Sermon: Easter 5, 29 April 2018, Rev. Paul Weaver, St Aidan’s

St.Aidan’s West Epping, 29th April 2018

 Rev. Paul Weaver

THE GOSPEL FOR THE OUTSIDER

 (Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:26-32; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8)

Last week I pointed out that since Easter our Lectionary has been taking us through the First Letter of John. But it has also been bringing us some highlights from the first half of the Acts of the Apostles.

Acts begins with Jesus talking to his disciples before his Ascension. He assures them that the Holy Spirit will come to them and give them power to bear witness to him: not only in Jerusalem, but also in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And in a sense, this book by Luke shows us how that great promise began to be fulfilled. On the day of Pentecost, thousands were converted, and Luke makes it clear that many who heard the message of Jesus that day came from different parts of the world.

In Chapter 8, which we heard the last part of this morning, the focus is on Philip, one of seven people appointed to look after the needs of Christians who were poor, so that the apostles could focus on preaching the Gospel. But like Stephen, another of these seven, who became the first Christian martyr, Philip’s gifts were not just administrative! He also was a gifted communicator, and indeed had a very effective ministry to the Samaritans, seeing many of them healed and led to Christ. Another step forward for the Gospel, as Jesus had indicated!

But suddenly Philip received a divine command to go around 100 kilometres south, to the old Gaza road used by traders and travellers going to Egypt and Africa. And so, instead of preaching to crowds of enthusiastic people in Samaria, Philip found himself talking to one solitary fellow from Ethiopia. His country was probably a bit north of the fascinating country we know as Ethiopia today: probably closer to the Sudan. This man was a top-ranking official in the government, assisting the queen, who was the effective ruler of Ethiopia, while the king concentrated on trying to be the semi-divine son of the sun! The man was probably black, very unlikely to be a Jew. But many Jews lived in North Africa, and like many local people, no doubt this man had found that the idea of a single Creator God, a God who is righteous and who calls people to be righteous, made far more sense to him that the local pagan traditions and practices.

This man had made the trip to Jerusalem to worship the God of the Jews, and to learn more about him. He was someone who wanted to understand more about the living God. But he faced barriers. He was a eunuch, which made him officially unable to be admitted as a full Jewish convert or proselyte. He would be called a “God-fearer”, but he would never be able to go beyond the outer court of the temple, or share fully in worship.

It was probably while he was in Jerusalem that he had got hold of one or more scrolls of the Jewish scriptures, probably in the Greek translation which was becoming more widely used. As Philip drew near to the chariot, which may well have been part of a caravan of travellers, he heard the Ethiopian reading aloud: in fact it was so loud that Philip could recognize the passage he was reading. And before getting too condescending, we need to keep in mind that silent reading has really only been normal in the last few centuries!

The Ethiopian was reading what is to Christians a very famous passage: Isaiah Chapter 53, about the Suffering Servant. Perhaps he had already read some earlier chapters about this Servant of the Lord, who had been raised up to bring healing to God’s people, to preach God’s message, and to bring light to the nations; a servant who would face discouragement, rejection and suffering. According to this passage, the servant would not only suffer: he would die. His death would be unjust, and yet the servant would accept it without complaint. But somehow this death would also bring forgiveness of sins to others, and indeed it would lead to the servant’s ultimate triumph, all in accordance with God’s will and purpose.

Now that’s a lot to take in, especially if you were not brought up learning about the Old Testament, and if you have just heard some vague stories about Jesus the teacher and healer, executed in Jerusalem some time ago. Philip asked the right question as he came up to the chariot: “Do you understand what you are reading?” “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” asks the Ethiopian. And of course Philip is more than happy to do just that. “Who is this all about?” asks the Ethiopian. That was the big issue of this passage, and it mystified many able Jewish teachers. But Jesus himself had pointed his followers towards a deep understanding this chapter, and when the disciples reflected on his death and resurrection, it had suddenly made real sense, and taken on a new and wonderful significance for them.

