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.
- What is your response to this passage?
- Where do you see similarities in this story and our society today?
- How does that speak to outcasts today?
- How comfortable are you leaving your “mirrors” behind?
NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 4: 7-12
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.
- What meaning does this passage hold for you?
- How can this speak to us today?
- Why is this such a hard thing for many people to grasp?
- What does it mean for you to experience the “love that is of God”?
GOSPEL: John 15: 1-8
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.)
- What is your response to this passage?
- What does it mean to abide in Christ? What does it mean to abide with each other?
- What image does the vine mean for you?
- 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.