We are continually surrounded by the news and the media of our world and our country in violent unrest.
I am not a political person, especially as a pastor and a preacher. However, my heart breaks at the violence that we are bearing witness. My heart breaks with the polarization of our world and our country, whether it is between:
Democrats and Republicans, or
liberal Christianity and conservative Christianity, or
Christians and non-Christians and the Spiritual but not Religious, or
ethnic and racial heritages, or
gender identities and sexual preferences.
It breaks my heart that as a society we have sought to label and to box people in for the purpose of division rather than seeking understanding and unity.
I confess that I do not know whether to be comforted, ashamed, or discouraged in the knowledge that the early Christian church struggled with boundary-creating distinctions as well. This morning, we are privileged to scriptural wisdom saying that these boundaries have been destroyed by divine love and we must now learn how to live into and embody it.
In the Acts text, Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch. Without a doubt, the Ethiopian eunuch differs from Philip, the other Jewish disciples, and the Gentile converts:
1) He was of a different ethnic and racial heritage.
2) He was an eunuch. An eunuch was a male, who typically was castrated and at a young age
affecting his hormones. It has been argued that “eunuch” may be considered as a ‘sexual identity’.
Our text states that this Ethiopian eunuch was returning home after worshiping in Jerusalem. The earliest readers (and hearers) of this account would have been aware that our eunuch friend was not permitted to worship in the temple. Why? He was an eunuch and according to the law (Deut. 23:1), he was not permitted in the temple; for it states ‘no one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted into the assembly of the Lord’. Therefore, his sexual identity was a distinction that created a boundary between him and the temple, and therefore (literally) the divine presence of God.
Guided by the Holy Spirit, Philip encountered this Ethiopian eunuch reading from the Book of Isaiah while returning home. The Isaiah passage is about the Suffering Servant, which Philip (like us) read Christ into the passage; so Philip approaches this Ethiopian eunuch and inquires if he understands the passage. The Ethiopian eunuch, perhaps by the same Holy Spirit, recognizes his need for guidance and invites Philip to join him. After their conversation, this Ethiopian eunuch begs a question that is deeply rooted in (1) an expression of faith through the Holy Spirit and (2) fearfulness of being rejected from another faith community. He asks “what would keep me from being baptized”. If we read between the lines, the question is “can I, an Ethiopian eunuch, be fully accepted into your community”. Philip, (thankfully) without hesitation, baptized him despite the ethnic, racial, and sexual identity distinctions of that time and place.
In the Epistle (of 1 John), we are offered insight at further division within the early Church. John argues that one cannot claim to know and love God if they hate their “brothers and sisters”. Although sibling relationships can be interesting, it is not a reference to our biological siblings. It is a reference to the larger Christian community and perhaps arguably the whole of humankind. The early Church was not only struggling with the questions of ethnic, racial, and sexual identity boundaries, but also the boundary-creating distinctions of social norms and theological differences.
The argument goes (a little) like this:
If we know (or abide) in God’s love, then God’s love is within us.
If God’s love is within us, it cannot be denied to any one of our “brothers and sisters”,
Because we (like them) are not worthy to receive such love
And this love does not originate within (or come from) us, but within (and from) God.
Which, neatly transitions us into our Gospel text from John. It is one of John’s “I am” passages that within a parable offers insight into the divine relationship of the Trinity and the human-divine relationship. According to the parable, God (the Father) is the vine grower, Christ is the vine, and we (humans) are the branches. God (the Father) cares for, tends to, and (yes) prunes those that abide in Christ. Christ nourishes these through the divine love he demonstrated and embodied in his life, ministry, death, and resurrection; in order that we (the branches) can produce the spiritual fruits of the Holy Spirit. These fruits are not forced but rather organic expressions from the nourishment of Christ (the vine) and the efforts of God (the Father, vine grower). And love is a spiritual fruit.
So, when John writes in the Epistle to love our “brothers and sisters”, who are different than you (us) in thought, belief, social norms, ethnic or racial hertigage, and/or sexual and gender identities. He is not implying that is it easy. He is not implying that we can love all people by our own ability. Similar to the “sharing of the peace” being God’s peace and not our own. John is saying this is God’s love and not our own.
It is said that a good preacher holds the Bible (our texts) in one hand and the newspaper in the other. This week, we have bore witness to the violence in the Baltimore riots. Yet, our scriptures tell us that the created boundaries that divide us have been destroyed by divine love (not our own).
Therefore, I must believe and say:
There has to be a better way than violence.
There has to be a better way than the destruction of communities and their businesses.
There has to be a better way than seeking division; seeking polarization.
There has to be a better way than hate.
Although these violent images have captured the attention of the American people, there are more profound images of people who bravely reach beyond these divisions in reconciliation, in hope, in peace, and in love.
The peaceful protesters walking the streets of Baltimore.
The image of an African-American boy offering bottles of water to the police officers.
The image of African-American men standing against their community, guarding and protecting
the police officers.
The officer who used his riot shield in order to reach a protester who was having a seizure. He stayed with, holding the hand, of this man until the ambulance arrived.
I guarantee, it is fearful or at least uncomfortable for these people to reach beyond those boundaries of division.
That is respect (or at the least respectful).
That is peace, perhaps God’s and not our own.
That is love, perhaps God’s and not our own.
Although I have recited the opening lines of Garth Brook’s People Loving People, here is the concluding verse:
Say one can’t make a difference in a world so full of hurting
But I believe the remedy starts right here with you and me
People loving people
Yet, I think his song Belleau Wood (recalling a World War I battle) more fully embodies our message today. Here are those lyrics:
Oh the snowflakes fell in silence
Over Belleau Wood that night
For a Christmas truce has been declared
by both sides of the fight
As we lay there in our trenches
the silence broke in two
by a German soldier singing
a song that we all knew
Though I did not know the language
The song was “Silent Night”
Then I heard my buddy whisper
“All is calm and all is bright”
Then the fear and doubt surrounded me
‘Cause I’d die if I was wrong
But I stood up on my trench
and I began to sing along
Then across the frozen battlefield
Another’s voice joined in
Until one by one each man became
A singer of the hymn
Then I thought that I was dreaming
For right there in my sight
Stood the German soldier
‘neath the falling flakes of white
And he raised his hand and smiled at me
As if he seemed to say
Here’s hoping we both live
To see us find a better way
Then the devil’s clock struck midnight
And the skies lit up again
And the battlefield where heaven stood
Was blown to hell again
But for just one fleeting moment
The answer seemed so clear
Heaven’s not beyond the clouds
It’s just beyond the fear
No heaven’s not beyond the clouds
It’s for us to find it here.
Here is praying, that we can reach beyond the fear and beyond the divisions in hope, peace, and love for God’s kingdom breaking into our world, here and now. Amen.
Acts 8: 26 – 40
1 John 4: 7 -21
John 15: 1 – 8