Jesus was the one who was led to death without complaint, like a sheep or lamb. He was the one who was denied justice, humiliated and crucified; whose life was taken from the earth. But Philip was not only able to tell the Ethiopian that Jesus was the one to whom this passage pointed: he was able to explain how Jesus’ death on the cross was God’s way of dealing with human sin and evil. God himself was in Jesus the Suffering Servant, the promised Messiah, bearing the curse of sin, its penalty, its alienation. He bore our sin and triumphed over evil. His death brings us healing, spiritual wholeness, and it reconciles us to God.

Philip would have explained all this, showing how Jesus fulfilled the great promises of the Old Testament. He showed the Ethiopian that Jesus had come to bring light and salvation to all the world. He had not come only for Jews, but for all people. Philip told this outsider the Good News, the wonderful News of Jesus. What this man needed to do was to see that Jesus had come and lived and died and risen for him, as he has for all of us. What he now needed to do was to accept by faith God’s tremendous gift of forgiveness and life, depending on God’s wonderful love in Jesus the promised King and Saviour.

And that’s what this Ethiopian official did. He decided to put his faith in Jesus as his Saviour, and to seek to live out that faith, following Jesus as his Master and King. And to express that commitment, to express that decision to become Christ’s follower, he asked to be baptized when they came to a stream or pool near the road. And so Philip baptized him: and that is the end of the story as we have it. Next thing we know, Philip is preaching the Gospel in the old Philistine town of Ashdod. And the Ethiopian is on his way home rejoicing.

Was there already a Christian church in Ethiopia for him to link up with? We don’t know. Certainly there were no follow-up classes to join in, or correspondence or internet courses to enrol in. Not even any specifically Christian literature to study. What he had was his scroll or scrolls of the Old Testament, and his understanding of them as Philip had explained them. And he now also had the Holy Spirit at work in him, strengthening and encouraging and guiding him along the path of faith and discipleship.

Well, was it worthwhile for Phillip to be sent all that way to speak to this one man? In the plan of God it was. Philip continued up the coast and continued what seems to have been a very effective ministry pointing people to Christ and building up the church. And we know that the ancient church of Ethiopia looks back to this man and sees him as the founder of that church which has survived over the centuries.

The Ethiopian certainly was glad that Philip had been sent to show him the way of salvation. And after all, the Lord is like the good shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in a safe place, so that he can go looking for the one who is lost. It was not only the Ethiopian who rejoiced that day. It was the angels of heaven and the Lord himself who rejoiced to see this unlikely man enter the family of God, and find his place in the kingdom of heaven.

And Luke who recorded this story wants us to see God’s plan for the Gospel going forward, as the Gospel reaches into Africa and as outsiders find their place in the family of God. Of course if Philip had not been open to the leading of God’s Spirit directing him on his long journey, this would never have happened. But Philip was abiding in Jesus, the vine, the source of life and growth. He was ready to bear fruit because he stayed connected to Jesus. On this Harvest Festival, let us remember that Jesus wants us to bear fruit for him: the fruit of a truly Christian life and a truly Christian character, but also the fruit that comes when we are ready to bear our own witness for Jesus. We mightn’t see ourselves as great evangelists like Philip – or for that matter like Billy Graham who died earlier this year, and whose ministry touched so many lives – but in our own way, by our own words and actions, we can point people towards Jesus.

But we must beware, for we can point people away from him by our unkindness, our lovelessness, our judgementalism, our arrogance. Let us stay connected to Jesus the true vine, and allow Jesus’ challenge to bear fruit in our own lives. We never know whom we might influence to look more closely at Jesus. May our light shine before others, that they may see our good works, and hear our gracious and helpful words, and give glory to our Father in heaven, drawing close to our Saviour Jesus Christ, the true vine and bringer of life. Amen.

Paul Weaver