April 21, 2013 – 4th Sunday in Easter – Karen Koeder

PHILIP AND THE ETHIOPIAN
April 21, 2013
Circle of Faith
by Karen Koeder

GRACE, MERCY AND PEACE TO YOU FROM GOD OUR HEAVENLY FATHER AND OUR LORD AND SAVIOR, JESUS CHRIST.  AMEN

It is truly amazing to me how our lives parallel the stories in the bible! Our reading today takes us into the book of Acts, the story of the Apostles, the spreading of the word that Jesus is alive and the beginning of the church as we know it today.

Last Sunday we were introduced to the beginnings of that church as we heard about the squabble between the Hellenist and Hebrew Jews in Jerusalem. The solution to the uneven distribution of food to the poor was a division of labor…Apostles would teach and share Christ crucified and a committee of seven would oversee the distribution of food.

So the seven were chosen and among them were Stephen and Philip. Their job was to make sure food was given equally to both the Hellenist poor and the Hebrew poor. Sort of like kitchen overseers.

We know too that after Judas did his deed the remaining 11 chose a replacement…Mathias. It was important for them to keep the original number of disciples called by Jesus. They were to be the mainstay of the missionary work to come. To share the gospel with the world.

Is it not incredible then that Stephen and Philip become key in sharing the gospel and we never hear about Mathias again? God does work in mysterious ways! In our lives too by the way!

We know the impact Stephen made with his arrest, trial, words and ultimately his death by stoning. Today we get a glimpse of God’s work through another of the Kitchen Help…Philip.

We find Philip in Jerusalem, most likely doing his assigned job of food distribution oversight. All of a sudden an angel of the Lord tells him to go south on the road to Gaza. Not why, just go. And he does…just drops everything and leaves. What faith! No questions asked…just do it.

How often do we follow Philip’s lead? Or are we more likely to want to know what, why, when, how and who before we make any move at all? Keep in mind God calls us too…maybe not with a visible angel, but none the less he calls us through others or circumstances.

When I was living happily in warm California, after stating unequivabaclly I would never live in the snow again, I received a phone call from a person I had not met, had heard of though as “that crazy executive in Alaska”. Her question to me was did I know anyone or would I be interested in a job with her.

As I sat on the shores of Kenai Lake early one morning as my week long interview was coming to an end I had this overriding sense of YES this is where I should be. You can imagine my amazement when I found myself 5 weeks later, car packed to the brim on the Alcan Highway on my way to the land of snow. The Lord does work in mysterious ways!

And so Philip went and saw this chariot going along and the angel told him to catch up with it. Can’t you just see Philip running to catch up and then walking or jogging alongside? My guess is the chariot was not going very fast as the man riding in it was reading.

The man does not seem to be surprised or frightened by the appearance of a stranger walking along talking to him. They have a short conversation as they go along and finally the man invites Philip into the chariot.

He invites him in as a teacher. Read again in our reading as Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?” and the man replies, “ How can I…Unless someone explains it to me?” Sound familiar? How often when reading scripture do we too have the same kind of response?

What does this verse or story really mean? We too struggle sometimes with God’s word and what it means in our lives. Maybe why we have Sunday School, Confirmation, Adult Studies and sermons. It often helps to talk about a passage with others, to explore and share how it relates to our lives. We are not unlike the man in the chariot, the Ethiopian, in needing help with our faith lives.

What is also very interesting is the man is an Ethiopian, a eunuch and reading the Book of Isaiah! He is on his way home from Jerusalem after worshipping there. It may have been at the temple, but because of his status it is unlikely he is Jewish. We know from Acts though that there were gentiles who worshipped the God of Israel, but were not accepted into the faith.

We do know however that he is literate…not only is he reading, but is also an official in the realm of Queen Candace, in fact in charge of the treasury. A very high official in a country in Africa. God’s vision for his kingdom is truly not limited to one small region.

And then…did you catch the scripture the Ethiopian was reading? The Servant Song from Isaiah 53:7-8? “He was led like a sheep to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so did he not open his mouth. In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

His question to Philip is the same we may ask today when we hear this familiar passage…”Tell me please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Theological scholars have asked that same question for centuries. Is it about someone the writer knew or is it pointing to the coming Messiah?

