Practice

 

Acts 8:26-40

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 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?”

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

 

1 John 4:7-21

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. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 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 love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit.

And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.

So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.

Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

 

John 15:1-8

[Jesus said:] “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.”

 

 

On July 28, 2010, the novelist Anne Rice resigned from Christianity posting: Today I quit being a Christian. I’m out. I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being (in quotes)  “Christian.

 

She went on:

“In the name of Christ, I refuse to be anti-gay. I refuse to be anti-feminist. I refuse to be anti-artificial birth control. I refuse to be anti-Democrat. I refuse to be anti-secular humanism. I refuse to be anti-science. I refuse to be anti-life. In the name of Christ, I quit Christianity and being Christian. Amen,” 

 

An atheist for decades, Anne Rice who wrote a series of vampire novels, re-found her faith when she was 57. For ten years she was publically Christian until she got fed up. Not with her faith, or with Jesus, but with all the Christians she believed propagated hate and prejudice until she found it uncomfortable to call herself a Christian, and be lumped in with a word that she says is burdened with history and horror.

 

It isn’t her faith in Christ she has a problem with, but those who call themselves Christian.

 

And if this was just one voice crying in the wilderness, maybe we could overlook it, but this has become a huge trend…. People who are finding a disconnect between Christ and the Church. People who are leaving church, who grew up in church, because they believe that church does not practice what Christ preached….

 

…People who think that the church as an organization, or as a whole bunch of organizations are actually disconnected from Christ…

 

I’d like to say that this is not true, or not totally true… …that all my life, I have been a part of church and in every congregation and I mean every congregation, there are Christlike people who would give you the shirt off their back, there are Christlike people who accept and love everyone, there are Christlike people who build community, worship wholeheartedly and serve one another, their community, those in need and this world for that matter.

And it doesn’t matter the theology of the congregation , conservative , liberal, in between, mainline, evangelical etc…

There are Christlike people everywhere.

 

But at the same time, Ann Rice is not just blowing smoke. Everywhere you can find Christians who are not like Christ, or denominations, or Christian organizations, who espouse Christ but seemed to be deeply flawed. And frankly in the eyes of the public, all churches get painted with the same brush, when one particular group, or congregation or denomination, acts in a way that seems hypocritical to Christ.

 

It is one of the trends for people not coming to church and there is no easy answer for it. Of course we here cannot control all the different Christian groups in the world. We do not have much sway when it comes to other Christians and how they practice their faith.

 

In fact to be perfectly honest, most of the control we have in life is over our own faith and nobody else’s.

 

But I do think that one of the problems with Christianity over the centuries is the emphasis on belief over practice.

 

If I asked you what a Christian was, the most common answer would be some statement about what Christians believe. Christians believe in Jesus. Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead. Christians believe the bible. …or some other statement like that…

 

Very few, I think would talk about what a Christian is, by talking about what a Christian does. What is it a Christian does? In fact some people get very confused. What is the practice of a Christian?

 

And yet when Jesus is confronted and asked about the most important thing, he doesn’t answer in terms of intellectual belief.

He doesn’t say that we should believe in God.

Jesus says we should love God and love one another.

 

In fact Jesus one times defines us by saying that people will know we are his followers because we love one another.

 

Other places he talks about faith in very practical terms. The one who is great is a servant. Feeding the hungry, visiting the sick or the prisoner, clothing the naked, giving water to the thirsty, is the same as doing it to him.

 

 

And when we look at what Jesus did. He touched the unclean. Jesus ate meals with the wrong people, performed miracles on the wrong day, healed foreigners as readily as locals and blessed prostitutes that everyone looked down on.  It was totally upsetting to the way the world worked.

Jesus included the excluded, and raised up those the world thought were nothing.

 

For Jesus faith wasn’t intellectual propositions, but a way to be.

 

And where did he get that from, from his connection to God, whom he called Father.

Jesus connected with God; and it was what drove his life. “I and the Father are one” he said.

 

And so, I am wondering if we got off track on our whole faith thing, when we started thinking that right doctrine was more important than connecting with God, with Jesus, with the Spirit.

 

What Jesus calls in our scripture lesson… Abiding in him or abiding in the vine.

 

I think the church could be more helpful in helping people connect with Jesus, helping people to abide in Jesus, so that their faith is about doing what Jesus does, and living the way Jesus does….

 

So how does one “abide in the vine”?

 

Well let me tell you that to a certain extent we all abide in someone, or someones.

 

Let me give you an example.

John Smith, (not his real name) was a 50 year old man who had a job as a caretaker, but was a man that some would characterize as slow, or emotionally stunted. I do not know if there was a diagnosis or anything, but John lived with his mother and his mother basically looked out for him. But John’s mother died. John continued to live in his mother’s house and go to work, and an uncle sort of was appointed to look out for him.

One day the utility company called the uncle and said they were shutting off the utilities to John’s house. Why? He asked.

The bills haven’t been paid.

The uncle went to visit John. When he asked John why he hadn’t paid the bills, John said what bills. You know, the bills that come in the mail from the utility companies.

John replied, I don’t read the mail.

You don’t know.

John said: My mother told me never to read the mail but to put it on the dining room table.

When the uncle walked into the dining room there was months of unopened mail.

 

John was still abiding in his mother, even though his mother had died months earlier.

 

In Family Therapy the term for a healthy self is self-differentiated. It is the ability to be in touch with others and still be autonomous.

Jesus was the most self-differentiated person. You have no power over me, he said to Pilate. He had control of his own life, He laid it down. He took it up.

He wasn’t controlled by what others thought or by public opinion or by threat or coercion. He couldn’t be tempted or bought. He was his own person.

