Sermons

Sermon: Sunday, May 6, 2012 — Fifth Sunday of Easter

Texts: Acts 8:26-40  •  Psalm 22:25-31  •  1 John 4:7-21  •  John 15:1-8

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

What a difference a day makes.  24 little hours, brought the sun and the flowers where there used to be rain.  My yesterday was blue, dear.  Today, I’m a part of you, dear.  My lonely nights are through dear, since you said you are mine.

Oh, what a difference a day makes.  There’s a rainbow before me.  Skies above can’t be stormy, since that moment of bliss… that thrilling kiss.  It’s heaven when you find romance on a menu.  What a difference a day made, and the difference is you.

Easter jazz, Easter joy.  Fifty days of Easter calls for a little extra singing about love, and the new life that turns on the day when God rose Jesus from the dead.  What a difference a day makes.

In the early days of the church, that spirit of love had grabbed hold of the followers of Jesus and it was sending them everywhere — to the ends of the earth — to sing its song.  So this morning we hear that Philip the Evangelist, one of the deacons who’d been selected to help manage the church’s affairs in the 6th chapter of Acts, got a wake up call from the Holy Spirit to get up and hit the road.  As he travels the road, he comes upon someone whom the scriptures call an Ethiopian eunuch, who is also described as a court official of the Candace, who is the queen of Ethiopia.  Doesn’t that sound fabulous?

A couple important pieces of information have already been shared here, the first is that Philip has stumbled upon an Ethiopian — though the word here may simply mean African — but the point is, he’s not a member of the nation of Israel.  Second, he’s a eunuch.  There’s plenty of debate about this word as well.  Matthew’s gospel refers to “eunuchs who have been so from birth” and “eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others” and “eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 19:12).  What we know is that whether this African man is literally, physically, a eunuch (perhaps as a condition of his employment with the Candace) or whether he is in some other way physically or sexually different, he is at least doubly disqualified from being able to offer praise and worship according to Temple law and Israelite tradition.

So, what do you suppose the Holy Spirit tells Philip to do as he comes upon the Ethiopian eunuch?  Like your best girlfriend at the bar, she says, “go talk to that man!”

Now you might think that, being an Ethiopian eunuch, this man would be reading a paperback novel or a biography of the Candace.  But he’s not.  He’s reading from the prophet Isaiah, because he had come to Jerusalem in order to worship.  We know, because he’s an Ethiopian eunuch, that he couldn’t have gotten very far in the Temple, but nonetheless, he must have heard something interesting, something intriguing, about God, because he’s left Jerusalem with some of the Hebrew scriptures and he’s trying to makes sense of them.

Isn’t it interesting that the passage from Isaiah he’s reading includes these words, “in his humiliation, justice was denied him.”  Here this Ethiopian eunuch has just come from his own experience of exclusion at the Temple in Jerusalem, an exclusion that very likely came as no surprise, may not have even really disturbed him given that it was the norm, just the way things were, but he finds these words in the scriptures of those people,

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.

It’s a puzzling piece of scripture, and as Philip sidles up next to the Ethiopian on his chariot he asks him the obvious question, “do you understand what you’re reading?” and the Ethiopian gives the obvious response, “how can I, unless someone guides me?”  And he invites Philip to join him in the chariot.  So far, so good, and we can imagine the Holy Spirit off in the corner giving Philip the two thumbs up for encouragement.

Then, as in all good romances, the opening banter gives way to something more real.  The Ethiopian asks Philip, “who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?”  And then Philip gets to open up and, starting with this scripture, he shares the whole story about Jesus.

It’s a toss away line in this passage, “and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus,” but it’s one I’ve been thinking about all week.  How to read that.  You could interpret this to mean that Philip, like any good teacher, starts where the student is and leads him along to something new.  The Ethiopian was reading Isaiah, and Philip was ready to preach Jesus, so Philip helped connect the dots from the ancient prophets of Israel to the revelation of God in Christ Jesus.  That makes sense.

A second interpretation, and not a mutually exclusive one, pays attention to this particular passage from Isaiah as the starting point for proclaiming the good news of Christ Jesus to the world.  This requires a bit more time to explain, perhaps even a whole day.  Because, how would it sound to you, if you were the Ethiopian eunuch, and some strange Israelite man was trying to convince you that God had made God’s self known to the world not in the wealth and power of someone like the Candace, but like a sheep led to the slaughter?  That would take a lot of preaching and teaching, right?

