Sunday 29th April 2018
Acts Chapter 8 verses 26 - 40
Maggie Cogan - Reader
This morning in our reading from Acts we meet Philip for the second of three times in this book: and we are told that an angel of the Lord told Philip to go south – he was in Samaria in the north – to the road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza.
This was an old route that was not used as often as others at that time – it went from Jerusalem, which is northeast of the Dead Sea, and extended down to the port city of Gaza, in what we now call the West Bank. This road went through a section of desert. So, since it was an old road and a road that went through the desert, we might well expect that it was lightly travelled.
For whatever reason, in the Plan of God, there was an Ethiopian eunuch on that road. He was a court official of Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia. He was a man of power – in charge of the treasury of the Queen. And he had come to Jerusalem to worship – he had made what would have been about a twelve-day journey by chariot from Ethiopia to Jerusalem to worship. He was a Gentile believer in the God of Israel.
While in his chariot the eunuch was reading from the book of Isaiah who wrote, “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 keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
But what happens to Philip? He sees a splendid chariot making slow progress along the dusty road. He’s led to approach the chariot; later he attributes this leading to God’s own Spirit.
One man stands driving the chariot. Another man, very finely and strangely dressed, sits and reads from a scroll. He reads out loud, and Philip recognizes words from Isaiah the prophet.
Not knowing this man from Adam, Philip dares to ask him a question: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
The man with the scroll replies with surprising candour. “How can I, unless someone explains it to me?” He motions to his driver to stop the chariot and invites Philip to take a seat beside him. As the chariot rolls on, these two engage in some Bible study.
Philip says that the mysterious suffering figure is Jesus, who was recently crucified outside Jerusalem and three days later raised to life. The Ethiopian welcomes all that Philip tells him of the good news. As they pass by a river, the Ethiopian—we never learn his name—asks to be baptized. Philip does this and immediately afterward is snatched up by the Spirit and taken away, leaving behind this new Christian, who continues home, rejoicing.
Philip finds himself in the right place at the right time to help the Ethiopian take a decisive step to faith in Christ. It may be the most important encounter the Ethiopian ever has, yet it is brief. Philip disappears soon enough, his task accomplished.
We may find ourselves in the same situation as Philip. We are led at some time, to some place, to someone who needs to hear a word from us. Our message may be one of explanation, witness, support, or encouragement. Though it may be expressed in very personal terms, the message does not belong to us. What we say is God’s word spoken through us. The one who hears it takes some decisive step in life. That person recognizes and responds to good news that comes from God.
We may find ourselves in Philip’s situation today, tomorrow, or when ever. We are taken to the right place, the right time, the right person in order to make a difference, to speak some good news from God.
The Lord works in such circumstances, yet we must be sensitive to our opportunity. We must be available and unafraid. What’s required is not extraordinary knowledge or eloquence or an unusual depth of spirituality. We must simply speak the truth as we know it in our lives, bear witness to Christ as we know him. That’s what it means to share our faith.
The right place, the right time, the right person—these come along often enough if we make ourselves available.
The right person may not be a high official from a distant country, but simply someone who turns up. By God’s grace, someone may go forth rejoicing after an encounter with us having heard in our words a personal message from God.
The right place -the right time. A great deal of the Christian life consists in this: our availability to act for God precisely when action is needed. To be available we must be free—from fear, distraction, busyness, and ignorance of our abilities. Availability means we are free—free to act as neighbours for other people, free to put heart and head to work, free to take a risk, free to step out in hope.
What happened to Philip the deacon happens to the rest of us too. We find ourselves—unexpectedly—in some place and time that is strange to us. It’s strange and unexpected, but the time and place are right for us, a situation to which God has led us. We must respond in faith.
The world is—literally—dying for good news. We find ourselves in the right time and the right place to respond, to make a difference for people like Philip’s Ethiopian, who wait to hear the good news and then to go on their way rejoicing.
Theologian and author Henri Nouwen writes of having been visited by a Buddhist monk who took one look at him and with eyes twinkling said: “There was a man on a horse galloping swiftly along the road. An old farmer standing in the fields, seeing him pass, called out ‘Hey rider, where are you going?’ The rider turned around and shouted back, ‘Don’t ask me, ask my horse!’”
The monk then shocked Nouwen when he said, “That is your condition. You have become a passive victim of an ongoing movement which you do not understand.”
The monk’s story may be worth our consideration. Do we really know where our horses are going? Are we, as a congregation, aware and knowledgeable of our new journey or are we just along for the ride?
In our New Testament Lesson from the 1st book of John, we heard proclaimed that it is through the gift of faith in Christ that we are empowered to love. Faith becomes our “mode of transportation,” our horse, that moves us beyond ourselves to love others, to love even the unlovable. Faith is not some sort of intellectual formula or concept. Faith is a relationship of personal trust. Faith is grounded in a mystery that says we have come to know and trust God’s love through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And because faith is a mystery we can’t prove that faith is “real” any more than we can prove love is real. But both faith and love are grounded in trusting relationships that empower us to live as real people.
The love that is shared by Christians is a clear and tangible sign of faith. Which is to say that the reverse is true as well: where love does not exist faith is lacking. When we understand it this way, we discover a check and balance system for ourselves. When we discover ourselves bearing grudges, withholding forgiveness, refusing to love we are lacking in faith, and the problems of our lives may have more to do with us than with those we would blame. When we lack loving respect for different ways of being Christian, we lack genuine faithfulness. Hopefully, through faith, I can disagree with you and not feel the need to bash and degrade you, but love you at the same time. After all, let’s remember, Jesus said love your neighbours and your enemies probably because he knew they’re usually the same people.
If that’s at all close to where we are then we must listen carefully, because today the Good News calls us to stop — look down — and examine our mode of transportation. Are we riding a runaway horse that simply carries us away into a mindless existence of constant reaction, an existence in which we feel powerless and out of control? If that’s the horse we’re on then it’s time to acknowledge that fact and get off! It’s time to change horses. It’s time to reclaim the faith that has been gifted to us. It’s time to reclaim a faithful sense of meaning and purpose. And it is through faith, and only through faith, that our lives do come to have meaning and purpose, that we come to see ourselves not as slaves to the grind, but as loved and cherished children of God.
But such faith takes constant attention and nurture. It is not a quick, easy, and painless transition to board faith and live by faith. Scripture must become our owner’s manual for this mode of transportation, and we, like the Ethiopian need to be taught and guided if we are to be prepared for the journey.
The Good News is that faith is a wonderful gift that brings meaning, order, and purpose to our lives. Faith is our God-given mode of transportation that moves us through life, not around or under life, but through life. For with faith there will never be anything set before us that we cannot manage together with the help of our God and God’s people.
If there are any words that are important from this story of the Eunuch- they are – Go – Join – Listen and Ask
Go – we need to get on our Christian horses and share the Good News not only within this church but also outside of this building
Join – We can’t expect people to join us if they can’t see us living a Christian life
Listen and Ask - Faith sharing is already happening and God is doing all the real work. We just need to go and join and listen and ask good questions– God leads – we follow. Philip sits with and gently guides the eunuch to faith in Christ. We often hear it said that we need to “Lead people to Christ.” Let’s do it AMEN