In the symphony of scripture for the 5th Sunday of Easter, we continue our selected readings from the Acts of the Apostles, joined by portions of First John. As noted before, because Acts is shared across all three lectionary years, the selections are often made intentionally so as to come alongside the other readings; we saw this last week. Today we jump ahead from the healing of the man born lame, in Acts 3-4, to the marvelous account of the conversion of the Ethiopian high official, in the 8th chapter of Acts. This Sunday there are however no clear associations intended with the First John and Gospel readings. By contrast these two readings are clearly linked by the notion prevalent in John of abiding in Christ, as he abides in the Father. The true vine unites the vinegrower, God the Father, the son, and those who abide in him and in that place bear much fruit.
The reading from Acts is one of the most compelling in the narrative line of that work, as introduced in chapter one. The Gospel is to be preached in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth, Jesus says before his ascension. The Ethiopian official hails from modern Sudan, in the region north of present day Khartoum, known in biblical times as Cush or Ethiopia – men of stature, from Saba, as Isaiah says. A month long journey by wagon if one sits on the accelerator. So the Gospel is moving out from Jerusalem, to Judea, aided by the ministry of the Hellenistic deacons chosen in chapter 6, including our Philip; into Samaria, after the stoning of Stephen; and now to the very ends of the earth. From Jews coming up to Jerusalem at Pentecost, to Jewish citizens in the capital, to Greek-speaking Jews in Judea, to Samaritans, to God-fearers and proselytes, and at last to the Gentiles — as the same Isaiah had promised in fulfillment of the oath sworn to Abraham, in whom all the families of the earth were to find blessing.
We need to stay with the details of this rich account in order to catch all the significance of what is being related. Candace is a title and not a proper name. Like Caesar or Pharaoh. The region over which she is queen or queen mother is renowned for minerals and mining riches. Our unnamed official is in charge of her entire treasury. The trip is not an easy one, so he must be sufficiently high-up to be given the months-long time away. We should imagine a sturdy covered vehicle with a driver, a Winebago for its day. Scrolls are very expensive and he has his own private one, from which he reads aloud. He is either a proselyte or a God fearer, who has come to the court of the Gentiles during Pentecost. He is likely literally a eunuch, though the term can be transferred to mean simply court official. If a eunuch he cannot participate fully in the rites of Judaism in accordance with Levitical Law, which would make him a God fearer. That would make his plea to be baptized and incorporated into Jesus Christ all the more urgent and poignant, overcoming his physical impairment. Isaiah chapter 56, just after the passage he is reading, promises just this for the eunuchs and outcasts who fear the Lord and seek to do his commandments. So we have before us someone like the powerful Syrian Namaan, with his high office and grand chariot, but who is on the margins in deep ways all the same, plagued in his case by leprosy until healed by Elisha. Emblematic of the inroads the Gospel is making to the ends of the earth.
People read aloud in antiquity (Ambrose noted the curiosity of someone reading whose lips did not move, that is, to himself). Philip has been dispatched from his very successful ministry in Samaria and whisked off to the road which literally goes down from the heights of Jerusalem to Gaza, and which is literally a desert way where water is scarce. When we see him again in Caesarea it is in a meeting with Paul in chapter 21 later in Acts. His divine appointment appears in the form of a black official, riding in a limosinz, reading aloud from Isaiah, with him running alongside before invited to take a seat. The passage from Isaiah is the one we know from the Greek version of 53:7-8. The suffering servant who bears the sins of others though marred in appearance and treated ignominiously. The question he asks is not an unusual one, as the passage speaks of someone’s suffering and death and not with obvious reference to the prophet Isaiah himself. The passage is a source of longstanding discussion in the sources of the period and also later – the suffering Israel, Hezekiah, Jeremiah, Jewish Israel in persecution in the Middle Ages, and even an unknown prophetic figure in historical Israel’s day. Philip takes this as his point of departure for proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ.
Why this passage – because it is so pregnant, because it speaks of a generation and so points to his un-generative affliction? Coming from Jerusalem had he heard of Jesus the crucified one now being proclaimed, and so was searching his scriptures with the kind of probing mind Luke and John and others commend, by the Lord’s own practice and command? Baptism is an initiatory rite and it may have been familiar, but in this case Philip knows just what kind of baptism is being called for and he complies, getting into the act himself as we read.
Now let’s overlay the psalm. Our unnamed convert goes on his way rejoicing! A new day has broken in on him. His praise is indeed in the great assembly of the church, now stretching to his destination 1600 miles away. His descendants are those who hear the Gospel because of him. “They shall be known as the Lord’s forever.” “All the ends of the earth shall turn to the Lord.” The true King he knows to be the Lord who has suffered and born the sins of many, and “he rules over nations.” And the report of him from Isaiah, from Philip, from the Spirit’s commendation of Christ through scripture and the word of interpretation “will be known to a people yet unborn” as the Gospel sounds forth from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria into all the corners of the world.
Moving to the Epistle and Gospel reading, which are closely associated, the striking thing about the portion from 1 John is the emphasis on love. Not love as we mean it today—a sentiment rising up in our hearts, thought to validate this or, in its absence, disqualify that. Love is from God. God is love. Love is defined as the giving of the son by God. Love takes up where the love of God is made known first. We love because God first loved us. It is because God so loved us that love is now there to be shown by us in turn. This it is all because we find our abiding place in God, by confessing Jesus is his very Son, itself a gift of the Holy Spirit.
And of course the verb “remain” or “abide” or “lodge/stay” is the theme word of John’s Gospel, literally at beginning and at the end. The beloved disciple and Andrew remain with Jesus upon first meeting him in chapter 1.
They said, “Rabbi” (which means “Teacher”), “where are you staying?”
39 “Come,” he replied, “and you will see.” So they went and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him.
The beloved disciple remained alone at the cross. Remained and contemplated at the mouth of the tomb and so came to believe. His remaining after Jesus’ word to Peter that he would die by crucifixion disturbed Peter—did he mean he would not die before Jesus returned–as the very final verses of the Gospel relate it. Remaining is the signature bearing of the beloved disciple, seemingly beyond death itself. “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me.”
The disciples of Jesus are to remain in him, stay in him, abide in him in the same way branches are organic extensions of the vine. For that is how Jesus is organically connected in love to God the Father. As he bore fruit in dying and bringing new life, so we are to do the same. Our pruning, while at times painful, is just what allows us to bear more fruit. It is the indication that we abide in him and so are and continue to become his disciples.