5th Sunday of Easter

May 21, 2000
See Also: 
Reading 2: 
Psalm 22:25-31
Reading 3: 
Acts 8:26-40 or 1 John 4:7-21
Reading 4: 
John 15:1-8
By Bruce G. Epperly

Easter Weeks 3-6
In this lectionary guide, I have focused on an interpretation of the lectionary readings in light of the inclusive, dynamic, and relational theology and spirituality characteristic of process thought. For the most part, I have focused on the meaning of the text for our time and left the historical-critical analysis to the homilist’s own personal study. There are many fine scriptural commentaries available, including the New Interpreters Bible. I have sought not only to weave together the themes of each week, but to note the common thread which runs through the May readings. (Editor's note: You may wish to read through all three of Dr. Epperly's May commentaries and the concluding "Pulling it all together" and "Final reflections" paragraphs on the May 28, 2000 page).

As you reflect on these scriptures in your own spiritual formation and for the spiritual formation of others, may you and your congregation be filled with the spirit of Christ’s resurrection.

Many readers of this passage initially may be put off by the supernatural aspects of the narrative. Its account of angelic inspirations, paranormal experiences, and spiritual teleportation range far beyond everyday experience for most of us. While we may suspect a certain level of mythological exaggeration this passage, we must also remember that the rational and controllable world of the five senses is grounded in and reaches toward the non-rational realm of spiritual adventure intuited by yogis, mystics, shaman, and poets. Today, when many moderns claim paranormal experiences and encounters with angels, the church would do well to affirm the possibility that such experiences can and do happen and certainly might have been everyday realities for the first Christians! In the holoverse of divine lures and distant causation, we must always leave room for extraordinary moments of spiritual experience.

Indeed, our willingness to explore the possibility of such experiences is the first step in grounding the paranormal in a rational and expansive view of the universe. A creative dialogue with the paranormal is an antidote to the aberrations such as Heaven’s Gate suicides as well as negative impact of certain Pentecostal and new age spiritual claims.

Beyond the dramatic spiritual accounts, the heart of this passage describes the expansion of the gospel message to include the outsider and the unclean. In embracing the Ethiopian eunuch, the gospel breaks down the barriers of ethnicity, race, and sexuality. According to Deuteronomy 23:1, a eunuch cannot belong to the people of Israel. Moving beyond its geographical and ethnic origins, the emerging church is now going beyond the previously impermeable divisions of Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free. The homilist might well invite the congregation to explore the boundaries of its own hospitality. Each of is confronted by our own list of unclean, the outcast, and the unacceptable persons - for one, it might be an active homosexual; for another, a fundamentalist Christian. The preacher might confessionally ask, "Who are we excluding by our own artificial divisions between clean and unclean?"

This passage also stresses the importance of community in the spiritual formation of Christians. The Ethiopian eunuch’s plea, "how can I understand unless someone guides me?" is a challenge to mainline and liberal churches to re-emphasize the role of church school and the power of the pulpit to form the Christian heart and mind. While liberal and mainline churches have claimed the mantle of theological sophistication, we have lagged far behind our more conservative brothers and sisters in attendance and financial support of Christian education and scholarship, university ministries, dialogue with popular culture, and Christian formation. In the spirit of the African aphorism, "it takes a village to raise a child," we might add that "it takes a village to pass along the faith." Without the creative synthesis of solid theological reflection, dynamic worship, and insightful spiritual formation, our churches will become irrelevant to today’s spiritual seekers. A "talk back" time during the coffee hour might very well focus on how our church can embody a concern for theological and biblical education for persons of all ages.

I John
This passage invites us to ground theological reflection in loving concern. Knowledge is not a matter of intellect alone. Faith opens us to deeper levels of reality that cannot be encompassed by the purely rational, one-dimensional mind, while love awakens us to the presence of the holy in ordinary persons. Love opens our eyes to the world as a icon of divine revelation. In the spirit of Matthew 25, the commit to love enables us to enter into a lively and adventurous reality in which even the least of these reveals God to us. (From a process perspective, this openness to others is also an openness to God, since divine aims arise not only in our own experience but through our experience of the divine aim in others.)

The love of which the Epistle speaks is a creative-responsive love, that is, our love for one another and the stranger is a creative response to God’s love flowing through us. Love is always concrete and contextual and it may call us to surprising adventures, such as Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch.

"Those who abide in love abide in God." While this passage is not meant to be exclusive in terms of placing limits on God’s love, it reveals the deep truth that those who align themselves with God’s love experience a more dramatic and powerful revelation of that love in their everyday lives. As the Gospel lesson (John 15:1-8) points out, those who are connected with God - who make communion God and service on God’s behalf a matter of ultimate concern - will bear much fruit. To paraphrase Albert Schweitzer’s comments on the historical Jesus, the "unknown God" is revealed in our commitment to concrete acts of love in our time.

John 15: 1-8
My current pastorate is located in the orchard country of Western Maryland. Over the past few months, I have learned a great deal about the attitudes and practices of fruit growers. One afternoon, one of the ladies of the church took me on a pruning expedition through her family’s orchard. I learned that pruning enhances the growth of a tree not only by eliminating the extraneous branches but also by enabling light to shine on those that remain. In this "I am" passage, Jesus proclaims that "I am the vine and you are the branches." Those branches that "abide" in Christ, and that remain connected to the vine, will flourish and bear much fruit, while those that are disconnected from the vine will wither and die. Flourishing and withering are not a matter of rewards and punishments, but the result of our commitment to nurture our own spiritual lives and the spiritual lives of others. Our commitment to the spiritual formation may lead to political action, since the spirit may wither and die as result of the impact poverty, substandard education, dysfunctional family life, and social injustice.

At the heart of the passage are the questions, "how do we abide in Christ?" and "what keeps us from abiding in Christ?" Many persons today are withering spiritually. Suffering from too many responsibilities and fragmented lives, they find themselves spiritually depleted and disconnected from the vital flow of divine energy. They need something more than an occasional cup of "chicken soup for the soul," they need the dynamic and robust soul food that comes from a spiritually dynamic community and an individual commitment to spiritual growth.

God’s energy - the pneuma of God or the chi of Chinese metaphysics - is always flowing through us. Aligned with this energy, we experience wholeness and vitality in the totality of our lives. But, how do we align ourselves with God, especially in the context of our overcommitted lives? In part, alignment comes from pruning and nurture. The pruning of the spirit involves letting go of extraneous and unnecessary thought forms and activities, and committing ourselves to living actively in God’s presence. We need to ask ourselves, "what is really important in our lives?" This may lead to a re-orientation of commitments, but it may also lead to a new attitude toward our necessary commitments. Can we become mystics in the midst of a busy world? Can we see all of our actions as concrete manifestations of God’s love? The energy that comes from re-connecting with the vine arises from a commitment to spiritual formation through daily prayer, devotional reading, meditation, and service to the community. While many persons claim not to have enough time for the spiritual disciplines, most everyone can take the fifteen minutes necessary for "centering prayer" or can pause for reflection at every stop light or say a brief prayer before turning on the computer or answering the phone. The homilist might expand the impact of today’s reading by sponsoring a mini-seminar on "spirituality for busy people."

Putting it all Together:
The three passages are connected by the theme of letting God’s love flow through us to other persons. In aligning ourselves with divine love, our spirits find nurture, our gifts are released, and we discover that we have the time and insight to reach out to others. As our selves expand to embrace a larger world without defensiveness, our faith expands to include the outsider and the stranger as God’s mirror of love to us.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.