What is to keep [insert name of someone you care about] from God’s love? Do you really think there’s something?
5th Sunday of Easter (Year B) – May 3, 2015 – Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
St. Jacob’s-Spaders Lutheran Church, Harrisonburg, Virginia
“What Is to Prevent Them?” – Pastor Evan Davis
This weekend I was in Southwest Virginia with some dear friends of mine from college. We were hiking Mount Rogers, the highest peak in Virginia. Have you been there? Oh, it’s gorgeous. Up on the mountain, since the elevation is so much higher than elsewhere in our state, there are different kinds of trees and plants – rhododendron growing all around, spruce and fir trees that make you feel you’re on the other side of the country. Wild ponies were milling about – you can walk right up and touch them! They have long, wild, flowing hair, and they sure keep the grass cut short. The wind can pick up at any moment, blowing over the craggy outcroppings of rocks atop each ridge. You can feel the Spirit of God. It made me the recall all the hikes I took on these mountains, just over there on the Blue Ridge. When a lot of questions and experiences in my high school years made me question my faith in church, hiking those mountains sustained my faith in God.
It’s funny – whenever I’m off for a short weekend with my friends, Brett and I always have to go back early on Saturday to be home for church. So my friends always ask us what we’re going to preach about on Sunday. They suggested, “just show ’em a few pictures of these mountains and say ‘God is awesome’ and sit down.” You know, that wouldn’t be a bad sermon. Because for them, and I think also for me, being up there on Mount Rogers yesterday was a spiritual experience. It was a tangible encounter with God. And so was simply being together, people who care about each other so much, to have good conversations, to sit down around a meal. It’s probably a similar feeling you feel when all of you here are together on Sunday morning – people who know each other so well, who care so deeply for one another, coming together in this beautiful place. It’s also a tangible experience of God. When Brett and I had to leave yesterday, our friends were firing up some dinner and sitting down on rocking chairs on the porch of a beautiful mountain cabin…we were a little sad to leave! Happy to return here, but sad to leave them and the way we experience God with them. And the thought occurred to me, why would they want to leave that place to come back to a one hour church service on Sunday morning?
Like almost all my friends who aren’t pastors, like almost everyone who was a big part of my life before I went to seminary, they aren’t against the church. They’re not against what I do with my life. In fact, they honor what I do and respect it very much. I’m not speaking specifically about any one of my friends, but many of them, many people my age, respect church but just don’t feel they need it for themselves. Not all, but many of them, just don’t see how a one hour church service would add spiritual depth to their lives in a way that spending a weekend at Mount Rogers wouldn’t. They know church can be a wonderful thing, they just don’t need it every week.
John’s community, which wrote both the gospel of John and the letter we call 1 John, has, at the end of the day, a very simple message: God is love. Love is the definition of God. Ultimately, God is not about meeting standards, or achieving holiness, and certainly not finally about law or punishment. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” Love is the bottom line for God. It is a love that challenges us and reveals our sin even as it embraces us, but nevertheless it is love. And since God is love, the church can’t be about anything other than love too. If we become all about something else, like keeping church structures going forever, or seeing that people meet the religious standards we put in place, like coming to worship when we want them to come, or getting the right classes before they’re baptized, if that’s our bottom line, then we have fallen off the Way of Jesus.
Think about this wonderful story we hear this morning from Acts….the story of Philip, and his encounter with an Ethiopian eunuch. If you don’t know what a eunuch is, ask the person next to you! This eunuch is a court official, in charge of the whole treasury of the Ethiopian kingdom, south of Egypt in Africa. He’s not a Jew, but he is a worshiper of their God, and he’s coming home from worshiping in Jerusalem. Then here comes Philip, one the seven original deacons of the church. He comes up alongside his chariot and asks, “do you understand what you are reading?” The Ethiopian repies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” So Philip helps the Ethiopian official understand how the Church sees Jesus in the prophet Isaiah. But soon after the little Bible lesson, they come to some water. Just some water there along the road, hopefully a stream or something and not just a puddle! The eunuch by now is excited about God’s love in Christ, he wants to be embraced by God’s love, the Spirit has put this in his heart, and so he shouts out, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
What indeed? They simply stop the chariot right then and there, get out and Philip baptizes him. No formal requirements, no conditions. Think of all the reasons Philip could have used to separate the Ethiopian from the love of God: he wasn’t Jewish, he hadn’t been a part of the community, he wasn’t keeping all the Jewish laws, he was a government official, he was a eunuch – but none of this counted for anything. Because God is love.
When we just welcome people with reckless abandon, when we love without any excuses or conditions, we can’t do it wrong. We can’t mess it up. When we love, we abide in God and God abides in us. God has no higher purpose in the whole universe than to love this person.
And so I think about my friends, who right now are probably driving home from that beautiful cabin at Mount Rogers….what is to keep them from being embraced by God’s love? Nothing. They already have been. Think of what separates us from them – not God, but rather how we regularly experience God. We might read the Bible a bit more often, we participate in a Christian tradition that goes back to the apostles, so we might be in a position, like Philip, to offer our help in understanding the Scriptures, in helping explain how the good news of Jesus has been told to us. But how better to tell that good news to people outside the church than unconditionally love them? I think they were probably all baptized as little kids, but what better witness to them and to the millions of people my age just like them than to say, no matter what, you are welcome here. No matter your age, your life situation, God is love, and God is love for you…so look, here is water! If you haven’t been, be baptized! [By the way, that’s an open invitation – whenever the Spirit calls someone to this font, I’ll baptize them right then and there.] Come up to the Lord’s Table – All are welcome. Yes, just like Philip, we’ll teach you too – but we won’t assume ours is the only perspective. We’ll listen also and have a Spirit-filled conversation over the Scriptures.
Jesus said, I am the vine, you are the branches. The love from God, the love that is God, pulses from Christ the vine into us, the branches….and as it flows unconditionally out of us, without judgment, we bear fruit for the kingdom. That fruit looks like unlikely people coming together – like the Jewish Christian deacon, Philip, having a genuine encounter and mutual exchange with an Ethiopian eunuch.
Notice that Philip and the Ethiopian create something together. The Ethiopian asks for baptism. And in being baptized, he doesn’t stop being Ethiopian, or stop experiencing God in the ways unique to his culture. He adopts Christian words and practices, but he doesn’t become Judean. He has his own voice. The fruit of God’s love today might look like the church not dismissing but genuinely valuing the ways many people my age, and people of all ages, connect with God – whether that’s on the mountain, at the coffee shop, on the soccer field, or in their homes. What if we valued and even blessed what God is doing in their lives…the ways God is already loving our brothers and sisters outside the church? Your children and grandchildren and nieces and nephews and friends who aren’t here? And instead of trying to replace their spiritual practices with what we do, with what’s life-giving for us, what if we partnered with them, the way Philip partners with the Ethiopian eunuch, and find a way we can be loved by God together, and love our neighbors together? Can’t we respect the voice of those who don’t join us in worship, assume God is already in their lives, and work with them to seek God and love the world in new ways? New ways we don’t totally control but can help shape with our gifts, our witness, our experience in the Christian tradition? While still offering the best of our tradition? What fruit would be hanging on all our branches, all connected to the vine!
We would still be us, meaning we would still worship and live the life of faith in Christ the way we know how, because that unconditional love of God….it’s also for you, and me. Whatever you feel may separate you from God this morning….God is love, and nothing can prevent God from loving you today. Amen.