Friday, May 4, 2012
It's All About Relationship (Easter 5, May 6 2012)
Homily: Yr B Easter 5 May 6 2012, St. Albans
Readings: Acts 8-26-40; Ps 22.24-30; 1 Jn 4.7-21; Jn 15.1-8
It was just about five years ago today that I got on a plane and traveled to the Seychelles Islands. I spent three months working there, as an intern, as part of my theological training. And to get ready for that posting, I took part in a 10 day orientation program before I left. That program was for people like me who were going overseas to do various types of work for the church. We all met in Toronto, but the people taking part came from all over North America. It was a great group of people, with a lot of different backgrounds and interesting stories to tell.
And I remember in particular one man from Texas. He was tall and slim, and he had the usual Texan accent, greeting us with a “Howdy y’all” when he entered the room. Now my Texan friend didn’t talk a lot, he was a fairly quiet guy. But as we were going through the sessions and various exercises, whenever he did speak, he almost always said the same thing: “It’s all about relationship”. If we did a Bible study, invariably at some point he would chime in “Well, ya know, it’s all about relationship.” If we did a session on how to work in a culture we weren’t familiar with, he’d say, “Well, it’s all about relationship”. If we were getting training on issues of poverty or justice, same thing. And y’all know what? My Texan friend was always right.
And so if my Texan friend was with us today, and I was to ask him what he thought about today’s readings, I’m pretty sure I know what he would say., “It’s all about relationship.” And ya know what? I think he’d be right.
In our first reading from Acts we have the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. What an unlikely relationship! The Ethiopian is rich and powerful, riding in a chariot. Philip is a poor Greek Jew who owns nothing but the clothes on his back. The Ethiopian is heading home, through the desert along a wilderness road. Philip would never even have been within a hundred miles of him if he hadn’t been prompted first by an angel and then by the Spirit. And as a Jew, Philip shouldn’t even have approached the Ethiopian eunuch, for according to Jewish law, eunuchs were treated as outcasts. While he was in Jerusalem, this Ethiopian, for all his wealth and power, wouldn’t have even been allowed inside the Temple to worship. He would have had to stay outside, on the periphery.
But as he is returning home from Jerusalem, something different happens. Philip, instead of treating him like an outcast, actually gets into his chariot beside him and takes the time to answer his questions, and to explain to him the scriptures and the good news about Jesus. The Ethiopian goes from being an outcast to being a companion, a friend, a brother. The relationship changes. And the Ethiopian’s response is to ask to be baptized as a sign of this new relationship, and he goes on his way rejoicing. It’s all about relationship. In fact it seems like this God of ours has a way of orchestrating even the most unlikely of relationships.
And just as Philip by his very actions invites the Ethiopian to think about and experience God in a new way, John in the letter that we heard in our second reading invites us to think about and experience God in a new way. Often, we think of God as a being, maybe the “supreme being” that philosophers like to talk about. Or we think of God as a person, and we use human analogies such as king or creator or father to think about God. Or we think of God as a kind of super-person, some kind of superman with the amazing ability to create the heavens and the earth. But John in our second reading talks about God in a very different way. Twice he says, “God is love”. Theos Agape Estin. Notice that he doesn’t say “God loves”, as if God is a person doing something, nor does he say “God is loving” as if loving is an adjective describing what God the being is like. No, he says “God is love”. Think of God not as a person or being, but as a relationship. The essence of God is the relationship of love.
Now there are a number of ways that we can think about this. In the ancient world, according to Greek natural philosophy or what we would now call science, it was understood that the universe consisted of four elements and two forces. The four elements were earth, air, fire and water, and the two forces were love and hate. Love was the force of attraction, the force that brought things together, and hate was the force of repulsion that drove things apart. So on one level, to assert that God is love is to make an analogy with the unseen force which permeates our universe and draws the elements together, draws things into relationship with each other and creates the wonderful variety that we find in our world.
The early theologians of the church, as they thought about John’s assertion that “God is love” eventually fleshed this out into our understanding of God as Trinity, the idea that there is one God in three persons, the Father, the Son and the Spirit, and that at the core of this one God is that relationship, the relationship of love between Father, Son and Spirit. A thousand years later, St. Thomas Aquinas, a theologian of the 13th century pointed out along the same lines that love is a unifying force, that it brings the many into one. We see how this is meant to work in marriage, where we talk about the “two becoming one”, and we use this same understanding when we talk about God as Trinity, where the three become one. God is a relationship, and we are created in God’s image.
I think that this is a new perspective for most of us, and that’s in part because we’re so used to thinking of ourselves not as a relationship, but as individuals, independent, autonomous and separate. This way of seeing ourselves comes from the modern sense of identity that has been with us for about the last four hundred years: what makes me me is that I’m not you. I’m separate and distinct from you.
But what if John is right, that God is a relationship. And what if, as the book of Genesis tells us, what if it’s true that God is our creator and that we are created in God’s image. We would have to change our way of seeing things. We might even have to change the way we see ourselves.
Suppose we change our vision. Suppose I was to realize that what makes me me is my relationship with you. Suppose I was to realize that my very identity, my meaning and purpose in life is to be found in my relationships, in the network of relationships that we call community.
In both his letter and the gospel that we heard today, John talks about “abiding”. Living in each other, dwelling in each other. “Abide in me as I abide in you,” Jesus tells his disciples. If God is love, then those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
It is these relationships, our relationship with God and our relationships with each other that make us who we are and give us life, abundant life, the life in all its abundance that we talked about last week. It’s these relationships that allow us to grow into the people that we were created to be. It is these relationships that are fruitful, in a beautiful variety of different ways that are all underpinned by the commandment to love one another.
Jesus tries to sum this up for his disciples by giving them a picture, the image of the grape vine. The vine is of course a tangled network of relationships. There are the roots which go down into the earth to draw out nourishment for the whole organism. There are the branches which both grow leaves to take in the energy from the sun, and produce the grapes. And there is the vine which ties it all together.
In this image, we are pictured as the branches, connected and rooted in this wider network of relationships with the other branches and with the vine. As branches, the only way we can produce fruit is if we remain in the vine. Imagine, for a minute that there was a branch that decided that it would be better off if it left the vine and struck out on its own. How do you think it would do? Would it produce any grapes? Of course not, in fact once it was separated from the vine, it wouldn’t even be the branch of a grapevine anymore. It would just be dead wood.
None of us want to end up as dead wood. We want to be alive, with energy and nourishment coursing through our veins, full of love and vitality, living lives that are fruitful, in relationship with God and with each other, loving one another. Now that isn’t always easy. Anyone who has grown grapes knows that the grapevine needs a lot of tender loving care and attention, digging here and fertilizing there, and tying up the branches and pruning as necessary. Our relationships and our communities are no different. But just like in Jesus parable, there is a gardener, a vinegrower who is there to tend the vine, to help it and encourage it to grow good fruit. The name of that vinegrower is love, and it is that love that makes us who we are. And as my Texan friend would say to y’all, it’s all about relationship.