Sunday, May 6, 2012

Philip and the eunuch on the road of faith

Here is my sermon for today, based on the lessons: Acts 8:26-40Psalm 22:24-301 John 4:7-21, and John 15:1-8.

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Alleluia! Christ is Risen! 

 “I need a guide.”

 “I need a ride.”

 And so begins this fascinating conversation between the disciple Philip and the unnamed Ethiopian eunuch – a conversation serving as a stage-setter for the lessons today and the history that follows in our Church.

 We begin, like many of these stories do, with an angel. When you see an angel, you know something important is happening. The angel tells Philip to go on the road south to Gaza, a road, then as a now, fraught with peril.

 Philip encounters a eunuch, a servant to the Ethiopian queen, Candace. The eunuch offers Philip a ride.

We don’t know much about the eunuch except that he is drawn to the monotheism of Judaism. He carries with him a scroll with the writings of the Prophet Isaiah. That the eunuch has this scroll is a mark of great wealth and his status as a royal servant. Peasants do not own scrolls.

 The eunuch tells Philip he can’t figure out what the scroll means, but he knows this much: he is not included in the religion that the scroll proclaims. The reason: He is a eunuch. In the ancient world, young boys were taken from their mothers to become servants – slaves – in the courts of the royalty.

But before reaching puberty, these boys were castrated so that when they grew up, they could serve the royal women with no chance of impregnating them – a matter of great import to the royal men.

 You know, biblical stories are not for the faint hearted.

 This particular eunuch is drawn to Jewish religion, and yet, he can never become fully Jewish himself because he has been castrated. He is considered sexually impure, damaged. He will never be allowed inside the Temple, the holy of holies in Jerusalem. He is automatically excluded.

Yet he has read this scroll from Isaiah about a suffering servant, and he wants to know if God will favor him in spite of his physical condition.

 “I need a guide,” the eunuch asks.

 “I need a ride,” Philip replies.

 And so begins this great conversation, this catechism on road to Gaza. I am sure Philip told the eunuch many things.

 Philip interprets the scroll by telling the eunuch the “good news” that Jesus is the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah – that Jesus is the Christ, the divine one who came to earth to suffer as a lowly servant and to bring salvation to all people everywhere.

There are no bodily markers of this faith – only the waters of baptism.

 The eunuch stops the chariot. He is stunned at what he hears. He has never heard anything like this. He has a question for Philip, and this is the acid test:

 Ok, I get it so far, he says. Is there any reason I cannot join you in this religion? Is there anything stopping you from baptizing me right now?

 The answer is not so obvious.

 Philip could have said, well, you are eunuch; your body is damaged, you are sexually impure and thanks for the ride, but we can’t have you in our religion. Sorry.

 Or Philip could have said, you are an Ethiopian, you are the wrong nationality. You aren’t one of us, you don’t look like us, you have dark skin. Sorry.

 But Philip casts all those excuses to the ground – and that is the point of the story.

There is nothing in your way, Philip says. And so he baptizes the eunuch, and each then goes their separate way.

 The story of Philip and the eunuch is the first declaration by the Church that all are included, none excluded. But there’s more that the eunuch finds startling.

This is a new creed.

As I thought about it this week, it occurred to me that these lessons today are creeds. Creeds are statements of the nature and essence of God.

 We are accustomed to reciting the Nicene Creed, that complex statement written in the Fourth Century about the meaning of the Trinity. But that is not the only creed. There are other creeds imbedded right here in the scriptures, like in this first letter of John.

 Listen to these words as a creed: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”

 That is a creed.

 And hear this creed from Psalm 22:

 “The poor shall eat and be satisfied” because the Lord will feed them. That is a declaration about the nature and essence of God. That is a creed.

And then hear this creed, from Jesus himself: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

This creed declares that we are connected to God and each other in the same way that vines grow intertwined with each other. God’s very nature and essence is relational, and we are made to grow with each other, and with God, in every sense of the word, to bear fruit with one another.

Yet, we must pause in this creed, because it gets difficult and hard from here: Jesus talks of pruning the vines, gathering branches to be “thrown in the fire.”

One of way you might hear these words is that there are good people and bad people, and the good people – people like us – will be saved, and the bad people – people not like us – will be burned up.

But hear this is as a creed; Jesus is still talking about the nature and essence of God. God is perfection, God is love, but we are human and imperfect, and none of us are fully good or fully bad.

Jesus declares in this new creed that God will prune away all that is bad within us. Everything that wounds and hurts us will be pruned away. That is the nature of the God of love. We are the branches, and God will make us whole, and we will bear good fruit no matter the condition of our bodies, or our station in life, or any other human boundary.

When the eunuch hears this new creed, he stops the chariot. He is stunned. He hears this new creed not just as words of comfort, but as words of challenge.

And so should we.

Following this new creed cannot be based human boundaries based on divisions of religion, class, social status, race or sexual differences. Those boundaries, those creeds, are based on fear. But not this new creed.

The First Letter of John puts this new creed perfectly: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”

Saint Philip, Brooklyn Museum
If we are truly entwined with God like a vine, then we are entwined with each other. Hatred, vengeance and fear can have no place with us, and it has no place in our creed or our way of life.

As John goes on with this new creed: “For those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.”

We are commanded to live out this new creed by loving our brothers and sisters, especially when it is most difficult. This new creed calls us to acts of mercy to our brothers and sisters, especially those in the most need, and we are called to look at the structures humans create that cause suffering.

Our creed calls us to be the hands and feet of Christ to change the world.

Like the eunuch, and like Philip, we are marked as Christ’s own forever by our baptism, and we have miles to go on this road together as we live out our creed. In the words of psalmist: “The poor shall eat and be satisfied, and those who seek the LORD shall praise him: ‘May your heart live for ever!’ ”

Alleluia! Christ is Risen!

James Richardson, Fiat Lux

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