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Wednesday, May 02, 2012
Lectionary Scriptures: Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:25-31, I John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8

This week’s epistle lesson continues some of the themes of love we have already encountered in previous weeks.  All it has to say about love is rooted in the fact that “God is love.”  (See I John 4:7-10, 16, 19)

So—let’s talk about love.  Love is something that reaches out, connects.  It is a relational term.  There is no love without relationship.  But how far does it reach?  It seems to me that all this week’s lectionary readings touch upon that question.

Since we’ve already mentioned the epistle reading, let’s start there.  The premise is that God’s love reached out to us.  God made a connection, came close enough that it seems like we actually have our existence in him.  Remember that Paul quotes with approval one of the poets of the day: “In him we live and move and have our being.”  (Acts 17:28) Here in I John we are told, “God’s love was revealed to us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we light live through him . . . God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” (I John 4:9 & 16)

Quickly we are reminded, though, that we are not just on the receiving end.  Love, by its very nature, connects with others. “ . . . since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.”  (vs. 11)   In fact, loving one another is the sign, the proof, of our connection with God.  “ . . . if we love one another, God lives in us . . .’ (vs. 12)   The writer makes it very clear that love’s reaching out begins with the way we treat our brothers and sisters.  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; . . . The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”  (vss. 20-21)   Wherever love ends, it doesn’t end with a warm feeling in the heart, nor does it end where our skin stops.  Our nose and our fingers are not the end of love.  Love reaches out.

The book of Acts is the story of the early Christians reaching out, as it says in Acts 1:8, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”   “To the ends of the earth.”  That’s pretty inclusive.  It’s a way of saying, “There are no limits.”  Psalm 22, although not specifically couched in terms of love, has that same kind of reach.  “All the ends of the earth shall remember . . . and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.”  (Psalm 22:27)   The poor are included.  (vs. 26)   The reach spreads even across time so that “future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn.”  (vss. 30-31)

The story in Acts reminds us that, in its reaching out, the young church faced specific issues of inclusion.  Does this outreach of love mean everyone is included?  For the early Christians, whose heritage was Jewish, it meant dealing with questions about the inclusion of Gentiles, a major subject in the book of Acts.  In this week’s reading the question comes to focus in one man, an Ethiopian eunuch.  Give credit to Philip.  He apparently did not hesitate a second when told to head out onto “a wilderness road” where he encountered this man.  (Acts 8:26-27)  He’d been in Samaria already preaching to people whose bloodlines were not “pure.”  (vs. 5)  It certainly did not seem out of place now to interpret the scriptures of an Ethiopian eunuch.

What is an “Ethiopian eunuch”? some may ask.  Clearly the writer seems to go out of his way to call attention to this man’s identity.  Indeed, it seems that this story was likely included to make a point about the inclusiveness of God’s love.  He would likely have been a black man.  He could have been a Jew, or a convert to Judaism, living in Ethiopia.  Somewhere been exposed to at least some of the Jewish scriptures, because he was riding along in his chariot “reading the prophet Isaiah,” aloud yet.  (vss. 28-30)   He also had been to Jerusalem to worship.  Whether he was Jew or Gentile, though, he was different, a foreigner.

Then there’s the business of being a eunuch.  Most commonly the word refers to one who has been castrated, although there are variations of meaning.  Whatever the specifics, eunuchs were people whose sexual identity didn’t fit the normal understandings of male and female.  It is another way in which this man was different.  (It can be of interest to see Jesus’ words in Matthew 19:12—“For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.”  A full interpretation would require consideration of the context.  Whatever the context, I find it interesting that Jesus seems to recognize different possible contributing factors to the identity of a eunuch.)  It was common for those in royal service to be castrated so that they were “neutralized” in relation to the female members of the royal family.  This Ethiopian held a high position in the court of the “queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” (vs. 27)

If we’re talking about the reach of love, we cannot ignore the fact that, according to the laws we find in the early books of the Old Testament, eunuchs were excluded from gathering with other worshipers.  “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.”  (Deuteronomy 23:1)   In Isaiah, a new perspective is offered, “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”  (Isaiah 56:4-5—notice the pun there: they are given a name “that shall not be cut off.”)   A couple verse later, we read “for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” words spoken by Jesus when he overturns the tables of the moneychangers.  (Isaiah 56:7—See also Mark 11:17)

Whichever scriptures one chooses to select, people in every age have been prone to view with suspicion, those whose sexual identity didn't fit preconceived notions.  In this Acts story, a person who was different in more than one way is included, even baptized!  Love doesn’t end with those who are like us, with whom we are most comfortable.

I like one of the slogans used by the United Church of Christ (with whom our congregation is affiliated): “Whoever you are, wherever you are in life’s journey, you are welcome.”  I once served a congregation where the slogan was, “Christ, the center; love for all who enter.”  Both slogans are limited in that they seem to imply that love is waiting for you inside if you but enter.  Love met the Ethiopian eunuch where he was, on a wilderness road.  Love doesn’t just wait in the sanctuary.  It reaches out.

Finally, there is the reading from the Gospel According to John.  It doesn’t specifically speak of love, but sounds a lot like the epistle reading when it says, “Abide in me as I abide in you.”  (John 15:4)   It is about growing and bearing fruit.  Love, one might say, grows and bears fruit.  It is the very nature of love to keep on reaching out, even to the ends of the earth and to the end of time.

The Gospel writer uses the image of a vine and branches.  (John 15:1 & 5)  Growth requires keeping connected.  It’s a variation on the epistle’s declaration, “We love because he first loved us.”  (I John 4:13)   I once asked a group to come up with a contemporary image to convey a meaning similar to that of the vine and branches.  Someone came up with the image of the power grid and outlets.  If you want to make use of the power, you have to be “plugged in.”  So it is with love.  If it is to flow through us, reaching out to the ends of the earth, we have to be connected to its source.  Without that, love ends before it even begins.

The bottom line of the Gospel lesson is bearing “much fruit.”  (John 15:8)   Is that another way of speaking of love’s reach?  Love is meaningless unless it grows and touches the lives of others, even comes to life in them, whoever they are, wherever they are on life’s journey.

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Kairos-Milwaukie UCC Blog

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary by Rev. Rick Skidmore and Rev. Jim Ogden.

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