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“What the others are here for, I don’t know…”: The Fifth Sunday of Easter

Sunday, May 2, 2021:
Acts 8:26-40
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

The poet W.H. Auden once said (apparently, quoting a comedian): “We are here on earth to do good to others. What the others are here for, I don’t know.”* If you have ever had siblings, teammates, co-workers, neighbours, or yes, fellow parishioners, you probably have a sense of what that quote is getting at. It’s easy and normal to fall into the trap of thinking that things would be better “if I did everything myself” (because that way you have more control). Or thinking of our own tradition, there’s the pure, unblemished, ‘biblical’ faith (that one represents and models themselves), to be contrasted with the corrupt, tarnished, compromised faith of the masses, of ‘people.’ And oh, how people get in the way of the faith…

But look at how our first Bible story today, from Acts, reverses this. The court official, the Ethiopian eunuch, is there in the chariot reading from the Bible. But the experience — the spiritual experience — is incomplete. An angel of the Lord, we read, sends Philip to the area. And the Spirit of God urges Philip into the chariot. And Philip responds, running up to it. Philip is able to fill in the gaps for the court official. That’s spelled out in the text. But I wonder if there’s something else to consider: how maybe Philip learned something (or felt something) through his encounter with the court official. Philip would have known that eunuchs were not allowed to participate in the full experience of Temple worship. He probably knew the prophecy in Isaiah about the future inclusion of eunuchs in this worship, and of all nations coming to God’s holy mountain. But the book learning, the theoretical knowledge, is incomplete without the real, human experience, isn’t it?

If we view our faith as better (more ideal, of a higher standard) without the complexities of human relationships, then we’re probably missing an important point. Especially if our faith is rooted in the premise of God choosing to come to be with us. “We love because [God] first loved us.” The God we direct ourselves toward, in our worship and in our values, is a God who acts; whom we know through God’s acts. Not a God of abstracts, but of action. Our epistle reading claims that “No one has ever seen God.” But people have felt God, because God is love. “[I]f we love one another, God lives in us.

So the two Johannine readings we have use, over and over, that word: “abide.” In our society today we are quick to use the word ‘tolerance.’ And that’s good; it’s usually better to tolerate than to not tolerate. But tolerance isn’t as ambitious, vulnerable, or risky as ‘love’ and ‘abiding.’ Abiding is a word that has to do with commitment. We “abide by” a law, or a rule of life. We stick with it; we are guided and formed by it. Or a lesson instilled in us, or a cherished memory or memory of a loved one will abide in us: it will continue within us. Or abide a decision, even when it’s hard to swallow. We abide with someone, in and through a difficult time.

This is much deeper, and much harder, than tolerating. But that’s what Jesus is talking about, abiding in us, and we in him. Find ourselves in him; find him within ourselves. And within our neighbour. Because true love can’t be abstract.

I’m quite taken by a curious line in the Letter of John: “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world.” Boldness on the day of judgement: that is the goal. It seems here that if at our core we can rest in — or abide by — our trust in God’s unconditional love, then we can find ourselves set free to do the good work that good wants us to do, not afraid to make mistakes, not afraid to be fully human, not afraid to affirm the humanity of our neighbour, and not afraid to sow seed with reckless abandon (as Jesus would illustrate in the famous parable).

“God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” I’m curious how God — abiding in you — is going to call you to express that love in our world this week.

© 2021 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* https://audensociety.org/vivianfoster.html