Acts 10: 44-48
1 John 5: 1-6
John 15: 9-17
Three years ago, as Mother's Day was fast approaching, an ad agency in the United States created a fictitious organization which was designed to help you calculate what you owed your mother. The “Mother New York” ad agency, created an online tool to help you figure out exactly how much you owed your mother for giving birth to you, using very precise criteria.
The calculator factored in the amount of time your mother spent in labor, the amount of weight she gained carrying you, the number of alcoholic beverages she missed out on, and the stretch marks she incurred, and even gave you an 80 percent deduction from the total amount if you turned out to be a good child.
Three years ago, a lot of people found the fake campaign hilarious and many enjoyed trying to calculate how much they “owed” their mothers. Some people however, took it more seriously and even went so far as to suggest on-line that it is "our duty" to repay mothers for their pain and suffering.
How much do you owe your mother? How much should you pay her for giving you birth? How much should you pay her for the time she has spent raising you? Hey all you who are mothers, on this Mother’s Day, how much are you owed?
A country and western singer by the name of Paul Overstreet wrote a song, entitled, “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love.” Some of the lyrics go like this:
“How much do I owe you?" to the mother said the son.
For all that you have taught me in the days that I was young.
Shall I bring expensive blankets to cast upon your bed?
And a pillow for to rest your weary head."
“And the mother said: "I won't take less than your love, sweet love.
No, I won't take less than your love.
All the comforts of the world could never be enough,
And I won't take less than your love."
Mothers do not ask for repayment; they simply love and hope to be loved in return; after all, you can’t repay love. Love and repayment cannot exist in the same sentence and this is one of the key features in our Scripture readings for today.
Our Scripture readings for today feature the word LOVE, but we need to ask the following question: What KIND of love? In the English language there is one word for love and of course, that is LOVE. In the ancient Greek language there were FOUR words used for love: eros, storge, philia and agape.
Eros was the word used for intimate love or romantic love. Storge was the word used for family or familial love. Philia was the word used for brotherly love or more specifically, love between friends. The word that John the Fourth Evangelist uses for love is the word AGAPE.
Agape love refers to SELF-LESS love. Agape is the word that has been used to describe: 1. Jesus' love (v. 9, 10)
2. The love of God the Father (v. 10)
3. Human (Jesus') love that lays down one's life for another (v. 13) commandment
As well, there is another layer to this word AGAPE. “Agape,” is love for people who can’t pay a person back. This “agape love” is like grace, a free gift for others which is undeserved or unearned or unmerited. Agape love is a free gift for those in need and you CAN’T pay it back.
It is pretty easy to see why John the 4th Evangelist used the word AGAPE in his gospel. How do you pay God back for granting life? How do you pay God back for sacrificing God’s son on the cross, to suffer and die? How do you repay God for the resurrection of Christ? How do you repay God for the GIFTS of forgiveness and eternal life?
You can’t. Too often though, we THINK we should be paying God back. We wonder what we can do to keep God happy, to make sure our names are written in the good book; we want to be on God’s good side. Sometimes when things go wrong we wonder what we have done to incur God’s wrath. How can we make it up to God so that God will reverse our misfortune? We try to make deals with God, negotiate with God. If God will only do just one particular thing for us, then we promise….. we will pay God back somehow.
But we cannot repay God for those things which God has granted us: forgiveness of sins and eternal life. And God does not want repayment; God wants us to express our love through obedience.
The writer of the epistle reading in 1 John says:
For the love of God is this, that we obey his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome, for whatever is born of God conquers the world. And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith.
God also wants us to express our love through service and love towards other human beings. John the 4th Evangelist says in the gospel reading:
“If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”
In the next 2 verses of his song, “I Won’t Take Less Than Your Love,” Paul Overstreet has the following lyrics:
"How much do I owe you?" said the man to his Lord.
For giving me this day and every day that's gone before.
Shall I build a temple, shall I make a sacrifice?
Tell me Lord and I will pay the price."
“And the Lord said: "I won't take less than your love, sweet love.
No, I won't take less than your love.
All the treasures of the world could never be enough,
And I won't take less than your love."
Paul Overstreet’s song eventually talks about the AGAPE type love of God; God will not be repaid for God’s love. God wants love in return. But before Paul Overstreet speaks of God, he speaks of the AGAPE love of a mother. A mother’s love cannot be repaid.
I like the progression of his song, from mothers, to God.
The reason for this is the possibility that mothers can be our picture of God today. I believe that God gives the gift of human life and the gift of one human being relating to another. So God gives us the gift of each other, and it is through our human traits that we can get a sense of what God is like.
We don’t know what God is like, but through our human relationships we can get a sense of the personality and the character of God. God is love, unconditional love, agape love. Just like our mother’s. Thanks be to God.
Acts 8: 26-30
Today’s first reading from the book of Acts, contains for me, 2 very important things: identity and Baptism. On the face of it, those 2 things may seem to be mutually exclusive, but in my mind, they are inter-twined.
First of all, let’s consider IDENTITY. If someone were to ask YOU to identify ME, how would you go about that? How would you describe me, identify me so that I would be known to the person who asked about me?
The chubby guy over there? The guy who seems to be talking all the time? The guy who looks like he is aged beyond his years?
Well, that is not really adequate, for while you might be able to describe me PHYSICALLY, you still haven’t nailed down my person, my identity, who I really am.
