A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Epiphany.
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God … No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and God’s love is perfected in us… So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.”
(1 John 4, selected verses)
God loves us; and the people seeking God’s grace will know God’s love if we love them in Christ’s name. If we love them as they are, as God has loved us.
I’m fascinated by the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-40). What prompts this person’s question to Philip: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
It could just be an opening for Philip to talk about Jesus, and that’s how we more usually read it; but what if it’s more personal, a more authentic question than that?
The eunuch has been up to Jerusalem, to worship at the Temple, an institution from which he would for a long time have been excluded because of his identity as a eunuch. Even if now he was accepted and invited in, what did they hear while they were walking around there? Was it kind, or was it cruel? Did it acknowledge their particular gifts and their image of God, borne in a body which was still an embarrassment to some. Did somebody use these verses, about the one who has no generations to follow and continue his life and line, to demean him or to embarrass them?
What do people whose bodies or whose gender expression or whose models of family do not fit the tight moulds in which some of us were raised hear from the church, and is it kind, or is it cruel? Would our interpretation and use of the Bible cause a transgender or non-binary person to respond with confidence and delight to the gospel that they hear, exclaiming as the eunuch did to Philip: “Here is water – why not baptize me now!”
Or would they hear something less inviting, less kind, less gospel?
Would they encounter a warm embrace, or a cold shoulder? Would they find the way to new life, or would we send them down a wilderness road?
Sometimes you have heard me talk about inclusive language for God and for humanity, and you may have wondered why it seems to matter so much to me. We have heard the secular voices of phobia and the sanctimonious voices of self-righteousness recently aiming barbs and damaging and demeaning legislation at people, especially young people, whose gender expression does not conform to a particular societal structure. Such unkindness and unwelcome can be deadly for the young person longing to belong, and to be beloved. It is beyond tragic that LGBTQ young people die of suicide or contemplate dying of suicide at a rate up to three times higher among than among their straight peers. Language and legislation that punish or demean them is the opposite of life-giving, the opposite of recognizing the diversity of the image of God among us. Language that is based in prurience, judgement, or distaste is so damaging to the confidence of a child of God. They know by what they hear whether we love them. And they hear a lot.
Sadly, this is a problem even amongst the most well-meaning of us. At our last diocesan convention the longest discussion in the whole meeting was about whether it is grammatically acceptable to expand our language to include those who use pronouns other than he or she. Finally, the idea that the loving people is more important than clinging to some timebound rules we were taught at school won out.
The people – any people – seeking God’s grace will find it here, and in us, only if we love them in Christ’s name, as Christ has loved us, finding the image of God within our facets and our flaws, in infinite variety and visions of beauty.
The truth is that Isaiah addresses the eunuch’s concerns, if they are as I have imagined here. God answers, through the prophet:
Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”
4 For thus says the Lord:
To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (Isaiah 56:3-5)
And Jesus affirms the eunuch in the gospel of Matthew, adding, “Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19:12)
Philip, one of Jesus’ closest twelve apostles, remembered the word of Jesus: words of acceptance, embrace, grace, and love. He knew that the way of Christ is the way of truth, the way that leads to life, that is life-giving. He welcomed the eunuch’s desire to be baptized and he gave this person, this stranger, the confidence to ask for and to accept this sacrament of God’s grace.
The people seeking grace, love, belonging will know God’s love if we love them in Christ’s name, as Christ loves us.
How we talk about one another matters. Loving our neighbours matters. Bringing life, extending resurrection, matters. Recognizing the image of God, infinite in its diversity and indivisible in each person into whom God has breathed life, including you, including me: this is part of loving the God who has so loved us. In those whose bodies, lives, families, or identities most differ from our own, there it is that we see most clearly the breadth and expansiveness of God’s embrace.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. … Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and [his, her, their, God’s] love is perfected in us.
(1 John 4, selected verses)