INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE
Year B - FIFTH SUNDAY OF EASTER
ACTS 8:26-40. This passage tells how the gospel became a missionary faith outside of Judaism. A eunuch whether Jewish or Gentile believer in Israel's God would have been excluded from every Jewish congregation because he could not have any male heirs, "sons of the covenant." The story is told as part of the main theme of Acts: To trace the expansion of the early church under the leadership of the apostles from Jerusalem to the Gentile nations of the world, especially to Rome, the capital city of the empire.
PSALM 22:25-31. This psalm begins with a cry of dereliction repeated by Jesus on the cross. It ends with a hymn of praise and trust in the God who rules over all nations.
1 JOHN 4:7-21. Perhaps the finest definition of God is given here: "God is love." Like partners in a dance, we are invited to love each other as God loves us. No one has seen God, but as we love one another we allow the world to catch a glimpse of God's true nature. In fact, God's love is somehow incomplete until we feature that love in our
JOHN 15:1-8. The allegory of the vine and the branches offers insight into the way the early Christian community saw the redemptive relationship between God, Jesus and the faithful. John stretches the image most picturesquely. The solid trunk of the vine emerging from the ground grows long, tender branches on which the fruit is produced. Without those branches, newly grown each year, the vine cannot produce. Cut off from the root, the branches are useful only as kindling for a fire. This was a common source of firewood in ancient times. God is described as the vine grower who cares for both the vine and the branches. Part of that caring requires rigorous pruning so that the vine continues to produce good fruit. This is exactly what has happened to Israel and to the church through the ages.
A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS.
ACTS 8:26-40. This passage tells how the gospel became a missionary faith outside of Judaism. The story is told as part of the main theme of Acts: To trace the expansion of the early church under the leadership of the apostles from Jerusalem to the Gentile nations of the world, especially to Rome, the capital city of the empire.
First, the gospel goes into the Judean hinterland on the road from Jerusalem to the borders of Egypt. Gaza, the city where Philip had been bidden to go, lay on the Mediterranean coast. Today it is the crowded refuge for two generations of Palestinians displaced from their lands by the Jewish War of Independence in 1948. In many respects it is an urban wilderness, just as the road to Gaza in the 1st century CE lay through the Judean wilderness.
The Ethiopian eunuch was a proselyte and a believer in Israel's God, but probably not yet a circumcised Jew, unless he was from that group of Ethiopian Jews who have survived to this day. As early as the 6th century BCE a colony of Jews had settled on the Elephantine Island in that part of the Nile River near where the Aswan Dam now stands at what was formerly the first cataract on the river. The Elephantine Papyri discovered in 1906 revealed a syncretist form of Yahwist worship existing among these people. Trading as far up river as Nubia, as Ethiopia was then known, would have been a likely enterprise for such a colony. Jew or Gentile, he would have been excluded from every Jewish congregation because he could not have any male heirs, "sons of the
covenant" (Leviticus 22:24; Deuteronomy 23:1).
On the other hand, Isaiah 56:3-5 prophesied that in the messianic age, eunuchs would rank before the unfaithful of Israel. Wisdom of Solomon 3:14 also praised the law-abiding eunuch. Matthew 19:12 recommends that some followers of Christ voluntarily give up their reproductive powers to better serve the cause of the kingdom. This eunuch served the Queen of Ethiopia in a high political office. It was not unusual for such men to receive such appointments where their sterility would not threaten either their mistress or the harems of their masters. (Esther 3:2; Daniel 1:3; Jeremiah 38:7) This man would have had particularly great responsibilities, trust and power as the
monarch's treasurer (vs. 27).
Once again, it is the Spirit who directs the apostolic mission in sending Philip to intercept the eunuch's chariot. To his surprise, perhaps, Philip found the man reading the book of Isaiah, probably in Greek. The quotation is from the LXX (vs. 32-33). Philip's question as to whether he understood what he was reading may only state the need to interpret that text from the author's Christological stance. That was the crucial aspect of the passage from Isaiah 53:7-8 and a key element of the early apostolic kerygma.
