This weeks rant took the Acts 8 reading of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch and ended with the John 15 passage on “remaining in the vine” which we had used earlier as our prayer of confession.
Nonviolent love for friend and stranger! What does it mean to “abide” especially on Mothers day? You can’t bear the fruits if you don’t have the roots!…..
Against a violent backdrop, Bill Wylie Kellerman sees in this passage the roots of non violence. The story of Phillip chasing down the Ethiopian official comes directly after the stoning of Stephen during which its protagonist, Saul, launches a follow up campaign of terror before his dramatic conversion in the chapter that will follow. (Urban Seed director Mark Pierson met Shane Claiborne during his recent time away in the States. His book includes his letter about going to Iraq as a Christian peacemaker. In it stated that “If I believed that terrorists were beyond redemption I would need to rip out half of my New Testament scriptures, for they were written by a converted terrorist.”)
In between these events we see Phillip chasing down an Ethiopian chariot. It’s a bizarre image. I’m reminded of protesters running after limo’s of foreign dignitaries of today’s empire. Just imagine if you will that one day the limo actually stopped and a conversation ensued. Phillip takes the suffering servant songs from Isaiah and seamlessly weaves its themes with that of the Jesus story. Kellerman describes the Isaiah 53 text as classic manifesto of non-violence that remains perplexing and intruiging for rulers, then as now.
What ever Philip says the official is converted, the limo screeches to a halt and he says “What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” Dylan finds the question ironic in terms of a church history full of demarcation disputes over who can or can’t be baptised.
“Now Lets see, what is there to prevent you from being baptized?” Well there is the tiny matter of the fact that you are a Gentile from beyond the bounds of empire….in many ways an alien and enemy…..and of course there is the little detail of the operation. You are a sexual minority and Deuteronomy 23:1 clearly states that you should be excluded from God’s people.
The book of Isaiah that the eunuch reads stands against this tradtion by suggesting that anyone should be able to worship. Phillip has already taken the gospel to the hated Samaratins (Acts 8:5) and in this story we again see the power of the Holy Spirit to transcend social boundaries.
The danger of activist spiritual traditions is that they often need enemies. We like to see ourselves as those chasing the limo banging on the doors for justice. But what if the limo were to stop and our enemy desired baptism, full inclusion and communion with us. What does love of enemies look like in our day to day experience? If I were to be honest in my own experience its often easier to privately curse the limo as it passes me and my prejudices by.
In Luke-Acts, love of enemies is the acid test of the gospel. In the letters and gospel of John, the acid test is to love one another in community. (I won’t presume to judge which is the tougher.) In the other reading of this week (John 15:1-8) the commandment to love is connected to the vine (another image that goes back to Isaiah, 5:1-7).
Rather poetically Walter Wink traces his journey in understanding this connection. What does it mean, “to abide?”
Deep strata of memory are excavated by those words: a former piety, a profound but now defunct Christ mysticism, prayer without ceasing, attempts to implant myself in God and an entire libretto of frozen feelings, from “I tried that” to “pious claptrap” to “let’s get on with living in the real world.” For me “abide” once meant: Think only of Jesus. Drown out all other voices. Choke down the rebellion. Manhandle the resistance. Deny the inner darkness. For me, it all added up to a religion of repression.
But we grow with the text. I had somehow mis-learned to regard the command to abide as a personal admonishment. I took the “you” as singular. My God and me, and all that. But that “you” is plural, providing a rich image of the body of Christ, of Christ seeking a body in the world. Had I thought of it as plural, I would have understood it as a reference to the church. Now I would leave it loose, to apply to anyone who abides, whatever his or her beliefs or affiliations.
Understood in this way, the implications of prioritising connection with “the vine” on Mothers Day are not lost on Dylan.
We appreciate our mothers, and I do think that we tend not to appreciate them anywhere near enough. But every Mother’s Day, I think also of all my friends, who feel judged as a failure by everyone around them because they don’t have our culture’s ideal: a lawfully married spouse (or at least a life partner) and kids, preferably living in a well-kept house the adults own. The floral-industrial complex — and far too many Mother’s Day sermons — leave them out entirely.
And then I think about some other mothers who won’t be getting flowers, breakfast in bed, or ice cream cakes this Sunday. I think about mothers in Darfur facing agonizing decisions about which of their children to feed. I think about a mother in Zimbabwe I read about recently in the newspaper who wonders who will care for her children once the menengitis she’s suffering from — a treatable condition, but she can’t afford the treatment — takes her from them. And as much as I want to love and appreciate and honor the women in my community who give of themselves to love and nurture the children I see playing in church I want to pose the question that seems unthinkable in our culture, and especially on Mothers Day:
What if we saw every mama as our own mother or sister? What if we welcomed and nourished and stood up for every child as if each one was our very own flesh? Jesus’ love — the love we have received, and therefore are equipped to live out and pass along to our world — is such that he said, “I will not leave you orphaned”…
Dylan suggests we replace the image of the floral industrial complex, with that of the vine that bears the fruits of love. The sort of love described in 1 John ( the other reading of the day) which encourages us to get active. “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us — and we ought to lay down our lives for one another.” Sure buy flowers for mum on Mothers Day but lets also visit the One campaign or the Tear Gift Catalogue and remember forgotten mothers and orphans who abide with us in the vine.
Once again I find Wink’s journey helpful for activists:
I once heard the bit about “bearing more fruit” as a demand that I get cracking and strain hard to bear much fruit if I wanted Christ to abide with me. Then I was taught that I was justified by grace and needed no works, so I forgot about the fruits. Now I begin to hear it as a simple promise: trust yourself to the water and let the current take you where you need to go. The water will both bear you up and accomplish God’s purposes. This has been a great stress reducer, to the degree that I have lived it.
The vine of course has always been a symbol of the relationship between God and his alternative social experiment, Israel. The roots of this vine, or in Wink’s imagery “the waters” we trust ourselves to are communities grounded in the practice of Jesus’ self giving, nonviolent love.
I will never forget Dave Andrews’ workshop on social change entitled “How to subvert your local church” in which he compares the image of a vine with that of a pyramid. If you plant a seed beneath a pyramid it will be crushed but if you place a seed at the edge of a pyramid, the seemingly fragile, weak, organic vine finds the cracks that can literally grow a pyramid down.
Whether its Shane Claiborne or Phillip; Going to Iraq or going to the Samaritans; Chasing down Ethiopian chariots or getting tele-transported to Azotus “star trek” style at the end of the story… the point made is that the vine is literally sprawling across the map. The branches keep finding the cracks around the barriers, the boundaries and the border guards!
Nonviolent love for friend and stranger! What does it mean to “abide” especially on Mothers day? You can’t bear the fruits if you don’t have the roots!