Revd. Judith Walker-Hutchinson - Easter 5
Readings: Acts 8: 26-40 & John 15:1-8
Preaching is a rare privilege – ask any politician who’s had to brave the hustings over the past few weeks - it’s almost unheard of in today’s world to have an audience sit, if not rapt, at least politely and quietly, attentive for a while. But with that privilege comes an awesome responsibility – to say something worthy of that attention and as I also pray at the start of each of my sermons, worthy of Him in whose name we preach.
Of course we know that the outcome even of serious preparation isn’t very often life changing as it was for the man in todays’ reading from the Acts, sermons are not always uplifting and frankly sometimes, they’re not even very interesting...
When the Northern Echo celebrated Ron Davies-Evans 50 years as a Methodist local preacher: The article said…
In the Yorkshire Dales it was customary for preachers to double up, an afternoon service followed by a farmhouse tea and service elsewhere in the evening.
Ron recalls the local preacher who declined the usual sumptuous spread on the grounds that he didn’t like to hold forth on a full stomach.
When the farmer returned from chapel his wife asked how the preacher had gone on. ‘I think.’ said the farmer, ‘that he might as well have etten.’
Even the very best can sometimes fail to live up to expectations, I am reminded of the story later (in Ch 20) of the Acts of the Apostles which tells us that on one occasion St Paul talked on after midnight… then on still longer… so much longer in fact that a young man, Eutychus fell into a deep sleep and tumbled from the window ledge he was sat upon, to the ground three floors below, apparently dead – horrified Paul dashed down to him, picked him up, saw that he was OK – and then carried on talking.
So perhaps I ought to pray not only that by the grace of God my preaching may be worthy but that it may be brief and at least not lethal.
But some of my most moving experiences have happened not in carefully prepared words but in chance encounters in the supermarket, or the gym, or in the hospital corridor. Often frankly, when I feel I could do without it or where the challenge is so great that I’m not sure I have the words to cope. It’s then that I realise that of course it’s not me, but the Holy Spirit at work, and that none of us should be afraid to speak in God’s name.
Today’s chance and unexpected encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch teaches us deep lessons about our privilege and obligation to speak to others of Jesus wherever there is need. A privilege and obligation shared by every Christian disciple.
Philip’s preaching opportunity was not a planned one, but like everything we do in God’s name it was a divinely guided one. He has been directed by the angel of the Lord to travel the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza. This was a quiet inland road - it was noon. After his successful preaching mission in Samaria where he was greeted by eager crowds, Philip might well have wondered what the Holy Spirit was doing sending him on a long, empty road in the blazing midday sun. Difficult for us here in Teesdale on a rainy Bank Holiday weekend to imagine the baking heat and the isolation on the parched, dusty road, this is a mission journey far harder than anything any of us is ever likely to be asked to do. But he obeys, and in that obedience has a chance encounter that would change someone’s life.
Philip would have been surprised to see anyone else at all on that road at that time, this is real “mad dogs and Englishmen” territory, but he must have been very surprised indeed to see this particular man. Our images of eunuchs may lead us to think of someone in a servant or even servile role or perhaps someone displaying the fawning, effeminate manners of Varys, the Master of Whisperers in Game of Thrones, but that’s not the case here at all. This man is an important official, in charge of the entire treasury of the Candace.
Now Candace is not a name but a title, a bit like our title of Queen Mother. She however was the chief Queen of Meroe just south of modern Khartoum in Sudan. The Kings of Meroe were regarded as gods, too sacred to engage in business, so the Queen ruled. Again for you Throney fans imagine Candace as rather like Khaleesi, and the Eunuch as more like Grey Worm than Varys.
This eunuch is a powerful man, the chief treasurer of a very powerful ruler in a very wealthy kingdom, thought in biblical times to be at the very edge of the world. In worldly terms this man is everything Philip is not. He is rich, exotic, and very privileged. In every respect alien - an absolute foreigner.
It would have taken real courage on Philip’s part to even approach him – but once again commanded by the Holy Spirit, Philip is obedient.
As treasurer the eunuch would probably have come into contact with Egyptian Jews and seems to have been attracted to their faith as he’s been to worship in Jerusalem and is reading the scriptures. But not only is he geographically alien from Philip and other Jews of the time, as a Eunuch he would be barred by Jewish law from full participation in their religion. He is seeking something, he has what CS Lewis would call ‘sehnsucht’, a yearning, longing for something beyond his wordly material possesions, but all of the rules are saying its something not for the likes of him. In spite of all his success and riches, he is shut out from the one thing he craves, faith, he is marginalised from God.
