It is all about love


Some thirteen years later, I can still remember sitting in my homiletics class critiquing the sermons of my colleagues.  Between that and a similar practice in our liturgics practicum, to this day, I am incapable of simply attending a church service.  My eyes are always looking for things I would do differently.  My ears are always fixed on ways I would have preached the text.  When I get frustrated with this inner critic, I think back to those homiletics classes and remember that one time that I really got bent out of shape with a classmate who preached a sermon entitled, “it is all about love.”

“We don’t have a good working definition of love,” I said, indignantly, “so to preach ‘its all about love’ is to only exacerbate the misunderstanding.”  More than a decade later, I still stand by that critique, but I see how maybe I could have helped more by suggesting a working definition of love rather than just throwing my hands up and saying, “quit with all this love garbage.”  With our Presiding Bishop’s inaugural sermon forever floating around the internet as an Episcopal meme, it seems that maybe Sunday’s epistle lesson is begging Episcopal preachers to spend some time talking about Christian love.

Not including the two times John refers to his readers as “beloved,” the word love appears no less than 26 times in 15 verses.  Twice, the author simply says “God is love.”  It would behoove us, I think, to help people understand what this means.  In every case, all twenty-six times, the Greek word translated as love is agape.  Agape describes a love that is deeper than feelz.  It isn’t just about butterflies in your stomach or safe-church-side-hugs or I’m-ok-you’re-ok-crappy-theology.  Agape love is about giving oneself for another.  It is a kind of love that has to be decided upon.  It is love that requires action.  It is a self-sacrificial love that seeks the betterment of the one who is loved.  Agape love is the love that brings Jesus to earth in the form of a human being.  It is the love that takes him to the cross that we might have life eternal.  It is the love that invites us to share the Good News of God with a world that desperately needs it.

Before you spend 12 minutes talking about love this Sunday, please spend twice as much time considering what agape means for the people in your pews.  Our Presiding Bishop is right, if it’s not about love, then it’s not about God, but there are so many different, sometimes unhelpful, definitions of love, that we owe it to our people to unpack what it all means.

Spiritual Work

As many of you know, I am part of a group of disciples who are working to proclaim resurrection in the Episcopal Church.  Our mission, as articulated in the founding blog posts of the movement, finds is roots in the eighth chapter of Acts.  This is a turning point in the life of the fledgling Church.  Stephen has just been martyred, while Saul looked on approvingly, and the first significant persecution is underway.  Because of the faithfulness of those early Christians, who fled Jerusalem but not their faith in Christ, the Christian faith is still around today.  It is a story of hope, of evangelism, and of perseverance.  It is a story that has motivated the Acts 8 Movement to continue to call Episcopalians to share the good news of God in Christ with a world that desperately needs it.

As one who has spent a lot of time immersed in Acts 8, it is always exciting to me when it rolls around in the lectionary cycle.  This is especially true on Easter 5B, as we hear the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  I could probably write a book on this passage, but blogs are supposed to be short form, so I’ll spare you the long diatribe and jump right in to the word that leaped off the screen at me this morning.  Philip, having been brought to the wilderness road by the Holy Spirit, overhears the Eunuch reading from Isaiah.  In a manner that is quite forward, Philip approaches the Eunuch and asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He responded, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”


This word, “guide,” caught my attention this morning.  Digging into it a bit, I found that the Greek word, hodegeo, is used only four other places in the New Testament.  Twice, in Luke and Matthew, it is used in variations of the idiom “the blind leading the blind.”  In Revelation, it is used to describe what the lamb at the center of throne will do for the rest of us sheep, “guiding us to the springs of the water of life.”  Of most interest, however, is how it gets used by John in the Gospel.  Late in Jesus’ ministry, as part of his farewell discourse, Jesus promises his disciples another advocate, the Spirit, who will guide (hodegeo) them into all truth.

