My wife and kids were all sick this past Lord's Day, so we stayed home and worshiped as a family, using the readings from the BCP as our focus for the day. Below are some of my thoughts about those readings.
Year B, Fifth Sunday of Easter
1 John 4:7-21
Our passage from Acts is well known. Philip receives a message from God, informing him to go south to the road which travels from Jerusalem to Gaza; there he would meet a eunuch and court official of the Queen of Ethiopia, who was in charge of her entire treasury (Acts 8:27). This eunuch "had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah" (vv. 27-8). When Philip meets with him, the eunuch asks about whom Isaiah was referring--about Isaiah himself or another person--when he wrote:
Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.
Philip then uses that passage of Isaiah to teach him the gospel of Jesus Christ (v. 35). This eunuch then responds with faith in Jesus by receiving baptism (v. 38), and continuing on from there in his travels he rejoices (v. 39).
Upon reading this the first time, what struck my attention first was the fact that this eunuch had just visited Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, but while he was in Jerusalem worshipping, none of the Jewish authorities taught him about Jesus, the messiah whom they had recently crucified. The second thing which struck my attention is that he is found traveling away from Jerusalem while reflecting seriously upon Isaiah 53, a messianic passage specifically about "justice being denied" a servant of God, during "his humiliation." These references to injustice and humiliation are particularly intriguing, because Luke describes this man as both a eunuch of the Queen (which, ordinarily, was a humiliating status) and her treasurer; but if this man is a genuine eunuch--that is, a slave surgically castrated according to a King's orders, for the purpose of serving in an official capacity for his wife, the Queen--then he would not have been allowed to enter Herod's Temple, no matter how great his faith was. The Jewish authorities would not allow it, based on their interpretation of Torah. This man's status as a eunuch disqualified him from having direct access to God in Jerusalem's Temple. Although this eunuch was given a surprisingly high status in his own culture, among those of similar faith, he was marginalized; he was forbidden to become a full proselyte of Judaism.1
This message of marginalization echoes in our other readings for this day. In John's first epistle, he writes to a marginalized Christian congregation, a congregation filled primarily with Jews, but also Gentile God-fearers like the eunuch. John writes to Christians whose faith was being "shaken up" and challenged by anti-Christian Judaizers and proselytes of Judaism. John could not have been any clearer about why he wrote such polemical, black-and-white statements:
I write these things to you about those who are trying to deceive you. (I John 2:26)
These allies of anti-Jesus Judaism were intentionally trying to deceive Christians into believing their worship of God, in Christ, was false worship. Similar to the Jewish authorities who kept the Ethiopian eunuch from learning the gospel of Jesus, so these antichrists are intentionally deceiving the Christians of John's congregation. A few verses earlier (I John 2:18) we learned that "many antichrists have come," and these antichrists infiltrated the Christian community to become "one of them," eventually making it plain among all, when they left, that Christians worshiped another God than the God of the Jews. Christians affirmed the truth that Jesus is the Messiah, and also One-with-the-Father (I John 2:22), which the Jewish authorities of Jerusalem emphatically denied (John 5:18). Christians affirmed that they worshipped God the Father and the Son together as the one true God, whereas these antichrists denied that they could worship both the Son and the Father as one (vv. 22-23).
While Jesus was among his people, he had spoken clearly about such escalating unbelief in Israel, and that God would come and visit them to prune the vine of Israel, removing every branch in Jesus which does not produce fruit. In our Gospel reading for today, Jesus says,
I am the true vine, and my Father is the winegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. 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. I am the vine, you are the branches. ...Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. (John 15:1-6)
This pruning began with the first disciples of Jesus, and the gathering of dead branches culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its idolatrous anti-Christian Temple in 70 A.D.. Jesus was abundantly clear about this message, as the gospel of Matthew testifies. The epistle of first John was likely written very close to the end of that idolatrous old covenant system, as seen by John's reference to it being the "last hour" (I John 2:18).
In 2:28 John reminds his congregation about this promise of Jesus to come to them, delivering them from their oppressive enemies (i.e. the antichrists, the anti-Christian Jewish authorities). John says that no one born of God persecutes God's own children, as these antichrists have been doing (I John 3:1-24). Moreover, John commands his congregation to not believe every spirit, because some spirits put on a great show, claiming to be of God while rejecting Jesus as God the Father's Messiah.
By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh is from God, and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already. They are from the world...and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
This is the message which takes place immediately before our lectionary reading today. And so, in light of this marginalization of Christians from Jewish antichrists, I think it's important to notice how John instructs his Christian congregation to respond. He tells them to respond with love toward their brother; and not just any brother. In context John seems to be referring to Jewish brethren, the same brethren who are challenging them to publicly walk away from the Christian congregation with them, back to Jerusalem, back to Herod's Temple where faithful, Torah-keeping "believers" have exclusive access to God, and can draw near to Him with a sacrifice.
From the very beginning, John exhorts his Christian congregation to hold fast to the faith by loving their brothers while resisting the Judaizing cultural pressure to go back and worship the Father in their Temple, where they can offer the old covenant sacrifices of God again.
