The Ends of the Earth – a sermon

The audio of today’s sermon is on the Saint Paul’s website, or read it here.

Happy 29th Day of Easter Everybody!  As liturgical Christians, we are peculiar in lots of ways, not least of which that we tend to celebrate seasons after something happens.  While the rest of the world celebrates Christmas from Thanksgiving until Christmas Day, we’re mired in Advent with prophets proclaiming doom and gloom and lessons about the end of the world.  It isn’t until Christmas items are 75% off that we start celebrating the twelve day Season of our Lord’s birth.  Then there’s Easter.  While we’re waving palm branches and contemplating the death of our Lord and Savior, the rest of the world, many churches included, are gorging themselves on jelly beans and dropping Easter Eggs from helicopters.  The Easter Bunny has left the mall by the time we’re ready to dig up the Alleluias for a fifty-day celebration of the resurrection.  So here we are, the stores already hocking July 4th Merchandise, still wearing white, still shouting Alleluia, still celebrating Easter.

One thing we do tend to get ahead of ourselves on is the Ascension.  We’re still 11 days away from Ascension Day, but we’ve been reading lessons from the post-Ascension Acts of the Apostles all Easter long.  Don’t get me wrong, I love hearing the stories of the early Church, and I think there is no better time to hear them than the Easter Season as we ponder what it means to follow the risen Lord in the resurrection life.  It is worth noting, however, that while liturgically we are still in Easter, scripturally, we are all over the place.  This morning is no different as our lesson from Acts comes from the eighth chapter, way past Ascension Day and a big jump from three weeks spent bouncing around chapters three and four.  A lot has already happened by the time the angel tells Philip to head down the Wilderness Road.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch really begins in Jerusalem on Ascension Day.  Just as Jesus was about to depart from his friends, he gave them one last commissioning, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  The Apostles stood there awestruck, but somewhere, a man named Philip’s life was changed forever.  Skipping ahead to chapter six, we find the Church in the midst of some growing pains.  So much was happening so quickly, and some needy widows had fallen through the cracks.  This was a problem, of course, and it was exacerbated by the fact that all the widows who were no longer receiving their daily bread spoke Greek, while all the widows who were still on the Meals on Wheels list spoke Aramaic.  The Greek speaking Christians took issue with the Apostles about this and it was quickly decided that a new order of ministry was needed.  The Apostles called on the fledgling Christian community to “select seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who could serve as Deacons and coordinate the caring for widows and the feeding of the poor, so that the Apostles could devote themselves to “prayer and serving the word.”

Of the seven selected, five are never heard of again, but two would forever change the Church: Stephen and Philip.  Stephen was “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and quickly began to do much more than what was written in his job description.  Stephen had the gift of miracles, and he did all sorts of signs and wonders in the name of Jesus before being arrested for stirring up the people.  After an impassioned speech before the Council, Stephen was dragged out of the city and stoned to death.  A great persecution began after the stoning of Stephen and all the Christians in Jerusalem, except the Apostles, left town and scattered throughout the Judean countryside; sharing the Good News everywhere they went.

Soon, Philip found himself in the dreaded city of Samaria, where his gifts of evangelism and healing came pouring out as a blessing upon a people who, for so long, had been outside the bounds of proper Judaism.  He told them the Good News of Jesus, he cast out demons, and he healed the paralyzed and the lame.  The city of Samaria was filled with joy, and the promise of Jesus was nearly fulfilled.  The Gospel had spread from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.  All that was left was the ends of the earth, and Philip was about to find it in the form of a Eunuch from Ethiopia.

The story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is a fantastic story, with one incredible detail after another.  It starts with an Angel of the Lord appearing before Philip and instructing him to leave Samaria and head south through Jerusalem to the road that leads down to Gaza: the wild and wooly Wilderness Road.  At once Philip got up and went.  Meanwhile, in Jerusalem there was a man who was taking what little part he could in the worship of God.  He was a Eunuch, and as such, according to Deuteronomy, was forbidden from even entering the Temple.  He was an Ethiopian, most likely a descendant of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah.  He was, most certainly, not an ethnic Jew.  He was a Senior Official in the court of the Candace, the Queen of Ethiopia.  As the man in charge of the treasury, he handled money engraved with images and dealt with funds raised in pagan Temple worship.  The Ethiopian Eunuch was, for all intents and purposes, the ends of the earth.  You couldn’t get much further outside of the Jerusalem Establishment than this man was, and yet there he was, returning from the Holy City, reading from a scroll of the Prophet Isaiah, having fulfilled his own personal commitment to worship God.