Of further interest, is the etymology of hodegeo, which, according to Robertson, comes from hodos meaning way and hegeomai meaning to lead.  Beyond simply guiding, what the Spirit is sent to do, and what the Spirit does through Philip for the Eunuch, is to lead him in the Way.  The Spiritual work, then, for all of us who claim to be disciples of Jesus, is to lead others in the Way of Jesus.  This assumes that we will, ourselves, be disciples, having been lead in the Way by others.  It assumes that we will all be growing in our faith and in our understanding of the Gospel and of God, in order to teach others.  It assumes, more than anything else, that we will be in tune with the Spirit, who will guide us, as was the case for Philip, into all truth and into opportunities to guide others.

The Ends of the Earth – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon is on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

Happy 29th Day of Easter Everybody!  As liturgical Christians, we are peculiar in lots of ways, not least of which that we tend to celebrate seasons after something happens.  While the rest of the world celebrates Christmas from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, we’re mired in Advent with prophets proclaiming doom and gloom and lessons about the end of the world.  It isn’t until Christmas items are 75% off that we start celebrating the twelve day Season of our Lord’s birth.  Then there’s Easter.  While we’re waving palm branches and contemplating the death of our Lord and Savior, the rest of the world, many churches included, are gorging themselves on jelly beans and dropping Easter Eggs from helicopters.  The Easter Bunny has left the mall by the time we’re ready to dig up the Alleluias for a fifty-day celebration of the resurrection.  So here we are, the stores already hocking July 4th Merchandise, still wearing white, still shouting Alleluia, still celebrating Easter.

One thing we do tend to get ahead of ourselves on is the Ascension.  We’re still 11 days away from Ascension Day, but we’ve been reading lessons from the post-Ascension Acts of the Apostles all Easter long.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing the stories of the early Church, and I think there is no better time to hear them than the Easter Season as we ponder what it means to follow the risen Lord in the resurrection life.  It is worth noting, however, that while liturgically we are still in Easter, scripturally, we are all over the place.  This morning is no different as our lesson from Acts comes from the eighth chapter, way past Ascension Day and a big jump from three weeks spent bouncing around chapters three and four.  A lot has already happened by the time the angel tells Philip to head down the Wilderness Road.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch really begins in Jerusalem on Ascension Day.  Just as Jesus was about to depart from his friends, he gave them one last commissioning, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The Apostles stood there awestruck, but somewhere, a man named Philip’s life was changed forever.  Skipping ahead to chapter six, we find the Church in the midst of some growing pains.  So much was happening so quickly, and some needy widows had fallen through the cracks.  This was a problem, of course, and it was exacerbated by the fact that all the widows who were no longer receiving their daily bread spoke Greek, while all the widows who were still on the Meals on Wheels list spoke Aramaic.  The Greek speaking Christians took issue with the Apostles about this and it was quickly decided that a new order of ministry was needed.  The Apostles called on the fledgling Christian community to “select seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who could serve as Deacons and coordinate the caring for widows and the feeding of the poor, so that the Apostles could devote themselves to “prayer and serving the word.”

Of the seven selected, five are never heard of again, but two would forever change the Church: Stephen and Philip.  Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and quickly began to do much more than what was written in his job description.  Stephen had the gift of miracles, and he did all sorts of signs and wonders in the name of Jesus before being arrested for stirring up the people.  After an impassioned speech before the Council, Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned to death.  A great persecution began after the stoning of Stephen and all the Christians in Jerusalem, except the Apostles, left town and scattered throughout the Judean countryside; sharing the Good News everywhere they went.

