Sermon 4th Sunday in Easter, NL3, 07 May 2017
The First Reading for 4th Sunday in Easter is from Acts the 8th chapter.
NRS Acts 8:26 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.)
27 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
28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.
29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, "Go over to this chariot and join it."
30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, "Do you understand what you are reading?"
31 He replied, "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
32 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.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth."
34 The eunuch asked Philip, "About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?"
35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.
36 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?"
38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.
39 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.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
The Gospel reading for the 4th Sunday in Easter is from the Gospel of Luke the 24th chapter. Glory to you O Lord.
NRS Luke 24:44 Then he said to them, "These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you-- that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled."
45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures,
46 and he said to them, "Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,
47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.
The Gospel of our Lord. Praise to you O Christ.
Pray: Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
One of my favorite songs is, "On the Road Again" by Willie Nelson. It could be Saint Luke's theme song. "On the road again, just can't wait to get on the road again. The life I love is talking Jesus with my friends. I just can't wait to get on the road again."
So here we have in Luke's sequel to his Gospel another story of being on the road. The next chapter in Acts is Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. A few weeks ago we talked about the two disciples meeting Jesus on the road to Emmaus. In chapters 9 through 19 of Luke's gospel Jesus had set his face and was on the road to Jerusalem, the Good Samaritan met the wounded man on the road from Jerusalem, the Prodigal Son met his father on the road into town. There is a lot of traveling in Luke's writings. Luke emphasizes the movement of Jesus, the movement of the Holy Spirit, the movement of Gospel through the metaphor of roads - the best way to travel and to move.
As I tried to emphasize in the Kid's sermon, this story of Philip meeting the Ethiopian has a lot of movement in it. Everyone is either coming or going, or they've already come, gone and went. We see the activity of the Holy Spirit moving throughout the whole scene. We are intended to know that hasn't changed. The Holy Spirit is alive and well and on the move. It reminds us of Jesus' conversation with Nicodemus in John chapter 3, when he said,
8 "The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8 ESV)
And we know about wind don't we. Does it ever really stop? No, it just pauses. That's the way the Spirit is.
The movement of the Spirit is not random or chaotic, he has a purpose. This narrative is a beautiful example of the how the Spirit challenges our human conceptions and expectations and limitations.
Think of the nameless Ethiopian. He is first identified as a foreigner, then as a eunuch. A eunuch is a sterilized man. He could have been sterilized intentionally or it could be because of a birth defect. The effect is that he cannot ever become a ruler, because he can't produce children. He is considered safe to care for women. Eunuchs were often put in charge of the king's harem. In this case the Queen of the Ethiopians, Queen Candace trusted him with the finances of the country. The implication is that he has leadership and management skills and abilities.
He had come to Jerusalem to worship. But we don't know if he was Jewish or someone interested in the Jewish faith. Jews had moved South following the Babylonian capture of the land of Judah. Several years ago Israel airlifted many Ethiopian Jews to Israel to get them away from the communist persecution. These were descendents of Jews who had lived there for centuries and had maintained the faith of their ancestors. So he could have been of Jewish descent and made this religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
But the Eunuch could not take part in the full life of the Jewish religion. Leviticus gives the restrictions on those males who are damaged and sterile. So this Ethiopian man was blocked and restricted from reaching his full human potential both personally, professionally, and spiritually. That had to weigh on him. But he continued to pursue a deeper understanding of his faith.
One wonders how he obtained a copy of a scroll of Isaiah. These scrolls were hand transcribed. They probably never went on sale at the Temple bookstore. In any event, by the time Philip caught up with him he had read most of it. He was reading from what we have designated the 53rd of 66 chapters. And he had some questions. Who in the world is the author writing about? Himself? or someone else? Clearly he would need someone to guide him through these somewhat troubling passages.
Which is when Philip showed up and heard him reading aloud. Coincidence? Not hardly. I think Philip is rather blunt. No howdy, no introduction, no pardon me, just "Do you understand what you are reading?" Now I suppose the Ethiopian could have taken offense at this dusty traveler barging into his reading and contemplation but he doesn't. He humbly admits that he needs someone to guide him through it all. "Who is the author writing about, come on up and let's talk." Wow. How often do you get invited to ride in a government limo to talk about Jesus? Cool!
So starting with these verses Philip begins to interpret the scripture which leads him to speak about Jesus. Don't you wish we had the outline of his talk? God is a god who suffers. He silently takes upon himself what is rightfully ours to bear. He takes our sins and transgressions, our afflictions and iniquities, our oppression and judgment - all of those things that lead us astray like lost sheep, he lays upon himself. He quietly, without complaint bore it all, and it crushed him. It killed him.
