The Fifth Sunday of Easter, 29 April 2018

April 29, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Acts 8:26-40 Psalm 22: 25-31 1 John 4: 7-21 John 15: 1-8

Acts 8:26-40
I have preached on this text as such, and would recommend utilizing it to articulate a broader vision on the church’s inclusiveness toward folks in the LGBTQ community. There is some interesting Biblical scholarship that shows that due to the fact that the Ethiopian Eunuch is coming back from the temple (which would be off limits to him if he were emasculated by the knife), it is a distinct possibility that he was a homosexual, and thus, the question he poses to Philip, “what would prevent me from being baptized?” takes on even more poignancy when held to the light of our current cultural animosity toward people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Even without this reading, the fact that the first story of conversion to Christianity recorded in the book of Acts includes someone from a group of people alienated because of their gender should be notable to us.

From a Process Theology Perspective, the question of the Ethiopian Eunuch “How can I, unless someone guides me?” followed by Philip’s careful and loving conversation in the chariot is a good illustration for our participation in the Divine relationship.

Psalm 22: 25-31
From the end of the Psalm famously uttered by Jesus from the cross, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?,” we get the uplifting ending during the Easter Season. It might be helpful for the Process Preacher to remind the congregation that the positive themes of praise and faithfulness are part of a Psalm that includes the most desolate desperation. Such is the beauty, depth, and breadth of the Psalms. The opening line to our condensed text speaks of the reciprocal aspect of God’s creative-responsive love. “The ideals toward which God calls the world in one moment are based upon God’s loving response to the facts of the previous moments.” Through the process lens, verse 25, which marks a shift in the Psalm from lament to Praise is even more powerful: “From you comes my praise in the great congregation; my vows I will pay before those who fear him.”

1 John 4: 7-21
In this text, the Process articulation of God as “Creative-Responsive Love” is writ large. In perhaps one of the simplest and most persuasive theological statements in the Bible, John simply states, “God IS Love.” Love is not a static force, or an unalterable condition. As we know from the experience of Love, it is a dynamic thing. It ebbs and flows, and hopefully grows. As the old song goes, “Love is a many splendored thing.” There are countless ways of receiving it and showing it. John speaks of its essentialness to the way we express our faith, since it is the very essence of God. As John Wesley commented on this text, “This little sentence brought St. John more sweetness, even in the time he was writing it, than the whole world can bring. God is often styled holy, righteous, wise; but not holiness, righteousness, or wisdom in the abstract, as he is said to be love; intimating that this is his darling, his reigning attribute, the attribute that sheds an amiable glory on all his other perfections.” Far from being “abstract,” Love is something we can grasp, and therefore, perhaps the singular way we can fully reflect the character of God in our own lives and perhaps most certainly identify God’s initial Aim. “No one has ever seen God, but If we love one another, God lives in us, and his Love is perfected in us.”  “Does it point toward love?” would be a good standard by which we seek to follow the persuasive power of God.

John 15: 1-8
Once again, we encounter a text with exclusivist undertones, and yet also has beautiful symbolism. “I am the vine, you are the branches” paints a rich picture to describe the importance of a vibrant connection to Christ. I believe a sermon on this text through a Process Christology lens helps expand the text into a more affirming message, especially as it relates to our “abiding in Christ” as he “abides in us.” As Cobb and Griffin point out in Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, Christology is a foundational aspect of Process Theology:

Our experience is organized in terms of purposes and memories Inherited from our past. This route of inheritance determines our sense of self-identity through time.

There is, however, in all our experience also the divine presence and agency, the initial aim, the principle of creative transformation. This aim is at what would be best in each moment in terms of a wider view of the consequences than we normally take. There is a tension between oneself and one’s experience of what ideally would be, between what one is and the rightness in things that one dimly discerns. Hence the divine presence is experiences as an other, sometimes recognized as gracious, often felt as judge.

In Jesus’ authentic sayings an existence expresses itself which does not experience this otherness of the divine. Instead, his selfhood seems to be constituted as much by the divine agency within him as by his own personal past. We may think of Jesus structure of existence in terms of an “I” that is co-constituted by its inheritance from its personal past and by the initial aims derived from God. There is not the normal tension between the initial aims and the purposes received from the past . . . . Whereas Christ is incarnate in everyone, Jesus is Christ because the incarnation is constitutive of his very selfhood. (105)

The above excerpt from Cobb and Griffin describes well the divine self-proclamation found in John’s Gospel and especially the Christ consciousness expressing a deep “abiding” in the Divine nature, and the benefit of a connection to that abiding presence that Christ offers us. That pages that follow that excerpt speaking of “The Church as the Body of Christ” are also helpful in sharing a process Christology with a congregation, and also speaking of the sensibility of nurturing a vibrant connection with Jesus Christ without conveying the unpleasant exclusivist undertones of the passage as it might otherwise be heard. As John hears Jesus saying “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Cobb and Griffin say, similarly, “The marks of his work are particularly manifest among human beings who are capable of incarnating in a heightened manner the novelty that marks his presence. Among human beings Christ’s effectiveness is especially present where people open themselves to him.” (107)

As the Epistle of John states, this connection to Christ manifests itself in love for our neighbors, and if that love is not manifest in our own lives, we are missing out on the opportunity to be enlightened of the initial aim of God through the shining example of the life of Christ.

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four chidren, a dog and a cat.