 

Now no human is absolutely 100 percent self-differentiated, but those who are less self-differentiated make their decisions based on what others think, or based on social or family pressure, or because they conform to their upbringing or rebel against it, or because they want to identify with a movie or rock star, or because they identify with a philosophy, a religion or a politician.

 

And all of us to a greater or lesser extent therefore abide in someone.

Abide in the family upbringing.

Abide in the particular religious denomination.

Abide in the particular political party

Abide in the words of a book, or a person, or our peers.

 

I am not saying that we should ignore, religion or family or politics, or books or peers, but that those things should not make our decisions, we should make our own decisions.

 

And that is part of the freedom with which Christ sets us free.

Abiding in Jesus, is about connecting with Jesus is such a deep way, that our true self comes to the fore, and we are set free to be the loving person, that God created us to be, and even though we might be part of a family, or part of a political party, or part of a church, the decisions we make are decisions that we have come to ourselves, by being in touch with our true self, the loving part of ourselves, what I call the true self, or the Christ that lives in us.

 

What if we came to church and were set free to be ourselves and truly love one another…

 

There is a beautiful example of this in one of the strangest stories in the New Testament, the story we read of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.

 

Because it is in the bible and many of us have heard it many times we often don’t think of it as strange.

 

But it is way out there in some ways, especially for being 2000 years old.

 

The story is about an African Eunuch who has come from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship.

 

The man is probably black. The man is a eunuch which means in his day he considered neither a man nor a woman.

It says he was up to Jerusalem to worship, which is supremely strange because it says in Deuteronomy chapter 23 that eunuchs are not permitted to worship.

 

This man is the epitome of someone the Jews would not accepted 2000 years ago, a foreigner, different skin colour, indeterminate sexuality…

He wouldn’t have got near the door.

 

And yet the Spirit leads Philip to this outcast, this man who wouldn’t be welcomed.

 

And the man is reading from Isaiah.

 

He is reading from what we call the suffering servant passage.

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

 

And he is identifying with the passage. He is reading about someone who is victimized and excluded and maligned and left out, for whom there is no justice, and no children to get him justice.

He is reading about someone who is controlled and forced and done violence to..

 

He totally understands. He gets it.

Do you know what it is like to be forced? To have violence done to you? To be rejected, excluded, to not have justice?

 

And the eunuch asks: “is the prophet speaking about himself or is he speaking about someone else?”

 

And Philip says: “let me tell who that is. That is Jesus.

 

Jesus understands. Jesus was beaten and humiliated and tortured and killed.

 

But you know what? He never stopped loving.

 

That is why we call him the true vine.

 

If you are in a church, a relationship, a family, an organization or a country…

And it uses violence. It forces. It demands strict obedience. There is no freedom to think differently.

If you are coerced, manipulated, lied to or shamed…

 

Then you are connecting to a false vine.

 

Whereas the true vine Jesus, loves you, cares for you, enables you to make choices and decisions, frees you from shame, supports you, encourages you, wants you to think for yourself and appreciate your gifts.

The true vine realizes that there is lots of diversity and that we are all different and special and unique.

 

In the second Uncle Remus story published in 1880, from a collection of African American Folk Tales, Br’er Fox makes a big doll out of tar and turpentine and puts it on the side of the road.

Br’er Rabbit comes along and gives the Tar Baby and cordial greeting and when the Tar Baby says nothing, he gets offended and punches the Tar Baby and get his hand stuck. He starts to fight the Tar Baby and the more he fights the Tar Baby the more entangled and enmeshed he becomes.

 

What happened was that Br’er Rabbit thought the Tar Baby should react in a certain way and when the Tar Baby didn’t he got upset and struck out.

Br’er Rabbit let his judgement and emotions get the best of him and he tried to force someone else into his way of being and he got stuck.

 

The Family Therapy term is called Fusion. When we let our emotional energy get stuck in someone else’s emotional energy.

When we try to control, manipulate, entice, coerce, force, tempt or somehow make another human being into what we think they should be…

When we allow others to control, manipulate, entice, force, tempt, or allow someone to make us into what that other thinks we should be…

…When we let other people’s opinions control or bother our lives. When we try to use our opinion to control or bother others.

 

We can get stuck.

 

And it is all about where we direct our energy.

 

Sometimes I think in the church and as well as other organizations a lot of energy gets directed towards committee meetings, towards policy and rules. It is not bad stuff…..

…But …what if most of the energy in our church was directed towards the true vine.

 

What if it was directed around worship, around prayer, about bible study, around meditation, around service, around sharing.

 

What if in your personal life, you took a 5 minutes, ten minutes, half an hour, or an hour, to talk to Jesus, to think about Jesus, to read scripture, to meditate upon it, to confess sin to Jesus, to ask for his power, to think about how to act and practice love the way Jesus did.

What if you took time every day to read something spiritual.

What if you decided like the cubs and scouts used to do….Maybe they still do… To do one good thing for someone every day.

What if you decided there was some small thing you could do regularly to help the poor.

I know a massage therapist who once a week goes to a nursing home a give some free massages as a way of helping others.

 

What if we as a church and you as a person directed more of energy towards the one who sets us free to love?

The one who doesn’t get trapped in the manipulations and machinations of the world, and always loves?

 

The one who feeds us love and grace and forgiveness?

 

I think that we would become more like Jesus.

 

And I think that our faith would be more about what we do unto others and less what we think in our minds.

 

A tourist got off the bus in New York and stopped and asked a saxophone player who was busking on the streets of New York, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”

The saxophone player replied. “Practice, man, lots of and lots of practice.”

 

How do you abide in Jesus? “Practice, man, lots of lots of directing your life and your energy towards Jesus and to practicing your faith, not just thinking your faith. Amen.