“There,” the Spirit says to Philip, “there in that chariot is a man with whom you need to speak.” Without hesitation Philip saddled up next to the Eunuch and asked, “Whatcha readin’?” He then shared with this man, this obvious outsider, the Good News of Jesus Christ.  The story only gets more fantastic when, in the middle of the desert between Jerusalem and Gaza, the two men stumble upon an oasis and the Eunuch says to Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

What is to prevent the Eunuch from being baptized?!?  In Philip’s time and place there was only one answer to this question.  Everything!  Everything about this man should prevent him from being baptized.  He’s an Ethiopian, a Eunuch, and in charge of the treasury of a pagan queen; his only knowledge of Jesus came from a thirty minute chariot ride with a newly minted Deacon named Philip.  There are lots and lots of reasons why the Ethiopian Eunuch shouldn’t have been baptized in the desert that afternoon, but he was, and the Kingdom of God is better off for it.

Philip knew the right thing to do was to baptize that man in a mud puddle on the side of the road because Philip was tied into the vine of Christ.  As a branch on that great vine of God, Philip knew that he had only one job, to bear the fruit of the Kingdom.  Love flows through the vine of Christ and love is the fruit that disciples who are grafted into that vine produce.  It couldn’t have been easy for Philip to love the people of Samaria, he’d been taught to hate them his whole life.  It couldn’t have been easy for Philip to love the Ethiopian Eunuch, there was so much that made him unclean.  And yet, Philip loved them all because that is what a disciple of Jesus does.  Disciples of Jesus love their neighbors: black and white, gay and straight, Republican and Democrat, Eunuchs and Samaritans because in the Kingdom of God, all lives matter.  The same love that compelled God to send his only begotten Son to save the whole world flowed through Philip and compelled him to preach the Gospel to the ends of the earth. That same love flows through each of us. The question is, What will we do with that love?  With whom will you share it?  How far outside your comfort zone are you willing to go?  Even to the ends of the earth? May God’s love flow through each of us as we go forth from this place to share the Good News and serve our neighbors in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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The Disciples’ Fear

Every year, on the Sunday after Easter, Episcopalians hear the same Gospel lesson.  The story is affectionately referred to as the story of “Doubting Thomas,” and while he plays a prominent role in the story, Thomas is not the focus of my attention today.  Instead, for whatever reason, I’ve found myself chewing on the 10 other disciples on that first night.

John tells us that it was evening.  It was getting dark outside and the day was over, but nobody was getting ready for bed.  Instead, the disciples had made their way back to the upper room and locked the doors “for fear of the Jews.”  When we read this story in isolation, it is easy to forget that Jesus has already made a post-resurrection appearance in John’s Gospel.  Earlier that morning, very early indeed, Mary Magdalene had made her way to the tomb and found it open.  After telling Peter and another disciple about it, she made her way back to the garden where the profound weight of the last 3 days came sweeping in upon her.  She sat down outside the empty tomb and began to weep, when Jesus came and called her by name.  Off she went again, running to find the disciples to tell them, “I have seen the Lord!”

It is about 12 hours later when the scene in the upper room opens up, and the disciples are locked up tight.  Their fear doesn’t stem from what happened on Thursday night and Friday anymore.  Instead, they are afraid because of what happened this morning.  Jesus is alive and on the loose, and there are a lot of people who are going to be awfully ticked off about the empty tomb.  Those who put Jesus to death will no doubt assume that someone has stolen his body, and the first suspects will be his closest companions.  The disciples are locked in the upper room because they know that the case of Jesus’ missing body means that their death warrants have already been signed, and they are terrified.

Nine of the ten disciples who were in the upper room that night will eventually die for their faith.  All of them will be persecuted in one way or another.  Once they experience the risen Jesus, they’ll have the strength to stand up for his Kingdom, but as the story from John 20 opens, they aren’t there yet.  They’re yet to be transformed by the power of the resurrection.  I wonder, as I sit in the comfort of my office, in a country where there is a 0% chance of my being persecuted for my faith, let alone killed because of it, have I had that transforming experience?

A week later, the disciples are back in the upper room and the door is still locked.  It takes time, even once we’ve seen the risen Christ face-to-face, to step out in faith.  I wonder, if I’ve had my transforming experience, what is still holding me back?  What is holding you back?  What are you afraid of?  What makes you keep the door locked?

