Date: Fifth Sunday of Easter ~ May 2, 2021
Texts: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 150; 1 John 4:1-21; John 15:1-8
Context: To appearances, Satan and the world continue to gain the upper hand over Jesus and his followers. Stephen has just become the first Christian to die for his faith. Yet Luke does not take the modern route of exploring the pathos and victimization, feeding our narcissistic obsessions with bad news so inculcated in us through decades of steady news broadcasts and newspaper headlines, all aiming to woo our eyes long enough to make a buck of viewership and subscription numbers without really providing any substantive news at all. Instead, Luke turns away from Stephen’s body and Saul’s affirmation to show the Holy Spirit of God is hardly put back or rattled. Philip is guided to witness to an incredibly influential man who in turn receives faith in Jesus Christ through baptism. The Holy Spirit does not measure successes the way you and I have been taught to, and unless we shift our focus from body counts to actively allowing the Holy Spirit to cultivate real love in our hearts for our brothers and sisters closest to us in the faith, we miss the working of God here and now and imminent as we twiddle our thumbs and lament how if only the Holy Spirit would make it clear what He wanted, we would obey! He has made it clear. We just aren’t very excited about what it looks like – or costs.
Acts 8:26-40 – It would be over a century and half before Tertullian observed The blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church. While Tertullian didn’t have to offer his own life to martyrdom, he undoubtedly witnessed and heard reports of many others who did, and observed the rather counterintuitive effects of such deaths. So we should not be surprised Luke does not spend great time bemoaning Stephen. After all, he is now with his Lord! And the persecutions arising in Jerusalem? Dispersals? Far from sounding the death knell of the Christian faith, the Holy Spirit continued to draw others to faith. Philip is led to safety outside of Jerusalem, and in the process gives witness to a foreign government official. We can rest assured that while victory may not be advancing as we would like it to – on our terms and timelines – the Holy Spirit of God patiently works away in God the Father’s perfect timing that as many as possible might be saved.
Psalm 150 – A read of the first psalm – and many other psalms as well – might understandably lead you to believe God’s first and foremost concern is our obedience to his will. But this is only a necessary first step. Only after we displace our own sinful hearts and minds with the guidance of the Spirit-breathed Word of God are we freed for our ultimate purpose, which is the praise of God. All of creation is intended to offer God the Creator the worship and praise He rightly alone deserves, and we are to be unrestrained in the means by which we do so – undoubtedly a vexation to those who believe only organs and hymnody are appropriate praise instruments! One day we will praise fully and completely but we begin praise now. The Church should be the place where the praise of God is anchored not just in a commitment to his Word, but by extension to what that Word demands of us. Tragically many Christians are more prone to emphasize a narrow legalistic understanding of God’s Word while ignoring far deeper calls to obedience in love, as John will do in his letter. This is not something we can do. It is only something God the Holy Spirit can work in us when we let go of our worldly understandings of success and how to accomplish it and are called to humble love of our brotehrs and sisters in our worshiping congregation. It remains a tragedy to me that people who eagerly eat up the Word of God in the context of a Bible study can in the next moment show complete and utter lack of love for a brother or sister in the faith just because there is a difference of opinion between them!
1 John 4:1-21 – Although everything after v.8 is optional, you really need to read the whole chapter to get a full feal for how important John sees this issue. He does not call his Christian readers to victory, or coach them in worldly leadership mantras to be more effective. Instead, he calls them to love one another. Not hypothetically, but the men and women right next to them day after day and Sunday after Sunday. I’ve quit counting the number of times good and pious Christians implore the Holy Spirit to grant wisdom and guidance for the future, but completely ignore John’s rather pointed instructions here. Not all ideas or spirits are good. They must be tested. And if anything we do or say leads us contrary to Christ we can be dead certain we are not in his will! This may mean we don’t get our way, but John understands that what Christians are first foremost to do is give witness to the abiding presence of God the Holy Spirit, not to fight with one another for power and control. How can this be God’s will? Only because it is not in us to accomplish it! Only in submitting ourself to the Word of God and the expressed desires of God the Holy Spirit can we ever hope to get better at loving one another, and in the process give witness to the transformative power and presence of the God who chooses to work victory from the wreckage of defeat.
John 15:1-8 – It should not surprise us that what St. John tells us lines up perfectly with Jesus’ teaching. Obedience is what matters, and obedience consists of resting in Jesus. It is a passivity, as opposed to endless idols of proactive leadership so prized culturally since the days of Iacocca. We are not called to acccomplish anything but to deliberately abide in the vine, Jesus Christ, as his faithful branches. He will take care of determining what fruit and of what sort we will produce. And He will hold us in his love when the Father prunes us, putting us through painful and difficult times that better prepare us to produce the fruit of obedience down the line. Against the world that promises everyone can be a leader, a world changer, the Christian faith calls us to place our worth and value in the Savior who has accomplished the most important work on our behalf already. Metrics of success or failure, profitability, security, ROI, or any number of other numbers so highly prized by the world mean nothing in the Christian life and can actually lead us to start withering and not producing fruit because we are not abiding in Christ and his Word but rather are obsessed about what it is we contribute, what we accomplish. To abide is the constant process of recognizing we are pushing our own agendas, repenting, and returning to the Word of God for assurance of our forgiveness in the resurrected Christ and our position of simply being in him, allowing him to fill and nurture us and in his timing guide us towards his will.