Texts: Acts 8. 26-40; Psalm 22.25-31; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15. 1-8
Just now we heard from the reading of Scripture that our love for God is shown and demonstrated in the love we have for our fellow human beings. John says to us:
Those who say they love God and hate their brothers and sisters are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God who they have not seen. The commandment we have from God is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Now, while I’m certain that everyone here would want to affirm that with all their hearts, I nevertheless find myself wondering why so many of us in the Christian Church - including the Prime Minister, apparently - seem not to care particularly for people beyond the circle of our immediate friends and family. On the one hand, we genuinely believe that our love of God is also a love of neighbour, while on the other we trace an unconscious circle about us, a circle which divides those worthy of being regarded as ‘neighbours’ from those who are not. Despite years of Christian teaching, I suspect that most of us still believe that the ‘brothers and sisters’ the apostle calls us to love are none other than those people with whom we are most comfortable. Our closest friends and relations.
But the apostle has something rather more expansive in mind. Very early on in the Church's history, when the Christian community was composed entirely of ethnic Jews, it was forced to ask the same question that we are asking this morning, ‘who are our brothers and sisters?’ Luke’s story about Phillip and the Ethiopian official answers that question in a way that radically undermined the Jewish status quo, and threatens to do the same to our own. We are told that an angel came to Phillip and commanded him to head south from Jerusalem to Gaza. On the way he meets an Ethiopian eunuch who is treasurer for the Queen. Clearly this man is sympathetic to Jewish faith, and has probably been to Jerusalem to participate in one of the Jewish festivals . . . but there is a problem. According to the Scribal law of the time, a male person could only become a Jew through circumcision. But this man was a eunuch, that is, his genitalia had been completely removed, probably as a child in slavery. So, although he believed in Yahweh and loved the Hebrew Scriptures, and though he clearly desired to be part of the great company of God people, he could not. The Scribal law had effectively constructed a huge wall in front of people like him, with a sign on the gate which said ‘Keep out, God does not want you’.
Imagine this man’s joy, then, when Phillip shares a new interpretation of the Jewish faith with him. Beginning with the Isaiah’s account of a suffering servant who, like the eunuch, was denied the chance of passing on his name to future generations, Phillip spoke of a God who vindicated the servant’s just cause by raising him from the dead so that his name, and his cause, would live forever. And then Phillip invited the eunuch to become part of God's people, not through circumcision, but through faith in Jesus and the Christian rite of baptism, in which we die to worldly assessments of who we are and what we are worth, and are raised with Christ to the right hand of God! In the preaching of Philip the man hears about a rather different God, a God who loves and welcomes everyone who believes, no matter what their ethnic or religious heritage (or, indeed, the state of their genitalia!). And in the background of the story Luke, the theological innovator, is telling his hearers that because God love those outside the circle, so should they. And so should we.
However . . . like so many things in life, this is easier said than done. I think it has to be frankly admitted that it is very difficult to move with genuine love and concern beyond our own circle, the circle of our own comfort. If we have grown up with a particular way of living life, and thinking about the meaning of our lives, it can be very threatening to be exposed to other ways of life, to other ways of thinking. We feel safe amongst those who know us and understand not only our language, but also our basic assumptions about what is important and what is not. So much so that when, on the odd occasion, we find ourselves bumping into people who look and speak differently to us, and who clearly have quite another set of values to us, we become quite naturally uncomfortable, or even afraid. Why? Because the existence and perseverance of these ‘other’ ways, these ‘other’ people, implicitly calls into question our own ways, our own assumptions about life. As a consequence, our foundations may feel less steady.
Alongside that, psychologists tell us that in modern life, where we’ve all been seduced into tearing around all the time, we have significantly less energy for engaging with people who are different to us. We tend to conserve our energy by sticking to interaction with a small, stable group of family and friends. Rarely do we find the energy to move beyond that circle. And when we do, the shock of the new is all the more a shock because we are tired, and therefore more vulnerable to having our foundations rocked. No wonder we stick to what we know. No wonder we stick to who we know.
For all these reasons and more, I have a great deal of empathy with any who say to me, ‘I haven’t the time or the energy to move beyond my own circle of friends, I haven’t the time or the energy to engage with other ways of worshipping God or thinking about the meaning of my life’. I understand that. I know that it is difficult and scary and energy-zapping to do so. Its like asking people to break out of cocoon, or to leave the safety of our mother’s womb. Yet . . . this is precisely what God calls us to do. God says ‘If your really knew me, if you really had my love down deep inside of you, then you'd want these 'others' to share in that love too. And you'd be willing to open yourselves to the rich ways in which my life is manifested in their strange and beautiful ways . . .’
Today's lections challenge us to so locate ourselves in this love of God for those beyond the circle, that we absorb God's own compassionate drive, and own it for ourselves. There is an interesting interplay in the passages from gospel and epistle between the language of abiding in God and the language of being sent beyond the circle to ‘bear much fruit’. The love of God is described as a love which is not self-interested or self-directed. Rather, it is the kind of love which looks upon the other, the world of people and their sins, with compassion. The Father sends the Son into the world to be its saviour. Yet even there, in the mist of the smeared, bleared world of darkness, betrayal and death, even in this place so very far beyond the circle of God's presence and power, the Son yet continues to abide with the Father, and teaches his people to abide with the Father as well. How marvellous! Here John is teaching us that abiding in God's love is not about locking yourself in a safe place and feeling the warmth, but actually taking that safe place with you beyond the circle, into the land of the 'other' which is not safe.
So let us examine our lives. Are we able to go out from the comfort and safety of our own circle of friends, and our own ways of making meaning, into the alien territory of those who need God's love most of all? Are we able to befriend the person from a different ethnic group, with a view of the world which is harsher and less privileged than ours? How deep is our faith? How much do we trust in the abiding love of God - a love which promises to hold us in life, even in the midst of alien terrain? While it is absolutely true that God ask us to do an impossible thing, God seems not to be as troubled as we are by impossibilities. God has promised that if we stay connected to him, then he will give us the power we need to do that impossible thing. I am certain that if we abide with God in prayer, and in the reading of the Scriptures, and in the faith and communion of the church, then we will find that God also abides with us as we risk moving out from our comfort-zones into more difficult territory. I hope this is a lesson the Prime Minister is able to learn as well.
It is appropriate, I think, that in this age of compassion-fatigue and economic rationalism that John the Elder should have the last word: ‘Little children, let us love not in word or speech alone, but in truth and action’.