This prophecy actually came true. There was a man named Jesus. He came from the small town of Nazareth. He was powerful in word and deed. He spoke with authority and could explain the scriptures like no one else. He could describe the heart of God for people and he showed it by what he did and how he was. He had the power to heal people with a word or a touch. We are talking blind people could see, deaf people could hear, the mute could talk, lepers where cleansed, people raised from the dead. He had such compassion. He cast demons out of people and commanded them to be silent. And they were healed. It happened over and over. Twice he fed thousands of hungry people who had come out to listen to him with just a few loaves of bread and a few fish and there were lots of leftovers. God is generous! He treated everyone the same. There was nobody too good or too bad for him. He spoke the straight truth to everyone. He ate with Pharisees and scribes, he ate with tax collectors and other sinners. He said he came for sinners not for the righteous.
Then he began to make it clear that he was from heaven, sent by the Father and even that he and the Father were one. He forgave sins, which only God can do. And that's what got him into trouble. Just like Isaiah predicted, the most innocent man who ever lived, was killed, crucified, right here in Jerusalem, it was awful. You may have heard about it. And this is what proves he was from God. On the third day, just like the scriptures said, his tomb was found empty. He was alive, he was seen by many people. He walked and talked with them, he was no ghost. He showed them his wounds, he ate with them. There is no doubt that he is alive. And then he just ascended into heaven promising to return someday. He told us all to spread the good news that God is alive and cares for all of his creation, everyone, you included. And to teach everyone what he taught his followers. That's who this passage is all about. Jesus of Nazareth, Son of God.
Now, whether Philip spoke anything like what I just said or not we don't know but what we do know is that his words about Jesus touched the Ethiopian and he wanted to become a follower of Jesus. Is there any reason why he could not be baptized? It's a test question. "I'm Ethiopian, a eunuch, rich, and I'm going home. Is any of that a roadblock to becoming a Jesus follower? Are you just talking or are you for real? Will your actions back up your words of who is acceptable to God? Can I, even me be baptized?" And he stopped the chariot. "Well?"
Without a word they disembarked and went down into the water that is not supposed to be in the desert and Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch, treasurer of the Queen, now follower of Jesus.
I have to tell you what happened in the last few weeks. You have to know that this text from Acts was set for this week some years ago. I started following this sequence of scriptures that we call the narrative lectionary two years ago. During a Wednesday Night Worship a few weeks ago two teen-aged brothers, grandsons of people who worship on Wednesday, asked about being baptized. We agreed to meet and talk about it. So we did. They decided that they would like to be baptized last Wednesday when they could have family and friends present. They didn't know that the text would be about baptism. But that was the day they chose because it could be done then. So last Wednesday I baptized two young men 8th and 9th grades and I talked about this text where an Ethiopian gets baptized. Coincidence? I think not.
Faith in Jesus calls for a response. The soul wants to be forever joined with its Savior. In Baptism Jesus makes a permanent claim on the life of one who is baptized. They are united with Christ. They can call him and each other Brother. Christ died, so will we, but also just as Christ rose from the dead, so will we. That is his promise. He has gone to prepare a place for us. We will live with him in paradise forever. Heaven rejoices.
The Spirit moves in mysterious and wonderful ways. The Ethiopian went back to Ethiopia and told others about Jesus. The Ethiopian Christians of today trace their faith ancestry back to this unnamed but faith-filled treasurer to the Queen who read scripture, heard the narrative of Jesus and was baptized. Christians have been in Ethiopia for 2,000 years. Longer than anyplace but the Middle East itself.
How did it happen? Philip was obedient to the angel of God and to the Holy Spirit. He lived his faith as evidenced by his calling to be a deacon, a table server of Greek widows. But he also spoke the words of faith. You may have heard the saying "Preach the Gospel, Use Words if necessary." It sounds good. It encourages us to live our faith. But if Philip had not spoken the Gospel he would have failed the Ethiopian and the Spirit's leading. We are called to both live the Gospel and to speak the Gospel. Speak using normal words in normal situations. Faith comes by hearing not by doing, even though doing is important. Doing indicates the presence of faith but the faith is communicated through words. You can do all of the right and good things but those things cannot communicate the love of God in Christ Jesus. It cannot communicate Jesus' life, death and resurrection. Only speaking can communicate why you do good and right things.
Words are important. Let us not think otherwise. Spoken words brought faith to the Ethiopian. They brought faith to two young men on an otherwise unremarkable Wednesday night. Spoken words sustain our faith each time we hear them. The Holy Spirit works through the scriptural words of faith, words that point to the saving grace of Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit puts each one of us on the spiritual road again, day after day, making us ready to speak his words, preparing hearts to hear his words. On the road again. Just can't wait to get on the road again. The life I love is speaking Jesus to my friends. I hope it’s the life you love too. Amen.