The debate continues, but isn’t it a perfect Segway for Philip to springboard into the story of Jesus, the servant as described in the passage. Can’t you just feel the Holy Spirit at work in this story?

The coincidences of the Ethiopian reading the servant song, asking for help to understand it and Philip right there to interpret with the story of Jesus laying down his life, just as the lamb, for the salvation of the world.

Ever happen to you? Have you ever been really bogged down in your daily living, feeling overwhelmed and someone sends you flowers or calls to tell you really good news? Like a weight lifted from your shoulders and life begins to look bright once again? God does work in mysterious ways!

So what are the odds of these two traveling in an arid climate finding a pool of water? But they did! And at just the right moment! After talking for some time, Philip must have told the man about Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River and his command to his disciples to baptize throughout the world.

After hearing about Jesus the man decides right then that he too wants to be baptized. His question to Philip also has law related overtones. “What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” Philip’s answer opens the way not only for the Ethiopian to become a member of God’s family, but assures us also that we are children of God…No strings attached. Just believing that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

WOW! What good news for us too! Salvation, being right with God, having the promise of eternal life is not dependent on anything we can do! It is truly a gift from God. A gift in the form of his Son Jesus dying that we may live! Sometimes we try to make our faith so complicated. But if we listen to Philip’s answer it is very simple…believing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Imagine the man’s joy in hearing those words! Imagine his joy as he proclaimed “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Imagine his joy as they went down to the water and Philip baptized him then and there! No other questions asked, no other rules to follow…just water and the word.

Imagine our joy as children of God, welcomed into the family of God through our baptism! But wait…we don’t have to imagine joy, we feel it every time we remember we are baptized.

Every day as we talk with God through our prayers. Whenever we read or hear God’s forgiveness declared in worship. The joy we experience is the same joy the Ethiopian must have felt as he came up from the water with Philip. I wonder if he too wanted to shout from the hilltops!

God does indeed work in mysterious ways! Look again at the ending of our reading, “When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.”

WOW! In the blink of an eye Philip finds himself in another town sharing the gospel. Almost like the old Star Trek days of “Beam me up Scottie”! But think back to the beginning, the choosing of the seven to oversee the distribution of food. Philip was excited, I think, to be chosen for this role.

And the Apostles, the twelve called by Jesus to be his emissaries in the world, to share his story of salvation. It was to them he commanded they go out into the world teaching and baptizing. It was to them he gave that great commission.

Makes one wonder doesn’t it? If God specifically called a set of disciples to teach and be missionaries, called people to be in the kitchen and then all of a sudden the kitchen help finds themselves out in the world sharing God’s word…what does that mean for us?

Haven’t we been called for a particular role in God’s world? Mother, dad, child, student, farmer, banker, church council president, treasurer, Sunday School teacher? Isn’t this where God wants us and won’t we always be safe in our assigned world?

WELL!!!! If we look at Stephen and Philip the answer is a resounding no! Our comfort or plans are not necessarily those of God. The Holy Spirit guides us and sometimes jolts us to new adventures in Christ.

He even gives us courage to share our faith with others, not preaching, but just sharing the joys of knowing God is with us at all times with a friend. God is active in our lives and we need to keep our heads and hearts open to all of the opportunities he provides for us to love our neighbor as ourselves. He gives us not only courage, but words and wherewithal to do so. Scared or fearful is not a part of God’s vocabulary! Faith and Trust need to be in ours.

But what of the Ethiopian? He did not see Philip again, but just went on his way…rejoicing! No shaking hands, no thank you’s…just got into his chariot and off he went. But he went rejoicing! Do we also rejoice at the blessings God bestows on us? Don’t we too sing praises to his name every Sunday in worship and thank him daily in our prayers?

Just think…The Ethiopian, in one day, learned about God’s love for him, and us. He heard about Jesus, the servant son, who fulfilled the story in Isaiah. The servant who was obedient even unto death so he, and us, would have life eternal. And then…he accepted God’s offer to become a member of his family…a child of God!

All in one day! No wonder he went on his way REJOICING! And so shall we…every day with the sure knowledge that God is with us in all we do! That our sins are forgiven and all is right in our relationship with God. Our lives truly do parallel those who lived those many years ago in far distant lands. The stories we read and hear from that incredibly relevant book…THE BIBLE!

And now may the peace that passes all understanding be in your hearts and minds forever.

AMEN