Fifth Sunday of Easter

1 John 4:7-21
John 15:1-8
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We are still in the Easter season; that time in which we look deeper into the meaning of the Cross in light of our history and world today.   We are invited to recognize the inexhaustible mystery of God that is presented to us, and the ways in which God continues to reveal God’s self for all of creation as we try to figure out what that looks like in real time in the day-to-day realities of our lives.

How are we being raised up in the midst of it all?  And how are we raising others up?  How are we being shepherded and how are we being shepherds?  How are we trusting in the One who calls to us so that our doubts, fears, anxieties, discouragement, anger, wounds, and distractions – real as they may be – do not keep us so enslaved and victimized that our lives are not bearing fruit beyond ourselves?

Our lectionary reading for today is found in the book of Acts, believed to have been written by St. Luke, the evangelist and author of the Gospel that bears his name.  It is after the crucifixion; after the resurrection and the news of what had just happened is being pushed out beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem and Judea, on to Samaria and throughout the world. The text is situated between the crucifixion and the momentum leading up to Pentecost, where that first church was being birthed across all lines and barriers.  We wonder how we have gotten so far away from God’s original intent.

One of the apostles, Philip, finds himself on a deserted road along the Mediterranean coast going down toward Gaza.  Luke writes, “The angel of the Lord said to Philip, Get up and go toward the south along that road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.”[1]  Accident perhaps, but it doesn’t appear so.  It suggests that every character, every detail, every name, every situation in the story is significant.

Luke paints a colorful picture here of these two men.  The man reading was a Nubian official from what is now called Sudan.  Can you imagine?  He is an outsider, a foreigner, a “stranger” about to be welcomed in.  He has come all this way from the continent of Africa to Jerusalem to worship in a temple where he did not belong nor was he welcomed.  He has journeyed physically but also spiritually seeking that thing that had been missing.  It wasn’t just for temple membership but something more.

Most likely the city was still reeling.  And when he hears about the crucifixion and how Jesus had been raised, the Ethiopian was more than a little curious.

His name is hidden; unknown.  But Luke tells us that he was a eunuch, a court official in the queen’s court.  No name but known by his sexuality; a necessary detail defining where one belonged.  It was more critical, more important, than his race, national origin, faith, or economic status.

A eunuch was a castrated male servant trusted to perform certain social functions for royalty.  Some say that they were neither male nor female.  They were “safe” men who could be trusted to be around beautiful women of the royal court because they would not be sexually aroused or threatened.  They lacked preference and desire.

They were men marginalized, stereotyped, and forbidden.  He was an important man, a man of means and wealth in charge of the treasury of the queen mother of Ethiopia – an insider in his own country but an outsider to the faith he sought to embrace.

And along comes Philip.  Now, Philip is a close-in apostle, remember?  He is a Jew and a Middle Easterner.  He doesn’t have the kind of money or access that the eunuch has, and we know nothing of his genitalia – but he belongs.

Barbara Brown Taylor has written that he is “someone wealthy enough to ride in a chariot, educated enough to read Greek, devout enough to study the prophet Isaiah, and humble enough to know that he cannot understand what he is reading without help.”[2]

When Philip sees the eunuch, he is sitting there in the chariot reading aloud from the book of Isaiah.

Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter [meaning Jesus], and like a lamb he was silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth.  In his humiliation justice was denied him.  Who can describe his generation?  For his life is taken away from the earth.[3]

And here they are:  Philip, the apostle and an outsider, a stranger whose name we do not know.  But then, again, aren’t we all just a little “strange” in our own way?  Yes, I think so.  Strange to somebody.  So, perhaps his name is “Every Name.”  All of us are wrapped up in this one person just a little bit: Stranger, Seeker, Not Knowing, Needing someone to help us.  And I love it because my faith makes room for all of that!

According to the text, the Spirit said, “Philip go over there and ask him: do you know what you are reading?”[4]  And Philip did so.  The man replied, “How can I know unless someone guides me?”  And he invited Philip to join him in the chariot, which in itself is a little odd considering that most people in those days traveled by foot.

Philip began to explain, and proclaimed the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ; what had happened, how he had been crucified and raised from the dead on the third day.

And as they were going along the road, they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “Look here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[5]  It’s a good question, is it not?  It is the most relevant question.  What is standing in the way of me being a fully embodied member of the house of God?  A viable member of the human race of which Jesus died?

That is the question, isn’t it?  That is the question spilling over in the streets of our cities.  The question in every court room in America.  It is the question lurking behind every pew.  The question before you and before me; and all people of faith:  what is standing in the way of anybody making claim as God’s child – fully and without reservation?

The answer in the first century church was: “nothing.”  Nothing prevents you.  And if the church is going to be relevant and at her best in the 21st century, the answer must still be “nothing.”  Nothing stands in the way.  Nothing.  Not the color of your skin.  Not your race or gender?  Sexual orientation nor preference?  Not your financial status?  Not your political affiliation.  Or how long your name has been on the roll.  Not whether you are married, single, or divorced?  Nothing.    And how do we make that a lived reality, my brothers and sisters?

The Ethiopian and Philip went on down in the water and Philip baptized him with the same waters of baptism that washed my sins away and washed your sins away.  The same water that ushered each of us into a life of faith, and death to things we need to carry no longer.  It is that same water of faith that allows us to persevere beyond the hate and evil.  You are mine and I am yours.

Today, the church – Capital C – mourns the death of James Hal Cone, that great liberation theologian who passed away yesterday morning and had spent the better part of his teaching career here in our city at Union Seminary.  In his book, the Cross and the Lynching Tree which I highly recommend, Cone invites us to look deeper at the cross.  He says:

“And yet the Christian gospel is more than a transcendent reality, more than “going to heaven when I die, to shout salvation as I fly.” It is also an immanent reality—a powerful liberating presence among the poor right now in their midst, “building them up where they are torn down and propping them up on every leaning side.” The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” [6]
Before his death, Jesus was gathered around the table with his disciples and said to them, “I am the true vine; my father is the vine grower.  You are the branches.  Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes so that it bears more fruit.  Abide in me as I abide in you.”

It reminds us that we are bound together with Christ and one another like branches on a vine.

All things are possible.  It is just a matter of time, love, and faithful service.

[1] Acts 8:26
[2] David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 2, page 456.
[3] Isaiah 53:7a-8a
[4] Acts 8:29
[5] Acts 8:36-38