The Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2024

March 11, 2024 | by Paul Nancarrow

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Psalm 22:24-30 1 John 4:7-21 John 15:1-8 Acts 8:26-40

Process-relational themes abound in the readings assigned for this Fifth Sunday of Easter. Each of the three lections proclaims, from its own perspective and in its own context, that relationship is the irreducible where of all faith and practice.

The lesson from Acts tells the story of how Philip evangelizes an official of the Ethiopian court. Philip is directed by an angel to go out to the southbound road, where he meets, as if by coincidence, a chariot in which an Ethiopian official is reading from the Book of Isaiah. Philip asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The official counterquestions, “How can I, without someone to guide me?” And thus the two begin a conversation that ends with the official’s conversion and baptism, and Philip’s being snatched away by the Spirit to preach in Azotus.

The references to the “angel” and the “Spirit” that begin and end this story indicate that the entire episode takes place in the relational matrix, the field of force, of divine aims. Neither Philip nor the Ethiopian are acting as entirely independent agents here, but are lured and drawn into the realization of divine ideals for them. Within that overarching divine relationship, however, it is the specific human relationship between the two that becomes the medium of divine revelation and divine love.

The official is reading the Word; but the Word becomes understandable to him, the Word becomes a call that is personally addressed to him, when it is mediated to him through Philip’s teaching and guidance. In this story, Philip does more than simply give the Ethiopian information about Jesus that the Ethiopian didn’t have before; Philip creates a relationship with the Ethiopian, and in that relationship the good news about Jesus is given a presence and vitality that the Ethiopian can feel and experience for himself.

This lesson can serve as a potent reminder to the Christian community that, while we call ourselves a people of the Book, it is not the Book in itself that makes us a people – it is the way we embody the Book’s ideals and aims in real relationships of teaching and learning, guiding and journeying, rejoicing and sorrowing, working and loving. Relationship is the where in which faith and practice take place.

The second reading, from the First Letter of John, repeats this theme, this time with respect, not so much to evangelism, as to the inner life of the Christian community itself. For John, we are enabled to love because and only because God has loved us first, and love is the medium in which God’s presence and activity is disclosed. God is love, John says, and all love is from God; therefore, anyone who loves is born of God and knows God. No one has ever seen God, John asserts, so it is only in active loving relationship with sisters and brothers that the aims and powers of God can be made visible and accessible to experience and action. Apart from such active and concrete love, all claims to revelation or divine reality are false:  “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars;” John warns, “for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”

For John, then, “knowing God” is no abstract speculation or ratiocinative content; “knowing God” is an experiential matter of realizing the divine character in moments of feeling and action that exemplify divine aims. There is no knowledge of God apart from relationships with sisters and brothers in whom God abides, who confess that Jesus is the Son of God. John here strikes a note of Christian exclusivism, it is true, concentrating on love within the Christian community as the only medium in which sure knowledge of God may be felt; in this regard, the lesson from Acts and the lesson from 1 John create a contrast that deepens our appreciation of each. Whether in the community or out, however, relationship is again the where in which faith and practice take place.

The element of divine relationship, hinted at in the lesson from Acts, comes to the fore in the passage from the Gospel. In the famous metaphor of the vine and the branches, John depicts Jesus reminding his disciples that they can only live and work, love and pray, they can only be disciples, in the matrix of ongoing relationship with Jesus himself. “I am the vine, you are the branches,” Jesus says, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” Jesus exemplifies the values of justice and peace, well-being in right relationships, that God offers for realization in all human lives: Jesus embodies in a definitive way the quality of life to which God calls all people. Each human individual will embody those values in ways particular to her or his unique situation, his or her actual world; but the aims of God realized in Jesus are aims that can be shared by all.

Because those aims are realized in Jesus, they are not simply abstract ideas of what might be possible for human living; they are accomplished facts in the world, and as such can be felt as important by new human occasions, and can energize human occasions toward new realizations of justice and peace in new circumstances. Calling Jesus “the vine” and us “the branches” indicates that our lives are shaped and sustained by the ideals we inherit from Jesus as our source.

The vine symbolism also indicates that this is a living relationship; not merely a backward look into history, our relationship with the ideals exemplified in Jesus is thoroughly contemporary, as God proposes and re-proposes those ideals to us in initial aims for our moments here-and-now. Our present relationship with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is the field of force in which we grow, and apart from which we can do nothing. Relationship with Jesus is the most basic, most inclusive where in which all faith and practice take place.

In their different spheres and with their different concerns – evangelism, the life of the church, the ongoing presence of Jesus – today’s lections all focus on relationship as the core of Christian becoming.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Nancarrow is an Episcopal priest, whose theological work has focused on process-relational interpretations of religion and science, spirituality and liturgy, and especially on the co-acting of divine action and human action and natural action in sacramental work and worship. He has taught Theology for ordination training in Michigan, Minnesota, and Virginia, and is currently the author of the theology blog “Transfigurations” at He can often be found contemplating the Adventure of the Universe as One from the saddle of his bicycle on back roads and rail-trails in the Midwest.