Sunday, May 6, 2012

Five Easter
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:25-31
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

And this commandment have we from him, that he who loveth God love his brother also.

You may be tired of hearing about it, but we are in the process of moving. We’ve managed to sell our house and we have found a great house in the area we want to live. There is a lot to be accomplished in the next few weeks, but hopefully we can make it all happen and be settled in a month or two, we just have to take it one step at a time. We are buried in boxes and paperwork, and it is exhausting but such a blessing. As it is with every move, we are learning lessons about priorities and appreciating what we have. We have given away truckloads of things we’ve collected over the years and are still collecting things to give away as we empty closets and cabinets.

I spent a few hours at the new house yesterday, wandering the rooms while the inspector made sure that it was in good shape for us. It is much different than the house we own now, and all our other houses. We’ve been very lucky over the years, able to use the same curtains in house after house and we have found a place to put all our furniture. I’m not sure that the same is true in our new house. Instead of nice ninety degree angles, the living room is more of an octagon. Instead of having plenty of wall space, we have millions of windows and several built-ins. These aren’t bad differences, but I have had difficulty figuring out how to make all our things fit.

When you are house hunting, you walk through dozens of homes trying to find the right one. I could find things I liked and things I didn’t like about each one. Then we had to go home and discuss what we saw. Which house would be best? Do we need to continue looking? Can we make our favorites work? What are our priorities? We finally chose a house. Unfortunately, no one’s memory is perfect, and we never really spent much time in any one house, so we had a hard time truly remembering which features were in which house. Did we see granite countertops? How many closets? How big was the extra room? It was hard to remember.

I was so glad I spent those few hours wandering around the new house yesterday. There is some furniture that I will have trouble placing, and we will need to buy some furniture to fill the holes, but I left fully confident that we can make it work. Over the years as a transient military family, we’ve known our homes would be temporary. We knew that we would only have to live with it for a few years. We have lived comfortably and every house has been a home because we have lived there together, but there is something different about this house. We don’t expect to move for a long time.

Yesterday as I was reading the text for this week, I found myself focusing on the word “abide.” We won’t just live in this house, but we will abide. “To abide” means “to remain stable or in a fixed state.” This is the house where I will try to build a career as a painter and writer. This is the house where we will celebrate Christmas with grandchildren. This is the house where we will establish friendships and entertain neighbors. This is the house where we will finally find that stability that has lacked for the past twenty-three years, our lives with be fixed in one place. We will abide there.

Perhaps the difference between living and abiding is insignificant, but I wonder how our life of Christ would change if we made a conscience effort to abide in Him rather than just live. We live in a world where change is not only acceptable; it is thought to be inevitable. I’ve known too many people who got married with the understanding that if it doesn’t work out they can just get a divorce. People don’t stay in a single job for forty years anymore; they get jobs on their way to the next job which will lead to the next job. I met a lady who buys a new car every three or four years. “I always want it to be under warranty.” Thirty years ago the cars were made so well that we could keep it, and drive it for decades. We live, but do we abide in anything anymore?

Even our church lives can be transient and changing. So few of us belong to the church where we were baptized. We often leave because we’ve moved too far away, but we also leave because we have been hurt or we don’t agree with policies or practices. Many people jump from one type of church to another, hoping one will be perfect and will be filled with perfect people. Few people are committed to a particular set of doctrinal teachings, choosing a church because of location or because it has the best programs. Some even mix religious ideas, picking and choosing what they like about different religions, creating an eclectic faith that isn’t recognizable in any religious institution. Are we abiding in Christ if we are blown by every wind of belief?

The other question I pondered is what it means to love. The definition of love from Merriam-Webster dictionary is this, “a strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties; attraction based on sexual desire; affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests.” For many, love means acceptance, tolerance, happiness. Some say that love means never having to say you are sorry.

Love is sacrificial, but what does that mean? Does love require that we accept everything about the one we love, allowing them to continue in a life we think is harmful? A woman who loves a man who beats her is sacrificing her health for love? Is that the kind of sacrificial love God demands from us? A mother loves her son and accepts him as he is, but does she love him if she allows him to continue dangerous and unacceptable behavior? Is it love to give someone the freedom to follow their heart, even if we can see their heart is taking them in a wrong direction? Is it love to remain silent when we see error? Is it love to tolerate sin?

