Today in the Spirit: Easter 6B

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As much as any other set of readings for a Sunday, the Easter 6 schedule puts on display the influence the love of the Father God has over those who believe in the Son. The assigned Gospel reading out of John 15:9-17 sets the tone. After teaching his disciples, I am the true vine… and you are the branches (15:1,5), Jesus assures them (and us) that keeping a connection with him is worthwhile, saying, As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love (9). 

The lectionary’s preferred first reading from Acts 11:19-30 is Luke’s testimony of what happens when the believing church abides in Jesus and follows the leading of the Spirit. It is the story of the founding of the first congregation of Gentile members in the city of Antioch in Syria. Twice in the narrative, it is reported that after Jewish missionaries had ventured to take the good news to the Gentiles, a great number of people turned to the Lord.

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The alternative first reading from Isaiah 45:11-13,18-19[20-25] contains content from two oracles (separated by thus says the LORD) written for those who will one day be exiled in Babylon. After urging the people not to question the promise of divine comfort despite their adverse circumstances, YHWH declares that his restoration of Israel shall provoke all doubters to recognize that in the LORD, all the offspring of Israel shall be justified and shall glory (25). Likewise, the appointed Psalm 33 calls upon the people of God to praise the LORD because, Behold, the eye of the LORD is upon those who fear him, and upon those who put their trust in his mercy (17, BCP Coverdale).   

The Easter Year B series of NT readings from the first letter of John continues this week with 1 John 4:7-21, where the Apostle provides commentary on the command that his readers know Jesus gave: Love one another. As Jesus does with the illustration of the vine and the branch, John explains our love is an outgrowth of God’s love for his children who believe:  No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us (12). On this Sunday of the love of God, for his people being poured out of his people, the Collect holds out the promise of “good things as surpass our understanding” and petitions God “that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises.”     

The Collect

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Saw the Grace of God (Acts 11:19-30)

22 The report of this came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. 23 When he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, 24 for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord. 25 So Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, 26 and when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were first called Christians. (22-26)

On the week we hear Jesus’ command to go and bear fruit (Jn. 15:16), the church assigns a reading from Acts showing those who were first called Christians doing just that. The importance of Barnabas’ actions here for the advancement of the gospel mission to the Gentiles is incalculable–though he could not have recognized it at the time. Luke records that Barnabas’ behavior is determined by how he saw the grace of God. While he is a Jew and a leader of a new Christian movement among Jews only in Jerusalem, Barnabas is open to, and even glad for, the surprises the Lord brings, and he needs little convincing to get to the new work of Jesus in Antioch.

Are you flexible in your Spirit like that? Taking time to discern God’s will in a situation is one thing; refusing to act on a good gospel opportunity because it does not fit in your self-determined creeds or expectations of how things work is another. Like Barnabas, you will not know in the present how significant your cooperation in Christ is for God’s overall plan, but recognizing God’s grace should be enough to compel you forward.  

Today, led by the Spirit and following the example of Barnabas, take to heart the words of Paul, his partner in Antioch: Be careful how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil (Eph. 5:15-16 NIV).

Men of Stature Shall Come Over to You (Isaiah 45:11-13,18-19[20-25])

14 Thus says the Lord:
“The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush,
    and the Sabeans, men of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours;
    they shall follow you;
    they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will plead with you, saying:
    ‘Surely God is in you, and there is no other,
    no god besides him.’”

15 Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
    O God of Israel, the Savior.

16 All of them are put to shame and confounded;
    the makers of idols go in confusion together.

17 But Israel is saved by the Lord
    with everlasting salvation;
you shall not be put to shame or confounded
    to all eternity.

18 For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
    (he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
    (he established it;
he did not create it empty,
    he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.

19 I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    ‘Seek me in vain.’
I the Lord speak the truth;
    I declare what is right. (14-19)

Whenever the lectionary wants us to skip verses in the middle of a passage, I find myself all the more eager to read them. (I bet you are, too!). The oracle of the Isaiah scroll is left out of the assigned reading (14-17), followed by the beginning of the next one, which is included (18-19). Beyond a desire for brevity, I honestly do not see why this part is left out. It builds on what comes before and introduces what comes next. Vv. 14-17 speak of a reversal of Israel’s fortunes so great that, beyond merely escaping the domination of marauding empires, the people of God will witness the nations coming to Jerusalem to worship YHWH: men of stature, shall come over to you and be yours; they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you (14).

