Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 2 May 2021.
• First Reading: Acts 8: 26-40 (Philip and the Ethiopian: ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ ‘How can I unless someone explains it to me?’)
• Psalm 22: 24-30
• Epistle: 1 John 4: 7-21 (Let us love one another for love comes from God)
• Gospel: John 15: 1-8 (I am the vine; you are the branches)
One feature of the present pandemic is the way it has allowed us to be reduced from a community to set of separated households. All forms of community life have been suspended, and in this we are not alone as a church.
One interesting aspect is the speed at which different aspects of community life have been re-opened, and under what conditions.
Yet it has given rise to something else in the life of the church, as some have remained distant because they are concerned at the ongoing risks of infection; others have fallen out of the practice of going out on a Sunday morning especially when the likeness of church worship is available on line, and there are plenty of offerings available to be sampled.
Others have indicated that they will not return until all can sing, or until all have been vaccinated, or for some similar demand for a return to what they are accustomed to.
Yet however point us to something that is deeply personal and which involves the community of faith finding its strength as it comes together.
First there is the story of how Philip who had been filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost and was moved by the Spirit to go into the desert. There he would find out why, and so he obeyed the prompting.
And yes the answer came soon enough: the Ethiopian official who was puzzled by the writing of Isaiah and was seeking out an explanation. Philip was there to provide it, and having done so was moved on to the coastal towns where he would continue his work.
Then in the gospel there is Jesus’ teaching on abiding or remaining or continuing in Him.
In order to serve Him we are bound to stay with Him and in Him, to find our being in Him, our present and our future, our purpose and our sense of being.
It means staying in Him in all circumstances: in times of satisfaction and success, but also in times of difficulty, of dryness and even dereliction.
To remain in Jesus is an all-weather, all-seasons commitment, and it does not cease when times turn against us or difficulty arises. If we do not abandon Jesus when relationships fail and hopes are frustrated, then neither will he abandon us.
He is there especially when we face opposition, temptation and failure. Even when our prayers go dry, Jesus has not abandoned us. When we find a passage of scripture difficult to understand or to follow, He is still there. When we labour and others gain the fruits of that effort, Jesus is still with us. When other are preferred to us for any reason or venture, Jesus is still next to us.
Jesus’ salvation was never going to be a fair-weather faith and it was never going to be defeated by war, famine, pestilence, insurrection, persecution or cultural opposition. Other generations of the church have undergone such trials and have come through them, so we can face our times with confidence as well.
But then the letter of John says more about the love of God. It is the very nature of God to love, for what God does in loving is the expression of who and what He is. And yes, God is love.
It is a love for us that was there before we were even born and which has never been taken from us. It is a love that desires above all things for us to be united in Him with one another. Hence His determination to secure that new kind of binding together, without compromising who or what He is but acting with total mercy and commitment.
This is what makes the person and work of Jesus so central. He is the expression and the reality of God in action in the world that He has created and yet which has rejected His love in favour of its own agendas.
We have not seen God and yet we know and we meet Jesus in the message of salvation and in the life of the church. We know Him as we draw close to Him and as we do so then He draws us close to one another.
And so in loving one another we also love Him. In drawing close to one another we also draw close to Him, and in abandoning one another then we also get separated from Him.
When one is discouraged then others may provide support; when one is disappointed then others may offer hope; when one is confused then others can offer clarity; when one is in distress then others may provide what is lacking.
Part of the mystery of faith in the life of the church is that as we gather before Jesus for worship we also gather with one another as a community. As we love Him so we are also led to love one another and this has nothing to do with sentiment or preference. It is all about seeing the other person as one of the redeemed in the Lord with their own issues and trials, their own failures and hesitations.
It is as we love and serve one another that we also find that we are available to the Lord for His service: and as with Philip, who knows just where that will lead?