Sermon: Easter 5B
Sunday May 4, 2015.
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
31 “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”[b]
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  [c] 38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both 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 suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
It has been a week of some intense emotions for many Aussies this week. It all started with the big ANZAC Day commemorations – quite sombre.
Then there was that enormous loss of life and the pain and suffering tens of thousands of people are now trying to cope with in Nepal. The poor just got poorer and the innocent just copped it again.
But then it continued with the executions of Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran at 3.25am on Wednesday morning. They did the wrong thing. They knew the risks. Crime warrants punishment. On the other hand there was many reports of genuine reconciliation and rehabilitation, and even genuine new-found faith In Christ. When does punishment end and restoration to community begin? Was this too harsh a penalty; the work of human justice system which seems far from being fail-safe in delivering justice.
But I must say even these events have not been the worst of it for me. I watched Four Corners on Monday night with heart slowly descending into despair. It was the story of Islamic State – up close and personal. Ital Anghel, a brave Jewish journalist cameraman showed us the darkness and lostness of what is happening among the people in Syria, Iraq and Turkey in this ‘death cult’.
Young men: totally dark, totally devoid of feeling or at least feelings of affirmation, love and joy; buried so deep within their heartless soul that such things are now invisible.
They were uneducated young men totally indoctrinated by sinister other men who really do believe that if they die in this holy battle against all other people of any other faith than theirs, they will go to paradise with 72 young virgins at their disposal.
Remarkably, the journalist told the surprising story of these deathly young men being deathly scared of female Kurdish fighters – brave young women “fighting for life, not death”, as they put it. The fear from these coldly violent lost men is so great that they will quickly withdraw from a battle with these female fighters. This is because that if they are killed by a female, they miss out on the promised females in paradise! All their violence and hatred and misplaced faith come to nought.
So, these stories of what is happening in our world combine at times and it is easy to plunge into fear, go into hiding, doubt there is anything good in the world to know or say; doubt Jesus is the risen and ascended Lord of all lords. It is easier, and it suits the human heart more, to trust itself rather than the God of grace, to come out swinging and react with the same dislike, prejudice, self-protection and even hatred.
What changes this sinking cycle? Is there another story worth telling? Is there a chance of love, of reconciliation, of peace? Is there any hope?
Well, during the week I started to read the story of this African man in that chariot and a fast moving Phillip: a story of the Spirit of God on the move in the world. This Spirit story started to tell itself again and there was hope again.
Thank the Lord for his story! It is the story of his grace and love having their good effect on forgiven human beings restored to new life and hope every day by this ongoing story at work in our world still.
Here’s how the story goes…
In Acts 1:8 we hear the Easter Jesus promising, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Other Pentecostal stories in Acts begin with the “Jerusalem Pentecost” story in Acts 2. Then, in the words before our text today we have the “Samaritan Pentecost.” Imagine! Even the dismissed and intensely disliked Samaritans receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. God is moving on and out.
Today we hear the story of a Spirit-led Philip as he moves into completely new territory by baptizing an Ethiopian eunuch. The church is moving outwards.
In Acts 10-11, we have the “Gentile Pentecost” featuring, of all people, a Roman centurion, and a stunned-by-the-Spirit Peter who becomes a missionary in no-man’s-land. Finally, in Acts 19:1-7, Paul is at the “ends of the [known] earth” in Ephesus, laying on hands for a Pentecostal outpouring of the Spirit. What a story and what a work of God’s Spirit in Word and deed is told and is to be told!
Philip had witnessed the story. He saw the conversion of many Samaritans (Acts 8.9-25), and is now part of the ongoing story. He is led in strange circumstances to bear witness to another outsider: an Ethiopian eunuch.
This rich black African national finance man for the royal court of Ethiopia is travelling down the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. This gentile eunuch; a man castrated at a young age, viewed as only “half human”, and yet often trusted by high officials for faithful service, has no place in the Jewish faith at all. But we surprisingly hear that he is reading the Jewish Scriptures after just coming from a worship festival in Jerusalem – a most out of the way place for a powerful eunuch from northern Africa to go to worship! It would be like you or I going to Angaston, Langmeil or Bethany! He was a stranger in a strange land.
