he reminds them, “they” had crucified.) (There’s quite a bit of perceived anti-Semitism that you have to weed through here. Think of it more in terms of the “powers of the day”, the religious authorities, rather than the “Jews”. Remember, Jesus was a Jew.)

He then proclaims Jesus as the “cornerstone” of the Church, God’s agent and affirms that salvation is available through Christ. Following this, (I don’t know why the Lectionary wouldn’t have included it—odd!)  the members of the Sanhedrin (the council) are “amazed…and recognized…them as companions of Jesus.” They note that a notable sign has been done and order the two not to speak or teach in the name of Jesus. The two inform them that they will continue to do just that.

You know what’s interesting—if you remember, Peter was never the strong one. In fact, wasn’t he the one who denied Jesus—three times, in fact? Something had changed. God had taken someone fearful, someone cowardly, and turned him into a bold proclaimer.

It is obvious, though, that the “powers” of the day sense the threat that was there. After all, the whole priestly entourage turns out. But that concluding statement has always caused problems in history. Christians have gone to war through the centuries armed with that last statement—that “no other name under heaven….” But the truth here is that Jesus was the one who confounded the whole system—turning the tables, so to speak. Here’s a quote from Walter Wink—he says it better than I do:

If “saved” means being united and reconciled with God, then Acts 4:12 is palpably false. There are many authentic roads to God, and no religion holds the franchise for illumination. But if “saved” here means being delivered from the bondage and delusions of the domination system, and being empowered to set others free–if it means ultimately transforming the system itself and renouncing domination in all its forms–then Jesus is indeed the one who can yet save the world from the domination system. And that, it seems to me, is a factual statement with which persons of all religions might agree. (From “Those Obstreperous Idiots”, in The Christian Century, April 13, 1994)

The point of it all is that Jesus promises a new wholeness, a new unity that will restore an otherwise broken world. I mean, when you think about, it had already healed Peter, already made Peter more of who God was calling him to be—strong, courageous, bold. So, how can good come out of a corrupt world? Good comes because God will never let corruption, or rejection, or despair, or injustice, or even crucifixion have the last word. Essentially, resurrection is always happening. In his blog on this Scripture, Dr. John Holbert says it like this:

It is nothing less than tragic that the idea of “being saved” has too often done precisely the opposite; it has divided people rather than united them. Ironically it will do that as well in the ongoing story of Acts, as Jews and early Christians grew further and further apart. Still, as the famous, and infamous, John 3:16 proclaims, “God so loved the cosmos” and sent Jesus, “not to condemn the cosmos,” but in order that the “cosmos might be made whole,” restored, made one again. By implication, any time that the name of Jesus is used to divide, and not unite, to generate hatred and not love, to separate person from person rather than join them together, that name has been besmirched, misused, profaned. We Christians, all of us, would do well to meditate on our use of Jesus’ name and ask ourselves what use we have made and make of it in our own faith lives. (From “A Fresh Wholeness”, available at http://www.patheos.com/Progressive-Christian/Fresh-Wholeness-John-Holbert-04-23-2012, accessed 25 April, 2012.

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do the abuses of this passage that exist do to its meaning?
  3. What does it mean for you to be “saved” through Christ?
  4. From what systems of domination does Christ deliver us today?



NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 3: 16-24

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

In this passage, the author (we’re not sure who that is really!) begins by addressing the nature of love, pointing to Christ’s love that involved Christ laying down his life for us. It implies here that this is not a vicarious sacrifice but, rather, a total self-giving for others. That, then, is what love really is—giving oneself for others. The focus is not on sacrifice or atonement here, but on love and generosity.

Even though this letter is written within the context of the Christian community, it does not seem to limit the directive to love for that community only. This love is limitless. From love comes the right thoughts, the right actions, the truth, and the boldness to proclaim belief in the name of Jesus Christ. For the author, confidence comes from relating to God, rather than a notion of piety that separates one from God because of sin.

Through loving one another, we obey God and abide in God. It affirms the sufficiency of God and God’s love. By loving one another, by loving God, by abiding in God, we will get the sustenance that we need to live. In fact, in a community in which God’s love abounds, all will get what they need and all will live together in unity and wholeness. It is not the rule; it’s just the way it is. This clearly envisions a world where people are not diminished but are allowed to stand on their own beliefs with confidence. And the “right” belief means that they will love and respect each other.

This epistle was written to a community that saw themselves within the broken world in which they lived. But they are reminded here that God is ever-present and always-loving. Perhaps we need to be reminded of the same thing. After all, what does God’s Presence look like in our lives, in our world? What shape does God’s Presence take in our lives? What does a world look like that overflows with God’s love?


  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What happens to these thoughts in our consumer-driven society?
  3. Why do we not live our lives this way?
  4. What does God’s Presence look like in our lives?



