This is the message I preached to the people of Kingscote Uniting Church on Sunday 3rd May 2015. It treats the readings from the Lectionary for Easter 5B.
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
Last Saturday, eight days ago and not yesterday, I had the privilege of leading at Anzac Day for the first time. In opening my address to the gathered people at Penneshaw I reminded them that the best known Bible verse to be associated with Anzac Day comes from John 15:13 where Jesus says greater love has no man than this, that he should lay down his life for his friends. I told the people that the central story of Christianity is that the purest form of love was personified in Jesus Christ who, in turn, represents God whose fullest nature is to give love, and that above claims made by us religious types about God’s saving grace, forgiveness, strength and power, what the Bible says is that love is the most central meaning of the Christian story. Today’s message is also about love, and it begins like all good stories do beside a road out the back of nowhere.
We heard from Acts 8 this morning of how an angel sent Philip to the wilderness road where he met an Ethiopian god-worshipper. Philip was encouraged to help the man interpret what he was reading and we can identify this text as the servant song of Isaiah 53:7-8. The original hearers of this passage would have understood it to refer to the leaders of Israel in their day, and possibly to the unjust treatment meted out to prophets like Isaiah who had to bring such harsh words to the nation. No one likes the man who stands up in church, or in parliament, and who says that God is angry enough to smash you; even in 700 BCE the first response was to shoot the messenger. So in the time of Isaiah this passage did not refer to the future Messiah, but it did make very clear what happens to prophets who challenge the royal and religious leaders in the way that Jesus later did. Note that Luke who wrote Acts does not say that Philip says the passage is speaking about Jesus, but that beginning with the passage Philip speaks about Jesus. The story is not that Isaiah prophesied the coming of the Messiah but that a man of God speaking to the people of God through the word of God challenges those people by accusing them of preferring to kill the prophet and shut him down than hearing the word of correction against their injustices. This is exactly what happened to Jesus, as Peter made clear in Acts 3-4 which we have read together over the past two weeks.
So why does Philip start to witness to Christ with this passage? Why not John 3:16? Why not walk the unbeliever along the “Romans Road” of Evangelicalism? Well of course there are two reasons, a practical one and a historical one. I’ll give you the historical one first: John 3:16 and Paul’s letter to the Romans had not been written at that stage. Even though John 3:16 appears on page 1912 of my Study Bible and today’s passage is on pages 1972 and 1973 the gospels hadn’t actually been written in Philip’s time. And allowing that Saul is still a fanatical anti-Christian Pharisee at this point in history, and that his conversion story doesn’t actually appear until Acts 9, we can rule out the Romans Road too. There can be no Romans Road without the Damascus Road. So there was no John 3:16 to quote, and no Romans, and that’s the historical reason why Philip didn’t start there.
But the practical reason is the better one anyway, and would apply to us even today when we do have the entire Bible to use in our faith-sharing. Philip started in Isaiah 53 because that is where the Ethiopian eunuch was reading from. In all of our personal evangelism we must always start where the person is and then point them to where Jesus is. If the person is in Isaiah 53 then that’s where we start. If the person is in Deuteronomy 5-6 then that’s where we start, and if the person is in Genesis 1-2 then that’s where we start, and if the person is in Revelation 17-18 then that’s where we start. So Philip tells the story of Jesus beginning where the Ethiopian man is at, and when he has explained the gospel Philip agrees to baptise the Ethiopian in response to the Ethiopian’s new understanding of who Jesus is. This is the story of an individual gentile who chooses to trust in Jesus, and this is one of several such stories that some before we get to the full-blown conversion of the Gentiles and the missionary work of Paul. This is an exciting story not only because Philip is miraculously teleported in and out of the location, but because it is a story about God’s preparation of the Church prior to God’s pouring out the Spirit across all Gentile nations and the whole planet.
That, for me, is a cause of celebration. God knows who the marginal are and God makes plans to include them.
So now we turn to the Psalm for today: and just look at the cascade of imagery!
In Psalm 22:25 we read “from you comes my praise”. God is the source of our worship and in 22:26 we glorify God because of the work of justice which is acts of love on behalf of the afflicted. Those who seek God will praise God; those who live life under the reign of God will give glory to God and tell true things about God. In 22:27 we read of how the whole world shall be reminded of God because of the faithfulness of the disciples who work for justice, and how people from every nation will worship God in this way because the evidence of God’s loving-kindness will not be hidden from anyone. In 22:28 we acknowledge that God is the true and rightful ruler of every realm and because of this God alone reigns in the places where God alone is worshipped and obeyed: indeed in 22:29 the worshippers of God are not restricted to the living but also to the dead. The dead worship God and the living live out their worship of God. “And I shall live for him” declares the psalmist, or an alternative reading says “and he who cannot keep himself alive” suggesting that the person who is alive to worship God is alive only because God has sustained him or her. In 22:30 the generations to come are brought in to the communal act of worship, the universal act of worship when those not yet born will be told by their ancestors about what God has done. And what has God done? God has delivered the afflicted and forsaken. God has heard the cry and God has answered with salvation and restoration.
