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Bible Study: Easter 5 (B) – April 28, 2024

April 28, 2024

RCL: Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8

Acts 8:26-40

Philip encounters an Ethiopian eunuch returning home from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Prompted by the Spirit, Philip befriends him and they discuss the Scriptures. In the end, the eunuch is compelled by a Christological reading, and he opts to be baptized forthwith. (One can appreciate the matter-of-fact quality of the eunuch’s declaration in v. 36: “Look, here is water!”) Philip is then snatched away quickly by the Spirit, but this doesn’t seem to faze the implacable eunuch. He simply goes “on his way rejoicing” (v. 39). There is much to appreciate about the example of the Ethiopian eunuch.

The eunuch has a curious, prospecting faith that mines the Scriptures for meaning. But the eunuch is not only curious. He takes the initiative. He acquires the Scriptures to study them. He asks to be baptized. He is not a passive recipient of the Gospel; he actively engages with it.

The eunuch is an African with an ethnic identity different from many of the characters we meet in the Bible. His faith is a testament to the diversity of the early Church. Remembering his story can help us to decenter a white missional perspective when we discuss African Christianity.

As far as sex, sexuality, and gender are concerned, the eunuch is a liminal or ambiguous figure not only in his own time but in our own. The confidence and joy with which he claims his identity in Christ may be inspiring to hearers of this story who occupy similarly liminal identities in our culture. He is a reminder that the Gospel belongs to those for whom the binary categories of society don’t always work. Those whose identities are liminal or ambiguous are beloved in Christ and are invited to claim that belovedness.

  • In the spirit of the Ethiopian eunuch, how might we bring our curiosity to God in prayer? And how might we claim our unique identity in Christ?

Psalm 22:24-30

Today’s short portion of Psalm 22 is a fairly joyful excerpt. The seven verses chosen for Easter 5 (B) celebrate corporate worship (v. 24); proclaim abundance for the poor (v. 25); portend the unification of the world in faith (v. 26); declare the kingship of God, even over the dead (vv. 27-28); and they express the vow of the psalmist to dedicate not only his life, but the lives of those yet to come, to God, in remembrance of God’s saving acts (vv. 29-30). These are the final verses of Psalm 22, and they paint a stirring, triumphal, glorious picture. But ironically, the most intriguing thing about the excerpt is everything it leaves out. Most of the preceding twenty-three verses are not so rosy; Psalm 22 famously begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and proceeds for most of its length as a desperate plea for God’s help. This is the very psalm that Jesus quotes, despairingly, just before dying on the cross (Mt 27:46; Mk 15:34).

The dark, earlier verses may seem pretty out of step with the celebratory verses chosen for today, but the juxtaposition is theologically fecund. The suggestion of the psalm is that the celebration we discover in the end cannot exist without a relationship to the suffering we discover in the beginning. Joy and despair go together, as parts of a single story, and this psalm highlights the transition from the very depth of suffering to the very height of salvation. The progression invites us to consider the trajectories of our own lives: if we are suffering, joy may be coming sooner than we might think; if we are joyful, we can nonetheless remember the suffering we have passed through before arriving here. And there is no celebration without hardship.

  • How can this psalm speak to those who relate more to the earlier, darker verses of Psalm 22? How can it preach to those who still wait upon the help of God?

1 John 4:7-21

This reading is one of the deepest and most beautiful reflections on the love of God in the entire Bible. It is rooted in the declaration of v. 8, that “God is love.” This is to say, love is not only a characteristic of God. Rather, love is God’s substance. Love is who and what God is. We can’t know God without knowing love, since, on some level, God and love are the same “thing.” But is love a “thing” after all? We might be inclined to think of love as a thing, a noun, like a fond or passionate feeling. Love can indeed include fondness and passion, and certainly God has passionate fondness for us. But according to 1 John, God’s substantial love is not only a noun like fondness or passion. God’s love is a verb. It is revealed through action: through God sending his Son and making an “atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v. 10). The love of God is not only a thing; it is a thing done. And not only that: the love of God is a thing done for others—not least, for us. Acting on behalf of others is therefore the core of God’s loving being. In short, this means that, in order for God to be most himself, God must act for others’ sake. God’s love is an active gift of the self to the other.

The passage also makes clear that there is a deep relationship between God’s love and our own: “Since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). God’s love spurs ours; we must love in the way that God does. We are called to a love that is a self-sacrificing action on behalf of others. This is, of course, a tall order. But it is also potentially a liberating one. If, as this passage suggests, divine love is an action rather than a feeling, then we are freed to consider how we can love those for whom we do not harbor fond, affectionate feelings—or, to put it more bluntly, how we can love those whom we don’t like.

  • How can we, as a church, embody the kind of love described in this passage: love that is not a sentiment, but an action? Who can be included in our love that we might not expect?

John 15:1-8

In this discourse from John’s Gospel, Jesus explores a metaphor. Jesus is the vine and the disciples (read: us!) are the branches. The metaphor facilitates an analogy. Just as the vinegrower “prunes” branches to make them bear more fruit, the disciples are “cleansed” by the words of Christ. The connection between the two ideas is clearer in the original text, since in New Testament Greek, “prunes” and “cleansed” have the same root: katharos, meaning “clean” or “pure.” This root is the origin of our word “catharsis.” Literally, Jesus’ words provide catharsis for us and help our lives to bear fruit. But crucially, Jesus’ words are not only the words of a teacher or instructor in the conventional, didactic sense of those terms. Jesus isn’t standing and speaking next to the branches, or outside of them. Jesus is the vine from which the branches spring. Jesus is the ground of the branches’ being. And so, the Jesus who speaks words of catharsis to us speaks as one who grounds our very life and existence. He does not stand outside of us. He sustains us, and we sustain ourselves in and through him. To live is to be connected to Christ, to spring out from his life; to be spoken to by Christ is to be spoken to by the very life of our life, to be cleansed by the upwelling truth within us and before us.

  • How can we connect with Christ, the vine to our branch, the ground of our being, here and now?
  • How do we find our ground in the present moment, whatever is happening? And how do we “abide” in that ground across circumstances?

Aidan Luke Stoddart is a third-year seminarian at Berkeley Divinity School at Yale. His primary academic interest is the theology of prayer. He is excited to be ordained in just over a year, and in the meantime plans to spend some time working as a hospital chaplain after he graduates. In addition to Jesus Christ, Aidan’s passions include video games, fantasy literature, ambient music, and walks to tea-shops.

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