Soon, Philip found himself in the dreaded city of Samaria, where his gifts of evangelism and healing came pouring out as a blessing upon a people who, for so long, had been outside the bounds of proper Judaism.  He told them the Good News of Jesus, he cast out demons, and he healed the paralyzed and the lame.  The city of Samaria was filled with joy, and the promise of Jesus was nearly fulfilled.  The Gospel had spread from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.  All that was left was the ends of the earth, and Philip was about to find it in the form of a Eunuch from Ethiopia.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a fantastic story, with one incredible detail after another.  It starts with an Angel of the Lord appearing before Philip and instructing him to leave Samaria and head south through Jerusalem to the road that leads down to Gaza: the wild and wooly Wilderness Road.  At once Philip got up and went.  Meanwhile, in Jerusalem there was a man who was taking what little part he could in the worship of God.  He was a Eunuch, and as such, according to Deuteronomy, was forbidden from even entering the Temple.  He was an Ethiopian, most likely a descendant of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  He was, most certainly, not an ethnic Jew.  He was a Senior Official in the court of the Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia.  As the man in charge of the treasury, he handled money engraved with images and dealt with funds raised in pagan Temple worship.  The Ethiopian Eunuch was, for all intents and purposes, the ends of the earth.  You couldn’t get much further outside of the Jerusalem Establishment than this man was, and yet there he was, returning from the Holy City, reading from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, having fulfilled his own personal commitment to worship God.

“There,” the Spirit says to Philip, “there in that chariot is a man with whom you need to speak.” Without hesitation Philip saddled up next to the Eunuch and asked, “Whatcha readin’?” He then shared with this man, this obvious outsider, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The story only gets more fantastic when, in the middle of the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza, the two men stumble upon an oasis and the Eunuch says to Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What is to prevent the Eunuch from being baptized?!?  In Philip’s time and place there was only one answer to this question.  Everything!  Everything about this man should prevent him from being baptized.  He’s an Ethiopian, a Eunuch, and in charge of the treasury of a pagan queen; his only knowledge of Jesus came from a thirty minute chariot ride with a newly minted Deacon named Philip.  There are lots and lots of reasons why the Ethiopian Eunuch shouldn’t have been baptized in the desert that afternoon, but he was, and the Kingdom of God is better off for it.

Philip knew the right thing to do was to baptize that man in a mud puddle on the side of the road because Philip was tied into the vine of Christ.  As a branch on that great vine of God, Philip knew that he had only one job, to bear the fruit of the Kingdom.  Love flows through the vine of Christ and love is the fruit that disciples who are grafted into that vine produce.  It couldn’t have been easy for Philip to love the people of Samaria, he’d been taught to hate them his whole life.  It couldn’t have been easy for Philip to love the Ethiopian Eunuch, there was so much that made him unclean.  And yet, Philip loved them all because that is what a disciple of Jesus does.  Disciples of Jesus love their neighbors: black and white, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, Eunuchs and Samaritans because in the Kingdom of God, all lives matter.  The same love that compelled God to send his only begotten Son to save the whole world flowed through Philip and compelled him to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. That same love flows through each of us. The question is, What will we do with that love?  With whom will you share it?  How far outside your comfort zone are you willing to go?  Even to the ends of the earth? May God’s love flow through each of us as we go forth from this place to share the Good News and serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

Know God, Know Love

As much as I want this to be true, it isn’t. God loves even those who claim to know what God hates.

No love?  Then you don’t know God.

I’ve struggled all week with which scripture I should focus on for this Sunday’s sermon.  The truth of the matter is that all three lessons are really, really good.  The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is fantastic, in every meaning of the word.  John 15 and Jesus’ words of comfort to his disciples, “abide in me” are always worth preaching.  I was so wrapped up in those lessons, that I almost missed one of the most powerful sentences in all of Scripture, 1 John 4:8, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

There is a certain “church” based in a Topeka, Kansas that claims to speak for God.  They seem to know everything that God hates, which is, according to 1 John 4:8, an oxymoron.  They are, of course, not alone: just the most well known.  Episcopalians are often tempted to argue that God hates the members of that “church” in Kansas.  “Politicians” and “Pastors” make their way into the news all the time for claiming that this or that tragic event is the result of God’s hatred and anger.  Just this week we’ve hear that the Baltimore riots are the result of same-sex marriage and the Nepal earthquake is because of the pagan faith of the people.

