June 26, 2016

Pentecost 6   June 26, 2016   Psalm 87, Acts 8:4-40 (4-13, 14-25, 26-40)

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Acts is a spiritual travelogue. A journey for Jesus and his kingdom… Jesus has told us we will be his witnesses, starting in Jerusalem, then out into nearby Judea and neighboring Samaria, then to the ends of the earth…

Now persecution sets in and most of the church leaves Jerusalem, taking the gospel with them on the road. In today’s episode we’re traveling with Philip, one of the seven commissioned to provide care for the church’s first ethnic minority, Greek-speaking-Jewish-Christians. Now we’re out into Samaria, where the gospel is suddenly spreading like wildfire. Signs and wonders are happening big time through Philip’s ministries.The sick and lame are wondrously healed. Many are coming to saving faith in Jesus. There’s great joy in he city of Samaria.

But at the very height of the revival, strangely enough, St Luke (the gospel writer) zooms in on a mercenary magician named Simon, who has been proclaiming his own greatness – so loudly that he’s become known locally as (quote) “the power of God that is called great.” And here’s an almost stereotypical biblical badman – a wannabe ‘great man’ aggressively calling himself ‘great’ till others start to believe it… Yet now even Simon when he hears about Jesus, and sees signs and wonders, is baptized and follows Philip, now, wherever he goes…

Meanwhile back in Jerusalem, the apostles hear about the revival in Samaria and send Peter and John down to help. Up to now somehow the newby church in Samaria hasn’t received the Holy Spirit… (at least not visibly…) Which now happens dramatically as Peter and John lay hands on the church and pray and the Spirit falls afresh…

Simon the magician sees the powerful changes coming over people as they receive the Spirit. He wants a piece of the action. He says to Peter and John, ‘Give me this power too, so anyone I lay hands on will receive the Holy Spirit.’ Peter says ‘May your money perish with you for thinking you can buy God’s gift! Repent of all your wickedness…So if possible your heart’s intent may be forgiven.’

“Pray for me…” Simon replies. And we don’t know if he’s sincerely repenting, or what happens to him after this… But we do know the gospel shines  its high-beam headlights on Simon long enough to make his fee-for-service-attempt into a biblical case-study on the temptation so often facing the church… To be seduced by power and let worldly values like love of money corrupt the life of faith. (The church eventually named buying or selling power and influence in the church “Simony” in remembrance of Simon the magician. Unfortunately we still too-often hear faith proclaimed as if it were magic– with worldly prosperity promised, if we contribute to the right ministries. And…)

The plot thickens now, as an angel of God interrupts the revival narrative, telling Philip to head south on a back road out into the wilderness… And…

How weird is this? Here’s the new church, busting at the seams with growth, all Samaria on fire for the gospel…And the angel of the Lord says “get up and go” – not over to the next town, that’s waiting for revival – but go out into the wilderness, out into the middle of nowhere…

But strange as all this seems, this word comes straight from God. So Philip listens, hears, gets up, and goes…. And…

Here comes an Ethiopian eunuch in a chariot, reading as he rides. (Reading while riding in a chariot wouldn’t get you ticketed in those days. It’s not like texting while driving. Traffic was light on the wilderness road.  And most likely he’s got a chauffeur anyway – since we hear he’s a prominent official in his home country – and later we’ll hear him command the chariot to stop. (Which sure sounds like someone else doing the driving.) But first…

The Holy Spirit tells Philip ‘go over to the chariot and join it’… So here’s Philip, running to catch-up…And as he does so, he starts a conversation, asking “Do you understand what you are reading?”

Running and riding with Philip, we soon learn the man’s reading Isaiah 53, a text we read every year on Good Friday; God talking about his suffering servant. We also learn the owner of this probably Lexus-convertible-equivalent-of-a-chariot is National Treasurer for the Queen of Ethiopia…

And the eunuch, in response to Philip’s question ‘do you understand what you’re reading?’ asks back, “How can I; without someone to guide me?” Asking next, ‘About whom does the prophet speak – himself or someone else?’Giving Philip a perfect entry point for explaining how all the scriptures, starting with this Isaiah text, all testify to Jesus, Messiah of Israel, Son of God…

And as they ride along talking about sacred scripture and Jesus and the way of salvation – at just the right moment – a pool of water appears in the desert-wilderness. And the man says “Look, here’s water! What’s to keep me from being baptized?”

