Today in the Spirit: Easter 5B

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On Easter 5 every year, the church moves us hard toward the mindset of expectation for the coming of the Holy Spirit. To get us there, the lectionary puts forward Jesus’ most explicit teaching on this matter, as found in the Last Supper discourse in John 14-16. For Easter 5B, the Gospel selection is John 14:15-21, where Jesus makes the extraordinary claim that he and the Holy Spirit are one: You know [the Spirit of truth], for he dwells with you [meaning Jesus] and will be in you [meaning the Spirit] (14:17). 

The church’s preferred first reading is the narrative of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40. This is the very first conversion account of a God-fearing Gentile through the testimony of a Jewish believer recorded in the Book of Acts. The alternate first reading from Deuteronomy 4:32-40 is the climactic end to Moses’ opening sermon in the Deuteronomy scroll. In parallel to Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel reading that obedience is the true sign of devotion to him, Moses declares, “Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you…in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time” (40).

Sponsored

In the appointed Psalm 66:1-12, we have the opening two-thirds of the song by a temple music director calling Israel to worship: Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!” (3). The lectionary gives an option to focus just on the opening section of praise directed to the people of God  (vv. 1-8), or to include the next section directed to the enemy nations (vv. 9-12). As always in the Easter season, references to deeds inspire in Christians thoughts of Jesus’ resurrection and, at this juncture, also to the coming of the Holy Spirit. 

Continuing the NT readings from 1 John in Year B, the church assigns this week 1 John 3:[11-17]18-24. Here is John’s passionate plea right in the center of the epistle for the brothers and sisters of the church to love one another, clearly expanding on Jesus’ command (John 13:24), which we remembered a few weeks earlier on Maundy Thursday. Like last week, the Collect contains language from an I Am statement of Jesus John, this time “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (Jn. 14:6). Confessing that truth, the petition is for perseverance to “steadfastly follow in [Jesus’] steps in the way that leads to eternal glory.” 

The Collect

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

And There Was an Ethiopian (Acts 8:26-40)

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” (26-29)

Let’s stop at the part of the story where Philip and the eunuch meet on the road and contemplate how they were drawn together under the power of God. So much had to have happened previously with these two characters in order to bring them to that place at that time to produce such dramatic results. Philip was a strong Christian. After becoming a deacon in the church of Jerusalem, he relocated to someplace in Samaria, where, Luke tells us, he preached good news about the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ (Ac. 8:12). The Ethiopian eunuch was what I like to call a near-Christian. Somehow this highly-placed dignitary had become so taken with the Jewish witness and worship of One God that he traveled to Jerusalem to worship.

The picture of this narrative is of the providence of God bringing together a Christian with a near-Christian in a meeting. Devotionally, we must not dismiss it as a rare occurrence. It happens time and time again in Scripture. The Lord seeks to make each one of us into believers so devoted to the name of Jesus that, like Philip, we can be ready to play our part in bringing near Christians ever closer. Are you prepared to take up that role? Are you ready at any minute to hear the call of God to approach those in your community whom God has shown you to be leaning toward conversion?

Today, in the Spirit, inspired by this story in Acts, I now see how the church grows by God engineering encounters between Christians and near-Christians. Humbly, Jesus, and according to my gifts, I ask you to get me off the bench and into the game.

Lay It to Your Heart (Deuteronomy 4:32-40)

39 …“know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. 40 Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” (39-40)

Or Acknowledge and take to heart this day (39, NIV). The people of Israel who had lived through the forty years of wandering in the desert, and even the first generation born in the wilderness, had recalled the saving power of YHWH in his acts of deliverance over the period. However, what the Scriptures record is consistent disobedience to God in response, which Moses painstakingly recalls in the earlier parts of the sermon. Now, on the eve of their moving into the promised land, he urges them to go beyond intellectual assent to a full devotion to the LORD as the only God. In the phrase lay it to your heart, the word lay it (Heb. sub) means not receiving something new but rather “turning back” and accepting what you have known all along. 

How much of our walk with Jesus Christ is taken up by repenting and turning back to that which we have known all along? Of course, God is revealing new things all the time about ourselves and him, but they are often more in the spirit of more reiteration than fresh discovery. As much as anything else, it is his supreme patience that he demonstrates his devotion to us as his beloved people. Are you just now feeling chastened in your heart for falling again into the same old sin? 

Today, in the Spirit, receive as love from the Son of God this word to acknowledge and take to heart again that which you have known all along. Within the reminder is the sign of his affection for you.   

