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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fifth Sunday of Easter - Year B
Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:25-31; I John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION  TO THE SCRIPTURE 	
Sixth Sunday of Easter (B)


ACTS 8:26-40.  This passage tells how the gospel became a missionary faith 
outside of Judaism.  A eunuch who was a Gentile believer in Israel's God 
would have been excluded from every Jewish congregation because he could not 
have any male heirs, "sons of the covenant."  	
	
The story is told as part of the main theme of Acts: To trace the expansion 
of the early church under the leadership of the apostles from Jerusalem to 
the Gentile nations of the world, especially to Rome, the capital city of the 
empire.


PSALM 22:25-31.  This psalm begins with a cry of dereliction repeated by 
Jesus on the cross. It ends with a hymn of praise and trust in the God who 
rules over all nations.


1 JOHN 4:7-21.  Perhaps the finest definition of God is given here: "God is 
love."  Like partners in a dance, we are invited to love each other as God 
loves us.

No one has seen God, but as we love one another we allow the world to catch a 
glimpse of God's true nature.  In fact, God's love is somehow incomplete 
until we feature that love in our lives.


JOHN 15:1-8.   The allegory of the vine and the branches offers insight into 
the way the early Christian community saw the redemptive relationship between 
God, Jesus and the faithful. 
	
John stretches the image most picturesquely.  The solid trunk of the vine 
emerging from the ground grows long, tender branches on which the fruit is 
produced.  Without those branches, newly grown each year, the vine cannot 
produce.  Cut off from the root, the branches are useful only as kindling for 
a fire. This was a common source of firewood in ancient times.
	
God is described as the vine grower who cares for both the vine and the 
branches.  Part of that caring involves rigorous pruning so that the vine 
continues to produce good fruit. This is exactly what has happened to Israel 
and to the church through the ages. 

************

ACTS 8:26-40.  This passage tells how the gospel became a missionary faith 
outside of Judaism.  The story is told as part of the main theme of Acts: To 
trace the expansion of the early church under the leadership of the apostles 
from Jerusalem to the Gentile nations of the world, especially to Rome, the 
capital city of the empire. 

First, the gospel goes into the Judean hinterland on the road from Jerusalem 
to the borders of Egypt. Gaza, the city where Philip had been bidden to go, 
lay on the Mediterranean coast. Today it is the crowded refuge for two 
generations of Palestinians displaced from their lands by the Jewish War of 
Independence in 1948. In many respects it is an urban wilderness, just as the 
road to Gaza in the 1st century CE lay through the Judean wilderness.

The Ethiopian eunuch was a proselyte and a believer in Israel's God, but 
probably not yet a circumcised Jew, unless he was from that group of 
Ethiopian Jews who have survived to this day. As early as the 6th century BCE 
a colony of Jews had settled on the Elephantine Island in that part of the 
Nile River near where the Assuan Dam now stands at what was formerly the 
first cataract on the river.  The Elephantine Papyri discovered in 1906 
revealed a syncretist form of Yahwist worship existing among these people. 
Trading as far up river as Nubia, as Ethiopia was then known, would have been 
a likely enterprise for such a colony. Jew or Gentile, he would have been 
excluded from every Jewish congregation because he could not have any male 
heirs, "sons of the covenant" (Leviticus 22:24; Deuteronomy 23:1).  

On the other hand, Isaiah 56:3-5 prophesied that in the messianic age, 
eunuchs would rank before the unfaithful of Israel. Wisdom of Solomon 3:14 
also praised the law-abiding eunuch. Although it is not clear whether this 
was a hyperbole, Matthew 19:12 recommends that some followers of Christ 
voluntarily give up their reproductive powers to better serve the cause of 
the kingdom. This eunuch served the Queen of Ethiopia in a high political 
office. It was not unusual for such  men to receive such appointments where 
their sterility would not threaten either their mistress or the harems of 
their masters. (Esther 3:2; Daniel 1:3; Jeremiah 38:7) This man would have 
enjoyed particularly great responsibilities, trust and power as the monarch's 
treasurer (vs. 27).