When Jesus cried out from the cross “My God why have you abandoned me”, quoting Psalm 22:1 all who heard him were immediately reminded of Psalm 22 in its entirety. Today, in this time between Easter and Pentecost we are reminded of the same thing. The story of Easter began with a man hanging crying on a cross, but it will end with the proclamation to every future generation and every ethnicity on the planet the magnificent deeds of salvation performed by God. And what is this salvation? What salve does the Psalmist offer on behalf of the faithfulness of God? Salvation from poverty, salvation from affliction, and salvation from abandonment. More than the forgiveness of the sins of disobedience and mutiny against God, God offers restoration of relationship and the deep knowing and feeling of being held close, safe, and dear to God. You are loved, loved beyond your ability to comprehend.
Now isn’t that a God worth worshipping and a truth worth proclaiming with great joy?
(If you were Pentecostals you’d yell “Amen!” at this point.)
But if there is any doubt that God offers such love then the apostle John won’t have a bar of it. Not only does John tell us in 1 John 4 that God is loving and steadfast John goes further and says that God is love. Let there be no doubt of this, love is not something that God does and love is not something that God offers. Love is what God is: God is love.
And what is this love that is what God is, that is the nature and character of love? The love that God is is salvific. The love of God is atoning in that it is reconciling and restorative. The love that God is repairs what was broken and especially broken relationships. The love of God is soothing and healing. John makes clear in 1 John 4:12 that whilst no one has ever seen God God is known by the love that is in us and the love that is shared among us as that love is being perfected. The more love we share amongst each other the better we get at doing it, and the more God is made known in our midst and amongst those who come to the places we are, or are in the places to which we go. God does not make Godself known through wrath or teaching or morality, God is made known through the fullness of love and the love than which no love is greater. And what is the greatest form of love? Greater love has no man than this, that he should lay aside his own life for the ones he loves. That’s the words of Jesus and our many war memorials (or “peace monuments” as one veteran told me last Saturday).
Those who love like God loves are the ones who do the will of God. The ones who love like God loves have God’s presence within them. As 1 John 4:9 says God’s love was revealed amongst us and 4:20-21 says that those who love God must also love their brothers and sisters too. It is not enough to say that you love God; it isn’t even enough that that statement be true and that you do dearly and truly love God. Unless you also love your brothers and sisters in faith, the people around you this morning and other believers who you encounter in your every day life, then you cannot truly be loving God. In other words the evidence that you love the One who is unseen is that you are demonstrating your love for the ones you do see.
So what does this love look like? Well we’ve already seen that in the Psalm and in the passages from Acts and Isaiah. Love is not affection, love is justice. Love is not kindliness, love is compassion. Love is not gooey, love is sacrificial. Love is not giving you heart to someone, love is the continuous preparedness to give your life for someone.
Well if that is all true then love is hard. No wonder John speaks about love as being perfected, it certainly needs to be an ongoing process and it does appear that even John thinks the process will not be completed on earth. We can never love as completely as God loves, our physicality gets in our way. But this is where more good news comes in, and that good news comes from John in his gospel.
In the first few verses of John 15 Jesus speaks about himself being like a vine and he says that he is the source of every good thing. This is a metaphor of course, we cannot take it literally. The literal word of God here is that Jesus literally spoke about himself using a metaphor, Jesus is not literally a plant and no one would suggest that that is the case. But with Jesus imagined as a vine and God the Father imagined as a vine-grower we can talk about Christ being the stem and the roots where we are the branches. In the story of love we can say that God revealed in Christ is the source of the love we express even as the grapes on a vine are fed by the water and nutrients sourced from the soil by the roots and stem. Like a branch cut off from the soil’s nutrition a Christian cut off from Christ will not flourish. In the same way a branch cut away from the other branches will not flourish, we need each other too.
A Christian away from Christ cannot love as God intends. We have said that even as Christians we can never love to the depths and extents that God loves, but if we remain fruitful in the work of God, that is to say if we continue to work at loving others, then Christ will continue to send love to and through us for the glory of God and for the expansion of the vine. The practical reality is that if we are cut off from people we cannot love as God intends, because as John said we cannot demonstrate that we love God unless we are busy loving other people. So if you are planning on going off and sitting in a cave alone with God for a while so that you can focus on loving God without interruption, don’t stay away too long. God does call us into times of solitude to teach us, and love on us 1:1, but if you try to live out there you’ll soon be lonely. God will allow you to feel lonely because having been disciple by the Father you are supposed to come back here and get on with the work of loving us in the midst of us in the same way that the rest of us love you.
So do it. Love one another. Be excellent to each other if you must. Are you the one God could choose to send to the wilderness road? Are you the one God could choose to sing praise to God for the gifts of love including the gifts that empower us to love? Are you the one God could choose to be the Jesus-with-skin on wherever a hug is required today in Kingscote?
Be that one. That is God’s supreme plan for you today