The Fifth Sunday of Easter for Year B (May 3, 2015)

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Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

Acts 8:26-40

When it comes to the task of discipleship, we are all basically committed to following Christ. In the words of an old gospel song, “I’ll go where you want me to go, Dear Lord….” (words by Mary Brown, music by Charles Prior. Listen to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform the hymn here.)

That task is easier said than done, though; Philip is sent down “a wilderness road.” This, of course, echoes the path of Jesus himself through the wilderness (where the Spirit had to drive him.) Philip had his own doubts when he saw that the place God was sending him was to a chariot occupied by an Ethiopian eunuch. Not your everyday candidate for conversion to Judaism or the Way of Jesus — then, or now! But, the essence of the scene is distilled by two moments:

  1. An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go…” And he got up and went.
  2. The eunuch asked the poignant question, “What prevents me…?”

Not a thing, evidently.

Psalm 22:25-31

God is the God of all people and all things — past, present, and future. While Hebrew scripture does not have a well-defined sense of resurrection and life after this life, these verses certainly give one hope while Easter is still being celebrated.

“To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down; before him shall bow all who go down to the dust, and I shall live for him. Posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.” (vv. 29-31)

1 John 4:7-21

As my Bubba points out on today’s episode of The Lectionary Lab Live, in these 14 verses of scripture, some form of the word love is mentioned 29 times! You reckon there’s something here for us to notice? Love begins with God, comes to us, and through us, continues throughout the world.

John 15:1-8

We find our life in Christ, as any branch that dwells in the vine (and, by extension, to the ground, the soil, the water, the sun.) Also, the process of pruning — though sometimes painful — is part of the deal.

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In June of 1977, in the auditorium at Methodist College in Fayetteville, NC, I and about 20 others were ordained as deacons in the United Methodist Church – in those days a first step toward possible future ordination as Elders.  Bishop Joseph Thomas preached that night and said something I have never forgotten. “Sisters and brothers in Christ, after this night, the Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go.  If you wanted to go there, the Spirit would be unnecessary.”

I thought of those words when I read today’s Acts’ lesson about Phillip, one of the first seven deacons selected and set apart by the laying on of hands. (Acts 6:1-6) I’m pretty sure that hitch-hiking in the wilderness was not what Phillip and the others had in mind when they accepted the call to serve the Lord.  After all, the need presented to them was food distribution to the widows – nothing whatsoever was said about going on the road, preaching, baptizing or anything like that. But like the Bishop said, “The Holy Spirit will lead you somewhere you don’t want to go,” or at least somewhere you never expected to go, doing things you never expected to be doing.

“Get up and go,” the angel said, and Phillip “got up and went.”  He was told no more than that he should head south to the road between Jerusalem to Gaza, not even what it was he was supposed to do when he got there.  This is a recurring theme in the scriptures; this business of God saying “get up and go,” and people of faith “getting up and going.”  Let’s see, among many others – there are Abram and Sarai, told to leave Ur of the Chaldees and go to “the land that I will show you.”  There’s Jonah, who first “got up and went” the other way, but after that adventure with the fish, the second time God called he came around and got up and went.  And most famously, there’s Saint Paul who, after his experience of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus was told to “Get up and go” to the street called Straight.

We are, I am, a lot more hesitant than Abram and Sarai, or Phillip, or Saul.  We are, I am, a lot more like Jonah – apt to run in the opposite direction, or at least to ask for specifics of the job and add conditions upon our participation.  “I’m available on Tuesdays.” “I’ll go anywhere – but no, not there, that won’t work for me.”  “I’m not sure I’m suited to working with those people – they push me too far out of my comfort zone.”  And do you know how God generally responds to all that hesitation and condition making?  Pretty much the way our parents responded when we explained to them why we couldn’t make our bed, or do the dishes, or mow the grass.  God stands there and listens, and then says, “That’s nice.  Now, get up and go.”

Truly, it’s a good thing that God does not fully explain things to us before asking us to respond to the call.  If God did, most of us would not say yes.  It would be too frightening.  And the reason it would be too frightening is that we would foolishly assume that God was asking us to do these impossible, over-whelming, out of our comfort zone things using our own reason and strength, our own ability and skill; and nothing could be further from the truth.  God doesn’t tell us what we’ll be doing because the main thing God needs from us is our willingness to be go, trusting that when the ministry need appears, the ability to respond to it will appear as well.

This is what happens with Phillip.  He got up and went to the south, to the road that runs through the wilderness from Jerusalem to Gaza.  And as he stood there, “an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians,” came along in his chariot.  Now, suppose God had said to Phillip, “I want you to go and talk about Jesus with one of the most powerful people in the world.  And by the way; he’s not Jewish, indeed he’s ritually unclean because of his sexuality, and he’s an African.”   How excited would Phillip have been about that?  On the one hand he might have felt overwhelmed and under prepared; on the other hand, he may have been like Paul and Jonah – unwilling to go because he didn’t want to be involved with one of “those people.”

But God didn’t give Phillip that kind of choice.  And he doesn’t give us that kind of choice either.

We are called to go where the Holy Spirit leads us – whether we want to go there or not.  We are called to open our doors, our arms, our hearts, and our minds, to all people – not just the people we happen to like and who happen to like us.  When God calls us to get up and go, the only faithful response is to get up and go.

In his telling of this story, Luke makes good use of questions.  Did you notice that?  When Phillip heard the man reading Isaiah, he asks, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The Eunuch responds by asking Phillip, “About whom is he talking?”  These are good questions and a good model for us as we talk to others about Jesus. What would happen if – instead of trying to convince other people to see things our way – we simply asked questions and listened to answers and had a conversation with them about faith?

But here’s the question in this text that really matters for us today.  After hearing the gospel, the Ethiopian says to Phillip, “Look, here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

In the story, he is saying “I want to be baptized.” After all, Ethiopia is south of Israel – and all Southerners have a habit of asking indirect, backdoor questions?  As when my wife says, “You’re not doing anything are you?”  What she really means is, “Please take out the garbage.”

But I think this question should be taken by us in a more direct manner.  Are we preventing others from being baptized, from coming to faith, from hearing the story of Jesus?  This is the question the early church had to continually ask themselves.  The book of Acts is the story of the first Christians learning to break down traditional boundaries between Jews and Greeks, slave and free, men and women, Romans and conquered peoples, etc. etc.  And the boundaries must continue to fall.  Every time we think we’re finished, every time we think we have finally gone as far as we can go, every time we believe we have opened our arms as wide as we can open them; the voice comes and whispers in our ear one more time, “Get up and go.”

And the question is, will it be said of us, they “got up and went?”

Amen and amen.

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