The point of the story comes in the eunuch's baptism after hearing Philip's proclamation of the gospel. There is no confession of faith or expression of repentance; just a question of being baptized, possibly at the seashore. This emphasized the action of the Spirit rather than the faith response of the individual concerned, a phenomenon that occurs again in 10:44. The sudden removal of Philip from the scene and reappearance at Azotus (another name for Ashdod) several miles to the north of Gaza (vs. 40) reiterates the point. Philip then proceeded to conduct a missionary tour further up the coast as far as Caesarea, the centre of the Roman establishment in Palestine.
PSALM 22:25-31. This psalm begins with a cry of dereliction repeated by Jesus on the cross. It ends with a hymn of praise and trust in the God who rules over all nations. There is good reason to believe that the two parts of the psalm (vss. 1-21 and 22-31) existed separately before being combined in the final edition of the Psalter. This amalgamation may have served a liturgical purpose for the use of anyone who came to the temple to offer thanksgiving for relief from some great affliction (vss. 25-26).
The hymn reaches its climax in the universalism of vss. 27-31, for which the psalmist finds ample basis in his own experience. Christians would not be far from the truth if they imagined a hint of resurrection in vs. 29, but the Hebrew is so uncertain that several different English translations do not make clear exactly what it meant. The New English Bible makes it into a rhetorical question: "How can those buried in the earth bow down to him; how can those who go down to the grave bow before him?" This reading leads directly to the response: "But I shall live for his sake, my posterity shall serve him." With this translation the prospect of resurrection is minimized and the traditional view of one’s descendants being a living memorial is reinforced.
1 JOHN 4:7-21. The noun agapé‚ (love) and various tenses of the verb agapein (to love) appear no less than 33 times in this brief letter, 19 of them in this passage alone. Those to whom the letter was addressed are twice called "Beloved." What we have, then, is perhaps the finest definition of God and what it means "to abide in God's love" and to have God's love abide in us. Yet the passage does say a good deal more than just repeat the words over and over again. Like partners in a dance, we are invited to love each other as God loves us.
In some respects, the passage is a midrash on the saying attributed to Jesus about being born again of the Spirit in John 3:1-21. It also contains the full gospel message in different words than those to which we may accustomed from the Synoptics and the Pauline corpus. The incarnation (vs. 9), the atonement (vs. 10), the gift of the Spirit (vs. 13), the witness (vs. 14), the response of confession in faith (vs. 15); the growth in grace toward perfection (vs. 16), and the judgment (vs. 17) - all the basic elements of the apostolic kerygma are there.
This passage reveals a more contemplative, philosophical and abstract vocabulary attuned to an audience of fairly educated Greeks. It emphasizes both the transcendence and the immanence of God. The world and its inhabitants remain distinct and separate from God, yet an identity with God is nonetheless created through the love of God living in us. The separation is bridged by the Son sent "to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins." The Hebrew sacrificial tradition stands behind
the mission of the Son manifesting the love of God for God's people, but there is something here above and beyond that tradition.
Agapé is not the only NT word for love, but as William Barclay declared, "It was the only word capable of being filled with the content it required.... This agapé, this Christian love is not merely an emotional experience which comes to us unbidden and unsought; it is a deliberate principle of mind, and a deliberate conquest and achievement of the will. It is in fact the power to love the unlovable, to love people we do not like. Christianity does not ask us to love our enemies and to love men (sic) at large in the same way that we love our nearest and dearest and those who are
closest to us; that would be at one and the same time impossible and wrong. But it does demand that we should have at all times a certain attitude of mind and a certain direction of will towards all men, no matter who they are." (New Testament Words. Westminster Press, 1974. 20-21)
No one has seen God, John goes on to say, but as we love one another we allow the world to catch a glimpse of God's true nature. In fact, amazing as it may seem, God's love is somehow incomplete until we manifest that love in our lives (vs. 12).
In this passage John struggled to describe the essence of Christian spirituality. It can only come about as we live by the Spirit of God's love that abides in us and so overcome with love all that is lacking in us and the fear of punishment (vss. 16-18).
Again and again John reiterates that this is a love which is derived from God. "We love because he first loved us" (vs. 19). But it must result in love for others; if not, it fails to achieve it goal of manifesting the love of God or of loving God as we have been commanded. In all of this, John appears to reflect the gospel as Jesus taught it
with the beautiful metaphor of the vine and the branches and his parting commandment to the disciples in John 15:1-17.