Once again, it is the Spirit who directs the apostolic mission in sending 
Philip to intercept the eunuch's chariot. To his surprise, perhaps, Philip 
found the man reading the book of Isaiah, probably in Greek. The quotation is 
from the LXX (vs. 32-33). Philip's question as to whether he understood what 
he was reading may only state the need to interpret that text from the 
author's Christological stance. That was the crucial aspect of the passage 
from Isaiah 53:7-8 and a key element of the early apostolic kerygma. 

The point of the story comes in the eunuch's baptism after hearing Philip's 
proclamation of the gospel. There is no confession of faith or expression of 
repentance; just a question of being baptized, possibly at the seashore. This 
emphasized the action of the Spirit rather than the faith response of the 
individual concerned, a phenomenon that occurs again in 10:44. The sudden 
removal of Philip from the scene and reappearance at Azotus (another name for 
Ashdod) several miles to the north of Gaza (vs. 40) reiterates the point. 
Philip then proceeded to conduct a missionary tour further up the coast as 
far as Caesarea, the centre of the Roman establishment in Palestine. 


PSALM 22:25-31.  This psalm begins with a cry of dereliction repeated by 
Jesus on the cross. It ends with a hymn of praise and trust in the God who 
rules over all nations. There is good reason to believe that the two parts of 
the psalm (vss. 1-21 and 22-31) existed separately before being combined in 
the final edition of the Psalter. This amalgamation may have served a 
liturgical purpose for the use of anyone who came to the temple to offer 
thanksgiving for relief from some great affliction (vss. 25-26).

The hymn reaches its climax in the universalism of vss. 27-31, for which the 
psalmist finds ample basis in his own experience. It might be easy to imagine 
imagined a hint of resurrection in vs. 29, but the Hebrew is so uncertain 
that several different English translations do not make clear exactly what is 
meant. The New English Bible makes it into a rhetorical question: "How can 
those buried in the earth bow down to him; how can those who go down to the 
grave bow before him?" This reading leads directly to the response: "But I 
shall live for his sake, my posterity shall serve him." 


1 JOHN 4:7-21.  The noun *agapé* (love) and various tenses of the verb 
*agapeiv* (to love) appear no less than 33 times in this brief letter, 19 of 
them in this passage alone. Those to whom the letter was addressed are twice 
called "Beloved." What we have, then, is perhaps the finest definition of God 
and what it means "to abide in God's love" and to have God's love abide in 
us.  Yet the passage does say a good deal more than just repeat the words 
over and over again. Like partners in a dance, we are invited to love each 
other as God loves us.

In some respects, the passage is a midrash on the saying attributed to Jesus 
about being born again of the Spirit in John 3:1-21. It also contains the 
full gospel message in different words than those to which we may accustomed 
from the Synoptics and the Pauline corpus. The incarnation (vs. 9), the 
atonement (vs. 10), the gift of the Spirit (vs. 13), the apostolic witness 
(vs. 14), the response of confession in faith (vs. 15); the growth in grace 
toward perfection (vs. 16), and  the judgment (vs. 17) - all the basic 
elements of the apostolic kerygma are there.

This passage reveals a more contemplative, philosophical and abstract 
vocabulary attuned to an audience of fairly educated Greeks. It emphasizes 
both the transcendence and the immanence of God.  The world and its 
inhabitants remain distinct and separate from God, yet an identity with God 
is nonetheless created through the love of God living in us. The separation 
is bridged by the Son sent "to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins." The 
Hebrew sacrificial tradition stand behind the mission of the Son manifesting 
the love of God for God's people, but there is something here above and 
beyond that tradition. 

*Agapé* is not the only NT word for love, but as William Barclay declared, 
"it was the only word capable of being filled with the content it 
required.... This *agapé ,* this Christian love, is not merely an emotional 
experience which comes to us unbidden and unsought; it is a deliberate 
principle of mind, and a deliberate conquest and achievement of the will. It 
is in fact the power to love the unlovable, to love people we do not like. 
Christianity does not ask us to love our enemies and to love men at large in 
the same way that we love our nearest and dearest  and those who are closest 
to us; that would be at one and the same time impossible and wrong. But it 
does demand that we should have at all times a certain attitude of mind and a 
certain direction of will towards all men, no matter who they are."(*New 
Testament Words.* Westminster Press, 1974. 20-21)

No one has seen God, John goes on to say, but as we love one another we allow 
the world to catch a glimpse of God's true nature.  In fact, amazing as it 
may seem, God's love is somehow incomplete until we manifest that love in our 
lives (vs. 12). 

