Date: Fifth Sunday of Easter – May 3, 2015
Texts: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 150; 1 John 4:1-11; John 15:1-8
Context: We continue this Easter season to consider the impact of the resurrected Christ on his followers 2000 years ago and the implications for you and I today. We are empowered to live as followers of Christ by the love of Christ that is placed within us by God the Father. This love is not something that we can generate on our own, but rather an outflowing of our faith in Jesus.
Acts 8:26-40 – Once again the Book of Acts is referenced for another example of preaching the resurrected Jesus the Christ. The story begins with what Philip must have considered an unpleasant turn of events. Philip was having great success teaching in the city of Samaria, but is instructed to go to the middle of nowhere. Here, he meets a single person, a Jewish Ethiopian official. Philip instructs him in the faith and introduces the man (who may not have been present in Jerusalem for the events of Jesus’ death & resurrection) to the good news of Jesus. In an age of efficiency, where numbers are the determiners of faithfulness and success, this story of God the Holy Spirit’s specific attention to one man’s salvation is a stirring reminder of God’s care for each one of us.
Psalm 150 – It’s hard to add much commentary to this psalm! We are called upon to praise the Lord in every and all things, utilizing all our abilities and creativity in the process. The reason for our praise is God’s mighty deeds and the excellent greatness they display. The greatest of these mighty deeds is sending his Son to live and die and rise again in our place, promising to return and lead us into eternal life. While it is important to recount and recognize the personal works of God in our specific, individual lives (as the Ethiopian official in the previous reading surely did!), these are all secondary to God’s greatest gift to us in Jesus Christ.
1 John 4:1-11 – I’m becoming more and more convinced that this little letter is one of the most challenging sections in Scripture! John begins with a caution, to be wise and discerning about who and what we listen to. The litmus test is not the use of God’s name or even Jesus’ name, but the confession of the incarnation of the Son of God. This specificity should be the preliminary grounds for determining whether it is helpful to listen to someone. I would suggest it is not the only grounds, but it certainly the most preliminary grounds. There are already in the world spirits and forces who deny this, and that hasn’t changed in 2000 years. There are those who will fall under their influence and therefore be unable to hear what we have to say about Jesus the Christ.
John then transitions back to his ongoing theme of love, and the importance of loving one another. True love is impossible outside of the power of God because only in God do we learn what love actually means, and how best to express it. This admonition to love is important, for it should draw our attention to the fact that we are often not very good at it. We are very selective about who we love, even among our church family!
It sounds like a fairly straightforward command – love one another. And as such we want to dutifully set ourselves about doing it. We can make our resolutions and go out of worship ready to be more loving. But we are likely to be overwhelmed with our failure. With our inability and our unwillingness to love others as we are instructed. Anytime the Law becomes our focus – even the law of love – we can only be crushed by our inability to keep the Law. Our failure to love one another points us to the reality of our inability to love God as we should.
But John gives us hope as well. While we are not very good at loving, God is! The real measure of love is not to be found within us (obviously!), but in God’s loving sending of his Son to save us from our sin, from our un-loveable-ness and our un-loving-ness. So while yes, we ought to love one another, we will fail far more often than we succeed. We cannot keep our eyes fixed on us and on our accomplishments in this regard (or lack thereof). Rather, we must keep our eyes fixed on God the Father and God the Son, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. And in this way, we will find that we are more loving – little by little.
John 15:1-8 – Some of John’s themes are clarified here further, as we should expect. Jesus makes it clear that who and what we are is defined in relationship to himself. We can expect ourselves to be a certain way, can try to will ourselves to be less self-centered and more loving. But such efforts will be disappointing by any honest assessment. But when we rest in Jesus Christ, when we gain our identity in and through him, then these things can begin to be part of our lives. We cannot produce fruit apart from him. It is not ultimately our fruit, but rather his fruit manifest through us.
Verse 3 is important. We may wish to judge our faithfulness by our lives, and this is a dangerous mistake. Our faithfulness exists in our trust in Jesus the Christ as the Son of God incarnate, crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended, and coming again. This is what defines us as a child of God, not our fruit. We must keep our eyes firmly fixed on Christ in all things, rather than on ourselves. Otherwise we will be at best tempted to spiritual pride, and at worst to despair over our behavior.
We must abide in Jesus. A popular cult film is The Big Lebowski. The mantra of the main character, the Dude, is that “the Dude abide”. He simply is. Great events swirl around him, but he remains himself in the midst of all these things, remaining by and large unruffled by both the promise of greatness or the threat of death.
Ironically, this is a good image for the Christian life. We are to remain in Christ. The sense is very passive. It is not about us going out and doing great things for God, but rather remaining who we are and where we were grafted into him. Perhaps we were grafted and prepared for great things, in which case these things will come and we are to remain in him in the midst of them. Perhaps we were not grafted into him for great things. Then we are to remain in him in the ways intended for us, neither prone to jealousy nor ambitions beyond what He enables us to.
By the power of God the Holy Spirit you have been made part of God the Son, grafted into him and deriving your identity and strength from him. This is not in some mystical, Eastern sense by which we lose ourselves, but rather in such a way that discovering our true realities and identities is promised. We are not to obsess and focus over ourselves and our relative successes and failures as followers of Christ, but rather to focus on Christ. In doing so, in abiding in him, trusting in him and what we have done for us, our lives will be transformed, we will bear fruit, fruit that will last.