Of course, you might be able to accurately describe my physical appearance, but if you attempt to form an opinion of me, of my identity, of who I really am, trying to define me becomes hugely inaccurate. So if I try to identify the pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, and I am looking for the chubby guy in the room, I may be able to locate him, but what have I learned about him? I have to make assumptions. Let’s see now, overweight. Must be lazy, must be undisciplined, slothful, etc. But that may not be who I am. Problems abound.
Problems like that abound in our first scripture reading.
In the reading from the book of Acts, we have the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian, as he has become to be known.
How does the book of Acts describe him?
First of all, he is described as an Ethiopian which suggests a different colour of skin. Depending on where he came from within Ethiopia, that may offer suggestions about height, darkness of colour and facial shape.
Second, he is described as a Eunuch (a man who (by the common definition of the term may have been castrated, typically early enough in his life. Over the millennia eunuchs have performed a wide variety of functions in many different cultures: courtiers or equivalent domestics, treble singers, religious specialists, soldiers, royal guards, government officials and guardians of women or harem servants.
Third, he is described as a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. So he was a member of the royal court; maybe he is wise who gives good counsel and was probably trusted by the king and queen of Ethiopia.
Finally, he is described as being in charge of her entire treasury. So he is an accountant and therefore, must be smart, diligent, thorough, good at detail.
All of those descriptions are given by the writer of the book of Acts. All of those things may give you a sense of WHO he is, his real identity.
Who is this man? He is African, he is sexually impotent and harmless, he is a civil servant, he is an accountant. So now that we have this profile, what kind of biases and assumptions might people attach to a fellow like that?
Given all of that, you might assume that he was a little backward, maybe lazy, gay or something less sexual than a male of that day, a lazy 9-5 government worker who gets paid far too much for the work he does, a bookish accountant. He probably had thick glasses and one of those plastic pouches in his shirt pocket for the half-dozen pens he carried all the time.
Is that who he REALLY was? No. Fortunately the writer of Acts gives us THREE very important details about this man who encounters Philip, the apostle of Jesus:
- He had come to Jerusalem to worship
- he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
- And when Philip asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?" The Ethiopian replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?"
The Ethiopian had gone to worship, he was reading the Bible and he wanted someone to explain the Bible to him.
Who is this man?
The Ethiopian is a genuine seeker after God. He is a God-fearing person if you will, who makes the long journey to Jerusalem to worship, and then continues to study and meditate on scripture on his way home.
He is seeking the truth, and seeking God.
For the writer of the book of Acts, THAT is who he was; nothing else mattered. His nationality, his sexual orientation or status, his job, none of that mattered; this man was seeking truth and God.
In light of the apparent origins and adventures of the early Christian church, can you see why this was an important story? Why did this story MATTER?
It mattered because the Ethiopian was seeking God and seeking truth. His identity was now known; the important thing about him had been shared.
And of course, because he was seeking God and seeking truth, Philip responded. So recognizing the TRUE identity of the Ethiopian was important. To recognize that he was seeking truth and God allowed Philip to focus on the person.
You can see by Philip’s response, HOW he was able to focus on that Ethiopian seeking truth and God. Philip responded to him by opening his eyes and ears to scripture, by telling the story of Jesus.
And then came Baptism. As I mentioned at the start, there are 2 very important things in this story: identity and Baptism.
Baptism is a part of this, because Baptism mattered. I think that Philip mentioned the importance of baptism because we read:
As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, "Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?"
There was nothing to prevent the Ethiopian from being baptized. It was important he be baptized, for this brought him into the faith community. After he is baptized, welcomed into the faith he continues further along with his learning; his seeking and his important questions continue. But none of that is done in the context of being a stranger; it is in the context of being a fellow member of the faith. The Ethiopian was now one of them and he could use his baptism as a platform to continue to seek God and seek truth.
Can you see why this story was significant in the lives of the early Christian church? Can you see why baptism was important as well?
We see here, some of the hallmarks of the early Christian church; one’s identity could only best be described in relationship to God. Through baptism, this was the commonality; who are you in relationship to God? The early Christian church understood that they had been found by Christ; through his ministry, his life, his death and resurrection, they had been claimed by God. Baptism was the process through which they were claimed. Claimed by God, accepted by God through Jesus, they not only told the story of Jesus, they attempted to live it out. Part of the living out of the story of Jesus was to see people for whom they were: seekers after God.
CAN this story be important or significant for us?
How we describe those to whom God sends us and who are placed in our path? How do we see them? Do we see them in terms of social, economic, racial, ethic, gender, or other identity markers? Or do we see unique persons created in the image of God, in whom God is already at work? Do we see people who are seeking Christ and who have already been found by Christ — though they may not know it yet? If we see people for whom they are, seeking truth and God, can we then welcome them, bring them in and continue the conversation?
I think we make a lot of assumptions in church. I think we often assume that if you are new and you walk through those doors, then you are probably already a Christian, firm in your faith. In fact, we may go further than that; we probably assume you are already Lutheran. We might even assume that a person walking through the door has it all together; has all the answers, or at least the “right” answers. Such assumptions don’t match reality. Reality is, ALL who walk through the doors are seekers, seeking God and truth. Whether you started attending last week or last century, the reality is, no one has a claim on all the answers; we ALL have questions and we all want to know more. Everyone here has an identity in relationship to God which is all that matters. The beautiful thing is, we STILL share in the common denominator of baptism where we can come in and belong, where we can continue our faith journey, to feel free and safe to ask our questions.
CAN this story be important or significant for us? Let’s hope so! Amen.