We know that this is rubbish.  We know that those who don’t know love, don’t know God.  And, much to our chagrin, we know that God loves those morons anyway.  The very essence of God is love.  In God, there is no room for hatred.  That’s why Jesus calls us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.  That’s why God sent his Son, not to condemn the world, but that world might be saved.  That’s why God desires that we be grafted onto the vine of Christ, that we might produce the fruit of the kingdom.  That’s why all the law and the prophets hang on a single word: love.

1 John reiterates this in verse 16b when the author boldly claims that “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”  Apart from love, we cannot abide in God.  Apart from God, we can’t bear fruit.  In fact, apart from God, Jesus says, we can do nothing.  It all hinges on our ability to love.  If we don’t know love, then we can’t know God.  If we don’t know God, then we can’t know love.  But, if we know love, we know God, and if we know God, we know love.

What holds us back?

The question that the Ethiopian Eunuch asks Philip may sound rhetorical, but it every much is not.  “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” actually had many answers in Philip’s place and time.  The man was Ethiopian, that is to say, not an ethnic Jew, for starters.  Then there’s the whole eunuch bit.  I referenced Deuteronomy 23:1 in yesterday’s post, but in case you didn’t look it up, here’s the SFW version from the JPS, “He that is crushed or maimed in his privy parts shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD.”  The NRSV doesn’t mince words, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” [Side note – can someone explain to me why the word for male genitalia is a feminine noun in Hebrew?] So there’s that.  Not only is he a foreigner, but her serves the Candace, the pagan Queen of Ethiopia (Kush).  Though he was coming from worship in Jerusalem, he most certainly also took part in the religious ceremonies of the Queen. Though by now clearly an Evangelist, Philip was ordained as a Deacon, called to serve the poor so that the Apostles could preach the Gospel.  Surely, Philip doubted, on some level, whether he should be the one doing the baptizing.  Looking back through the lens of the catechumenate, we could say that he hasn’t been properly educated in order to be baptized.  There are lots and lots of reasons why the Ethiopian Eunuch shouldn’t have been baptized in that dessert oasis, but he was and the Kingdom of God is better off for it.

When I read this story from Acts 8, I can’t help but wonder what holds us back?  What keeps us from sharing the Good News?  What prevents us from loving extravagantly?  What fears and doubts and unknowns cause us to put our foot on the breaks and our faith on the back burner; safely ensconced in the comforts of nominal Christianity in 21st century America?

The harvest is ripe for the picking.  Not since the conversion of Constantine has the world in which Christians live been such a fertile mission field.  There are millions upon millions of people out there who are searching for the love of God, but have no idea where to find it.  They might have looked in the Church a while ago, but for some reason, that Church was hesitant to welcome and love them, and so they wander around in search of something they can’t quite describe, but they know they are mission.  And for our part, we’ve allowed ourselves to be held back.  We’ve turned our attention away from sharing the Gospel and toward winning the culture wars or balancing a budget or fixing the leaky roof.  We’ve been held back by any number of things that God is in control of anyway.

Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is simple: bear the fruit of kingdom.  When we attach ourselves to the worries and occupations of the world, we produce the fruit of anxiety and scarcity.  But when we abide in the true vine, when our source of nourishment is none other than Jesus Christ, when our vine-dresser is the very God who created us, the fruit we produce is kingdom fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-23).

What holds you back from producing kingdom fruit?

Sharp Knives, Vines, and Eunuchs

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m still not sure if I’ll preach from Acts 8 or John 15 on Sunday.  These weeks are fairly rare.  Typically, after a first read of the Sunday lessons, I’m fairly certain what direction I’ll go.  When it does happen that two texts are drawing me in, I’ll give them both a fair shake and for at least a couple of days, I’ll use resources dealing with both texts.  As I’ve read through my resources on the Conversion of the Ethiopian Eunuch, I’m realizing once again how absurd this story would have been in its original context.  All of Acts 8 is fairly absurd, when it comes down to  it.

