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Politics of Scripture

A Dry Tree Made Fruitful—Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21

In both Luke’s account of the Ethiopian eunuch and John’s discussion of love, the New Testament holds out the promise of a chastened yet real utopian vision, founded in God’s self-gift in King Jesus.

Acts 8:26-40
26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) 27So 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.29Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ 31He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now 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. 
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
   Who can describe his generation?
     For his life is taken away from the earth.’ 
34The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As 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?’ 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When 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. 40But 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.

In Acts 8, Luke offers the first glimpse of the international scope of the gospel. Its setting in Acts is significant. Everything in Luke’s Gospel moves toward Jerusalem. The “infancy” narratives conclude with twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple, listening and teaching (Luke 2:41-51). Between Luke 9 and 19, Jesus marches relentlessly toward Jerusalem, from the mount of transfiguration to the Mount of Olives where He will be crucified. The two disciples on the road to Emmaus return to Jerusalem once they recognize Jesus (Luke 24:13-35), and at the end of the Gospel Jesus sends His disciples back to Jerusalem. Luke ends his Gospel where he began, in the temple (Luke 24:50-53).

Jesus’ disciples don’t leave until Stephen (“Crown”) becomes the first Christian martyr. Then they flee, dispersed like seed, spreading the good news of the risen Jesus. Stephen’s blood is the seed of the church’s mission. The deacon Phillip ends up in Samaria, performing miracles of healing and winning converts.

As Jesus said (Acts 1:8), the apostolic witness doesn’t stop in Samaria. When Peter and John later lay their hands on Samaritans, the Spirit falls on them. A Samaritan Pentecost follows on the original Pentecost in Jerusalem, incorporating Samaritans into the original company of Jewish disciples. Immediately, the Spirit of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria sends Phillip away to the desert, where he encounters a high-ranking member of the Ethiopian court.

In Hebrew, Ethiopians are Cushites, descendants of the firstborn of Ham (Genesis 10:6-7), whose very name evokes a sense of exotic threat erupting from the southern netherworlds (2 Chronicles 12:3; 14:9-15). This Ethiopian is a Gentile God-fearer. He has been to Jerusalem for worship, but, as Warren Gage and John Beck point out, he could not have found the experience satisfying. Eunuchs were not admitted to the congregation of Israel (Deuteronomy 23:1).

Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, the eunuch is leaving Jerusalem, but Luke is setting up a contrast of old and new. The eunuch will not return to the temple. Ever since Stephen’s blood has been mingled with the blood of Jesus, the Way leads in new directions.

When Phillip meets him, the eunuch is in a desert place, a setting that mimics the barrenness of his own body. Yet his reading gives him hope. Though the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 is cut off from the land of the living (Isaiah 53:8), he will see his offspring (Isaiah 53:10). The Suffering Servant is a kind of eunuch, but a fruitful one, as his suffering issues in fruitfulness for Zion, the barren woman who becomes a joyful mother of children (Isaiah 54:1).

Further on, Isaiah makes explicit reference to eunuchs: “Let no eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree’” (56:3). Rather, the eunuch who keeps Sabbath will have an enduring name better than sons and daughters (56:5). No wonder the eunuch is eager to know this man.

Phillip has learned his hermeneutics from Jesus: Beginning with Isaiah 53 (Acts 8:35; cf. Luke 24:27), he proclaims the gospel of Jesus from all the Scriptures. As they travel, the eunuch sees water. Confessing Jesus, he is baptized, watered to become a fruitful tree, a tree of life. Excluded from the temple, he becomes an “Israelite” by receiving water in the wilderness.

As Jesus said about another text of Isaiah, so Phillip could say: This day Isaiah 56 is fulfilled in our sight. The new is better than the old: It turns dry land into pools of water; it is the covenant of the fruitful eunuch.

The episode doubly depicts the political witness of the early church. At one level, Phillip becomes the counselor to a great ruler of Cush, taken up into his chariot (Acts 8:30, 38). In another register, the newly baptized eunuch returns to Ethiopia to resume his post as the treasurer of Queen Candace (8:27). Through Phillip’s witness, Ethiopia receives a Joseph, a Daniel, a counselor to the king who is filled with the Spirit.

Analogous episodes dot Luke’s account in Acts. When Paul arrives in Salamis, Bar-Jesus (Elymas), a Jewish magician, has the ear of the Roman proconsul Sergius Paulus. After Paul rebukes Elymas as a son of the devil, the proconsul believes and accepts the teaching of Paul (Acts 13:4-12). A new Jew has the ear of Sergius Paulus, his namesake Paul. Later Felix can’t get enough of Paul (Acts 24:24-27), and through the latter chapters of Acts Paul regularly stands before kings.

