Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Acts of the Apostles 8: 26-40; Psalm 22: 24-30; I John 4: 7-21; John 15: 1-8

In the gospels, Philip is just a name in a list of the twelve apostles. But in Luke's Acts of the Apostle's we get a more detailed portrait. He is one of the "seven" (Acts 6:5; 21:8) who are leaders of the Hellenistic Christians in Jerusalem. He travels to Samaria and the coast as far south as Caesarea preaching the gospel. In this encounter Philip is instructed by an "angel" to head down the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. "So he got up and went." On that road, he encounters an Ethiopian Jew returning home from worship in Jerusalem. He is further identified by the narrator as the Treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia, Candace. Philip sees that the man is studying scripture and asks if he would like an interpretation. The royal official invites Philip to join him in his chariot. Philip sees that he has been reading from Isaiah (53: 7-8), which describes the role of an unnamed servant who "was led to the slaughter, like a lamb silent before its shearer...." Philip applies the passage to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. (We are not given the content of his interpretation, but we can infer it from "sermons" of Peter and others Luke supplies in the rest of the Acts.) We are also not told the officials spoken response, which makes what happens next more dramatic. The man immediately asks to be baptized. After this, Philip was "snatched away" by "the Spirit of the Lord." Philip continued his preaching mission in towns on the way to Caesarea.

The psalmist summons all "Fearers of the Lord" to worship God, for God has not rejected the despised and lowly nor ignored their cryings. "The lowly will be sated/ those who seek God will praise the Lord." This invitation not only extends to all nations and clans, but even to the "netherworld."

Continuing his paean, the writer of the first epistle attributed to John says Love plays the following dynamic for the "Beloved": it defines God, it is the basis for all relationships, it melts fear of punishment and makes us "bold." The proof beyond proof we have of God's love is the Son, whom God "sent... into the world so that we might live through him." Love of others is the only measure that matters of one's professed love of God.

The use of the vine metaphor would not haven been exotic, rather about as ordinary as anything in everyday life in the world of Jesus. The vine and its branches are an organic continuum. The nature of the vine is completed when the branches blossom and yield fruit and the branches fulfill the fruit-yielding nature of the vine. Without its branches, the vine is barren; the branches simply do not exist without the vine first. As needed, the Vine grower removes the branches that do not flourish and produce fruit and prunes the productive branches so that next season they will be even more productive. God "is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

In distinctive ways, each gospel writer gets around finally to the same point: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is meant to accomplish something far more immediate than any grand theories of atonement, it is to turn the willing into "disciples" here and now! In this passage from John's gospel, how this happens is better likened to an organic dynamic than something mechanical or abstract or theoretical. One defines herself as a "disciple" as a direct realization that she is "gifted" by the "Giver of Life" and, in turn mimics the Giver as she treats others as also "gifted" by the same "Give of Life."

As with any brilliant analogy, however, it only goes so far. It is instructive to discover where it breaks down and why. The vine/branches/fruit/Vine grower analogy conveys the potential of a relationship to God and others vividly and memorably. It emphasizes spontaneity and defines love as the natural outgrowth of one's self-understanding as loved/beloved. The analogy ends, however, when it implies there is a generic crop of all roughly the same type of "fruit" on the vine of the Giver of Life. But as the stories of individuals throughout biblical narratives "old" and "new" demonstrate so clearly, each person is a unique story. Picture Philip and the royal official sitting in a chariot on the dusty road south to Ethiopia; one person sharing and one person listening, each in a singular time and place in his life.

In his amazingly fecund essay
Corpus, Jean-Luc Nancy notes that today there are "More than five billion bodies. Soon to be eight billion." However, he insists, "Humanity becomes tangible: but what we can touch isn't 'mankind,' it's precisely not this generic being.... (p. 83) More than any theories (or even theologies) about the individual there is the prima facie evidence of an actual physical body one at a time and place. Nancy writes, "bodies are more visible than any revelation." (p. 59) From that admission flows, directly, the requirements of one person to another. He also writes, "Beyond the body, there's no evidence.... Bodies are evident-- and that's why all justice and justness start and end with these. Injustice is the mixing, breaking, crashing and stifling of bodies, making them indistinct (gathered up in a dark center, piled up to eliminate space between them, within them.... (p. 47)

The analogy of the vine/branches/fruit/Vine grower provides a peek which, once glimpsed, cannot be forgotten of the possible relationship between God, you and others, a relationship of spontaneous generosity, of eagerly sharing Life. But then that snap shop of just two individuals-- Philip and the African-- ground the memory of that analogy, just like spectacular lightning in the sky must find some conduit to ground itself in the earth. The beautiful analogy is meaningless if it does not inspire one person to share her good news with one other person in word and deed. "...All justice and justness begin and ends with" the actions of actual, individual bodies here and now.