In what Philip does next we learn important lessons about our faith, about marginalisation and belonging.
First, trusting in the Holy Spirit, Philip makes space for this outsider’s questions. When Philip asks him ‘do you understand what you are reading’ the man answers with remarkable honesty for someone of his status ‘how can I unless someone guides me?’ Now we don’t know what Philip said in response but by making space in the first place for that honest exploration of faith together, by admitting that reading is not the same as understanding, two things happened
• Philip took the chance to share his faith and
• the eunuch made space to hear something deeper than the words on the page, something of the Holy Spirit.
Last week both Astley and Alec were emphasising that we, all of us here, are the Church of God. As Church we need to ask ourselves how often we either provide that opportunity to be helped or take up the chance to help others in their exploration - do we make space for the Holy Spirit to enter.
In our attempts to look like we have all the answers, to look like a good Christian, do we put up barriers to those who know that for whatever reason they do not? Nevermind aliens and foreigners, how often in our contact with children for example, do we tell young disciples what to think instead of asking them what they’re wondering about and struggling with? (That’s what is so wonderful about Godly Play). And how often do we fail to take up the opportunity to show forth the love of God – not by indoctrination but by embodying love and respect?
Philip could so easily have been intimidated by this man or put off from approaching him because of his complete ‘otherness’ but he gave him space, and time, and respected him for who he was.
We need to give each other space and time for our questions and respect for one another in our answers. That is what the church is seeking to do nationally. In June David (our Reader, my husband) has been invited by the Bishop to take part in one of a series of ‘shared conversations’ taking place throughout the Church of England so that those of differing views on the church’s position on human sexuality can hear one another, and in God’s grace learn to respect one another. This is one very significant example of the kind of conversations that we should have as church not just at a national or diocesan level but in our dealings with one another here, at work, at home or in town on a day-to-day basis.
Philip teaches another important lesson here too about meeting people where they are. Philip is on a mission to spread the Good News of the Resurrection. It would have been easy for him to see this encounter as a waste of time, spending time on one man when there were so many out there, or to have seen him only as a man beyond faith, outside the boundaries of acceptability, which by the rules of the time he was. He was a gentile, a eunuch and he had not been prepared for reception by months of teaching. In what sense would this man ever meet the ‘rules’ for joining?
When they providentially happen across the water the eunuch says something very important…
‘Look here is water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?’
He did not ask 'what do I have to do to be baptized?' - the answer to which might have sent him away unconverted but
what is to prevent me from being baptized?’
If you look carefully in your NRSV bibles you will see that they go straight from verse 36 to verse 38 – there is no verse 37, it was thought to be a later addition, did not fit the church’s thinking at the time and so was omitted. But with it the passage would read
‘Look here is water, what is to prevent me from being baptized?’
And Philip said ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he replied ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’
‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’
That’s all - and in full obedience and trust in the Holy Spirit, this was all Philip needed to be convinced of the eunuch’s faith.
Following Jesus’ teaching he saw beyond the barriers of difference and the rules of unacceptability and he met this man where he was - his answer to the question ‘what is to prevent him from being baptized?’
is nothing, nothing at all, not even the eunuch’s own self-doubt.
One of the most exciting things happening in ministry following the introduction of the marriage measure a few years ago - an easing of the rules if you like - is the increase in the number of people wanting to be married in Church, in the sight of God. This is the gospel in action, Church meeting people where they are.
At Easter we learn that Jesus came to tear down the temple curtain, to remove the barriers between God and his people, but sadly sometimes we seem to spend our time trying to put them back up. I have despaired of those, thankfully few, priests who feel that the old rules on for example marriage or on receiving children to communion, still have to be applied. They have missed the chance encounters that I and I’m sure Andy and Alec and John have been privileged to have, seeing the Holy Spirit working in those young and old seeking God’s visible presence in their lives. Those others have failed to trust that church is not a human institution, a select club that must be protected by its rules, but a living vine in which there is space for all who seek, to grow and abide.
John’s gospel today shows us that we are grafted and rooted into Christ and in the strength of the one true vine we can branch out, reach out to support new shoots however fragile they might seem to us, because we do it in the knowledge that we are rooted in His strength, not our own weakness.
Philip’s lesson to us today is that in obedience and trust we, all of us, can reach out to people where they are and make space for their questions so that strengthened by each other, grafted and rooted in Christ we may all go on our way rejoicing. Amen