This outsider is reading the Word, but not quite seeming to hear it as good news yet. The centre piece of the story is not quite there. The one who brings the whole Bible together is not yet heard.
But when Philip comes to him, he asks, “Do you understand what you are reading?” The African money man replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invites Philip to get in and sit beside him.
The Spirit uses the words of a fast moving Phillip, and patient sitting Phillip to bring it all together in Jesus as the centre of everything in the Scriptures and faith is extended and revolutionised in this outsider.
And that’s how faith began for this man. That’s how faith always begins – one person hearing the good news from another in some way – fast or slow.
Friends, “this is our story this is our song”. This is our mission. To move in as led and to sit beside when asked; to help them hear the Word with Jesus in the centre. He is the story, the hope, the Word of life, the Way of life, the Truth of life.
If I have ever been convinced that we Christians need to trust the Spirit’s ongoing Word as we live and tell it, “keeping in step with Him”, as Paul puts it, as he moves us upward and outward, I am more convinced this week.
God changes the dark story, the sad story, the angry story, the war story, the disaster story, the terror story. He does this by sheer grace and love for those cold men, those fearsome women, those executed men and their grieving families, and millions grieving the thousands lost on the mountain.
And we are Phillip – fast moving and/or sitting beside for as long as takes. Bringing them to Spirit’s baptism; water and Word and beyond.
Well-meaning and uncorrupted political leaders, police officers and even a pretty good legal system in this country will not change the dark story as much as it needs to be changed – not by themselves. Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can change the human heart, and so, change the story. Only repentance and the forgiveness of Jesus are the way to lasting light and life.
Because the grace of God poured out into a broken and dark world is our story, we call upon our families to teach their children the gospel story, not because they have to but because it is from where hope for kids and life and family come.
Because the gospel is good news, we call upon our young people to give their heart and life to it so that whatever they do in life, whatever they become, they are part of the good news story in our world.
Because Jesus is hope and peace, we gather here to hear him, receive him and then sing, pray and say.
The gospel is what we do. It’s who we are. It’s what we take with us to work, to school, to home, to the pub, the shed,… and the Spirit changes the world one person at a time.
Only a Phillip helping an African in a chariot or shop or loungeroom or home group or village group or lunch room or car or parkland will give them any chance of being God’s new story of life and joy and hope.
People of THE story, live and tell his story and yours. It is important even if not always heard. The Spirit will ensure it is heard by “those who have ears to hear”, as Jesus often said.
You will convert no one. You can’t. The Spirit will do the converting and the giving – but through your simple witness to THE story – and He will triumph.
Discuss your responses to all the things mentioned in the Sermon that have happened in the last couple of weeks. Share how these things make you feel; how they challenge faith in God or sure up your belief in God’s plan for the world….
Read the text again, noting questions raised in your mind or things mentioned that inspire your imagination. Share these…
What if you were to compare this story of the holy Spirit working the stories we have experienced. How are the different and how are they similar?
Acts has at least 4 “pentecosts” – Jerusalem (Acts 2). Samaria (Acts 4:8ff), The Gentile Pentecost (Cornelius in Acts 10 and 11, and the “ends of the earth – Ephesus Pentecost in Acts 19). What message do you hear Luke trying to tell us in this long story of pentecost moments? Skim each event and share your thoughts.
We confess that it is the Holy Spirit who “calls, gathers and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth” in the Small Catechism. What does this mean for our hope and dreams for our own families and friends and our church? Share your thoughts…
What do you hear Luke calling us to do as he tells of “the things Jesus began to do and teach” and now that he continues to do and teach (Acts 1) as he tells THE story of the Ascended Jesus still working in the world through his people. What does this mea for you life and how you trust the holy Spirit for your work and life? Share your thoughts together…..
Come, Holy Spirit and kindle in us the flame of your love. Make us the light of the world as we gather live and tell THE story – Your story in your power. Amen.