And the answer turns out to be… ‘nothing at all.’ Then and there on the spot he and Philip wade in the waters and Philip baptizes him…

Now the Spirit picks Philip up and transports him (as if in a whirlwind) over to Azotus and Caesarea… (Where we’ll meet Philip again twenty years later, in Acts 21, raising four daughters who prophesy…) And the same Spirit sends the Ethiopian eunuch back to Ethiopia, rejoicing. (Church tradition says he plants seeds of faith there that grow to become the first churches in Africa…)

And in the midst of all the wild, marvelous particulars of this story, we should notice… how the Ethiopian eunuch comes to symbolically represent many who are cut-off from God… He himself is doubly cut-off. First, he’s a foreigner – an Ethiopian (a Cushite or Nubian, depending on translation; all of which mean North African).  He’s a high ranking official from a nation that’s often been at odds, sometimes even at war, with Israel. Which could make it difficult for him to be welcome in Jerusalem.

He’s also cut-off from the people of Israel because of his gender. (His lack of gender.) Jewish men need to be circumcised. Which in this case is really just not doable. And the law of Moses explicitly prohibits eunuchs from participating in the assembly of the Lord (in Deuteronomy 23:1-4). So how is we see this man coming from worship in Jerusalem?

Well – the Torah – the Law – is meant to be interpreted dynamically, not statically, as living law… And of course along with the law of Moses, the word of God includes the writings and prophets. And our Psalm 87 today speaks of Ethiopians as people whom God knows and includes among his people. And the prophet Isaiah wrote prophetically: “Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who… choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give…an ever-lasting name that shall not be cut-off.

And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord…and hold fast my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer… For my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples...” (Isaiah 56:3-7)

Probably the eunuch, whom we meet coming from worship in Jerusalem, devout, intelligent,well-educated as he is – reading from his own (in those days quite expensive) copy of a scroll of Isaiah – must already be very familiar with Isaiah’s answer to Deuteronomy’s prohibition. Because we see him earnestly studying and asking the right questions, we can be pretty sure he already knows the written word of God well…

And knowing well the written word, what he still now lacks – what he still needs guidance with – is just knowing Jesus. Jesus who fulfills all the law and prophets. Jesus who makes new creation within the shell of the old – new creation in Christ that now includes all who have been cut-off in any way from the word of God and the people of God…

Now God’s angel messenger (God’s Holy Spirit) sends Philip to the Ethiopian to introduce him to Jesus. And Jesus and the Holy Spirit open the eyes of the eunuch – and also, perhaps, of Philip. Who now, together, recognize the answer to the eunuch’s last-best question… “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Now together they know God’s answer. Nothing. Nothing’s to prevent you from coming to the waters of baptism, and joining fully in the community of Jesus. Yet…

We the church have not always remembered this story well. Too often we have forgotten, or gotten it backwards. Too often we have marveled at the Simon-magicians of faith who sell the word of God as if it were a product. Too often we have kept those who yearn to hear the good news of Jesus at a safe distance, because of our cultural or theological differences or preferences…

Yet we still live in a world just as strange, wondrous, and mysterious as it was that day in Samaria on the wilderness road of old. And God still asks us, like the disciples of old, to be faithful witnesses, in spite of all our frailties, on this journey of faith…

And like Philip, we still never know where God’s leading when God’s Spirit says “get up and go.” We still never know what traveler we may encounter on this journey…

But when we trust the Spirit, and go, as we’re told, the same Spirit who led Philip and the Ethiopian is still here with us to lead us… And wherever the Spirit leads we know…

There’s no question – no problem – no nothing at all – you and me and Jesus together can’t deal with. Just as long as we’re willing to keep asking Jesus…Keep listening for Jesus.  Keep trusting Jesus and his grace….

God will do the rest.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.