postmodern preaching

Fifth Sunday of Easter Year B

  • Acts of the Apostles 8:26-40

In the gospels, Philip is just a name in the list of the twelve apostles.  But, in Luke’s Acts of the Apostles we get a more detailed portrait of a Philip.  He is one of the “seven” (Acts 6:5; 21:8), who are leaders of the Hellenistic Christians in Jerusalem.  He travels to Samaria and the coast as far as Caesarea preaching the gospel.  In this encounter, Philip is instructed by an “angel” to head down the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.  “So he got up and went.”  On that road, he encountered an Ethiopian Jew, returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  This pious man is further identified as an important man by the narrator; he is the Treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia, Candace.  Philip saw that the man is studying scripture and asked if he would like an interpretation.  The royal official invited Philip to join him in his chariot.  Philip saw that he was reading from Isaiah (53:7-8), which describes the role of an unnamed “servant” who “was led to the slaughter, like a lamb silent before its shearer….”  Philip applied the passage to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.  (We are not given a summary of Philip’s interpretation, but we can infer its content from “sermons” by Peter and others which Luke supplies in other places in his Acts of the Apostles).  We are also not told of any initial spoken response from the official, which makes what happened next that much more dramatic.  The man immediately asked to be baptized!  After this, “Philip was “snatched away” by “the Spirit of the Lord.”  Philip continued his preaching mission in towns on the way to Caesarea.

  • Psalm 22:22-30

The psalmist summons all “Fearers of the Lord” to worship God, for God has  not rejected the despised and lowly nor ignored their pleading.  “The lowly will be sated/those who seek God will praise the Lord.”  This invitation not only extends to all nations and clans, but even to the “netherworld.”

  • I John 4:7-21

Continuing his paean, the writer of the first letter attributed to John says that love plays the following role for the “Beloved:”   it defines God; it is the basis for all relationships; it melts fear of punishment; and, it makes us “bold.”  The proof beyond proof we have of God’s love is the Son, whom God “Sent…into the world so that we might live through him.”  Love of others is the only criterion that matter of one’s professed love of God.

  • John 15:1-8

There would have been nothing exotic about the use of a vine metaphor when people lived so close to nature.  The vine and its branches are an organic continuum.  The reproductive nature of the vine and its branches is completed when the branches blossom and yield fruit.  Without its branches, the vine is barren; the branches do not exist without their vine.  As needed, the vine-grower removes the branches that do not flourish and produce fruit and he prunes the productive branches so that they will be even more productive next season.  God “is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

In distinctive ways, each gospel writer gets to the same message:  the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is meant to turn the willing into “disciples” here and now!  In this excerpt from John’s gospel, the way one becomes a disciple is best imagined as organic.  A person understands herself as the recipient of God’s love (i.e. the “Beloved” in the wonderful language of I John), and, in turn, mimics the Giver as she treats others as also “gifted” by the “Giver of life.”  She becomes grafted onto the “vine,” and, yields its “fruit,” thereby,” fulfilling the nature of the “vine.”

 The vine/branches/fruit  analogy imagines the relationship with God and others vividly.  It emphasizes spontaneity and names love as the natural outgrowth of one’s identity as loved/”Beloved.”  So far, it seems to imply that the vine produces a generic crop.  But with the addition of the work of the vine-grower who does necessary pruning on individual branches as needed into the analogy, we can now infer that each branch/fruit is treated on its own. As the stories of individuals throughout the biblical narratives, both “old” and “new” testaments make clear, each person has her or his unique response to God’s love.  Picture Philip and the royal official sitting in a chariot on a dusty road south from Jerusalem into Ethiopia; two strangers, hunched over the scriptures, one person sharing his account of God’s love with another, each at a particular time in his life.  And, as this story and the responsory psalm make clear, anyone who is willing and eager can be “grafted” onto this “vine.”

In his amazingly fecund essay, Corpus, Jean-Luc Nancy ruminates on the fundamental realization that abstractions obscure the individual.  He notes that today there are “More than five billion bodies.  Soon to be eight billion.”  However, even in that sea of humanity, each is an embodied person.  “Humanity becomes tangible: but what we can touch isn’t ‘mankind,’ it’s precisely not this generic being….” (p.83)  More than any theories (or theologies) about the individual, there is the prima facie existence of an actual physical body only in one place and always at a specific time.  Nancy writes, “bodies are more visible than any revelation.” (p.59)  From that realization flows, directly, the obligations of one person to another, he continues: “Beyond the body, there’s no evidence….” “Bodies are evident–and that’s why all justice and justness start and end with these.  Injustice is the mixing, breaking, crashing and stifling of bodies, making them indistinct, gathered up in a dark center, piled up to eliminate space between them, within them….” (p.47)

The analogy of the vine/branches/fruit works to help us understand that the relationship with God and others is all part of the same organic continuum; its vitality, what gives it life, is love.  The appearance of the vine-grower into the metaphor and the story of the person-to-person sharing between Philip and the royal authority remind us that this experience/sharing of love is not abstract, but only happens one person at a time and between individuals.  “…[A]ll justice and justness begins and ends with,” and between individual human beings.

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