Sermon: Easter 5, 29 April 2018, Bishop Ross Nicholson, St Alban’s

Acts 8:26-40

-I don’t know that it was planned this way,

-But how apt is it that decorating the front of the church are the fruits of the land,

-Right there in front of us for our Harvest Festival are the symbols of fruitfulness,

-And in the gospel reading we have the words of Jesus;

“My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” John 15:8

-Being fruitful was a common command given to the follower of Jesus.

-In the same passage from John,

-Jesus says;

“I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit,” John 15:5

-Paul reminded the Ephesians;

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light— for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true.” Ephesians 5:8-9

-All these allusions to fruit are descriptors of the results of a life that is lived following Jesus,

-And being obedient to his command to be a witness to him and make disciples.

 

-As we continue our journey skipping through highlights from the Book of Acts,

-We see how the good news of Jesus was bearing fruit,

-As those early disciples witnessed to the death and resurrection of Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit.

-In today’s story we read of Philip

-And how the path of discipleship can take some surprising twists.

-In Acts 6 we read of a little conflict between the Grecian Jews and the Hebraic Jews in the church.

-At this point the church was still pretty much a Jewish sect.

-Those first Christians still seemed to do everything expected of a faithful Jew.

-But some strife arose when the Greeks complained that the Hebrews,

-Were neglecting the Greek widows in the daily distribution of food.

-The Apostles got everyone together to sort out the problem.

 

-But just listen to how they did that;

“It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” Acts 6:2-4

-Notice that they start by recognising what their role in the church is,

-They are to be teachers of the Word of God.

-You could be mistaken in thinking that the disciples are dangerously close to big noting their staus,

-And it’s not as if they didn’t have form in that particular behaviour.

-But that would be a mistake,

-Because they’re not demeaning waiting on tables,

-Otherwise, why would they give the credentials for this task,

-‘To be men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom.’?

-That seems to be a very high standard for a mere waiter.

-No, they’re recognising that within the church every one of us has a unique gift,

-A unique purpose and role in the building up of the body of Christ.

-The Apostle’s role was in leading the prayers and teaching of the church.

-The administration and programmes of the church,

-Was to be left to those with the skills and gifting in management.

 

-Well everyone was pleased with that proposal,

-They chose seven men,

-Who were presented to the apostles who prayed and commissioned them for the task.

-Now the story takes an interesting twist;

“Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Acts 6:8

-Clearly Stephen is no ordinary table waiter.

-He’s out in the community doing miracles,

-Which we again see causes great angst amongst the religious hierarchy.

-Trumping up a charge of blasphemy,

-They arrest him.

-To cut a long story short,

-Stephen makes a powerful speech explaining God’s providence of Israel throughout history,

-But his people rejecting their Lord,

-Right up to the point of murdering his Son Jesus.

-In anger the crowd grabs Stephen and stones him to death.

-Can you see now why the Apostles said the criteria for what we might consider a menial task,

-Was to be of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom?

-Because in God’s kingdom,

-There is no such thing as a menial task,

-Because everything we do is done for the glory of our Lord and Saviour.

-And what fruit did Stephen’s ministry bear? Acts 6:7;

“The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.” Acts 6:7

 

-Like Stephen the next ‘table waiter’ we’re introduced to is Philip.

-And just like Stephen,

-Philip moves rapidly from administration to evangelism.

-Because of Stephen’s death,

-A great persecution arose against the church,

-That scattered the believers out across Judaea and Samaria.

-Do you recognise those two places?

-At the beginning of Acts Jesus said;

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8

-Jerusalem was the capital where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

-It was the centre of Jewish religion and culture.

-It was located in Judea,

-Which was pretty much the physical boundaries of the Jewish nation.

-Out from that was Samaria.

-Samaria was once part of the twelve tribes that made up ancient Israel.

-After Solomon died they split from the two southern tribes that made up Judea.

-But because of their rebellion against God,

-Samaria was invaded by the Assyrians who had a policy of deportation and repopulation,

-That mixed up the ethnic, cultural and religious characteristics of every nation they conquered.

-If you ever wondered why the Samaritans had such a bad rap with the Jews,

-That was the reason.

-They were considered interbred pagans who had no part in the kingdom of God.

-After Samaria you went out to the ends of the earth,

-To totally pagan territory populated with idol worshippers and the profligate.

-And true to that promise of Jesus,

-Philip leaves Jerusalem and Judea and preaches the good news powerfully in Samaria.

