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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.

Sunday message 30 April 2017 – building up the body of Christ

Ephesians 4:11-16; Acts 6:1-8

WHAT ON EARTH ARE YOU DOING?

A story to begin: We took family to a favourite little restaurant out on the wine route out of Auckland. It’s a great little place just before you turn off on the way to Muriwai – to the gannet colony. We often take friends there too who are on holiday. A lovely young girl served us and when the water was finished (no the wine didn’t run out) we asked for another bottle. She came back with one and apologized that it was not cold. They had run out of cold water in the fridge. The only problem was that English was her second or third language, and she had picked up some kiwi expressions. So, she says to us –“this is all we have, so just suck it up.” We decided using glasses was ok. And we couldn’t help laughing – who could blame her? English is challenging.

Which reminds me of the story of the Norwegian au pere – a kind of a nanny or child minder – who heard these kiwi kids up in their bedroom wrecking the place – so she rushed up stairs and burst into the room and asked them quite loudly: “What are you doing on earth?”

That’s very different from “What on earth are you doing???”

“What are you doing on earth?” is a great question though. It applies to our lives as a whole. There are many people who are desperate these days because they no longer have a clear purpose. Life seems pointless. It’s a different generation from those ANZACS for example who stepped up because they believed in a cause greater than themselves. If we had an option to volunteer for war today, I doubt the young people would be convinced that anything would be worth fighting for and sacrificing their lives.

So when it comes to the church the question applies too.

“What are you doing on earth?”

Paul in Ephesians paints a picture of the point of it all. He uses the word “calling”:

Eph 4:1  As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 

Usually in his letters we can distinguish between theology (Romans 1-11) and practical advice (Romans 12-16). Galatians is the same: chapters 1-4 doctrine and 5-6 practical.

Ephesians is different. You expect chapter 4 to be about living the right life in response to what he has taught in the first three chapters.

But here there is doctrine in chapter 4 too: Eph 4:5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; – is a clear statement of belief and teaching.

As are the verses on ministry. He talks about grace been apportioned to each of us by Jesus (verse 7). Grace means gift. There are other lists of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and Romans 12. Ephesians 4 is the one that informs what ministry is more than any other.

The risen ascended Jesus – says Paul – is the gift giver: Eph 4:11  It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers. 

Our ministers fit into the pastor/teacher category. It’s a strong Presbyterian tradition to call the minister a “teaching elder”. There’s a lot of emphasis on training these people and equipping them for pastoral ministry. “Nationally ordained” ministers are vetted and trained for the minister of the “word and sacraments”. They are inducted into a “pastoral charge” which means that their function is to be a pastor.

“Pastor” is a shepherding model or picture – this person feeds and cares for the sheep. And elders also have a pastoral role too.

THE GOOD NEWS

Jesus gives people to be gifts to the church.

  • We don’t have official apostles – but the whole church is apostolic. It is founded on the teaching of the apostles, and like them we are SENT into our world to make disciples. Some people are church planters today and have apostolic gifts in that sense.
  • We don’t have “prophets” in an official capacity (with an office with a sign like “Prophet Jim” on the door.) But in preaching we have a prophetic role to speak on behalf or God into people’s lives and sometimes the community or the nation. And there is prophetic gifting (1 Cor 14:1 and especially 3).
  • We do have evangelists who are gifted to preach to people who are not open to the gospel – they are often gifted apologists too. They give answers to peoples’ questions.
  • We do  have pastor/teachers in our ministry.

These people gifts from Jesus are given: Eph 4:12  to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up… 

And a more literal translation is good news because we are all implicated in this:  (NRSV)  to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,

How? In what way will we be built up? Maturity, stability, knowledge, functionality. The building up of each other is done in love.

Eph 4:13  until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Eph 4:14  Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Eph 4:15  Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. Eph 4:16  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

And that makes a change in a world where people break each other down, tear each other apart, threaten to blow each other up, and actually do that.

And we – as we exercise our ministries or works of service – will grow up into the Head, who is Christ. That means we will be like him – and connected to him – and we won’t only reflect on his goodness, but we will in fact reflect his goodness! His grace, love and mercy. When you have a healthy vibrant church like that where people are equipped, fulfilled, and have a meaningful role, led by a caring pastor/teacher – well it grows! It grows up and it grows outward! Spiritual growth and numerical growth both happen. This is what we are doing on earth!

For the early church, however, there were other ministry forms to come.  What else were they to do back then? How does this speak to us? ACTS 6 is the key. 

In our second reading you see the next level of ministry people appointed by the apostles back in the early church – to solve the problem of feeding people. The 7 deacons appointed are also gifts from God – also to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Many churches have deacons in ministry today,  and this is where it started.

But just to keep us on our toes, as it were, we see that God uses the first deacon Stephen in more than just these practical gifts (as He does today with anyone willing and open). We read:

Act 6:8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.

Stephen was never really to go back to waiting on tables. If you read the rest of Acts 6, his sermon in Acts 7 (most of the chapter) in a human sense it ends badly.

Act 7:55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Act 7:56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Act 7:57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
Act 7:58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
Act 7:59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Act 7:60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

The persecution that follows means that the believers are scattered, and as they go the gospel is proclaimed  through Judea and Samaria – which was Jesus’ intention. And the believers knew EXACTLY what they were doing on earth!

The word of God spreads and the church grows. And if this is strange and very far from our comfortable lives here in New Zealand, consider today what the martyrdom of the Coptic Christians is doing in Egypt now – what a witness as their families model forgiveness. So too the Christian Church in Syria. They know their calling too.

May the body of Christ be built up all over the world to His Glory.

In Jesus’ name.

Amen.