The 5th Sunday of Easter
In the Name of Jesus Christ, our risen Savior and Lord. May his grace, mercy, and peace be with you. Amen.
As we heard in today’s first reading: “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went.”
Have you ever had something like that happen to you? Have you ever had an angel or a voice from heaven speak to you and tell you to do something that was totally unexpected? I haven’t. In fact, I tend to get rather suspicious whenever someone tells me that “The Lord spoke to me” or that “The Lord told me to do this or that.”
And yet, I have had experiences of something like that happening. Not necessarily a verbal voice or vision, but a sudden thought or feeling that I should go and see someone. I especially remember one time when I was a pastor in Dayton, Ohio – and as I was driving around in town one day I passed by the office where one of the members of my congregation named Mary worked – and the thought suddenly came to me that I should stop and see her. Believe me, this was not something that I normally did – it is not my usual practice to make a spontaneous, unannounced visit to someone at their place of employment. But somehow, this time I knew that I should.
And so I did. Without fully understanding why I stopped, I walked into her office, and asked Mary’s secretary if I could see her for a moment. She told me to go in – and when Mary saw me she suddenly got a shocked look on her face that immediately told me that something was not right. She asked me to sit in the chair across from her desk, and then proceeded to tell me that just over an hour before she had learned that she had suffered a miscarriage of the baby that she and her husband were expecting. Her husband was on a business trip out of town, and she had not yet been able to contact him – and she was feeling lonely and hurting so badly about their loss. Mary cried – we cried together – and we prayed together. It was a moment of ministry that I will never, ever forget.
It was a time, Mary said later, that she really, REALLY needed to talk with me as her pastor – and she was so grateful that I had stopped by just then. And she asked me how I knew that she needed to see me – and I could only tell her what I have just told you – that somehow, I knew that I should stop by and that God must have directed me to do that.
I have also had a number other experiences like that as well and perhaps you have too. When suddenly, “out of the blue”, you think that you should call or see someone – and then later find out that there was indeed an important reason for doing that – that it was just the right time when that person most needed that contact from you.
I think that this is what it was like for Philip. Prior to today’s text, he had been in Samaria and proclaiming the good news of Jesus to the people there. According to Acts 8:6-8 “The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. So there was great joy in that city.” Because of Philip’s ministry, many mighty works were done and many of the Samaritans believed in Jesus and were baptized in his name.
But now suddenly Philip is directed to leave all that. He is told or at least strongly feels that he should leave the crowds and what seemed to be an extraordinarily successful ministry in Samaria and instead go to one of the most out-of-the-way places imaginable – a wilderness road in the barren desert region of Gaza. (It would have been like being told to go to Jordan, Montana – where (as Steve Sing mentioned in his Synod Assembly report) we were stranded for several hours on Sunday evening last week on our way back from Great Falls.) A place in the middle of “nowhere” and of no apparent significance! And I can certainly imagine Philip wondering “Why?” “Why in the world would God ever direct him to go there?!”
The answer soon came to him when he saw a chariot coming toward him on the road. In the chariot was a black man – a eunuch from Ethiopia. Our text describes him as being a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury – and that he had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home.
This Ethiopian was someone who was known as being a “God-fearer.” He was not a Jew, but he – like most Ethiopians – knew much about Judaism. In fact, it was and still is an Ethiopian tradition and legend that their rulers were descended from a union between King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. In 1 Kings 10:13 it is stated that “King Solomon gave to the Queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed…” and, according to the Ethiopians, that included having a son - a heir - by him. Be that as it may, many Ethiopians of that time knew of and believed in and worshiped the God of Israel.
The Ethiopian eunuch in today’s text was one such believer and worshiper. He had come to Jerusalem to worship – a distance of more than 1,500 miles! He was returning home, seated on his chariot, and Philip heard him reading (aloud – as was customary in those days) from the prophet Isaiah – the passage from Isaiah 53:7-8 which states: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb 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.”
We do not know for sure why the Ethiopian eunuch was reading that particular text. But I personally believe that he was reading and pondering that passage because it spoke to his heart. Perhaps it was because he was a eunuch – a man who had been castrated – an act of injustice and humiliation. Eunuchs were also excluded from being able to worship in the Temple – they had to remain on the outside. Perhaps also during his visit to Jerusalem he had experienced prejudice and discrimination – and because of the color of his skin. For a number of reasons, his man could identify with those words of Isaiah’s prophecy.
And somehow, Philip felt led by the Spirit to go up to this man – this eunuch from Ethiopia – and befriend him when perhaps no one else had. Philip showed him love and respect. And beginning with the scripture the eunuch was reading, Philip proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. He told him about how God through Jesus had shared the suffering and pain and injustice and humiliation that he had experienced in his life. He told this eunuch about God’s love for him – yes, for him – through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. He told him that through Jesus his sins were totally forgiven. And yes, I am sure that Philip also told him that through Jesus God fully accepted him as a member of his family – and that he would never again have to feel like an “outsider”.
Through this encounter with Philip, the eunuch came to understand and experience God’s love for him in a new and powerful way – and he was baptized in Jesus’ name. Afterwards, according to our text, the eunuch never saw Philip again – but that is certainly not the end of the story. The book of Acts was written to show how the gospel of Jesus Christ was spreading throughout the world - and I am sure that this particular episode was included for a very special reason. According to Irenaeus, an ancient church father in the second century, this eunuch went back to Ethiopia and evangelized many of his fellow countrymen and founded what became the Ethiopian Orthodox Church - a church that has existed to the present day. Some believe that even the queen herself eventually became a Christian. All of this because Philip was responsive to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to go to this man – to this Ethiopian eunuch – at just the right moment when he most needed to hear the good news of Jesus.
It is still the same for us in our world today. Often God’s most significant work is not done because of planned programs, but is done through individuals who are sensitive to the Spirit’s calling to go to and be with someone at a time of special need. I have experienced this personally in my life many times – both as a giver and as a receiver of God’s love through Jesus Christ. I have had times when God has blessed me with the support and words of counsel I really needed at a certain point. And, by God’s mercy, I have also been privileged to BE God’s instrument of blessing to others – such as in the experience I shared with you at the beginning of this sermon.
Yes, in our lives we daily encounter people who need to experience God’s good news – whether it be at a time of personal crisis, or when struggling through a major decision, or just needing acceptance and affirmation and love. Some may be people whom we know – perhaps even our closest relatives and friends. Others may be strangers, such as in today’s first reading. But whomever they may be, may we like Philip be ready and willing to be God’s instruments of healing and love in Jesus’ name – and may we also be ready and willing to let others minister to us. Because this is how the good news of Jesus is shared in real and personal ways. This is how lives are touched and changed by the love and power of God.
So may it be for us as we go and serve the Lord today and in all the days to come. In Jesus’ name! Amen!
George R. Karres,
Pella Lutheran Church
418 W. Main Street
Sidney, MT 59270