Sunday, May 6, 2012
Invitation & Promise
Today’s Scriptures, in one way or another, are filled with invitation and promise, particularly about the nature of God as Love, and how each of us, by “abiding”, being oned in Jesus, God’s Son, can be transformed into what one commentator has called “a transparent exhibit of the perfect love of God.”
In Acts (8:26-40), Philip the Deacon, passionately enthusiastic to proclaim the “good news about Jesus”, which is God’s love, and invited by God, pursues and patiently helps a eunuch, who could’ve been a Gentile or a Jew, to come into the embrace of Jesus’ love through baptism. The eunuch, was a court official of the Kandake, the title for queens and queen mothers of the ancient African kingdom of Kush, west of the Red Sea and south of Egypt. People considered that to be the farthest edges of the earth, where the people, whose skin which the sun scorched into dark color, were considered foreigners and outcasts. We know that region today roughly as the Sudan.
The eunuch would probably have been a castrated slave, usually in order to be a reliable servant where physical access to the ruler could wield great influence. He was obviously well trusted by the queen who allowed him to travel such a considerable distance to Jerusalem. The eunuch “had come to Jerusalem in order to worship”, implying that he sought something more than standing, wealth and privilege. Unfortunately, purity laws at the time prohibited eunuchs from entering the Temple. Nevertheless, he continues to seek God through Scripture, specifically Isaiah. Isaiah Chapter 56, not in today’s passage, sets aside Deuteronomy’s ancient prohibition, and makes room for eunuchs who keep the Law and hold fast to the Covenant. God promises, it says, to “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.”
Philip becomes, in a sense, “the transparent exhibit” of God’s love by which this man is introduced to Jesus the Risen Lord. The man is so moved by Philip’s explanation that, at the sight of water along the way, he begs to be washed in the water of eternal life. And, all this time, the eunuch thought he was just on a journey to Jerusalem! The deeper journey was an invitation to new life and the promise of God’s enduring love.
In the 2nd reading, the writer of 1st John (4:7-21) redefines the meaning of love in terms of the Risen Jesus. John was well aware that koiné Greek (that used in the Christian Scriptures) has not just one, but three words for love: 1) eros = meaning ordinary human, fleshly love: good in itself, but because of human weakness, it can degenerate into mere selfish treatment of persons as things and objects; 2) philía = meaning familial love, “brotherly/sisterly” love, the love of friendship; and 3) agápe = the love which God has for the whole creation, love which finds it necessary to go out of itself, to sacrifice, to spend itself for the beloved. “In this is love,” says John, “...that God loved us and sent his Son...if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us...God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them...because as God is, so are we in this world...those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen...”
Today’s Gospel passage from John (15:1-8) is like a reprise to the Epistle, explaining that it’s only by Jesus “abiding” in us and we abiding in him and, through him with each other, that we experience real agápe-love. Using an earthy, viticultural metaphor, not lost on us here in Sonoma County: that of grapevines and branches, Jesus says “I am the true vine...my Father is the vine grower...you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing...”
Jesus invites us to remain in him as he remains in us. In the process of being branches united to the vine, the Risen Lord holds out to us the promise of bearing “much fruit”, the fruit of love. But he’s also clear that there’s a cost to us: that of being “pruned”, sometimes an uncomfortable , even agonizing process, yet necessary so as to bear “more fruit”. L. P. Jones comments that “The purpose of grapevines is to bear grapes; the purpose of Jesus' followers is to bear fruit. We bear fruit not to earn our identity but to express it by helping others to have more to eat, more hope, more purpose and direction, and more reason to believe in goodness, grace, and God.” Ours is an invitation to love and a promise to see that love grow and extend itself to others in our lives.
One of the English saints who experienced firsthand God’s invitation to and promise of love was Julian of Norwich, great 13th century anchoress and mystic whose feast we’ll celebrate on Tuesday this week. We know little of Dame Julian’s early life. She was probably born c. 1342. There’s convincing evidence that hers was an aristocratic family in Norwich and that her name was Lady Julian Erpingham. Her first marriage, which was childless, ended with the death of her first husband, Roger Hauteyn, in 1373, and around this time, at age 30 or 31, she became gravely ill, received the last rites, and nearly died. Fortunately, she recovered and later remarried, to Sir John Phelip, Sr., and bore three children: Rose, William, and John, Jr. Sir John died in 1389.
During her serious illness Julian experienced sixteen visions or “shewings” of Christ, which brought her great peace and joy. “From that time I desired oftentimes to learn what was our Lord’s meaning,” she wrote. Over the next 20 years she quietly reflected and prayed about the showings and their unique and powerful message.
Around 1393 Julian, her daughter being married, and her sons provided for, became an enclosed recluse, an anchoress, living in a small dwelling attached to the Church of St. Julian in Norwich. Even during her lifetime, Julian gained a reputation as a mystic and spiritual counselor and was frequently visited by clergy and lay people. She died c. 1414, at the age of 72.
Before she died, the Risen Lord finally gave Julian a glimpse of “what was our Lord’s meaning”, when he answered her, as she says, “in spiritual understanding”. She writes: “Be well aware: love was His meaning. Who showed it thee? Love. What showed He thee? Love. Why did He show it thee? For love. Keep thyself in that love and thou shalt know and see more of the same, but thou shalt never see nor know any other thing therein without end.”
Julian came to know that even before God created us, God loved us and continues always and ever to do so, even in our sinfulness. Her message to her “even Christians”, as she terms it, to all of us, is to abide in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, to accept wholeheartedly God’s invitation and promise, and to bear the fruit of love, both in our own hearts and in the hearts and lives of one another.