The Sixth Sunday of Easter, 6 May 2018

May 6, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Acts 10:44-48 Psalm 98 1 John 5:1-6 John 15:9-17

Acts 10:44-48
The opening of minds and broadening of Spirit in the Gospel community continues in this passage from Acts. “Can anyone withhold the waters of baptism from these who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” This acceptance of the presence of the sacred despite cultural differences is remarkable. “God shows no partiality” (Acts 10:34) is a shift from the tribal understanding of a God whose very defining characteristic is partiality for the people of Israel. One can certainly take Peters’ statement too far for the Process Theological perspective. We believe God DOES INDEED show partiality—for the Divine Aim. But, the Divine Aim is a global community that is not fractured by personal and cultural divisions, and to pull us toward that basilea, the idea of a God who prefers the circumcised people over the uncircumcised people has to be transcended.

As Catherine Keller states in On the Mystery, “For a theology of becoming the coming is the lure of lures, the lure to our collective becoming. The be/coming of God happens in the endless process of interactivity at the edge of history.” (153) Collective interactivity is facilitated through the breaking down of barriers and division, and so this common thread of the book of Acts deserves repeated mention in our contemporary context because divisions and barriers are the theme of the day.

The lectionary simply gives the short summary snippet that concludes a great narrative of Cornelius, a gentile receiving a vision, making an invitation to Peter, Peter receiving a vision of animals of all kinds being lowered out of heaven with the instruction to “kill and eat,” followed by Peter’s dawning revelation that “God shows no partiality,” in more ways than one. It would behoove a Process preacher to expound on this lure to a greater and broader understanding of the enjoyment of humanity. Peter is sitting there “still thinking about the vision” when he receives the invitation to go to Cornelius and as the Spirit instructed “make no distinction between them and you.”  

After the text we are given, the scripture speaks to what usually happens when doors are opened to people in the community that are usually thought of as outsiders, “the circumcised believers criticized [Peter.]” However, the narrative of chapter 11 also speaks to the power of conversation and discernment. Instead of simply criticizing Peter behind his back and marginalizing him as so often happens in situations of conflict, the circumcised believers give him a fair hearing as to what led to his decision, and then the biggest miracle of all, they changed their minds! “When they heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, “Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” (Acts 11:18).

Psalm 98
Ron Allen has given this scripture great treatment in his commentary on this text on May 10, 2015 when it last occurred in the lectionary. He speaks to the context and origin of the Psalm in his exegesis.

One element of the Psalm seems to be a springboard for delving into a Process perspective, though. The opening line of the Psalm, “singing to the Lord a new song,” reminds this preacher of the undercurrent of novelty throughout Process Theology. “The past is composed of those events that have occurred; the future is radically different, since it contains no occasions; and the present is the occasion that is now occurring. The present is influenced by the past, and it will influence the future. Every moment is new, and none can be repeated.” (Cobb and Griffin, 15-16) In this sense, every song is a “new song,” but the degree to which the song is focused on, glamorizes, or is nostalgic about the past limits its potential for novelty to create something new in the future. On the other hand, a song about the possibilities of the future broadens the possibilities for becoming. The readings for this week (especially Acts) speak about new possibilities for the people of God that look beyond the exclusivity or limitations of the past toward a broader and more inclusive future.

1 John 5:1-6
The author seems to hinge relationship with God on the belief that Jesus is the Christ. The statement might seem exclusive to some of our hearers, and John does make other exclusive statements about relationship with God in the letter, but rather than dwell on that, this statement might give the Process preacher an opportunity to speak about the merits of belief from a process perspective.  The Gospel of John is the most heavy laden with the importance of belief (85 references, compared to the next highest number of 36 references in Acts), and the short letter makes use of it more than any other save the much longer letters to the Romans and Corinthians. In fact, there are almost as many references to pisteuo in 1 John as there are in Matthew or Luke.