Fortunately, good Christians, I don’t have to work quite as hard on you as Philip did on the Ethiopian, which means this sermon won’t last a full day.  Because you already know what Philip knew.  That in Christ Jesus, God shows God’s partiality to the poor countryside Marys over the wealthy cosmopolitan Candaces.  That God’s epiphany is to shepherds keeping watch in their fields by night, and not priests keeping watch over their temple gates.  That Jesus, too, began his ministry by reading from this very same prophet, Isaiah, who declared,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Lk. 4:18-19)

Do you remember how that first sermon turned out for Jesus? Philip must have told the Ethiopian eunuch how Jesus preached that message, coming to these provocative conclusions,

But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah…yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Lk. 4:25-27)

Those first words set the tone for a ministry to all kinds of outsiders, a man with an unclean spirit, a leper, a paralytic, a tax collector, a man with a withered hand, a Roman soldier’s servant, a sinful woman, a foreigner possessed by demons, a hemorrhaging woman.  Surely Philip shared with him Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan, where the foreigner does the greater service to the one who has been harmed, and is commended for his faithfulness.  And surely Philip shared with the Ethiopian eunuch the great sermon on the plain, where Jesus preached the beatitudes, those amazing reversals that include,

blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. (Lk. 6:22-23)

So, we can imagine, the Ethiopian must have heard his own life’s story wrapped up in the ministry of this baby from Bethlehem, this man from Nazareth, who also went up to Jerusalem only to be rejected at the Temple, just as he had been.  And we can imagine he must have asked Philip, “what happened to that man?  What happened to Jesus?”

And what would Philip have said, but, “well, they killed him.  Yes, they killed him by hanging him on a cross, because they thought that would be the end of him.  They killed him by hanging him on a cross because they thought they could keep us quiet about all that he said and did, all that we saw and witnessed.  They hanged him on a cross and buried him in the ground, because they thought they could bury God’s truth that the world is turning; but the Candace, and the Emperor had better watch out, because God is real, and God is alive, and all who are filled with God’s truth and God’s love and God’s mercy and God’s power can never be buried. Because when we were baptized into Christ, we heard what Jesus heard, ‘you are my Beloved, with you I am well pleased.’  Because in those waters we died with Christ so that we could rise with Christ. Because when God lifted Jesus up, God lifted me up!”

And I suppose that’s when the Ethiopian eunuch looked up from Philip’s transfigured face, shining with the light of his baptism, and said, “look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

And Philip knew what you good Christians already know, that there is nothing to keep the Ethiopian eunuch, or any other beloved child of God, from being baptized, from being included, from being accepted and warmly welcomed into the body of Christ.  So, Philip got down from the chariot and baptized that Ethiopian eunuch.

What a difference a day makes.

And then, this little coda to the song:

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. (Acts 8:39)

I don’t think we’re talking about a magical transportation from the water’s edge to Azotus.  I don’t think the scriptures mean for us to read this as a miraculous event. If anything, I think this verb, “snatched,” communicates to us the sudden, wrenching experience we’ve all felt when someone who has become dear to us all of a sudden has to leave.  The Holy Spirit called Philip to preach to the Ethiopian eunuch and, for a day, they were lovers.  I don’t mean to say that they were romantically involved, I mean to say that they were bound together by the love of God made known in the story of God that is the gospel, the good news that Philip preached.  They became intimates.  In the waters by the road they even became family to one another.

And then it was over.  The Holy Spirit called Philip on to whatever awaited him in Azotus, and legend ascribes to the Ethiopian eunuch the founding of the Christian Church in Ethiopia.  The Holy Spirit called them together, and then the Holy Spirit called them on into their futures.

That is how the Holy Spirit works.  We’re living in that moment here today as we say goodbye to our two seminarians, Drew and Francisco, who have preached the good news of Jesus Christ to us for the last nine months, whom we have grown to love, and who are now being snatched away by the Holy Spirit to continue their training and preparations for pastoral ministry.  It’s happening over and over in the next few weeks as friends whom we’ve come to love like sisters and brothers leave St. Luke’s, leave Chicago, to return to hometowns and rejoin relatives and start new jobs.

This is part of the nature of life in the community of Christ.  We are drawn together by the Holy Spirit — maybe for a decade, or maybe for a year, or nine months, maybe even for only a day.  But what a difference a day can make!  In Christ, the significance of our relationships isn’t defined by their duration, but by their depth.  The depth of our connection is as deep as the waters into which we were baptized — and in these deeps, we are connected forever.

So, as we prepare to say our goodbyes — today, and in the weeks to come — we know that we are once again finding out story in the story of scripture, in which strangers come to know each other as friends and as family and are able to leave one another rejoicing because of the good news that binds them together, the good news that

Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Christ is risen indeed! Alleluia!

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