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Sunday 7 May 2017 – Unless someone explains it to me…

READINGS: Isaiah 56:1-8; Acts 8:4-8; 26-40

MESSAGE

We talked about ministry last week. How pastor/teacher is the primary ministry in our church in line with the people gifts of Ephesians 4.

And we saw in Acts 6 that the apostles wanted to focus their attention on preaching and prayer, so the set apart 7 spiritual men – deacons – to wait on tables – to attend to the distribution of food in the church.

When you look at the first of these – Stephen – and you read Acts 7 – he was an amazing man of God and a preacher. He didn’t get to do the things they thought he should – he has a power ministry and get killed for his preaching.

The early fathers wrote that the blood of the martyrs was the seed of the church.

Persecution followed Stephen’s death – and remember Saul was there and approved of this death.  The believers are scattered to Judea and Samaria. It’s part of God’s plan. Amazing.

But wait there’s more. There’s more in Acts 8 because deacon number 2 is also not doing what they thought he should be doing.

You see you can’t stop the Holy Spirit using people who are open. And that includes you and me.

Acts 8: 4 tells us:

Act 8:4  Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. Act 8:5  Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Christ there. Act 8:6  When the crowds heard Philip and saw the miraculous signs he did, they all paid close attention to what he said. Act 8:7  With shrieks, evil spirits came out of many, and many paralytics and cripples were healed. Act 8:8  So there was great joy in that city.

There are signs and wonders that get people’s attention. And they listen to the message – and there is success.

So Philip buys a house and settles there and caries on a lovely ministry until his retirement. Hardly!

This city in Samaria is not the only part of the plan.

We skip the bit about Simon the magician –  that’s for reading through the week for you.

We pick up Phillip in verse 26. Look carefully at what happens to this deacon who was supposed to be helping feed the widows back home – the deacons today are the equivalent of our board – charged with so called practical things.

Act 8:26  Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” Act 8:27  So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, Act 8:28  and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the book of Isaiah the prophet. Act 8:29  The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

If you don’t know this story, you’ve missed something very special.

This Ethiopian we are told would not be from modern Ethiopia but the land of Cush, in central Sudan today.

He is reading from Isaiah 53, the great servant song. The servant in the passage would not have been understood as referring to a Messiah in those days, but possibly a new Elijah figure. They would not have expected a suffering Messiah.

The journey from Jerusalem where he would have been back to the Sudan would have taken 5 months. Gaza would have been the last place to stop for water before the road turned south into the Egyptian desert.

I love the idea of Philip running alongside the chariot.

This deacon – ordained to feed widows in the daily food bank programme, like Stephen, finds that you can’t be constrained by one role when the Holy Spirit is at work. When you’re open.

And God was at work in this Eunuch’s life. Philip has to intersect with him. For the sake of the Gospel. Which he would take back to Africa.

The church in Africa is very old. It makes sense that the word would have reached Egypt too. The Coptic church is very old there too.

As an aside, the Palm Sunday massacres have had an amazing witness and testimony to other Egyptians. I think I mentioned that last week. Here is one example released by the Bible Society in Egypt of a TV interview which is very powerful:

https://vimeo.com/212755977

The impact of this story is profound. Just three chapters after the bit that the man was reading in his chariot is the amazing bit we read today from Isaiah 56 – and when Jesus was cleansing the temple THIS was the bible passage he had in mind.

Jesus did not shy away from these issues and the place of eunuchs. In a discussion on marriage in Matthew 19 he talks about them. Listen to this:

Mat 19:8  Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. Mat 19:9  I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Mat 19:10  The disciples said to him, “If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.”  Mat 19:11  Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given.

Mat 19:12  For some are eunuchs because they were born that way; others were made that way by men; and others have renounced marriage because of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

It actually hints at a preferred life of celibacy that Jesus seems to favour. Like Paul.

Jesus would have known Isaiah 56 which included all in a prophetic statement of a new acceptance of people who would have been rejected before.

Isa 56:3  Let no foreigner who has bound himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let not any eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” Isa 56:4  For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— Isa 56:5  to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.

And then Isaiah includes with the eunuchs the foreigners:

Isa 56:6  And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to serve him, to love the name of the LORD, and to worship him, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— Isa 56:7  these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

Because all nations were called to come into a relationship with God.

It’s a powerful piece – especially in the light of xenophobia and the modern debates about nationalism in the world – the French presidential election today and the British one in a few weeks.

Philip does his world master’s games job – racing a chariot – and the story ends really well. Listen to verse 36: Act 8:36  As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. Why shouldn’t I be baptized?”

Like other accounts – the day of Pentecost, the story of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, baptism is a pretty normal and immediate thing. And in Peter’s Pentecost sermon when they are cut to the heart and ask; “Brothers, what shall we do?”

he says this: Act 2:38  Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Act 2:39  The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

Act 16:30  He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Act 16:31  They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.” Act 16:32  Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. Act 16:33  At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized.

That observation about baptism is a bonus.

Philip doesn’t say – “well you’d better go on a course”. The early church clearly wanted him to say that – did you notice there’s a verse missing?

Most manuscripts – the oldest ones – have the man being baptized without any issue. Somewhere along the line this verse crept in: Act 8:37  [Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”] You find it in the footnotes in the NIV.

Someone wanted it to be more organized and formulaic.

For us the key passage – well what would you say it is?

I think it’s this one:

Act 8:30  Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked. Act 8:31  “How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

You can be a someone who explains this whole Christian story to others – if you are open and available. God can use you.

At the end of this account – I have no idea how – Philip is moved on. It doesn’t matter how – the why is that he has fulfilled his purpose and there is more work to do.

For Jesus.

Amen.