Sermon for 5 Easter B
May 1, 2021
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
Acts 8:26-40, Psalm 22:24-30, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
Fr. Larry Parrish
A very wise psychotherapist, that Mary and I had the pleasure of knowing, once said that “neurosis is wanting to be safer than we can possibly be.” I think of his words often, and I have especially thought of them during the past year with all of the environmental, political, and cultural upheaval in our own nation.
Note that he didn’t say that neurosis is wanting to “be safe”. We all want safety and security, even those of us who have our “here, hold my beer” moments. We, most of us anyway, want a roof over our heads, food in the refrigerator, the prospect of a paycheck, and the ability to sleep without having to stay alert to danger. Granted, there are many who are denied some, or all, of these basic securities, but it is not unhealthy to want them or even expect them.
We are always going to be confronted by situations that could do everything from upsetting our happiness to killing us, and we do well to recognized real, not imagined, risk and do what we can to mitigate it, while recognizing that it will not be eliminated. It’s something we do every time we drive our cars. It is an inherently dangerous activity, but we mitigate the risks by wearing our seatbelts, practicing good driving habits, and staying alert to hazards, including our fellow drivers, whom we hope are staying alert to us instead of their smart phone screens. Neurosis, on the other hand, is being so afraid of being on the streets and highways that we quit driving.
There is a difference between acceptance of real risks and irrational fear, however. Fear comes from circumstances we cannot control, and, paradoxically, when we try to control those circumstances without clearly understanding them, we end up adding to our fears. Such is the circumstances in our country today. Everything from media ratings to gun sales have been ramped up by those who manipulate our fear(s). Truth is stretched to the breaking point, and often dispensed with all together. Real dangers have been added to, or supplanted, with made up dangers. Critical thinking is replaced by slander.
A good many of the fears stoked today have to do with change. The climate is changing and the demographics of our country are changing and there are those who see these changes as a threat. Persons who are “not like us” are feared, stereotyped to the point of caricature, and even demonized.
This is where our Christian faith comes in, though, it too is often twisted in the service of the fear of others. For as Christians, we are instructed by Scripture, to love one another, NOT fear one another.
John the Evangelist, in his letter to the early Christian communities, and to us, says, “Beloved, let us love one another.” i.e., “You who are loved, love one another.” It is not just an admonition to love others, it is an important action of our faith, and witness to the God we say we believe and trust in. He continues, because love is born of God and knows God.” God is the source of our love, and defines what this love is for those of us who claim to be His followers, and the followers of the One in whom He embodied Himself in the flesh, in our shape and form: Jesus. “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Just as God bore witness to Himself to humankind in Jesus –“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world . . .” --so we bear witness to God’s love for everyone through our love for others as a hallmark of being followers of Christ.
This is a good place to think about what this love spoken of in our Epistle today means. I am sure that all of you here have wrestled with the meaning of love defined in and by God and have a perspective. I will share mine, just in case it might be helpful! Of course you know that the word used for love in the New Testament is the Greek Agape, which means something more, and sometimes different, than the kind of love we have for our mother, father, spouse, children, or even our dog or cat! It is a love that doesn’t always grow out of affection, and is often willed in spite of our emotional inclinations of the moment. The best working definition I have found comes from psychiatrist Scott Peck, which he illuminated in a book which was once popular among the much younger selves of us Boomers, The Road Less Traveled. He defines love as “Desiring the Best for Another.” To love someone is to seek the best for them. Not necessarily that which is most pleasing or most comfortable for them, but that which is best for them. That which will make them most whole and most human (my interpretation here). Though not writing as a Christian at the time (he became one later) he gives credit for this concept to the New Testament use of love.
“The Other” can be a “Them or Us”, “Not Like Us”, “Other” that is feared and that we defend ourselves against, even to the point of destruction of the other, or “The Other” can be the one for whom we desire the best for, whether it be physical, circumstantial, economic, emotional, or spiritual health, no matter how “unlike us” they are. We might differ on the definition of “best” in particular circumstances. How it will play out might remain to be seen. It is, however, our starting point and default position as Christians. “The Other” is never the enemy (even when he or she think they are!) they are the object of God’s love, and, therefore, of ours as well.
Or maybe it is better said, “our love is the love of God which comes through us.” For this love does not come naturally to human beings. That is an important point to remember because we can become frustrated and discouraged if we try to generate this love on our own. St. John continues, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
If I might dare critique one of the profound authors within the New Testament, I think he is putting the cart before the horse here. It is because we abide in God that we can love!
If St. John the Epistle author is also St. John the Gospel author, he knows the words of Jesus on the subject. In today’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, and us: “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” These are words to be taken to heart as Jesus’ 21st century disciples not only as they pertain to our mission to love others, but to anything we undertake in which we seek to know, glorify, and serve God (and others). (To use an image borrowed from a recently read sermon)* The vine does not tell the branches to put grapes on its “to do” list, it just grow grapes! There are decisions we will have to make and commitments we must try to keep in our bearing the fruit that comes from loving others, but first we must remember that we are the branches of the True Vine. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. !!! We abide in Christ through our baptism, prayer, reading and meditating on the teachings and stories of the Bible, gathering together in worship, receiving the Sacrament, and risking love for others.
The story from the reading from Acts today is an example of all of that. Besides, it is too good of a story to not, at least briefly, revisit. Philip, one of the first disciples of Jesus (The story of his call is in the Gospel of John), was someone whom we assume “abided in Christ.” He was there at the table when Jesus gave his “vine and branches” teaching which we received again this afternoon. He was undoubtedly in fellowship with the other disciples and followers of Jesus at the time, meeting with them regularly and eating bread and drinking wine “in His name.” From the story we can see that he was steeped in the Scriptures read by the early church (note: all Old Testament!), and by the teachings of Jesus, interpreted by Peter and other disciples. There must have been some awesome after dinner conversations back then!
In doing all of this, Philip had made himself available to the Holy Spirit, the empowering and equipping Person of his—and our—Three Person God. The story tells of no particular intention of Philip. Just that as he was hanging out one day the Spirit tells him to “Get up and go” to a wilderness road. And as he was standing on that deserted stretch of 1st century highway, a chariot approached and Philip was told to stick out his thumb and get on board. There ensued a conversation with a Bible reading official of a foreign country. This Ethiopian Eunuch has been pictured as someone that good Jews of the time shouldn’t be associated with, his being eunuch and a “foreigner”, though contemporary scholarship disputes that. Whatever the case, he was either a high class outcast, or a person of power and privilege, and Philip was just a plowboy who had happened to hang out with, and continue to hang out with, Jesus. Philip tells him that the Scripture the Eunuch is reading says that God considers him loved and worthy of God’s sacrifice for. Joyfully, he seeks baptism, water is encountered, Philip baptizes him, and he goes “on his way rejoicing.” Next thing you know, Philip was walking through another strange neighborhood “proclaiming the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
United Methodist Bishop Will Willimon, commenting on this story, says, “No triumphal, crusading enthusiasm has motivated the church up to this point, no mushy all embracing desire to be inclusive of everyone and everything. Rather, in being obedient to the Spirit, preachers like Philip find themselves in the oddest of situations with the most surprising sorts of people.”**
So shall we. And we will not be afraid.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
*The Rev. Melissa Earley, in Living by the Word for Easter 5B, The Christian Century, online.
**William H. Willimon, Interpretation Commentary on Acts, p.72
The sermons preached at High Mass at St. Mary's Episcopal Church, Kansas City, are posted here!