Sermon Archives

Sunday, April 29, 2018
The Fifth Sunday of Easter (RCL Year B)
The Reverend Areeta Bridgemohan, Curate
The Treasurer's Report

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts
be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Sometimes I find it challenging to keep the characters in the Bible straight. It doesn’t help that many of them share the same name!

 

There are 6 Marys named in the New Testament - 3 of whom go the tomb in the Gospel of John[1]. There are 5 Johns named in the New Testament - and a Gospel of John.[2]

There are 3 James’ named in the New Testament - and there is also a Book of James.[3] So when we come to the story that we hear today in Acts, it’s useful to keep in mind that there are 4 Philips named in the Bible, 2 of whom feature more prominently in the New Testament.[4] There is Philip the Apostle, who was first a disciple of John the Baptist and then became one of Jesus’ 12 disciples, and there is the Philip who is the protagonist of our passage today, also known as Philip the Evangelist.

 

A couple of chapters ago, the author of Acts described the rapidly growing community of faith in Jerusalem and a growing tension between two groups in the community.

 

The tension was between the Hellenists - a group of Jews who welcomed Greek culture, spoke Greek and read scripture using the Greek translation - and the Hebrews who were also Jewish but defended Hebrew customs and distinctions and often spoke Aramaic.

 

Both groups had members that converted to Christianity, however, the Hellenists were probably a point of growth for the Church at the time, as they were less inclined to interpret the law rigorously and were open to looking beyond Moses and the temple.[5]

 

The Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. To address this conflict, the apostles met and decided to call an election for new leadership from the Hellenist community. They charged the community to select 7 men.

 

The apostles set the following criteria: candidates had to be “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3). The 7 were to focus on distributing food to the Hellenist widows while the Apostles were to focus on prayer and preaching (Acts 6:4). Philip was one of the seven that was chosen.

 

Apparently, his job description changed quite quickly.

 

After the death of Stephen in a movement of persecution against the church in Jerusalem, many Christians escaped. Philip fled to Samaria, where he quickly converted a large number Samaritans.[6]

 

This is the backdrop of our story today, which begins with the angel of the Lord calling Philip from Samaria to set out for the wilderness road.

 

In brief, Philip the Evangelist was a Hellenistic Christian, part of the new leadership of a rapidly changing community, following a divine call to the peripheries of the community, pushing the boundaries of his job description in new territory.

 

In our story today, he comes across a queen’s royal treasurer in a chariot. This official was a Jew or a God-fearer (someone who identified with the Jewish faith but stopped short of circumcision) and possibly even served a Jewish queen.

 

However, as a castrated male, typical for someone serving in the royal palace, he would not have been allowed into the temple as per Jewish law.[7]

 

As he’s traveling, he’s reading scripture from Isaiah describing a suffering servant - one who was led to the slaughter, who was humiliated and denied justice. One who became an outcast. The eunuch welcomes Philip’s offer to help him interpret scripture.

 

The eunuch asks: “About whom is the prophet speaking, himself or someone else?” Perhaps when the eunuch asks this question, he was really asking “Is this only about Isaiah and his situation, or is this passage about me as well? Is this a word from God for someone else, or is it God’s word for me today?”[8]

 

Just like the eunuch, sometimes we need someone else to help us hear the voice of God for us today. We need companions on the wilderness road, people to guide and support us, that help us make meaning out of the events of our lives and point the way toward God.

 

My first year away at college was a really difficult year - it was the first time I was living so far away from my family, it was my first Montreal winter, my first experience of severe culture shock, and on top of all of that, I was rethinking my major.

 

The summer after that first year, I went back home to Italy. I met up with one of my closest friends at the beach not far from my house. We sat on the sand watching the waves roll in on the shore as we talked. She asked me how that first year away had been.

 

I described the disorientation, depression, grief, and confusion that I felt and shared that beneath all of that there was an aching emptiness in my heart. She listened deeply and we sat in silence for a while.

 

She broke the silence by asking if I had ever considered that that ache might be a call from God.

 

She was the daughter of Christian missionaries and in that moment, she brought her knowledge of the spiritual landscape as a lens through which to look at my experience.

 

That question had a profound impact on me, and marked a turning point in my faith journey. It reframed how I thought about my mental and emotional state. It planted the seed that perhaps God might be seeking me out.

 

Years later I came across the quote from St. Augustine, who said: “You have made us for yourself, Oh Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you."[9]

 

Henri Nouwen writes in his book, The Wounded Healer: “every Christian is constantly invited to overcome their neighbor’s fear by entering into it with them, and to find in the fellowship of suffering the way to freedom.”[10]

 

The eunuch was puzzling over Isaiah, which contains a prophetic call for universal salvation and the reconciliation of all of creation.[11] While at the same time, had probably just experienced the Levitical laws governing the temple that would have forbidden him to enter. So was the eunuch welcome or not? Scripture seems to point in both directions.

 

The Spirit sends Philip to be his conversation partner.

 

I wonder if Philip’s ability to relate to and minister to the eunuch was in part due to Philip’s own experience. Philip receives his charge from the established Hebrew leadership, but was a Hellenist, a marginalized group within the community of Jewish Christians, and he begins to see that the margins might actually be wider than originally prescribed. He ventures out into mission fields before they were sanctioned, leading the church community to expand further and further afield.[12]

 

All of these experiences, enabled him to answer, when the eunuch asks him the question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”, “Absolutely nothing”.

 

We each carry stories, baggage, wounds and gifts that can be used for God’s purposes on the wilderness road. We might not always know how they might be used to provide encouragement, solace or support for another. But I pray that we may have the courage to step out into the unknown when called to do so, and offer into God’s service the fullness of who we are, trusting that the Spirit’s ever creative power can find a way to repurpose it all for the building of God’s beloved community.

 

 

[7] Bartlett, D. L., & Taylor, B. B. (Eds.). (2010). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide. Westminster John Knox Press.

[8] Bartlett, D. L., & Taylor, B. B. (Eds.). (2010). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide. Westminster John Knox Press.

[9] Pine-Coffin, R. S. (1961). Confessions of St. Augustine. Nova York: Dorset Press.

[10] Nouwen, H. J. (1979). The wounded healer: Ministry in contemporary society. Image.

[11] Bartlett, D. L., & Taylor, B. B. (Eds.). (2010). Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide. Westminster John Knox Press

[12] Gonzalez, J. L. (2001). Acts: the Gospel of the Spirit. Orbis Books.