Devotionally, just as Israel is meant to find hope and encouragement from what seems to be an exaggerated picture of a good outcome, we are, too. We read the Book of Revelation, for instance, and can hardly believe there will be a day when heaven so fills the earth that an angel will cry out, [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away (21:4). The hope of the unbelievable, far from turning us aside as people of faith, builds us up to a fever pitch of devotion and expectation. With our sights lifted as high as possible, we, like the people of Israel, are prepared to hear what comes next: “I the LORD speak the truth; I declare what is right (19). 

Today, Holy Spirit, use all three of these oracles of Isaiah to build up my faith in what you will do beyond expectation to make me faithful in the day-to-day.

Your Steadfast Love (Psalm 33)

18 Behold, the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
19 that he may deliver their soul from death
    and keep them alive in famine.

20 Our soul waits for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
21 For our heart is glad in him,
    because we trust in his holy name.
22 Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you. (18-22)

There it is again, that phrase steadfast love. It is actually one word in Hebrew (hesed), which appears 244 times in every part of the OT and three times in this assigned song of praise. We need to understand that when the ancient Israelites wrote about this steadfast (or unfailing NIV) love of God, they were not guessing at feelings God might have for them, like when a young man confesses his affection for a girl hoping but not altogether sure she might feel the same. No. For Israel, hesed is contractual language based on the covenant of love YHWH has made with his people. So Moses declares: Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations (Deuteronomy 7:9; also 1 Kings 8:23, Nehemiah 1:5).

As Christians, we understand the contract of love pronounced from Sinai and celebrated in the Psalms to have been fulfilled by the flesh and blood revelation of the Son of God. The fullness of God dwelling in him (Colossians 1:19) is the fullness of his love. Jesus Christ is living and dying and raising steadfast love for his people. And in the selection from John’s letter for today, we hear: In this, the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him (1 Jn. 4:9).

Today, in Easter, with the help of the Spirit, we sing this psalm invoking the contracted steadfast love of the One God we find delivered in the appearance of our Savior Jesus Christ.

Love Perfected in Us (1 John 4:7-21)

11 Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. (11-12)

For the Apostle John to claim that no one has ever seen God is remarkable. Could it mean that, for all his belief that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and his unprecedented insights into Jesus as the Word of God dwelling with us, living with the manifestation of God as a human being is still not the same as seeing God in full? Since no one, not even he (?), has seen or can see the invisible God, the focus of the love of God flowing in our hearts must be directed to one another, the church, the new manifestation of God’s presence in the world.

There’s a Spirit-inspired instinct in the hearts of believers to love the church, the saints of God, that must not be resisted. Sometimes, we put all our emphasis on loving God alone or loving the unbelieving world, and the church is but a means to those ends. For John, that is misguided thinking. Do you love Jesus? Do you love the church? Every spiritual instinct for a separation between God and man cries out against putting too much emphasis on the church. For John, however, we see in that congregation of flawed people the continuing incarnation of Jesus. There, just there, God abides in us, and his love is perfected in us (12). 

Today, in the Spirit, let the love of God be perfected in you through faith in Jesus Christ and, yes, through love for your brothers and sisters in Christ. 

Go and Bear Fruit (John 15:9-17)

16 You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another. (16-17)

The image of fruit and fruit-bearing in Christian life appears in approximately twenty distinct passages of the NT. This one in John 15 is the only one I find in which the reader, especially the Christian leader, is seriously tempted to believe that the fruit refers to people. When we read Bear fruits in keeping with repentance (Lk. 3:8) or Paul’s list of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23), there is no question that the image is referring to one’s own behavior and character traits. But somehow, in this passage, we get into our heads that the metaphor is somehow taking on bones and flesh and carries the names of other people. 

Devotionally, we do well to read this passage about fruit like we do the others. As branches attached to the vine, we are not concerned with the fruit that grows off another branch but only that which comes from our own. We hope our fruit of humility, patience, or zeal for God will influence another branch (person) or even contribute in some unseen way to the formation of another branch. Commenting on this passage, the English Archbishop William Temple writes, “A real Christian, who abides in Christ and Christ in him, exerts an influence among his companions at work or play, in mine or shop of factory or directors’ meeting or Parliament, that nothing effaces.” Still, our focus needs to be less on the influence of our fruit than the fruit itself—less on results and more on character.

Today, Holy Spirit, grant your church individual and corporate fruit of joy and peace of love that you may use, especially through our prayers, to create a great harvest. 

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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