Sunday, April 29, 2018

Easter 5B, 2018: Unifying fire

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

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En el nombre del Dios: Padrej, Hijo, y Espiritu Santo. Amen.

I had a conversation the other day with a friend who was processing the Scripture for their sermon for today and they asked me: What does “abide” mean to you?

It was a good question, so I’d like to ask it of you and offer a portion of this sermon time for a holy conversation on what it means that we abide in God AND that God abides in us.


Years ago I burned my arm from here (wrist) to here (near shoulder). First, second, and third degree burns. The pain was indescribably awful, and as I read today’s gospel I wonder…who could love a God like that? I couldn’t.

So what about that last bit of the gospel where the branches that bear no fruit are thrown into the fire and burned? Many, many people hear that as a threat: If you’re bad child, God will punish you in a torturous way.

Doesn’t our epistle from John say that there is no fear in love? That perfect love casts out fear?

Is it possible to love and not fear a God who threatens to burn you up if you don’t produce? So how do we understand Jesus’ words about the branches being thrown into the fire?

The answer is found in the lager narrative of our love story with God. Where else in the Bible do we hear about fire?

• Exodus 3:1-6 – (Story of the burning bush) Moses saw that the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed…. Then God called to Moses out of the bush saying: ‘I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’

• Exodus 13: 21 – (God’s guidance of the Israelites in exile) The LORD went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night.

• Exodus 24:17 – (Story of God giving Moses the 10 commandments) Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.

• Deut 5:24 - And you said, “The LORD our God has shown us his glory and his majesty, and we have heard his voice from the fire.

• Luke 3:16 - John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.

• Acts 2:3 – (the story of Pentecost) They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them.

Fire, in Bible-speak then, is the presence of God, who our epistle from John teaches us, is love. And the narrative of our love story with God, that is, our Scriptures, illustrates for us that God’s love surrounds us when we are afraid, guides us when we are lost, and transforms us when we need renewal, giving us new life, like the legendary phoenix who is consumed by fire only to rise again.

Sharing in the presence and passion of God results in our knowing that we are connected, to God, and to one another, bound by the eternal love of God. Knowing that truth means we will no longer be able to separate ourselves into groups of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ or even us and God. We will live in the unity of the abiding love that is God. When we live according to that truth no one will have to tell us to be honest, or gentle, or humble in our dealings with one another.

We will bear this fruit because we will know that the root we spring from is God and our words, choices, and actions will demonstrate the character and nature of God who abides in us.

Living in this way, we don’t fear for our lives. Instead, like Jesus we surrender ourselves to God knowing that God’s plan of salvation is for the whole world.

Like Mary, Jesus’ mother, Peter, John, and all who call themselves disciples of Jesus, the Christ, we give up our expectations for what our lives might be and give ourselves fully to God whose plan, we know, is so much more than we can ask or imagine.

And we walk steadfastly in the path God sets before us knowing it leads to eternal life that is, life in the eternal presence of God, trusting as that plan is revealed to us over time, and remembering that though there were awful, devastating moments along the way for Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, and the other disciples - and that there will be for us too -the Good News in our Scripture today is that God abides in us and we in him, so all will truly be well as Dame Julian of Norwich famously said.

When we are experiencing the pain of divine pruning (which in a church setting often means letting go “what we’ve always done,” or relinquishing our perceptions about people in our past or present) we rejoice and cooperate with the divine Love at work in us, preparing us to produce more fruit.

When we see our withered branches (which in a church setting may be in the form of favored ministries or events, or even persons who for whatever reason can’t move into the new life God is leading the church) when we see them being thrown into the fire we rejoice and cooperate with the divine Love who is doing its transforming work, so that like the phoenix, they and we will rise again into new life.

The Good news of our salvation in Jesus Christ is that resurrection is always God’s response to death - every kind of death –including: the death of a ministry, a habit, a friend, an idea, a self or other-perception, or control…

New life is God’s response to all death and healing is God’s response to all wounds. We can, therefore, offer ourselves and our lives fully to God, not out of fear, but anticipating the new life God is waiting to give us.

So rejoice, beloved ones. Be joyful. There is no nothing to fear, no one or no thing to avoid – only new life to embrace. Amen.

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