SJF • Easter 5b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
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... and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
I was very fortunate, when I was in seminary, to be able to spend two of my years there studying the Hebrew language. It is not at all an easy language either to learn or to understand, but I felt it was important to study the language in which most of the sacred Scriptures are written, and it has been a real advantage to me ever since, because it has helped me in studying them — to be able to return to the original text.
As with all languages, other than those with which one grows up and uses all the time, it is important, after you’ve studied a language in school, to remain in touch with it, to review it and keep in touch with the languages you studied, especially in later life, in order to remain familiar with them and be able to make use of them.
After I graduated from seminary and was ordained, my first parish was in Yonkers, even though I was still living in the Bronx, I commuted back and forth on the MTA and the Bee-line bus. This gave me plenty of time to read; and one of the things I decided to read in those first years out of seminary was the Hebrew Scriptures — starting with Genesis — in order to keep that language I had studied fresh in my mind. I didn’t want that study to go to waste.
Well, one day something happened to me that is not unlike what happened to the Ethiopian who was reading Isaiah in our passage from Acts today. I was on the bus reading from the Hebrew Scriptures, and a rabbi happened to get on and sit next to me. I could not have been more obviously gentile, as I was wearing my clerical shirt, nor could he have been more obviously a rabbi, with a very large white beard. After a while the rabbi, who I could tell was curious and reading over my shoulder, finally overcame his shyness, and virtually quoted the evangelist Philip by asking, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” I told him I’d been studying Hebrew in seminary and was trying to keep the language fresh in my mind, and we had a lovely conversation about the language and tradition of study that is so much a part of the rabbinic tradition and way of life.
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I mention all of this, reminded by the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, because as it is with language — the need to stay connected with it if it is to be of any use — so it is with the life of faith, the life of hope and above all the life of love. It is imperative that we stay connected with the source of our life and of all love, which is God.
Saint John the Divine makes this abundantly clear in that passage from his First Letter that we heard this morning. God is love, he affirms, and if we are to love we must to stay connected to the source of all love, which is God. John goes on to say that love is the proof that one is truly connected with God — and that those who do not love their brothers and sisters whom they have seen, cannot possibly claim to be connected with the love of the God whom they have not seen.
How many of you here have had the experience of working with an appliance of some sort — as sophisticated as a computer or as simple as an iron or a lamp or a vacuum cleaner — you flip the switch and nothing happens: the computer remains dark, the iron fails to get warm, the light bulb doesn’t go on, or the vacuum remains silent? And what is the rule? What’s the first thing you are supposed to check? (Which unfortunately I have to admit I often don’t remember to check myself) You look to see if it is plugged in. How many of you have stood there switching the switch back and forth, back and forth, wondering why it’s not working, instead of seeing if it is plugged in! The problem isn’t with the switch; it’s with the plug. It is a no-brainer to realize that none of these appliances can work unless they are connected to the power source they need to operate.
So it is that we cannot love our brothers and our sisters if we are not connected to the source of all love — who is God. It is by being connected with God, plugged in (if you will), that we have the ability to do the work God has given us to do; which is, as John reminds us, to love one another. And if we do this — by living in God — John says that God will live in us and his love will be perfected in us.
To get back to my first example, it is by spending time in and with the Hebrew Scriptures, reading them in the Hebrew language and studying it, that the language gets into me — into my head and my heart, becoming a part of me so that I truly understand what is written. So the more time I spend in it, the more it is in me. The more time I spend in God’s word, the more God’s word is in me — in my heart, in my head, so that it becomes a part of me.
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Jesus uses a similar example with the image of the vine and the branches. Anyone who has ever watched a tree or a bush or a vine grow understands that if you cut a branch from it, it will not grow any more — any leaves or fruit that are already on it will shrivel, wither and die shortly after the branch is cut from the source of its life. In fact, those branches will quickly dry up altogether and become suitable for nothing but kindling.
And Jesus emphasizes that it is his word that must abide in our hearts, the hearts of those who believe, this fruitful word, this word which, as Isaiah had said, “goes forth and does not return empty.” The word of God — whether the written word of the Scripture or the living Word of God, the Son of God himself, dwells in our hearts when we allow our hearts to dwell in him and on him.
This is the mystery on which John so often meditates, both in his Gospel and in his Epistles: how something can contain and be contained at the same time; how Jesus can abide in us even as we abide in him. It is like the lamp that by being connected is “in” the electrical circuit just as the electricity is “in” the lamp — or like how a sponge dipped in a stream is “in” the stream even as the stream is “in” it. Or, to use the example that Jesus raised, how the life of the vine is in the branches even as — and only as — they are in the vine.
The love of God is in us when we are in the love of God. And we show that love of God when we pass that love along to our brothers and sisters — like the light that illuminates when it is connected to the current and the current flows through it; like the fruitful branches that bear their fruit because they partake of the life of the vine; like the language that is spoken and understood because it is in the minds and hearts of both those who speak and those who hear.
Let us then, brothers and sisters, soak ourselves deeply in the love of God, draw deeply on the current that runs through him, through us, and reaches out to others, showing that the love is real. Let us bear the fruit that God empowers us to bear; let us speak his word boldly, not by our own virtue, but because we are connected to the flow of the love that created the universe, the Word through whom all things were made, including each and every one of us who dwell on God’s good earth, that we may give glory to him by sharing that love with all who love the Lord.+