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
John's message was the same as Philip's. God sent his Son, Jesus, the Messiah, into the midst of his own people, to be the atoning sacrifice for the sins of Israel, and not for them only but also for the sins of the whole world, even for eunuch's from Ethiopia, who would not have been allowed to draw near to God in Herod's Temple. Even Isaiah prophesied about these days with the coming kingdom of Israel's Messiah:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people."
And do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree."
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."
Thus says the Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel: "I will gather others to them besides those already gathered." (Isa. 56:3-5, 8)
God's love was revealed to the whole world in this way: God sent his only Son into the world to be the atoning sacrifice for its sins, so that the whole world could live through him (I John 4:9-10). God sent his only Son in the world so that the world could no longer find life through the Temple, Torah, liturgy, priesthood, and sacrifices of the Old Covenant. "We have seen and do testify," John says, "that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God" (4:14-15).
In our day and age, nearly 2,000 years past those events of which John spoke, Christians are still confessing the same truths and are still being marginalized by "the world" because of it. Just look at the Islamic terrorist groups in the middle east, terrorizing, torturing, and killing them as enemies of God. Christians confess that Jesus is both Lord and Savior of the world, which includes Muslims too, but some people simply don't want to receive that truth claim. Apart from the vine of Jesus Christ, there is no salvation for the world. Time doesn't change the hearts of people who love darkness, and refuse to step into God's light.
Even 2,000 years of Church history doesn't change the way brothers treat each other, marginalizing some because of zeal for the truth. Did you ever meet a Christian who behaved that way? Did you ever meet a Christian brother, baptized into the Body of Christ, who turns on you or someone you know, treating them as though they're not true Christians, as though they can tap into the secret councils of Almighty God and deliver His sovereign message about your personal salvation to your front door? Did you ever meet any Christian who marginalized others because that so-called Christian actually enjoys drinking alcohol, and he doesn't think it's sin! Or they enjoy "worldly movies" and entertainment? Or, God forbid, they're Catholic, or Charismatic, or anything that's not in accordance with the true Christian doctrine, and so they know who is and not a true Christian? (That's sarcasm, by the way.)
If you haven't met any Christian brother like that, you are very fortunate. In reality, our so-called "Christian nation" is plagued with unloving, foolishly zealous "brothers" like that. They love you just enough to insult and demean your intelligence, but they have the best of intentions for your soul. Even more unfortunate is the fact that all "Christian" cults in America have been like that too, and they try to recruit Christians out of Trinitarian churches to save them by joining their cult. They tell you you need to use their rituals to draw near to God. You need to abide by their laws to be saved. You are welcome to feast at the table of their god once you repent and believe what they believe, as they understand "belief" to be.
Thankfully, these are not the ways in which we know God. Our congregation uses a formal liturgy, but our liturgy is not essential for drawing near to God. We even have rituals which condition us week after week, year after year to focus our attention on Jesus Christ, His spoken Word, and His Table, but He is essential, not the rituals; our rituals and liturgy can change from church to church, but God can still be known in all of them. Our lives are caught up in the life of God, not our rituals. Because Jesus is our life, the cycles of our life and the boundaries we place around us are approved by Jesus, boundaries which are faithful and beautiful and holy in God's sight.
Each week we gather together in the eucharist to feast at the Lord's table, not a Mormon table or a Presbyterian Table or a Roman Catholic table. It is the Lord's table, and you know the significance of that message. You know its significance because you know the One who goes out into the margins of a violent, ungrateful, and unloving world to heal, comfort, and love, to bring them into His Church and be renewed by His Spirit, to bring justice and peace to the oppressed, and to proclaim liberty to those enslaved in sin. You know the God who I'm talking about because greater is the One in you than the one who is in the world. Those who are violent and ungrateful in the face of Christ, in the face of God's children, are from the world; therefore what they say is from the world and the world listens to them. We are from God, and we confess that Jesus the Messiah has come in the flesh from God, to reach beyond the margins of Israel to the margins of the whole world, to be the true bread and true drink of heaven for the whole world.
If you ever doubt God's word about you, about how he sees you in Christ--as a brother, a sister, a child of God, and friend--that is why the Lord offers the waters of baptism for you, as he did with the Ethiopian eunuch. If you have not been baptized, be like the eunuch and point to some water, asking, "What prevents me from being baptized?" After God has claimed you for himself, go on rejoicing like the eunuch too!
Unlike the Pharisees and other Judaizers of John's day, God doesn't marginalize anyone who puts their trust in him, no matter how great your sins are. (Yes, I said that right: no matter how great your sins are.) Just as there is no sin so great but that it deserves God's wrath, so there is no sin so great that it can bring God's wrath upon all those who truly repent. Because of what Jesus has accomplished for us, God doesn't deny us justice in our humiliation, or treat us as insignificant or peripheral to the world he came, in flesh, to save. In Baptism he gives us an everlasting name that we can live forever rejoicing in, a name that will never be cut off, the name of "son" or "daughter." At the Table he gathers the outcasts of the world and brings them beside other sons and daughters that have already been gathered. That is why our Lord sets His table before us each and every week. If God has claimed you for himself, don't come doubting whether you are welcome to feast with Jesus. It is his Table, and you are welcome to feast upon the faithful sacrifice who died for your sins.
Be like the eunuch. Believe and rejoice in this glorious gospel of our risen Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.