Sunday 29 April - Easter 5 - Eucharist - Kenneth Boyd

ST JOHN: 5th Sunday of Easter:  1 Acts 8.26-40; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8.

New words are being invented all the time. As scientific knowledge expands, so does scientific terminology: new terms are needed to describe newly discovered or hypothesised phenomena, or sometimes old words are adapted to new contexts: just think of how the common or garden word ‘tree’ has been developed to aid scientific understanding: the evolutionary tree, a genetic family tree, the branches of the nervous system, and so on. And not just science, but also social attitudes change: what once seemed socially acceptable or unacceptable is no longer so, and to describe this too, new words are invented or old words adapted. A recent example of this is ‘mansplaining’: the word ‘mansplaining’ is a combination of ‘man’ and ‘explaining’ and it describes a man explaining something to a woman in an overconfident and condescending way, which might have been socially acceptable a hundred years ago, but is no longer so, especially when the woman concerned actually knows more about the subject than the man. ‘Mansplaining’ is applied to men, who haven’t caught up with the fact that the women they are talking down to, are often more intelligent or better educated than themselves.  Given the long history of male dominance in most human societies, of course, and given the insecurity of the male ego, perhaps this is not surprising; and perhaps few men, even today, can plead an entirely clear conscience in regard to ‘mansplaining’, or be confidently prepared to cast the first stone at their more obviously ‘mansplaining’ fellow-men.

Now for a man to talk about ‘mansplaining’ in a sermon, of course, is to tread on very thin ice. “Look who’s talking!” you may be thinking. But has the Church also an entirely clear conscience in this respect? Only recently, after all, have theologians begun to ask openly how far some of their ‘mansplaining’ predecessors may have distorted rather than developed the good news of the Easter gospel, how often Christianity, like Islam after it, has been misinterpreted to endorse and support the very tribal and patriarchal attitudes opposed by the founders of both of these faiths. Such questions have begun to be asked however, not just because the age we live in has become more critical of tribal and patriarchal attitudes, but because that modern criticism itself has its historical origins in Christian teaching, most notably, for example, in St Paul’s declaration to the Galatians (3: 28) that: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’.  So if the Church’s record has sometimes been marred, it is also mixed, and in the end no amount of ‘mansplaining’ can keep the good news down.

Against that background then, let’s look again at this morning’s New Testament readings, to try to understand how each of them, in their different ways, developed early Christian thinking about the good news of the Easter gospel. Our first reading, from the Acts of the Apostles, was written towards the end of the first century by Luke, probably a younger companion of St Paul, and is a continuation of his Gospel. Like the writers of the other three Gospels, Luke was familiar with many stories about what Jesus said and did, told by those who had known him: many of these were retold, written down and then collected by various early Christian communities around the Eastern Mediterranean. As St Paul’s letters and Acts itself record, the members of these early Christian communities shared a profound awareness of the invisible presence of the risen Christ alive among and within them: but they sometimes differed on what Christ’s Spirit was saying to them, about what they should believe or how they should live, not least in how far the increasing numbers of them who were not Jews, were required to observe Jewish laws.

Today’s reading from Acts gives a hint at the line Luke was taking on this. Philip, one of ‘seven men of good standing’ whom the Apostles had recently appointed to run their early Christian equivalent to a food bank, instructed by the Spirit, runs to catch up with a chariot in which a court official of the Ethiopian queen is sitting, reading the Old Testament prophet Isaiah. This official is a eunuch and is returning from Jerusalem where he had gone to worship in the temple, alas unsuccessfully, because according to the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (23.1) eunuchs are not to be ‘admitted to the assembly of the LORD’. Reading Isaiah however, the eunuch may have been scratching his head, because that book (56.4-5) declares: ‘thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who chose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls… an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’ What is he to make of this, or the other passage from Isaiah (53.7-8) that Luke tells us he is reading when Philip catches up with him - puzzling words about someone ‘like a sheep led to the slaughter’? Philip explains how these words refer to Jesus, who fulfils the law and the prophets and declares God’s love for all people, without exception, eunuchs included. Philip’s chariot-borne confirmation class is quickly followed by the Ethiopian’s baptism and with him the birth of one of the most ancient Christian churches.  Luke’s story, whose details would have seemed less fantastic at the time than to us today, underlines how this particular Gospel writer believed the good news was to be interpreted and developed: to the ends of the earth – which exotic Ethiopia then represented, and to people of all conditions and classes. The Ethiopian is significant for Luke, not just because he is a eunuch, but also because he is a court official: Luke’s Gospel and Acts are written, among other things, to reassure the powers that be that Christians are also good and law-abiding citizens.

Our two other readings this morning interpret and develop the good news in a different way to that of Luke and the Gospels of Matthew and Mark. The Gospel and Letters of John were written later than the others, nearer the end of the first century, and they reflect the circumstances of a group of Christians who had been forcibly excluded from the Jewish synagogues. This had happened recently enough for these Christians, many of whom were, and wished to remain, faithful Jews, still to feel hurt and bitter about being thrown out of what they felt was their family home. Unhappily, this bitterness was read back into the Gospel’s references to the hostility to Jesus of ‘the Jews’, rather than of the priestly establishment of the Jerusalem Temple; and tragically, this would subsequently be interpreted (by something not unlike ‘mansplaining’) into wholesale condemnation of the Jewish people as the murderers of Jesus, with all the fatal consequences of that, up to and including the Holocaust. Because the language of John’s Gospel can sound so anti-Semitic, some have even argued that it should not be used in Christian churches today.

Christians can never repent sufficiently for this hideous distortion of the good news. Yet the good news itself is also developed by John’s Gospel and Letters in ways so profound and life-giving that it would be no less wrong for Christians to abandon them.  Much more than the other three Gospels, John provides, not a historical record of what Jesus said and did, but a series of poetic meditations on his words and deeds, half-remembered, half-imagined at the prompting of his Spirit, alive and active among and within them, and overcoming all temporary bitterness. Our readings, from both the Gospel and the Letter, speak about the need to ‘abide’ in the love of God, and in love for one another. ‘Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers and sisters’, the Letter writes, ‘are liars’: whether or not the writer intended this to extend beyond brothers and sisters in their own community, for followers of Christ, surely this must apply equally to any and all of our human brothers or sisters who we ever meet, Jewish, Muslim, of all religions and none, ‘for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.’

This, of course, is easy to say: for frail and fallible humans like ourselves it is more difficult to live up to. How can we even attempt it? The Gospel tells us to ‘abide’ in Christ, as fruitful branches of his vine. That, I think, is a poetic yet practical way of reminding us, that we need, daily and hourly, to recollect, in prayer and thoughtfulness, the deep truth of our human condition, as children of our loving God, loved and forgiven despite all our repeated failures and forgetfulness. Abide in love, the Epistle echoes, and adds ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear’. This is the good news at its most challenging. Few if any of us can claim to perfect love, and do we even wish to? For what the example of Christ teaches us, is that to have perfect love, and hence freedom from fear, means to be willing to suffer – to suffer not necessarily in any physical, let alone masochistic way, but to suffer one other, to allow each other to be himself or herself, not for what they are for us, but for what they are in themselves and what, as Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, ‘in God’s eye’ they are – ‘Christ. For Christ plays in ten thousand places, / Lovely in limbs and lovely in eyes not his / To the Father through the features’ of their, and our, ‘faces’.