Poured out for Many

Each post this week will focus on the biblical account of the events that occurred in the last week of Jesus’ life.  Today’s reading is from Mark 14:12-25 (NRSV).

On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, when it was customary to sacrifice the Passover lamb, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Where do you want us to go and make preparations for you to eat the Passover?”   So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him.  Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’  He will show you a large upper room, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there.”   The disciples left, went into the city and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.   When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve.  While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me-one who is eating with me.”   They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?”   “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me.  The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”   While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”   Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.  “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.” 


 

There has been some debate in high thinking theological circles about the Eucharistic Prayers we use.  Specifically in question is a portion of the Institution Narrative which we have here in Mark’s account of the last supper.  As Jesus shares the cup with his disciples he says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”  In our liturgical texts, we tend to mash these words with Paul’s version from 1st Corinthians, which gives us the well known, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.  Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”

The subject of the debate is the word many, polos in Greek.  Many is troublesome for some people because it sounds exclusionary.  Honestly, it is exclusionary, but the fact of the matter is that the Greek word seems to clearly indicate many but not all.  Smarter people than me might be able to tell us why, when The Episcopal Church published Enriching our Worship in 1998, they decided to forego the ancient tradition of “many” and instead use the word “all” in all three Eucharistic Prayers and both Eucharistic Forms.  My gut says that the Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music didn’t like the exclusive nature of many, so they simply chose to change it, which I think misses the point of what is actually happening in the story of Jesus’ Last Supper.

You see, many includes a whole lot of people.  Those who were at the table with Jesus, part of the many who would drink from the cup of the new covenant and share in the forgiveness of sins, included Thomas, who in just a few days be uncertain if he could really believe that Jesus had risen from the dead; Peter, who in just a few hours would find himself denying that he even knew Jesus, let alone was one of his closest disciples not once, not twice, but three times; and, of course, Judas, who in only a few minutes will dart out into the darkness of the night to finalize the arrangements of Jesus’ betrayal to the Jewish authorities.  Many includes a lot of people who have failed in a lot of pretty significant ways.  Judas will take his own life before the night is over, but he drank from the cup, and I believe found his way into heaven.  Peter will come back to the faith, be the rock upon which the Church is built, die crucified upside down for his faith, and I believe found his way into heaven.  Thomas will, as legend suggests, take the Gospel all the way to India and die there at a ripe old age in the year 72CE.  Whether he died of old age, from an arrow accidentally misfired by a fowler, or as a martyr at the hands of soldiers (all ways Thomas is said to have died), I believe he found his way into heaven.

Many is a troublesome word, but it is the word that Jesus used, and, quite frankly, its meaning is a lot wider than most of us are really comfortable with.  As night falls and the events of Good Friday come swiftly upon us, we’ll find that the many from whom Jesus’ blood was poured out will include a criminal crucified beside him and the centurion and his detachment who took part in the crucifixion.  Many doesn’t mean all, but it sure comes awfully close.

Finger on the button

The disciples are understandably on edge.  A brief over veiw of the event of Luke chapter 9 makes me jittery, and I’m living 2,000 years after the fact.

  • 9:1 – Jesus gives the disciples authority to cast out demons and cure diseases
  • 9:7 – Herod thinks Jesus is John the Baptist risen from the dead (not a good thing)
  • 9:10 – Jesus feeds the 5,000
  • 9:18 – Peter proclaims Jesus as the Messiah
  • 9:21 – Jesus foretells his death and resurrection
  • 9:28 – Jesus is Transfigured
  • 9:40 – The disciples fail to heal a boy with a demon, so Jesus has to fix the mess
  • 9:43 – Jesus again foretells his death
  • 9:49 – The disciples run into a man exorcising demons in Jesus’ name and don’t like it
  • 9:51 – the beginning of our pericope today Jesus isn’t welcomed into a Samaritan city

It is perhaps no wonder then that the disciples want to put their finger on the button to call down fire to consume them.  Things are getting hairy and the disciples are feeling the heat licking at their heels.  Which is, as I say, not surprising.  None of us really likes when new things spring up on us.  None of us is happy to see our power slipping away.  None of us wants to see our leaders ride off into the sunset.  Often, our reaction is to cling to power, or, in extreme cases, to wipe out anyone who threatens your position in the power structure.

As normal as the reaction of the disciples might be, Jesus doesn’t buy power dynamics, and so we get a very short, simple response from Jesus, “But Jesus turned and rebuked them.”