Jesus often talks about love. He talks about loving your neighbor and loving your enemy. Love is active. Love is watching out for the well-being of others. We serve those we love. We share with those we love. We pray for those we love. This love is deeper than the dictionary definition, but the scriptures for today delve even deeper. I know people who do not believe in God who love their neighbor. I know people who do good works who would never worship Jesus. I know people who are kind, accepting, tolerant and happy, who love in ways that are visible and right.

But in today’s text we talk about abiding in Christ, loving like Him. This is more than the love we witness in the world. John writes, “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” Jesus, the Son of God, suffered the humiliation of the cross, quietly died for our sake, paying the price for our sin. This is what Philip told the eunuch on that road to Gaza. This is the Gospel message: that God so loved us that He sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him. Even more so, Christ came and died so that we can abide in God.

We are to love our neighbors and our enemies, but the focus for today is the vine. Jesus says that we cannot love God if we do not love our brothers and sisters. While we can use those terms for all humanity, I believe this text is a commandment about loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. It is about abiding with one another in the same vine, the vine that is Christ. We can’t possibly love God and abide in Him if we do not love other Christians.

Unfortunately, many churches are dealing with terrible schisms and issues. Those issues can be national or local. What is our mission? How do we love? What color is the carpet in the sanctuary? How do we view scripture? What doctrines matter? What is adiaphorous? How do we deal with the troubles in the world? How do we love? I’ve heard stories that break my heart about churches that are fighting from within and Christians who are being persecuted by other Christians. Some have dealt with the pain by separating; churches are being torn apart. Sadly, there are even lawsuits pending. Where is God in these relationships? What kind of love is this? Can you sue a fellow Christian and claim to abide in Christ?

John writes, “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, cannot love God whom he hath not seen.” Here we see the use of the word “hate” as the opposite of love, although this has a much different meaning in the ancient languages. To hate is to separate oneself from another. It means to ignore, reject, turn our back on. When we hate someone, we purposely do not meet their needs. Love is active. It is sacrificing oneself for the sake of another. Hate is sacrificing another for our own sake

In this passage, hate is apathy. Apathy is the opposite of love. Not caring whether someone lives or dies, is happy or sad, is sick or hungry or unclothed is the opposite of love. This is especially true when we use another definition of love, which is the unselfish loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another: as the fatherly concern of God for humankind or brotherly concern for others. If we love God and abide in the vine, we will be concerned about the welfare of all those who abide in the same vine. We may not hate them, in human terms. But do we really love God if we choose to ignore or reject our brothers and sisters in Christ?

It isn’t easy. I have agonized over the issues that my own church has faced. I’ve agonized over the decisions that have been made and still have to be made. I’ve agonized over my own place in this vine. The best I can do is to know that God loves me and to abide in that love. He will love for me and through me, just as He loves me. He will make it possible for me to love when it seems impossible and to abide next to those with whom we might disagree. This means that we can’t ignore their needs, even if we would rather separate ourselves from them. As brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot love God and reject them. We cannot sue our brothers and sisters in Christ and still abide in the vine.

It isn’t easy being a Christian. It isn’t easy abiding in God. The demands He makes on our lives can be difficult. Take, for example, the story of Philip. He was a successful evangelist; he was one of the deacons chosen in Acts 6. It appears from this passage, he was doing very well. The people were experiencing the joy of the Lord, watching Philip do incredible things. He was healing and casting out demons. They believed what Philip had to say.

We read on in Philip’s story that an angel whispered in his ear, “Go now.” “Now?” we would ask, “but I’m just beginning here. There is too much work left to do. There are too many people left to save!”

