Sunday, May 14, 2006

5 Easter
Acts 8:26-40
Psalm 22:24-30
1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8

All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to Jehovah; And all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee.

I have always loved the story of Philip and the Eunuch that we hear in our first story today. It is filled with encouragement for those of us who are sent out into the world to share the Gospel of Christ even today. After all, most Christians are not professional ministers, yet we have been called to go out into the world to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with others. Though a minister might be surprised occasionally by an opportunity to provide pastoral care, they are far more prepared than the average lay person.

Philip was not one of the Twelve. He was one of the seven lay people chosen to administer the daily functions of the community of faith in Jerusalem. He was one of the first deacons which means servant. Stephen, Philip and the others were the administration of the church. They dealt with the business of the people while the Apostles gave their attention to prayer and the ministry of the word. Stephen became the first martyr for the Christian faith. After the stoning of Stephen, things got crazy in Jerusalem. There was great persecution at the hands of a man named Saul that had not yet come to know Christ. The disciples of Christ except for the Twelve were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

We are told that hose who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. They didn't run and hide. They ran and took with them the gift they'd been given: the grace of God. It didn't matter where they went; God was with them and would guide their path. They had a gift that demanded to be shared. They went out into the world and shared that gift.

So, we greet Philip in Samaria. The crowds that heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did paid close attention to what he said. Philip's ministry had a physical impact on the city because they witnessed demons being cast out of people and cripples being healed. "So there was great joy in that city." How wonderful it would be to be part of such a successful ministry. I would love to see more joy in our congregations. Instead we often see bickering and pettiness. We see division and manipulation. We see people seeking to satisfy their own desires rather than living as a disciple in a community of faith.

Philip heard a call. An angel sent him away from a community where he could see positive things happening. And while he was having success, there was still work to be done. The people were listening and they received the word and miracles with joy, we do not yet see evidence of faith in Jesus.

What a surprise it must have been, then, for Philip to receive the message from the angel. "Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza: the same is desert." The angel sent him away from a budding community of faith to go south into the desert. He might have asked himself, "What business do I have there?" Or, "What likelihood is there of doing anything good there?" After all, he was doing good things. He was sharing the faith and making a difference. Why go somewhere else that is unknown? He went because God sent him. He did not doubt; he arose and went down the road.

We don't know how long Philip wandered down that road, but he came across a man of great authority. Luke describes him as a eunuch. This normally refers to a castrated man who is in charge of a harem or is a chamberlain of a palace. In this case, we know the eunuch was of great authority over all the treasures of Candice the queen of the Ethiopians. There are some scholars suggest that not all eunuchs were castrated, that it was originally a word that referred to someone who had been put in charge of something.

I'm not sure it matters, except that it would help to define the next thing we learn about the eunuch he was a believer. He had been in Jerusalem to worship. Now, if the man was a eunuch, then he would not have been able to become a Jew, yet he was drawn to the Jewish faith. There were two types of proselytes the first being a proselyte of righteousness is one who has been circumcised. The other type is proselyte of the gate which is a Gentile who had renounced idolatry and worshipped the God of Israel occasionally in the court of Gentiles.

We can't answer these questions; the scriptures simply do not give us enough information. A few other things we know about the eunuch is that he was a man of some education and intelligence because he was reading a scroll which was probably written in Hebrew. He had authority and access to great wealth. He was riding in a chariot, perhaps among a large entourage. He certainly was not alone on such a long journey. He had come a long way from Ethiopia which is now northern Sudan. Ethiopians were considered the meanest and most despicable of the nations and were called "blackamoors" because of their black skin. It seems that racism was a problem even then. Yet, we know the eunuch was a believer who had gone to Jerusalem to worship. What would make him go so far to worship in a Temple where he was possibly despised and rejected?

Ethiopia in Jesus' day was probably what was known to earlier generations as Sheba. The Queen of Sheba is remembered for visiting King Solomon to seek his wisdom. The presented each other with many gifts, perhaps establishing a trading partnership that lasted many years. She took back with her something else knowledge of the one true and living God. She had recognized that Solomon's wisdom came from the God that he worshipped and she sought to know more about Him. Perhaps the eunuch came to Israel with remnants of that knowledge, seeking to know more and to take the faith back to his own people.

If he was unwelcome at the Temple, he may have been understandably upset by his trip to Jerusalem. This is conjecture, of course. It seems like he must have had some success on his travels how else would he have had a copy of the book of Isaiah to read on his journey?

Whatever happened in Jerusalem, the eunuch was on his way back to Ethiopia when Philip caught up to him on the road. Now, we look at Philip's perspective here. He was alone on a desert road to nowhere important when he caught up to a caravan of foreigners blackamoors from a most despicable nation. The guards that most certainly were escorting the eunuch and his entourage would have been quick to remove any threat to the eunuch.

The Spirit whispered to Philip, "Go near, and join thyself to this chariot." I'm thinking, "You've got to be kidding me! You make me leave that city in Samara to get myself killed on this desert road?" But Philip didn't object or doubt. He went immediately, even ran to him. When he reached the chariot he heard the eunuch reading from the prophet Isaiah. What a wonderful way to pass the time on a long trip reading scripture aloud to those who are listening.

Philip asked, "Understandest thou what thou readest?" The eunuch replied, "How can I, except some one shall guide me?" Then he invited Philip to join him in the chariot. We can read this question in different ways. It certainly shows us the humility of this great person. He does not know and is willing to ask, even invite a stranger into his life who might be able to explain it to him. However, if he was rejected at the Temple, then perhaps there was a bit of frustration in his voice. "How can I understand if no one will explain it to me?"

Philip was there at the right time and in the right place. The eunuch read some of the passage and asked, "Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?" Philip answered very simply he began with that scripture and told him the good news about Jesus. He did not need to present an eloquent sermon with detailed exegesis of the passage. He needed only to share the love that Christ gave to the world through the cross and by the Spirit.