Modern reductionism makes us think that Paul is only interested in the piety of these kings. On the contrary, he comes with a message about King Jesus: God has installed His king on Zion; therefore, kings and judges, be wise (Psalm 2).

By the end of Acts, there is no Constantine in Rome. But the effect of the apostolic mission, if not its strategy, is to place Josephs and Daniels in courts throughout the Roman world.

1 John 4:7-21
7Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. 9God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10In 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. 11Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.

13By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. 14And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. 15God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. 16So 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. 17Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. 18There 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. 19We love because he first loved us. 20Those 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. 21The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

Acts 8 has an overtly political import, but at first blush the same cannot be said of 1 John 4, one of the Bible’s most elaborate statements of love. The foundation of John’s exhortation is the declaration that love is the very nature of God. In contrast to all other deities, the true and living God is love. He essentially and eternally lives in a communion of love, joy and peace, as the Father loves the Son through the Spirit, and the Son responds in love to the Father through the same Spirit.

God isn’t play-acting when He comes to us as our gracious Father and our loving Bridegroom, as the Spirit who is love. He’s not adopting a pose, or clothing Himself in alien colors. God is the love He manifests; the love He manifests is God.

The supreme display of the God who is love, of the Love that is God, is the gift of the Son, who is the Light of God coming in flesh. “In this is love,” John says, “not that we loved God but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (4:10). To say “God is love” is correct, but imprecise. God is a certain sort of love, the sort revealed in the story of Jesus. In the gospel, we receive the great good news that the living God not only shows but is self-giving love.

John says, “the one who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in Him” (4:16). God’s love is not only the model but the source of human love, and we can love as we ought only if we abide in His love. In terms of John 15, love is one of the fruits the branches bear when they abide in Jesus, the true vine. Cut off from Jesus, who is the display of the God who is love, branches are good for nothing but burning. Remaining in Jesus, they produce the fruit of love.

No one has beheld God at any time (4:12); God is light, unapproachable in His brilliance. Yet when we love one another, abiding in God as He abides in us, His love is perfected in us (4:12), and His ineffable light shines through us. As we remain in Him, our lives display the kaleidoscopic love of the invisible God of Light.

Stirring, yes, but there doesn’t seem to be any political insight here. John’s paean on love seems hopelessly naïve, especially in his contrast of love and fear. Perfect love casts out fear, because fear responds to punishment (4:18). A nice idea, that. But, realistically, can any human community survive, much less flourish, in the absence of threat, fear and punishment? We are apt to reject John as sentimentalist, a first-century Dostoevsky who, through Ivan Karamazov, imagines a world where criminals can be loved out of their depravity.

Our Hobbesian reaction rises in part from peculiarly modern conceptions of love. For ancient Hebrews and medieval Christians, love was a public virtue, entwined with loyalty between superiors and subordinates. Shakespeare’s Cassius says that Caesar loves Brutus (Julius Caesar 1.2.408), without a hint of homosexuality.

Only in the past few centuries has love been reduced to private sentiment. In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI rightly challenged this conception, arguing that love ought not be a glaze on the stony realm of Realpolitik, but must infuse political economy in the form of gratuity and gift. Benedict has called for the formation of a “civilization of love.”

It may be objected that Benedict indulges the same utopian fantasies as the apostle John and Dostoevsky. Rather than attempt to refute the charge, it’s best to embrace it: John does call us to an idealized community of love, a literal utopia that exists nowhere and no-now. That may only serve to shift the ground of objection. Modern dreams of perfect community, after all, are responsible for tens of millions of deaths and much of the misery of modernity. Perhaps the deepest political virtue is to renounce the seductions of political imagination.

But realism of that sort is itself a seduction, and a utopian one. To renounce imagination is to renounce humanity; to imagine a world bereft of political dreams is to imagine a world that is nowhere and no-now. Besides, for every totalitarian movement inspired by utopia, there are several vibrant reform movements, often inspired by a vision very like John’s. Who knows what fresh political initiatives came from that nameless Ethiopian eunuch, who returned to his post with a gospel that welcomes eunuchs and calls us to love one another?

Rather than suppress the utopian impulse, the gospel chastens and disciplines it. It trains us to distrust ourselves; to place our hope in the God who is love, the God whose love is manifested in the self-gift of Jesus, the God whose love is perfected in us as we enact Jesus’ own self-gift in the power of the Spirit; finally, to seek the city above, the city with foundations, the final city whose maker and builder is God.

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