That’s not the way Philip responded to this call. Luke tells us that Philip “arose and went.” He was so confident in the word of God that he willingly left a successful ministry to go into the unknown. He was so confident in his relationship with God that he knew he was hearing God’s voice. It was illogical command, but it was also dangerous. The road from Jerusalem to Gaza was infested with criminals—killers and thieves. It was not a place where one would wander alone. The Ethiopian eunuch was certainly not alone. He was probably accompanied by a large entourage, including soldiers, servants and guests. He was representing the queen of Ethiopia, so he had the resources of a kingdom at his disposal.

We might allow these hurdles to keep us from the ministry, believing that it couldn’t be God sending us into such a strange and dangerous situation. He was abiding in God, loving as God loved him, and he responded with action. He loved because God first loved him. He loved by sharing the Gospel with a stranger.

I think there is something about this story we need to consider. The eunuch was a learned man, able to read and apparently able to read and understand Hebrew. Yet, he willingly admitted that he could not understand what he was reading in the prophecies of Isaiah without someone’s help. “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” How many of us would rather understand the scriptures from our own point of view, to give it our own interpretation, to accept only what we think it means? Many in today’s church reject the classical and historic understanding of scriptures, preferring a modern take that fits their own agenda and passions. There is good cause to look at the text in a new way, but we must be careful not to reject the witness of those who have come before us for the past two thousand years.

It is ok for us to say that we need someone to explain. It is ok to seek the help of someone who has a solid understanding of the scriptures to help us see what God is saying. If they abide in the vine, if they abide in God, they will speak His word. And if we abide in the vine, if we abide in God, we’ll hear God’s voice in their explanation. That’s what happened to the eunuch. He knew by faith that the words Philip spoke were true. He knew that God was speaking and calling him to this new relationship with God through Jesus Christ. He knew that he was being grafted into the vine and asked to be baptized so he could be fully and wholly part of the Church.

Do we abide so completely in the vine that we know when we are hearing the voice of God from our neighbors? Or do we think so highly of ourselves that we ignore or reject our brothers and sisters in Christ? Loving God means that sometimes we must respond in radical and unexpected ways. We might be sent on that lonely highway or into that entourage to speak the Gospel into the lives of those whom God is calling to faith. We might also be sent into a fellowship of Christians with whom we disagree, to love them as God loves us.

Loving as God loves means not concerning ourselves with our own faith, passions or agendas, but continuing to speak God’s Word into the lives of those who come after us. It might seem frightening or illogical, but we need not be afraid. God does not send us into unknown or dangerous situations without going with us. We abide in Him and He abides in us. He abides in us and we abide in Him. The psalmist writes, “For the kingdom is Jehovah’s; And he is ruler over the nations.” It might seem to us that it was foolish for Philip to approach someone that was unapproachable, but God had already prepared the eunuch for Philip. Philip, in his obedience, fulfilled the very will of God to share Christ with the world. “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to Jehovah; And all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.”

The vine is eternal, and it reaches through every generation. The love we share today will be experience by others who abide in Christ from the beginning to the end, because it all comes from God.

Jesus came to fulfill the prophecy found in today’s psalm. He came to bring salvation to those who seek the Lord, life to those who turn to Him. And one day the whole world will remember God, for it all belongs to Him. The rich and the dying and all those in between will serve Him and they will worship Him and feast at His table. There was a time when the people did not remember. They had gotten all caught up in themselves, in their self-righteousness. That time still exists for all those who do not dwell in the heart of the Lord. They are like the branches of the vine that have been cut off; they will wither and.die. They cannot love, not truly, without God. They might do nice things for others, but they (we) love only superficially if we do not love with the heart of God.

We are confused and divided. We may want love to mean that we accept and tolerate one another as we are, but we have some very real differences. Sadly, we are more likely to love our neighbors and our enemies than we are our brothers and sisters in Christ. We don’t know how to live with one another anymore. We are like those who live in one house while anxiously looking for somewhere else to go.

But we are called to abide with one another in the only home that matters, the heart of God and the vine of Christ, where we will truly love our brothers and sisters, so that together we can do the work to which God calls us: sharing the Gospel message with the world. We can’t do it alone. We can’t even do it together. So let us abide in God so that He can do the work through us, His vine, producing the fruit of salvation in the world.

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