Preached on 29 April 2018 at Church of the Ascension, Seattle, Washington
The fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch almost sounds like a dream, doesn’t it? What does this dream-story tell us about being an Easter Church?
All through Easter, we’ve been reading stories from The Acts of the Apostles to discover and discern what it might mean for Ascension to be an Easter Church. There is a lot to discover in this story.
The first thing that pops out at me is that Philip does exactly what we’re doing with Scripture – he makes a connection between Scripture – what the prophet Isaiah wrote in the time of the Babylonian exile – and what is going on in their lives.
We see that the Scripture is interpreted in conversation; in community, not alone. The man is reading a passage from Isaiah, one that we call the song of the suffering servant. He’s confused and asks Philip a question about it. We don’t get to hear Philip’s interpretation but we do hear that he makes a connection with and proclaims the Good News of Jesus Christ to this man in a chariot on the road to Gaza.
There is not just one authoritative interpretation. When Isaiah was prophesying, he did not have Jesus in mind. We don’t know what he was talking about, but we do know that it was relevant to his audience. And it was relevant to later generations, otherwise it would not have been preserved.
Scripture endures because it can continue to speak to our own lives, our present world.
The Easter Church reads Scripture in conversation with one another and with our lives.
The second detail that pops out at me is the Ethiopian himself. In reaching out to him, Philip crosses all kinds of lines; societal, cultural, and religious barriers that define who’s in and who’s not:
- He’s Ethiopian – a stranger, a foreigner
- Religiously, he’s an outsider
- He’s a slave, but a high-ranking official in the service of the Queen of Ethiopia
- At least from Philip’s perspective, the Ethiopian is sexually an outsider. As a eunuch, he would be excluded from much of Jewish communal life.
I don’t know how that would have been viewed in his own culture, though.
- Americans often will see Philip as reaching across a racial divide as well. That may be projecting our own cultural biases on him. I don’t know if race, as we describe it, was a thing for them.
In any case, we could say that the Easter Church crosses the many ways our culture and society use to define people; to say who’s in and who’s out; who’s acceptable, who’s worthy, and who’s not.
The Easter Church leaves the comfort of the familiar and risks going to where it may feel uncomfortable, awkward, or even dangerous.
Next, the Ethiopian does what people have been doing for two thousand years: In response to hearing the Good News, he asks to be baptized.
“Look! Water,” he says, “let’s do it. I want to be baptized.” Philip responds, “Right. Let’s go.” He doesn’t say, “Wait you haven’t ….” Fill in the blank.
The Easter Church baptizes.
Finally, I notice that Philip responds to the promptings of the Holy Spirit:
“Get up and go to the road from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Philip goes.
“Go over to the man in the chariot and join him.”
When he is done, the Spirit takes him away and the Ethiopian continues on his way, rejoicing and praising God.
The Easter Church – and this is probably the most important characteristic – the Easter Church listens for and responds to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Now, our gospel reading from John gives us the foundation for being an Easter Church.
We hear Jesus talking to his disciples on the night he will be betrayed. It’s part of his farewell discourse.
“I am the True Vine,” he says. “You are the branches.” This is about relationship that continues beyond his death, resurrection, and ascension. Even when his is no longer with them, he is the vine that sustains and nourishes the branches. There is mutuality and interdependence in the relationship. It’s about the community and sustenance they have in each other as well as through Jesus who binds them together.
At the heart of the Easter Church, of course, is Jesus.
Way back when I was first discerning whether to start discerning call, my Spiritual Director gave me this. It doesn’t have an attribution, so I don’t know where it’s from. It’s a photocopy that I preserved by covering it with clear contact. All these years later, it still has meaning for me. As I read the story of Philip and Ethiopian, I thought it summed up the story and what it is to be an Easter Church quite well.
Go where you are sent.
Wait until you are shown what to do.
Do it with your whole self.
Remain until you have done what you were sent to do.
Walk away with empty hands.
In this time of transition and discernment in the life of Ascension, this may be a good guide.
- What are we finished doing? Notice it says remain until you have done what you were sent to do. Not until all is done.
- Are there things we no longer do with our whole self? Is it time to let go and walk away with empty hands; to make room for the new thing God has for us?
You know, there was a time in my life when I took a diaper bag with me everywhere. And you know what else? I don’t anymore. I finished that phase of my life and let it go. As much as I loved my babies, I don’t miss it. Letting go freed my hands for the next thing.
- What do we still do with our whole self? With energy and enthusiasm and creativity?
- Where is the Spirit sending us now? That’s a hard one. Do we have enough stillness in our life as a community to listen to the Spirit, and to hear her promptings?
- What are we being shown to do? Are we willing to wait for it?
May we make enough space in our lives to wait and listen; and as we begin to move forward, may we continue to listen for the guiding of the Spirit.
May we have the courage to let go of what is finished to make room for the new. May we receive it with open, empty, willing, welcoming hands.
And whatever it is God is giving us to do,
may we do it with our whole selves.