Greetings in Jesus’ name on this Third Easter Sunday!
Reading Acts 8: 26-39
We could have had an interesting sermon from the Gospel reading we just read this morning(true vine, gardener, and branches). But as I was reading the first reading (Act 8:26-39), two questions came to my mind.
Why does the writer of Acts (Luke) tell the story?
There were many stories of people who converted into Christianity, so why this one was chosen to be recounted by Luke?
Let’s explore this idea, shall we?
Last weekend I went home to join a celebration of not just one, but 2 weddings. A priest I grew up with and my uncle.
(I wonder if that wasn’t an invitation for me to also start planning).
In our African context weddings are not just celebrations of two people coming together, but two families, two communities, probably two cultures coming together. They are a recognition that none of us can live and rejoice alone. In our journeys of growth and success we are always supported not only by our families but by all those around us. We belong to our communities as much as we belong to our families.
Today’s story from Acts is a similar reminder that in the journey of faith, just as in our journeys of growth, success and flourishing, we need others and that sometimes the contributions come from surprising places (from those who might be different from us).
Here Luke presents to us a lovely, colourful story: The encounter between Philip the deacon and the Ethiopian eunuch, who, in his chariot, on his way home after being in Jerusalem to worship, is reading the writings of the prophet Isaiah.
It’s also a story full of surprises. Firstly, Philip wasn’t one of the 12, those first commissioned to spread the good news. He was chosen as one of the deacons to keep order in the distribution of food.
A waiter becomes an evangelist. And he is so over-the-top enthusiastic that he is like a new puppy. “Do you understand what you are reading?” he asks the Ethiopian. What a conceited question. He doesn’t even know the man and he wants to show off his new knowledge! But the Ethiopian is gracious and invites Philip up into the chariot to read with him.
Scripture is always better interpreted when we read together. So Philip is led into his role as an evangelist by the stranger (a foreigner), this man from literally (in those days) the ends of the earth.
The Ethiopian presents us with more surprises. He must have been a most unusual man. Firstly, he can read. That was not a given in the first century. Secondly, he is described as an important official in Queen Candace’s court. He is in charge of the treasury – a kind of the first century Tito Mboweni (minister of finance) and Edward Kiesweter (the commissioner of SARS) rolled into one.
In other words he is both powerful, but also not especially well liked, as tax collectors seldom are. Thirdly, he is Jewish.
Okay How do we know that?
In Verses 27 and 28 Luke tells us that he has been to Jerusalem to worship and now, on the return journey he is reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He is reading the passage we now know as Chapter 53 (the suffering servant passage).
Luke tells us that he was a eunuch. In Biblical times a ruler would sometimes castrate male servants to ensure they would not be tempted to engage in sexual activity with others in the palace. That was so common. But as a Jew, the Ethiopian would also know that Deuteronomy 23:1 forbade eunuchs from entering the assembly of the Lord.
So, although Jewish, and faithful enough to go up to Jerusalem, he was prevented from entering the Temple. He would be an outsider then, in several respects – Ethiopian, not Palestinian, a not-much-liked tax collector and prevented on sexual grounds from going into the inner courts of the Temple.
Just keep those thoughts as we move our attention to Philip
Philip is first presented to us of the first two chapters back as one of the seven deacons chosen to make sure that all the windows got enough food at the daily distribution in Jerusalem.
In today’s reading, Philip is on the road down to Gaza. The Spirit leads him to the Ethiopian’s chariot to join him. Philip becomes obedience to the Spirit and allows the Spirit to lead him.
WE are not told what Philip said to him about the good news of Jesus, but it must have been eye-opening and heart-warming enough for this excluded outsider to ask: What is to stop me from being baptised? What indeed.
The Ethiopian’s religion told him he was excluded. He was not allowed in the assembly of the Lord, the inner circle of acceptable men. The good news about Jesus, that Philip might only have half understood, is that no-one is excluded. And so right there in the desert the Ethiopian is baptised; and, we hear, he goes on his way rejoicing, at last he is also included.
They couldn’t have been more different from one another, but Philip needs the gracious invitation of the Ethiopian to become the evangelist he desires to be; and the Ethiopian needs Philip to baptise him into this new, welcoming, inclusive journey of faith. Like the married couple and their families and community, need each other.
The good news is for all of us too. You know that part of you that says: If people knew this about me….
You know that part of you that says: I can never be forgiven for that….
You know that part of you that says: I don’t think I really fit in this place of the successful …..
That’s exactly the part of us that is included, welcomed, baptised and like the Ethiopian, sent on our way rejoicing.
Like Philip who became obedient to the Spirit sending him to a stranger
And Like the Ethiopian who welcomed the stranger and his knowledge
We are challenged to what it means to include everyone and rely on one another. We are, like Philip and the Ethiopian, still in the chariot, pondering the meaning together. But the lesson of the good news, is that everyone of us is included, and it is through living this out, that we’ll discover a wonderful mystery of the good news.
The gospel can only be complete when we are willing to engage in a conversation.
When we are willing to ask questions
When we look beyond our differences and understand that we really do need one another.
It is in co-existence that we may live out the true gospel of Christ.
During this difficult time of the global pandemic, you are invited to make a contribution to the ministry and mission of our church by making a donation to the following account: Account Name: St Paul’s Church Account Number: 50854628623 Bank: First National Bank (FNB) Branch Code: 221426