Enemies Come Cringing to You (Psalm 66:1-12)

1 Shout for joy to God, all the earth;
2 sing the glory of his name;
  give to him glorious praise!
3 Say to God, “How awesome are your deeds!
  So great is your power that your enemies come cringing to you.
4 All the earth worships you
    and sings praises to you;
    they sing praises to your name.” Selah
5 Come and see what God has done:
    he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.
6 He turned the sea into dry land;
    they passed through the river on foot.
    There did we rejoice in him,
7 who rules by his might forever,
  whose eyes keep watch on the nations—
  let not the rebellious exalt themselves. Selah. (1-7)

This is the portion of the psalm required by the lectionary for inclusion on Sunday. It is like many psalms we have had in the Easter schedule (Ps. 111 in 2B, Ps. 98 in 3B) in which we are urged to praise God for his mighty deeds, applying specific meditation in this season to the resurrection of Christ. We note in this psalm praise, especially for the debilitating effect of the power of God on the adversaries of the people of God: “So great is the power that your enemies come cringing to you” and “let not the rebellious exalt themselves.”

We Westerners live in what is purported to be a “softer” society in a “gentler” age. Talk of the downfall of enemies is regarded as distasteful. Beloved in Christ, we need to put on the armor of God, stand, and throw down in our own time just as the psalmist does in his. Even if we cannot identify physical enemies set against us, we have spiritual adversaries always looking for the opportunity to thwart our every attempt to produce gospel good. The NT is filled with verses like this one from 1 Peter: Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour (5:8). We are aware, careful, but never fearful. Our enemies can still bark and bite, but praise to God for defeating them by the cross and resurrection must always be on our lips.

Today, reading this psalm, I shake off any and all thoughts that I have no enemies and praise the Lord for making his enemies, and mine come cringing to you.

God Is Greater Than Our Heart (1 John 3:[11-17]18-24)

18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. 19 By this we shall know that we are of the truth and reassure our heart before him; 20 for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; 22 and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him. 23 And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us. 24 Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us. (18-24)

Here is the required section in the lectionary assignment. Notice how, before urging us toward obedience to the commandment, John feels the need to address the problem of reassurance in the heart of the believer. That word reassure (Gk. peitho, “convince” or “persuade” in the future tense) leads us to believe John understood believers needed continual bucking up in confidence. To have any hope of obeying that two-edged command to believe in the name of Christ and to love one another, we must have confidence before God. Obedience breeds confidence to believe we will receive whatever we ask of him. Without obedience, the system breaks down–no obedience to his command, no receiving what we ask, no receiving what we ask, no confidence before God. 

Devotionally, the system seems hopeless. We know we are not perfectly obedient. We falter every hour of every day in our faith in Jesus as Lord and in our love for others. So how shall we ever get to the point of believing and receiving? Thankfully, John, in his wisdom, adds the clause, for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything (20). This is the work of the Holy Spirit of Jesus in our lives to counteract the guilt and shame of being sinners in a sinful world, even when we have come to know Jesus. God abides not only over and outside but in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us (24). From the grace that comes to us by that life in us, John teaches in his Gospel: For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn. 1:16).

Today, Holy Spirit, we receive from you, according to the apostle’s teaching, the reassurance to make the process start again and again after each breakdown of confidence. 

The Spirit of Truth (John 14:15-21)

15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him; he dwells with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21 Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him” (15-21).

John records Jesus using the term the Spirit of truth twice in his Gospel–here and a chapter later in Jn. 15:26. In the second instance, that name for the Holy Spirit is associated, as one might expect, with the content of what it is to be testified about Jesus in the world. It goes in an outward direction. Here, the direction of the truth the Spirit brings goes not outward but inward. The Holy Spirit will be in you, dwelling with you like Jesus is dwelling with his disciples now. And the testimony of the truth is also directed inward. In much the same way I tried to bring out in the commentary on the 1 John reading above, the Spirit of truth will come to the disciples to convince them that they are not orphans now that Jesus is gone but that they have been brought right into the heart of the Trinity of God. In that day [Pentecost] you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.

In applying this passage to our lives, we must see that first things must come first. We must permit the Spirit of truth to do his inward work of testifying to our own hearts of the love of the Father and Son for us and their longing to draw us in before we can think about the empowerment needed for the outward work. 

Oswald Chambers describes the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit like this: “An elevated mood can only come out of an elevated habit of personal character. If, in the externals of your life, you live up to the highest you know, God will continually say, ‘Friend, go up higher.’…Growth in grace is measured not by the fact that you have not gone back but that you have had an insight into where you are spiritually; you have heard God say, “Come up higher,” not to you personally, but to the insight of your character.”

Today, Holy Spirit of truth, I will permit you to testify to me “the insight of [my] character” that I am not now, nor ever will be again, alone in this world and that I dwell in the very heart of the Father and the Son forever. 

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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