Lectionary Commentary

May 10, 2009
5th Sunday of Easter

Commentary by Russell Pregeant

See also: [Year B Archive]

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

The gospel reading offers a rich blend of the themes of grace/demand, faith/works, and promise/judgment. With respect to grace, faith, and promise, it presents Jesus as the source of empowerment to do the good. Believers “have already been cleansed” by Jesus’ word (15:3), which is to say, they are recipients of God’s grace through Christ. And as branches draw sustenance from the vine, so those who abide in him have access to the power that makes for authentic life, life in relationship with God. What they accomplish is possible only because of that power, that is, the grace of God made available in Christ. Thus, when they do in fact abide in him—that is, maintain their faith—this power is available to them. Jesus’ declaration that he is the true vine is therefore also a word of promise: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (15:7). The “if” (ean), however, makes the promise conditional. Only those who maintain their faith are in fact able to receive the promise and meet the implicit demand to bear fruit, or produce good works. The promise is thus balanced with a note of judgment: The Father “removes every branch in me that bears no fruit”  (15:2).

The epistle reading, 1 John 4:7-21, introduces the connection between love and abiding in God\Christ, which does not become explicit in John 15 until v. 10. In 1 John 4:16b-c we read, “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” To say that “God is love”(also 4:8b) is to lift up love—more explicitly, the self-giving love that motivates the sending of God’s own son as a sacrifice for sin (4:10)—as the essential and defining quality of God’s being. Thus, to know God—not externally, but existentially, intimately—necessarily leads one to love others, so that we can say that “Whoever does not love does not know God.” (4:8a)

Other themes from John 15 also appear in 1 John 4 in transmuted form. To “abide” in Christ in John 15 is to retain one’s faith, but in 1 John this faith takes on the garb of an explicit confessional statement: “God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God” (1 John 4:15). The Gospel of John, too, has a doctrinal aspect: acceptance of Jesus as the incarnation of the Logos is the key point of dispute with all Jesus’ opponents. In the epistle passage, however, the affirmation of explicit ideational content is emphasized. The theme of judgment also reappears in the epistle passage, but here it is overwhelmed by the motif of promise. Those who abide in God/Christ are enabled to love, and in fact love produces confidence in the face of God’s judgment. The translation of the Greek terms teleoioo and teleios in vv. 17 and 18 as “perfected” and “perfect” is somewhat misleading. The root meanings have to do with coming to completion or maturity, or reaching an intended goal. The point is not to state that only a love that is lacking in nothing whatsoever, a love that has no more room for improvement, is capable of banishing fear. It is rather that love is in fact a matter of process and growth and that as one’s love matures so also does one’s confidence—so that as love increases, fear of judgment decreases. And all this is perfectly consistent with the image of vine and branches and Jesus’ promise in John 15 to those who abide in him. The image there is organic and suggestive of process. The branches do not get one dose of sustenance that lasts their lifetime; they must continue to draw upon the life supplied by the vine—which seems to be what the term “abiding” implies. Faith and love are not static but dynamic realities; they are real only insofar as they are incarnate in the decisions and actions that make up actual life.

The relationship between love and overcoming fear in the epistle reading is a particularly enticing topic for reflection. Most narrowly understood, the fear that is cast out is fear of God’s judgment, and the immediate context suggests that it is human love that casts this fear out. However, since in the Johannine world of thought human love is a product of God’s prior love, we may say that in a more profound sense it is God’s love that performs this action. We may understand this point by reference to family relationships. A child who experiences genuine love from a parent does not fear punishment, whereas a child who lives in constant fear of parental punishment is severely hampered in her or his ability to develop love. We may thus say that a child who learns to love genuinely is also a child relatively free from fear. It is the ability both to receive love and to give it that makes for a life that can embrace challenge and adventure without the fear of being judged. And from a broader perspective, the ability of love to cast out fear has implications far beyond the fear of punishment, literally understood. When we are unable to either give or receive love, life in general becomes fearsome to us and we are unable to embrace life joyfully and expectantly.

The reading from Acts—the story of the Ethiopian eunuch—provides an avenue for making the demand for love in the epistle reading concrete through the theme of inclusiveness. Although many commentators have argued that the ethnicity of the eunuch is either indeterminate or irrelevant to the story, Clarice J. Martin (“A Chamberlain’s Journey, and the Challenge of Interpretation for Liberation,” Semeia 47: 105-35) has shown that Ethiopians were known as black in the ancient world and that Ethiopia itself was considered by Romans to be “the end of the earth”—the goal of the Christian mission according to Acts 1:8. What we thus have in the story is, on the one hand, an addition of ethnicity to the other categories of inclusiveness that pervade Luke-Acts (the poor, women, Gentiles) and, on the other, a proleptic realization of the goal that the gospel should reach all parts of the earth—itself another indication of inclusiveness. But the inclusiveness of the story is not limited to ethnicity. Deuteronomy 23:1 stipulates that “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” The baptism of the eunuch is in one sense therefore a resounding testimony against religious rules of exclusion. On the other hand, though, Isaiah 56:1-8 “points to a time when eunuchs and foreigners will be included and God’s house will be ‘a house of prayer for all peoples.’” (M. Eugene Boring and Fred B. Craddock, The People’s New Testament Commentary, Westminster Press, 2004, p. 395). So the rejection of the traditional exclusion is less a criticism of the practice in and of itself than an indication that it has been transcended through the historical process of God’s history of salvation. In this sense, the extension of salvation to eunuchs and Gentiles is an eschatological phenomenon in which God’s ultimate intention for the world is finally realized.

The theme of inclusiveness also appears in Psalm 22:25-31. Verse 26 tells of the coming satisfaction of the poor, and in v. 26 we hear that “the ends of the earth shall remember and turning to the LORD; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.” Verse 27, moreover, lays a theological basis for this inclusiveness in the universal sovereignty of God: “For dominion belongs to the LORD, and he rules over the nations.”  

The thematic currents in the readings for this Sunday are highly amenable to process interpretation. To understand God as the inclusive, personal whole of the universe, and the universe itself as inherently relational, is to lay the basis for a demand for universal and unconditional love, played out in terms of concern for the common good and intentional inclusiveness. Also, to understand faith and love as processes of growth is in keeping with an understanding of reality itself as inherently dynamic as well as the human self as soluble (see Catherine Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and Self, Beacon Press, 1968, chapter 1) and open-ended. And of course process thought can endorse the notion of God as working through the cultural transformations that come through the course of history. However, the notion that God once commanded exclusion and then rescinded it needs to be transformed in light of our own contemporary experience. It is unacceptable to believe that God ever in fact intended any form of inclusion. What we can affirm, from our contemporary vantage point, is that all communities are limited by cultural conditioning but that through the course of history we have the opportunities to see more clearly what God does in fact attend. This does not mean that we should arrogantly pass judgment on cultures of the past; such judgments as we pass are better directed to our own more immediate history, against the social ills that our own communities should have transcended long ago. We should also take note of the luminous visionaries of the past, such as the author of Isaiah 56, who thought in ways that were far ahead of their times. But what is even more important is that we pay attention to prophetic visionaries of our own times, who invite us to see the injustices in our own way of life we have not yet been able to admit.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. He resides in Contoocook, New Hampshire with his wife, Sammie Maxwell, who is pastor of the Contoocook United Methodist Church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, Doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew's Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana Univesity (B.A., 1960).