Do You Understand?
Based on Acts 8:26-40, 1John 4:7-21, John 15:1-8
Sharma Lewis, the Bishop of the Virginia Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church, wants you to understand the following, “Members of the Virginia Annual Conference are to be disciples of Jesus Christ who are life-long learners who influence others to serve.” That bit on being life-long learners is an important one. It is something that a lot of people neglect in their secular and spiritual lives. They learn something and they believe that there is no more to know about the subject – even though new data are being generated all the time. Being a life-long learner in your spiritual life means that you invest significant time in your week to read and pray over scripture asking God to open it to you. In this way, one begins to understand how these ancient writings are alive and continue to speak into our time. In this way, God continues to reveal God’s-self to us so that we might continue to grow in unconditional love, wisdom, truth and understanding of our world.
Many of you are or were professional educators and all of you were students at one point in your lives. Educators will tell you that the goal of their instruction is not just to communicate facts about a particular area of study. Rather, the goal is to teach their students how to think, how to continue to be life-long learners that grow in knowledge and wisdom as each has the capacity. After all, Albert Einstein noted that we cannot solve the problems we create with the same thinking that created them. In order to evolve, we have to be open to new ideas and new ways of seeing and hearing. We can only do that if we continue to stretch our minds throughout our lives.
Jesus was an itinerant rabbi – a wandering teacher. Jesus did not teach like the scribes and the Pharisees, reading long sections of the Torah and expounding on how to be an observant Jew. Jesus saw how little practical understanding this kind of education conveyed to the average believer. He observed how the writings of Torah were taught using rote memorization, neglecting the purpose behind the commandments, covenant promises and interactions between God and God’s chosen people. To open the minds of the people about God and the Hebrew bible, Jesus taught exclusively in parables. These engaging stories helped awaken the imagination of the listener and allowed them to begin wrestle with the enormity of who and what God is. For example, God said that God was always becoming when God told Moses that God’s name was “I will be what I will be”. God is ever revealing more of God’s-self in the Bible and wants to do the same in our lives. Thus, we are called to be life-long learners seeking to encounter more of the fullness of God each day.
Our scripture lessons today, each in its own way, invite us to assess how much we understand about the role of God in our lives. In the Gospel according to John, Jesus speaks in parable about the fruitfulness of those “branches” who abide in the “true vine” and allow themselves to be pruned by God the vigneron. Philip, one of the first deacons of the Church, is moved by the Holy Spirit to bring understanding to a non-Jew about Jesus, and then to baptize him. Finally, the author of 1John begs us to understand and act out of the great love that God has for all. Before we proceed further, let us go to God now in prayer asking for our minds to be opened so that we might continue to seek after and live like Jesus, the risen Christ…
Jesus has celebrated the “Last Supper” and washed the Disciples feet. He has told them the things that will happen including Peter’s three-fold denial. He has also told them about the coming of the Holy Spirit – now they are on the way to Gethsemane. We pick up the reading in John’s Gospel as Jesus speaks in metaphor about how God the vine-grower tends to Jesus the “true vine”. God removes the branches that do not bear fruit and prunes the ones that are fruit bearing so that they can yield abundantly. None of this is possible if the branches are not part of the true vine. Jesus says quite directly, “…apart from me you can do nothing….” Jesus is hoping that his final teachings will help the Disciples to understand all that he has told them and motivate them to continue their discipleship.
The writer of 1John has gotten to the main point of the letter. Here the writer boils all of the Bible down to three words, “God is love”. What the writer wants the audience to understand is that because we are so loved by God, we have the capacity to love one another equally well. Those who learn to love perfectly will love humanity without fear – because they understand that the resurrection means that they have nothing to fear from death. Understand that if you abide in love, you will abide in God who is love.
The narrative from Acts brings into view the first deacon, Philip. Philip was selected along with Stephen and five others to help the Apostles in the daily care and feeding of all the new converts. They were selected because they were “full of the Spirit and wisdom” and in good standing. God sent Philip to help an official in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia understand more about God. The eunuch could not become a Jew due to his physical condition. God saw that he needed to be made a part of the vine, so the Holy Spirit moved Philip to help this man understand God’s great love in Jesus. A baptism followed and the eunuch went back to Ethiopia rejoicing. Could it be that this man evangelized Ethiopia such that it is the oldest and most Christian country in Africa? Such things are possible through the powerful love of God!
Understanding the totality of God is impossible as God is unknowable. St. Augustine once wrote about humans understanding God that, “If you understand him, it would not be God.” St. Augustine realized that God was always creating and revealing more of God’s-self, but that we want to make God one dimensional and thus easier to know. Jesus spoke in parables so that we might begin to understand aspects of God and heaven. Parables cannot be reduced to a literal understanding and thus they can continue to reveal more about God as we study them. While God is unknowable, we can experience God in study, prayer, worship and relationships with other believers. In fact, God wants to be experienced, so that we come to understand how much God loves us. Once we begin to understand more about God through experiencing God in study, prayer and loving unconditionally, then we realize that God is alive and well and active in our world and lives.
Do you understand that disciples are called to life-long learning so that we can be like Philip helping others understand how to access the love of God? Together with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to open our minds so that we come to understand that God is love. When we understand this biblical truth then we are ready to abide in God’s love and work with God’s love to transform the world. God is love…that’s all you need to understand to do the work of God in the world. Thanks be to God, amen!