GOSPEL: John 10: 11-18

To read the Lectionary Gospel Passage, click here

The ancient shepherd of Palestine had to be tough, worked often in areas of sparse growth, and frequently was amid dangers from wild animals and sheep stealers. But it was his job, his very livelihood, to protect the flock, particularly at night. The use of the shepherd image reflects both strength and nurture. This was not leadership that just sat back and told people what to do—it was, rather fully engaged in the workings of life.

It’s hard for us to grasp, but a shepherd does not care for a flock of no-name, generic animals. A shepherd that does his job well would know each and every one of the sheep for which he is responsible. (My grandfather could name every cow on our ranch—it always amazed me.) The point is, this is not a removed role of leadership but fully participatory and engaged. But, when you think about it, it has little to do with control. After all, have you ever tried to control a bunch of sheep? The image is of a shepherd, not a controller.

So, Jesus as the shepherd may not be the peaceful, pastoral Jesus we envision. This was hard work. This was dangerous work. This was work that few “respectable” people would do. So what does that say? It says that Christ does not stand on the principles of this society or this world. The passage reminds us that Christ never gave in to his own preservation but instead gave himself to and for the world. And, so we are called to do the same, to be like Christ.

I think, though, the image of sheep is something that we should not omit. We tend to concentrate on the shepherd part and we forget the image of the sheep. After all, we don’t like to admit it, but we make pretty good sheep. We stand protected by our ranks, assured of our stance because others think the same within the boundaries of our lives, and secure in our walls we’ve built because we have company that’s helped us build them. And then someone comes along, honks a horn, and we take off running, not because there’s really a threat, but because everyone else is doing it.

And so, what about the other sheep? What about those that Christ invites into the flock? You know, it’s interesting—when we want to set limits, God tells us that it is precisely those on the other side of the wall who belong to the fold. And that’s what often makes us run or at least put our guard up a bit.

Sure, sheep are communal animals. The herd is the very essence of their survival. And, yet, they know that it’s the shepherd to whom they look. They’re really not worried about who is in the flock. Whoever follows the shepherd is one of them.

We all know what a “herd mentality” is. It is that thing that sends panic through a crowded space if someone claims they have a weapon. It is that thing that makes us drive above the speed limit if all the cars around you are doing just that—after all, I, personally, don’t like it when people pass me. Some would say, sadly, that it affects our very democratic process, as polls of who everyone else thinks should win come rolling out. In our world, a “herd mentality” somehow convinces people to not think for themselves. All we like sheep herd ourselves into the place that everyone else is and we expect the world to get in line behind us.

So you see, I’m not convinced that the character in this passage with which we should identify is actually the Good Shepherd. I’m thinking it is, rather, the sheep. Have you ever thought that the word “sheep” is the same for both singular and plural tenses? Isn’t that interesting? It’s as if it doesn’t matter, because it’s all the same.

Perhaps we are called to a new herd mentality—to a new way of living. In the society in which we live, we are encouraged to act as individuals, to do the things that preserve our own self-interest and our own self-preservation. And, yet, we sometimes struggle to think for ourselves. What would people think? But Christ calls us to a new herd mentality. Perhaps it is one where the singular and the plural no longer matter, where we act as a herd, as a group that follows Christ. But don’t get me wrong…we are meant to think for ourselves. That is called belief. That is called faith.

For the writer, the fact that Jesus laid down his life meant that Jesus brought life. It was not really a “sacrificial lamb” here, though. It meant that Jesus, the shepherd, loved the flock enough to ensure them life. And, as part of the “flock”, following the Good Shepherd means following and receiving life.


  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What meaning does the “shepherd” image evoke for you?
  3. What meaning does the notion of the sheep evoke for you?
  4. How does that image speak to our lives today?


Some Quotes for Further Reflection:


If I look at the mass I will never act, if I look at the one, I will. (Mother Teresa)


Sure, people need Jesus, but most of the time, what they really need is for someone to be Jesus to them. (Reuben Welch)


Experiments have shown how much of our behavior is determined by the mental images to which our minds are constantly returning. If we bring our minds back again and again to God, we shall by the same inevitable law be gradually giving the central place to God, not only in our inner selves, but also in our practical everyday lives. (Paul Tournier)




PSALM 23  LORD God, divine shepherd; in the days ahead, just as it has been all my life,  I shall not want for anything. You will rest me in rich pasture  and lead me beside calm waters. You will bring my inner being back where it belongs, and lead me along the right paths,  for the sake of your name. Even when things seem at their darkest, sensing your presence, I fear nothing; you are sure of the way ahead, and you protect me. Indeed, in spite of the adversity surrounding me you continue to provide abundantly for my well-being; anointing me with your hospitality and pouring out blessing upon blessing. Surely good and loving kindness will pursue me all my days, I will return, and you, O LORD,  shall be my dwelling-place for days without end.

                                    (by Jeff Snowden)