Christ-followers are a tiny minority sect, in a minority, albeit it well respected, religion in the Roman Empire, and so it is no wonder than when things get dicey in Jerusalem, negative attention turns to the new-comers who talk about eating flesh and drinking blood.  It doesn’t take long for the small cadre of Christ-followers to realize that they need to exit Jerusalem as quickly as possible.  As they do, Luke tells us that they proclaimed the Good News everywhere they went.  Luke uses Philip as an example, but you can imagine these stories happening again and again, all over the known world.  Philip first finds himself in Samaria, the home of unclean, half-bloods.  After sharing the Gospel, Philip sees the Holy Spirit poured out with power and might, and is amazed that God’s grace was grafting all sorts of people into the fold as the Spirit moved beyond Jerusalem and God’s chosen people.

The Spirit spoke to Philip again, and sent him down the dangerous wilderness road toward Gaza.  There he met another outsider, perhaps an even stronger outsider than the Samaritans, a Eunuch from Ethiopia.  This man knew something about sharp knives.  He was intimately knowledgeable about pruning.  His position in the Court of Candace was the result of his castration, men were chosen for high rank who could not be tempted to have physical relations with the queen.  His status was certainly better as a eunuch than it would have been as a slave, but one wonders if the benefits outweighed the costs.  Nonetheless, this man was, to use a crude metaphor, cut off within his own society and was even more outcast within his adopted religion of Judaism.  As he returned from taking what little part he could in the Temple worship (see Deut 23.1), the Ethiopian Eunuch is grafted as a branch into to the vine of Christ.

Luke tells us that he went on his way rejoicing.  Legend tells us that he returned to Ethiopia and converted others.  History says that the Ethiopian Orthodox Church as well as the strong presence of Christianity among the Nuba people came from somewhere.  The Ethiopian Eunuch was unable to produce off spring, but because he was grafted into Christ, he went on to produce much fruit.  It is certainly crude imagery, probably not suitable for the pulpit, but sometimes, when you’ve got two distinct texts dancing around in your brain, things like this happen.

The Business of Bearing Fruit

It’s that time of year again!  As if the average Lectionary-based, church-going Christian didn’t get enough sappiness with yesterday’s Good Shepherd Sunday, this week we have another pericope that begs to be made into a Thomas Kinkade painting.  “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Inevitably, the preacher is tempted to talk about how it is that we, as disciples of Jesus, are to go about producing fruit.  For those who tend to be more conservative, fruit will look like abstaining from such immoral acts as card playing, drinking, and driving your car without a “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper sticker.  For those who tend to be more liberal, fruit will look like keeping away from such immoral acts as voting Republican, buying Thomas Kinkade paintings, and driving something other than a Toyota Prius.  Moderates, being the good fence-sitter that they are, will tend to view fruit in any number of ways, including, but not limited to, keeping away from such immoral acts as smug self-righteousness, posturing, and looking down on those whose opinions differ from yours, all the while engaging in such by deriding the left and the right.

“Bear fruit” is an activity that one does, and so the temptation is invariably to turn Jesus’ words into a call to works righteousness, but let’s think more about the business of bearing fruit in the context of Jesus’ vine speech.  The first item of note is that this is obviously a metaphor. Jesus is using a common image from 1st century Palestine to help people understand the relationship with God that is available through him.  Metaphors always break down at some point, and we should be wary to push it too far.  Second, we note that in this metaphor, Jesus is the vine, the main trunk through which water and nutrients flow, while we are simply the branches: the recipients of the works done by the vine.  Third, Jesus goes on to say, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  The fruit we produce doesn’t exist without the vine, and as branches, our one and only job is to stay attached so that through us, God can produce good fruit.

I’m thinking that I’ll preach on Acts 8, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch this week, but if I do opt for John 15, I promise I’ll do my best to avoid works righteousness.  I hope you will too.