The preachable texts in this reading are almost overwhelming. They can be approached from almost any angle - from the most personal and evangelical to the most justice-oriented, not that those are polar opposites. What is more, one could return to the passage many times over and still find rich ore to mine. One can imagine John's audience spending hour after hour discussing among themselves just what it might mean to their relationships as a Christian community and with the hostile world in which they were living.
If, as many scholars believe, John wrote to a very conflicted congregation, it must have had an astonishing effect on whatever they had been fighting about. Those who claimed to love God, but had nothing but hatred for their fellow members of the community, or feared what might happen if they relinquished their hold on arrogant intellectual positions, could only have felt a deep sense of conviction that they were cutting themselves off from the God they professed to love. The antidote to their divisions was the love they had received from God and now must show toward their brothers and sisters in Christ.
A novel by Niall Williams (New York: Bloomsbury, 2008) with the simple title John tells the story of the Apostle John and a small company of Christians exiled on the island of Patmos. John frequently reminisces about his travels with Jesus in Galilee and Jerusalem, and utters passages that come from this epistle. The company is split by a heretical interpretation of the gospel tradition by one of the members who denies the divinity of Jesus. When the emperor’s death frees the exiles, the heretical group returns to Ephesus immediately. John and a remnant remain attending to the needs of a small community of fishers during the onset of a plague.
Eventually the remnant also returns to Ephesus where they face rejection, hostility, more ravages of the plague and a destructive earthquake. Through it all the small group of faithful Christians minister to the worldly Ephesian community, including their former partners in exile. At the end of the story, John is dying from injuries suffered in the earthquake and a stroke. In his last thoughts he realizes that his long witness has been about the resurrection. For him the resurrection of Jesus is God’s testimony that God loves us and that we are empowered to love one another.
JOHN 15:1-8. If the former passage from 1 John 4:7-21 was not a midrash on John 3:1-21, then it could have been a similar reflection on this passage from John 15. The allegory of the vine and the branches offers insight into the way the early Christian community saw the redemptive relationship between God, Jesus and the faithful.
John stretches the image of the grapevine most picturesquely. There is no reason not to assume that he is repeating at least a remembered pericope if not the actual words from the teaching of Jesus. Vineyards were plentiful, particularly on the rugged hills of Galilee. Next to olives, the growing of grapes for wine and raisins was the most important agricultural crop in ancient Palestine. Unlike modern vineyards with the vines growing upright in long, straight rows for mechanical picking, the vines were allowed to grow along the ground with the bunches of grapes raised on small, forked stakes. At times the vines were allowed to grow up a nearby tree providing shade from the hot sun (1 Kings 4:25; Ezek. 19:11). The solid trunk of the vine emerging from the ground grew long, tender branches on which the fruit was produced. Without those branches, newly grown each year, the vine could not produce fruit. Cut off from the root, the branches are useful only as kindling for a fire. This was a common source of firewood for cooking in ancient times.
In this metaphor, God is described as the vine grower who cares for both the vine and the branches. Part of that caring requires rigorous pruning so that the vine continues to produce good fruit. This is exactly what has happened to Israel and to the church through the ages. This metaphor depicts how the disciples of Christ, sustained by provident grace, would do much to extend God's love to the world. But if the Christian community was severed from God, the source of its life, as occurs in the pruning process, nothing spiritually productive would develop.
There is one very troubling, conditional statement in vs. 7 which may result in much doubt. Is it an extravagant hyperbole, like so many other statements attributed to Jesus? Is the offer, "ask whatever you wish" more a trap for literalist gullibility? Or should we not pay more attention to the results thereby produced, as John quotes Jesus saying further: an effective prayer life (vs.7); glorification of God in the life - or death - of the believer (vs. 8); and the indwelling joy of the doing God's will (vs. 11)? These are fruits of a calm, spiritual nature, not the instantaneous profits of hysterical religiosity. Even Jesus himself did not receive the answer he wished for in his most
fervent prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. He did receive something of far more value: the courage to do trust that God would accomplish God's mission of salvation through his sacrificial death.