 

-Then we come to our reading in v26 with a command from an angel of the Lord;

“Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.)” Acts 8:26

-Maybe to emphasise the divine plan that’s unfolding in the spread of the church,

-Luke adds that little note,

-‘This is a wilderness road.’

-What would you expect to find on a desert road winding through a wilderness?

-Well Philip finds a very high ranking court official of the Queen of Ethiopia riding home in a chariot.

-What are the chances of that?

-The Holy Spirit then said to Philip;

“Go over to this chariot and join it.” Acts 8:29

-As he gets closer he hears the Ethiopian reading a passage of Isaiah from a scroll,

-And strikes up a conversation with a question;

“Do you understand what you are reading?” Acts 8:30

-Well again to cut the story short,

-Philip explains that the quote refers to Jesus.

-No doubt Philip would have pointed out to the Ethiopian how that whole chapter of Isaiah 53,

-Was a prophecy about the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus.

-Although this servant of the Lord was rejected,

-It was all part of God’s plan to bring forgiveness of sins and new life to those who believed.

-Jesus was despised, rejected and crucified by his own people,

-But God raised him back to life.

-The Ethiopian is so moved by the scripture and Philip’s explanation that he says;

“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” Acts 8:37-38

-When they came up out of the water the Spirit snatched Philip away,

-And the courtier headed home rejoicing.

 

-We don’t have any idea how much of the book of Isaiah the Ethiopian had in his scroll.

-One bible book could actually be made up of three or four scrolls.

-But if that court official had the last scroll of Isaiah,

-Philip could well have unfolded it and pointed him to ch56,

-Where this foreigner would have seen a promise of God speaking exactly to him;

“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.” Isaiah 56:3-5

-For the Jews eunuchs couldn’t be part of the people of God.

-So for this Ethiopian eunuch,

-He may have been able to go up to Jerusalem to worship God,

-But as a foreigner he would have been restricted to the outer courts of the Temple,

-The court of the Gentiles.

-There would have been this physical and ethnic reminder that he was restricted in his worship of God,

-That he was an outsider.

-But as Paul reminded the Galatian Christians that in Christ;

“There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28

-No wonder he came up out of the waters of baptism rejoicing.

 

-The church in Ethiopia traces back the origin of their church to this court official.

-Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth.

-For the young church in Jerusalem,

-Ethiopia would rightly be classified as the end of the earth.

-Luke obviously put in this story of the miraculous conversion of an Ethiopian eunuch,

-To show the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of believers.

-In obedience to the command of Christ,

-Philip went where he was directed.

-When the Holy Spirit said ‘Go’ Philip followed that leading,

-And witnessed to Jesus.

-It’s not hard to see then the fulfilment of the Great Commission in this story;

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Matthew 28:18-20

-You can see each of the elements of the disciple making process.

-Philip the table waiter ‘goes’ where he was directed by the Spirit.

-His question opens up the opportunity to ‘teach’ the Ethiopian the meaning of the scriptures.

-And responding in faith this new convert is ‘baptised’.

-The kingdom grows,

-Philip’s faithfulness bears fruit,

-As the gospel is carried to the ends of the earth through an Ethiopian eunuch.

 

-Table waiter to evangelist.

-Or maybe more accurately administrator to evangelist.

-Stephen’s story is one of miracles and power,

-But maybe Philip’s story is more like ours.

-It’s the story of simple obedience to the prompting of the Spirit.

-Being told to go to a desert road may have raised questions for Philip,

-But once he was there the prompting of the Spirit to go to the chariot,

-May not have seemed so strange.

-A simple question created an opening to share the good news of Jesus with a needy foreigner.

-We’re all called to be fruitful as disciples of Jesus,

-As this Harvest Festival display should remind us.

-But these symbols of our workplaces should also remind us that our mission field,

-Our opportunity to witness to Jesus is right in front of us,

-In our day to day interactions with our colleagues, customers or clients.

-The Great Commission ‘Go’ may well start for us as we jump on the train or drive to work.

-Philip had to go to a wilderness road to reach the ends of the earth,

-But I’m sure I don’t need to remind you,

-That in the multi-facial society that is Australia,

-The ends of the earth are coming to us.

-All we need to do to obey the Great Commission,

-Is listen to those promptings of the Holy Spirit,

-And then in his power,

-Be a witness to Jesus and the hope he brings to the world around us.