As they traveled they came upon some water along the road and the eunuch asked if there was anything to keep him from being baptized. Some versions of the scriptures include verse 37 which says, "And Philip said, If thou believest with all thy heart, thou mayest. And he answered, "I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God." This verse is no more than a footnote in many contemporary versions because it is not found in the earliest manuscripts. Yet it addresses a major problem in the early church the Gnostic heresy that Jesus Christ was not really divine.

Of course, discussing this verse might just open a can of worms that most people would not want to open. For those who prefer to use a specific version of the Bible, which includes the verse, the modern removal of the verse provides fodder for controversy. On the other hand, the Gnostic heresy is alive and thriving in our culture today; the fact that the verse was ever added is proof that the church tampered with God's word to make it say what they want. Yet, it is the very addition of this verse by the early church fathers that provides the assurance to us that God was and is continually active in the establishment and defense of His Church.

This brings us to the epistle lesson for today. John writes, "Whosoever shall confess that Jesus is the Son of God, God abideth in him, and he is in God." This confession of faith is the product of God's presence in our lives, and love is the evidence. Jesus tells us in today's Gospel that we can not bear fruit unless we abide in Him. He is the vine and we are the branches. We can do nothing unless we are part of Christ, a part of His body.

John writes, "Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." This is the refutation of everything Gnostic. Jesus is not merely an example of the way to know God's secrets and the mysteries of faith are not something defined only by spirituality but by the very existence of the Triune God in His fullness as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Jesus, the Son of God suffered the humiliation of the cross, quietly died for our sake, paying the price for our sin. This is what Philip told the eunuch on that road to Gaza. This is the Gospel message that God so loved us that He sent His only begotten Son into the world that we might live through Him.

John writes, "If God so loved us, we also ought to love one another." This is harder than it would seem because we are very human. We are concerned about our own needs and desires. We have doubts; we are uncertain about so many things. We, like Philip, hear the call of God, but all too often we do not believe that we are hearing His voice. Or, we think we know best, so we do our own thing. Unfortunately, when we go our own way our efforts fail and we do not bear fruit because we are not abiding in Christ.

In the Gospel lesson Jesus tells us that if we do not bear fruit then he is cast from the vine. I don't have any experience with grapevines, but I have had other types of vines in my garden. One of the things that gardeners know about vines is that it is often difficult to distinguish between one branch and another. They twist around each other, often becoming like one branch stronger in the unity. This is why a grapevine is such a good example of what it means to be "church." We are one, working together, supporting each other, growing together with Christ as our foundation.

It is important to prune the branches to keep the plant healthy and looking nice. A proper cutting will produce more flowers and ultimately more fruit. Yet, as a gardener I know how hard it is then to decide which branches to trim and to cut the right ones. I have trimmed ivy with the intent of making it look nicer in the garden, but in the process I have accidentally cut the wrong branch. I've even cut branches without realizing I did so. It is not until later when the branch is withered and dying that I realize my mistake.

This is not true of the Master Gardener. He knows perfectly which branches to cut and which branches to prune so that it will bear fruit according to His good and perfect will. What would have happened to Philip if he had not followed God's call to the desert road? Would his ministry in that city of Samaria have continued to thrive? Perhaps not. His decision to follow his own way would have indicated a lack of love for God. He would have tried bearing fruit by himself rather than abiding in Christ. Instead of doing his own thing, Philip went forth in faith and love of God.

I wonder how many times an angel has spoken to us or we have heard the whisper of God's Spirit in our ear only to ignore or reject that which we heard. I wonder how many times we have asked the questions, "What business do I have there?" or, "What likelihood is there of doing anything good there?" All too often our doubts and uncertainties lie in our selfishness, in our need to meet our own needs or desires. We are afraid of what we will meet; we are afraid that we will fail. We are afraid that we won't bear fruit if we go into the unknown.

But God knows everything He has planned for us. Matthew Henry wrote about this passage, "Sometimes God opens a door of opportunity to his ministers in places very unlikely." We think it is ridiculous to pick up and leave a thriving ministry to go to the desert. We think it is unsafe to approach a person of authority and intelligence and ask them if we can help. We think we know best.

Today's scriptures tell us something very different. In these passages we see that God knows best and that He won't send us into something unknown without going with us. We abide in Him and He abides in us. He abides in us and we abide in Him. The psalmist writes, "For the kingdom is Jehovah's; And he is ruler over the nations." It might seem to us that it was foolish for Philip to approach someone that was unapproachable, but God had already prepared the eunuch for Philip. Philip, in his obedience, fulfilled the very will of God to share Christ with the world. "All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to Jehovah; And all the kindreds of the nations shall worship before thee."

Perhaps the eunuch did come to Jerusalem because of some glimmer of the former faith that had been taken to Sheba by the queen who knew Solomon. Perhaps the eunuch did face rejection at the Temple only to return to the road confused about the God he wanted to know. I think it is interesting that once the eunuch was baptized that Philip was taken away. He was found in another place, preaching the word of God. The meeting with the eunuch was a divine appointment and it left him rejoicing. Philip did just what God intended and then it was time for Philip to move on to another place.

Philip was not meant to be the apostle that would set up the church in Ethiopia. He was a disciple who followed God's call to share the Gospel with the world. The door was opened and Philip ran through it. He did so out of love for God; he did so because he abided in the love of the Father. So, too are we called to walk the desert road, to share the Gospel of Christ with those we meet. We might be frightened. We might think it is ridiculous. We might look at our circumstances and think that nothing could be better. But God knows what is right, and as we abide in Him we will love as He first loved us and go in faith to share that love with others. Thanks be to God.

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