In this passage John struggled to describe the essence of Christian 
spirituality. It can only come about as we live by the Spirit of God's love 
that abides in us and so overcome with love all that is lacking in us and the 
fear of punishment (vss. 16-18). Again and again John reiterates that this is 
a love which is derived from God . "We love because he first loved us" (vs. 
19). But it must result in love for others; if not, it fails to achieve it 
goal of manifesting the love of God or of loving God as we have been 
commanded. In all of this, John appears to reflect the gospel as Jesus taught 
it with the beautiful metaphor of the vine and the branches and his parting 
commandment to the disciples in John 15:1-17.

The number of preachable texts in this reading is almost overwhelming. They 
can be approached from almost any angle - from the most personal and 
evangelical to the most justice-oriented, not that those are polar opposites. 
What is more, one could return to the passage many times over and still find 
rich ore to mine. One can imagine John's audience spending hour after hour 
discussing among themselves just what it might mean to their relationships as 
a Christian community and with the hostile world in which they were living.

If, as many scholars believe, John wrote to a very conflicted congregation 
struggling against an influential heresy, it must have had an astonishing 
effect on whatever they had been fighting about. Those who claimed to love 
God, but had nothing but hatred for their fellow members of the community, or 
feared what might happen if they relinquished their hold on arrogant 
intellectual positions, could only have felt a deep sense of conviction that 
they were cutting themselves off from the God they professed to love. The 
antidote to their divisions was the love they had received from God and now 
must show toward their brothers and sisters in Christ.


JOHN 15:1-8.   If the former passage from 1 John 4:7-21 was not a midrash on 
John 3:1-21, then it must have been a similar reflection on this passage from 
John 15. The allegory of the vine and the branches offers insight into the 
way the early Christian community saw the redemptive relationship between 
God, Jesus and the faithful. 

John stretches the image of the grapevine most picturesquely.  There is no 
reason not to assume that he is repeating at least a remembered  pericope if 
not the actual words from the teaching of Jesus. Vineyards were plentiful, 
particularly on the rugged hills of Galilee. Next to olives, the growing of 
grapes for wine and raisins was the most important agricultural crop in 
ancient Palestine.  Unlike modern vineyard with the vines growing upright in 
long, straight rows designed for mechanical picking, the vines were allowed 
to grow along the ground with the bunches of grapes raised on small, forked 
stakes. At times the vines were allowed to grow up a nearby tree providing 
shade from the hot sun (1 Kings 4:25; Ezek. 19:11). The solid trunk of the 
vine emerging from the ground grew long, tender branches on which the fruit 
was produced.  Without those branches, newly grown each year, the vine could 
not produce fruit.  Cut off from the root, the branches are useful only as 
kindling for a fire. This was a common source of firewood for cooking in 
ancient times.

In this metaphor, God is described as the vine grower who cares for both the 
vine and the branches.  Part of that caring requires rigorous pruning  so 
that the vine continues to produce good fruit. This is exactly what has 
happened to Israel and to the church through the ages. This metaphor depicts 
how when sustained by provident grace, the disciples of Christ would do much 
to extend God's love to the world. But if the Christian community was severed 
from God, the source of its life, as occurs in the pruning process, nothing 
spiritually productive would develop. 

There is one very troubling, conditional statement in vs. 7 which may result 
in much doubt. Is it an extravagant hyperbole, like so many other statements 
attributed to Jesus? Is not the offer, "ask whatever you wish" more a trap 
for literalist gullibility? Or should we not pay more attention to the 
results thereby produced, as John quotes Jesus saying further: an effective 
prayer life (vs.7); glorification of God in the life - or death - of the 
believer (vs. 8); and the indwelling joy of the doing God's will (vs. 11)? 
These are fruits of a calm, spiritual nature, not the instantaneous profits 
of hysterical religiosity. Even Jesus himself did not receive the answer he 
wished for in his most fervent prayers in the Garden of Gethsemane. He did 
receive something of far more value: the courage to trust that God would 
accomplish God's mission of salvation through his innocent, sacrificial 
death. 

                                              
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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