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.