While “belief” is perhaps not something Process preachers would likely insist on uniformity in, there is a power at work in belief. “The relation to Jesus that facilitates the work of Christ is maintained consciously and intentionally, especially through the proclamation of the word and the participation in the sacraments.” (Cobb and Griffin, 106). Belief is an aspect of faith perpetuated by the church, and being involved in a church holds power in an interesting way in the process perspective: “In the case of Jesus we have to do not only with an event of great intrinsic power but also with one that has produced the church which accepts as its task the amplification of the field of force. Millions of persons have made decisions to be constituted by the event of Jesus in such a way that its potential for constituting others is increased. These decisions have shaped sacraments, whose purpose it is to re-present the events for enhanced efficacy in the lives of believers. Thus the church is the community that is consciously dedicated to maintaining, extending, and strengthening the field of force generated by Jesus.”  For the purpose of integrating this scripture into our process worldview, we might choose to associate “belief” with this “field of force generated by Jesus.” Belief is shortchanged if it is merely associated with mental assent to a particular idea. Beliefs change and shape an individual, and might thus better be characterized as a “field of force” by Process preachers to more fully expound on the power it holds.

John 15:9-17
“Abide in my love” is a command that Jesus gives his disciples here in the farewell discourse, and one we might reiterate as Process Preachers. I can’t help but hear the word “abide” in the voice of Jeff Bridges from The Big Lebowski, “the Dude abides…..” To abide means to stay in the midst of, and not only that, but to let the presence of that original concept permeate the presence of one’s sense of being. μένω is to remain, and to remain as one is. Does this concept not fly in the face of a worldview that is contrary to that the whole notion of stasis? It is “Process” theology, after all, and in our worldview, nothing remains changeless.

I would contend that the very “abiding” that Jesus is speaking of here is what facilitates the most productive change. As the Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” In order to discern the best possible outcome, we must “abide” in the Love of Christ, which is anything but static and unchanging. Instead, “abiding” in this love requires us to be ever moving, ever expanding in our concept of who belongs and who should be loved and valued, as the other texts, and especially the selections from Acts during Eastertide, points to.

Jesus tells his disciples that the purpose of his farewell speech, and perhaps the purpose of his ministry as a whole, is that “his joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” Enjoyment is a central theme of Process Theology. Enjoyment is God’s fundamental Aim.  But as Cobb and Griffin point out in Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition, “we are not to think of enjoyment as being necessarily conscious, or as related to the pleasure end of the pleasure-pain continuum.” Indeed, Jesus speaks here of a deeper, more significant relatedness, as the whole thread of this discourse flows from an identification with God and a God consciousness that we, through him, have an opportunity to participate in. Christ’s joy, the joy that he hopes might be complete in his disciples is “to be, to actualize oneself, to act upon others, to share in a wider community, is to enjoy being an experiencing subject quite apart from any accompanying pain or pleasure. In Whitehead’s words, experience is the ‘self-enjoyment of being one among many, and of being one arising out of the composition of many.’” (16-17)  In chapters 14-17 of John, Jesus is giving his disciples the “farewell discourse,” and is setting them loose to “act upon others, to share in a wider community” and on the world to change it in a variety of beautiful ways. They are being charged here with a new commandment. One that in Jesus’ view summarizes the whole of the law: “love one another as I have loved you.”

It is this Love that Jesus wants us to “abide in,” and one that facilitates the “complete joy” of which he speaks. Ultimately, the result of that “loving one another as Jesus has loved us” is to build and enhance the experience and self-enjoyment of God. Instead of simply teaching his disciples how to be released from the world, Jesus is binding them together, “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for his friends, and I now call you friends.” Friendship with Jesus, inheriting the great mandate to love one another, and abiding in the Love of Christ serves a great purpose: rather than a way of release from the world, it is a way of Divine fulfillment IN the world, “If God is responsive to us, then our joys and deeds affect deity itself. However rapidly their worldly effects fade in the course of time, their importance is established in that they have mattered in the divine life.” (Cobb and Griffin, 122)

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.