Sundays such as this are one of the main reasons I enjoy following and preaching from the lectionary. Each of these four texts have such wisdom and key pieces of the gospel flowing throughout them and really can stand on their own as formative texts from which to share the good news of the resurrection. However, when they are joined together as the lectionary readings for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, the theme of love provides a lens from which the preacher can begin their interpretive framework.
The epistle reading from 1st John focuses on the importance of love in the early church and the Johannine community. In fact, this section of 1 John could be read as a defining characteristic of the incarnation. “No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4:12). We participate in the very incarnation of God through the love that Christ invites us to participate within. The “new life” of Easter is a life of love. I think if we focus on this important distinction, our interpretations of both the readings from Acts and the Gospel of John can be strengthened.
I have often heard sermons preached on Philip’s meeting with the Ethiopian eunuch as a reflection on the importance of our evangelistic work or our treatment of the foreigner. And, of course these things are amply important. However, as the political conflict continues to erupt over our (United States of America) own border with Mexico, it seems as if many in the USA seem to think that we, like Philip, have the answers for the foreigner seeking assistance.
We sometimes forget the power of the Spirit that is at work in this story from the book of Acts. Sudarshana Devadhar (resident bishop, New England, Conference, United Methodist Church) interprets Luke’s note of the time of day as an indicator of the guidance of the Spirit and Philip’s holy discernment:
At the end of Acts 8:26, which reads, “An angel from the Lord spoke to Philip, ‘At noon, take the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza,’” Luke makes a point, parenthetically, to tell the reader: “This is a desert road.” We don’t know why Luke specified the time of day, but it might indicate that Philip was called to go out in the heat of midday. In any case, this is a tall order for Philip, which seems to come from out of the blue! The text provides no explanation for the angel’s visit. What’s more, there is no indication that Philip questioned the angel about either the message or the assignment—Why he should go? Could he do it a little later in the day when the desert heat is more congenial for travel? Was there an alternative route he could take? Wasn’t there someone else who could go on this errand or at least accompany him? The text doesn’t indicate that Philip raised any objections or asked any questions. It simply says, the angel of the Lord told him to go; “So he did” (v. 27).
I wonder how we might interpret this scripture differently through the lens of an incarnation of love in Philip’s spirit. Could it be that Philip is able to share the good news of the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch because he was so connected to the love of God through the incarnation of Christ? The preacher of these texts might explore the ways our spirit of love, as connected by Christ, affects and calls us to treat our fellow human beings differently and with more understanding (a play on words from the conversation Philip and the Ethiopian share).
In a similar way, the incarnation of love from 1 John may adjust the ways in which we interpret the lectionary text from the Gospel of John. Similar to the text from Acts, I have often heard sermons preached on this text from John’s Gospel as an elaboration of our call to evangelism. The usual interpretation says that if we are truly united with Christ, we will bear fruit and see the harvest of our work (which is so often translated as church growth).
However, if we utilize an incarnation of love interpretive framework, the thing we are abiding within isn’t a literal vine, but the love of Christ. Those who abide in Christ’s love, abide in Christ. For Christ is the vine, and we are the branches. The fruit we bear isn’t more butts in the church pews, but more love in the world. If any Christian is not loving, they are like a branch that is thrown away and withers.
Of course, all of this begs the question of how one might interpret the very task of evangelism through the lens of an incarnation of love. I find myself curious about how one might preach the call to evangelism through such a hermeneutical lens. Many people, especially in the younger generations, are tired of having religion and a “holy-than-thou” sharing of the “good news” shoved down their throat. Too often, the modern church has done more harm than good in our evangelical pursuit of sharing what is supposed to be good news to those in the margins of society.
I have heard it said that sometimes the best evangelism strategy is to tell people that you are a Christian and then not be jerk. These particular lectionary readings seem to suggest an even better evangelistic strategy: love people. It really isn’t a new or even radical concept. Yet, it seems to be one of the most difficult things for us to do in our society. As our divisions seem to grow farther and farther apart with more and more violent rhetoric toward one another, it certainly seems that our love for one another is shrinking.
There is “good news” in these scriptures for this difficult task. The strength and power of love that we so desperately need in our society comes, not from us, but from Christ. For Christ reminds us, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart form me you can do nothing…If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15: 5 & 7 NIV). We remain in a Savior that is the true incarnation of God’s love – not one that cuts off all the people we don’t like or that don’t act the way we desire. Christ is a Savior that prunes the hate of the world so that love will blossom and grow. This is the incarnation of love.
 Devadhar, Sudarshana. “May 2, 2021-Fifth Sunday of Easter.” The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2021. Ed. Tanya Linn Bennett. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2020. 67.