A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

Easter 5

Rev. Dr. Les Martin

Easter 5 2024
Rev. Dr. Les Martin
Acts 8:26–40, John 14:15-21

This Easter, we have been looking at the transformed understanding of the disciples brought about by the encounter with presence of and teaching of the risen Jesus in their midst. This transformation turns frightened followers into apostles, witnesses of Jesus who are sent out on mission and turn simple fishermen into authoritative teachers of the truth of the gospel. Today’s story from the Acts of the Apostles regarding the apostle Philip, and the Ethiopian eunuch reveals this transformation in their understanding, particularly in four areas. The missionary faith of Jesus, the Word of God and Holy Scripture, the effect of the preaching of the Word of God, and the prevenient, or common grace affected by the one who is making a people for Himself.

When it comes to Jesus’ faith, as opposed to what went before, Jesus’ intent is quite clear. He demonstrates it in his work in His earthly ministry, with the Samaritans, and with Gentiles. In John 10:16, he references the other sheep, not of this fold the house of Israel. Acts 1:8, shows us Jesus commissioning His apostles to be witnesses in Jerusalem, to the leadership establishment, secular and religious in Judea, and Samaria, to Jews, both Orthodox and heretical and to the farthest parts of the earth. That’s kind of you and me. And to put it plainly, he says in Matthew 28:19, go and make disciples of all nations, by teaching, and baptizing. This is key for understanding our story today.

Now, it’s notable when the apostles first heard this, they were reluctant to do it. They stayed in Jerusalem, kept the Temple observances, and often locked the doors. So much so that by Acts 8:1, we have the story of God permitting a great persecution in Jerusalem that has the effect of scattering the infant church all over the place. This allows the spreading of the faith. And it’s the context for our lesson in Acts today. But let’s back up a little because we are always reading through the lens of many years of history.

Who is this Ethiopian? Well, what can we surmise, he’s a eunuch. He’s been castrated. Probably a slave, although Near Eastern slaves often did better than what we think of as slavery. He’s been castrated so that he can serve in the court of the Queen. Modesty prevents me from explaining why that might be useful. He’s also a foreigner. He’s a black African, which means that he’s likely a proselyte, or an observer, an admirer of the Jewish faith, but he could never enter in. He could never be clean or fully accepted. Because he’s blemished by castration. He will never be good enough.

Who is he? Who do we have here? We have an important, likely wealthy court official. Why likely wealthy? He’s riding in a chariot, and he can afford a private scroll. He’s a foreigner who is a seeker. But in the eyes of the Judaism of the time he is perpetually unclean, and to the Jew, he will never be able to become one of us. Now, Judaism in general was not a missionary faith anyway, converts were rare and hard. The path was hard for them to succeed. In some ways, that’s still true. The best most could hope for back then was to kind of hang out in the court of the Gentiles that we’ve talked about, looking on from afar as God dealt graciously with his people. But what the apostles are learning is that the faith Jesus proclaims is different. Again and again, he draws on the prophetic text and says plainly himself, that his goal is to make one people out of all people fill up today acts accordingly.

It’s so important, he doesn’t see the Ethiopian’s defects. He sees his sincere, if limited, faith and interest. So that’s one thing that’s changed for the apostles. The second one’s a little harder to understand, I hope I do. Do justice by it. Jesus in Matthew 28 said, teach them all that I have commanded you. Well, what did Jesus teach? The Eunuch is studying Isaiah 53:7-8, about the one who is pierced. It’s Jewish scripture. It is the Jewish Bible. Philip at the invitation of the Eunuch, enlightens his understanding of this scripture, with the proclamation of the Word of God. And you may have missed what I just did there. So I’m going to say it again. Philip enlightens this scripture, with the proclamation of the Word of God. Boy, that sounds strange, doesn’t it? It would have to the Jews to see for the Jews, the Law and the Prophet, prophets were the Word of God in the story.

For us, there is a different interpretive lens. In effect, Jesus is the Word of God, who says that he is the key to understanding scripture. So we have two kinds of things working together, but also in a healthy tension. There is the received scripture, what we commonly call the Word of God. And then there is the Word of God, Jesus, who sets himself as the arbiter and interpreter of Scripture.

If you doubt me, remember, in Luke 24:27, the road to Emmaus story, it says that, beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them all things written about him in the Scripture. He kind of said, great guys, you got the Bible, but you’re sad, because you didn’t understand. Let’s start over. With the disciples in the upper room just later in the chapter, Luke 24:45, Scripture tells us, then he opened their minds so that they could understand the Scripture. And even with his enemies in John 5:39, in Jerusalem before the Jewish authorities, before the Jewish priests and leaders, he says, he says to them, listen to the clear dichotomy he’s setting out he says, you study the Scriptures, because you think that in them, you possess eternal life. And yet it is the same Scriptures that testify about Me. What we have here is relevant to us today depending on the tradition we’ve come from, it’s quite common to take this book and just assume that it’s self-evident. And that every part of the book, every kind of literature, everything contained is of equal value, that there is no golden thread as it were that winds through the story.

Well, that’s not what Jesus is saying. To the Jews of his time, and to us today. He says, “There is a central message to Scripture, there is a central interpretive lens through which believers need to make sense of this book, The Word of God, Jesus himself.” This is called christocentrism. The idea that Christ is the center of the story. Christ is the key to underserved understanding Scripture, the word of God, Jesus Christ interprets the words of God for His people, which means that if our interpretation of the Bible doesn’t consistently and clearly point to the person and work of Christ, we’re getting it wrong. All scripture testifies to me (Jesus).

This is what leads to historical theologian a guy named Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan, to say, “Follow the scripture of the law and prophets correctly understood and interpreted, was taken to be the word of God, it would be more accurate to say that scripture was to be understood and interpreted on the basis of the Word of God, which was then verified by Scripture. What does that mean? I come to this book, assuming that Jesus is the way to understand it. And lo and behold, what I find is throughout this book, the book tells me that Jesus is the way to understand it.”

The Word of God interpreting the words of God, our own Anglican Church Father, CS Lewis puts it a little more plainly, he says, “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit, and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to him. Where we get crosswise sometimes is, we’ll get bogged down.”

I remember when I was a new Christian, I was thinking that one read a book from the front to the back. And I got into Leviticus, not a new Christian months old, and I thought I had somehow slipped from the Word of God into a public health document. Everything was about mildew. Everything was about mildew, and I was trying to find God and I didn’t know what he had to do with mildew. Later on, I figured that out. But the reality is, if you don’t come to the book, with an understanding that Jesus, as our colleague says, is the WAY the TRUTH and the LIFE, the book can be mystifying. For the Jews of the time, the book was the end of itself. And thus they focused on things like Leviticus.

Thus, the Ethiopian eunuch would never be good enough. But this transformed understanding of Scripture taught by Jesus enables Philip to work with the eunuch. He doesn’t see barriers he sees faith, he sees someone sincerely asking the answer to the eunuch question. To whom does this refer is Jesus? What’s the effect of Phillips work? Well, that gets to the second part of Matthew 28. Teach them all that I have commanded you, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Elsewhere in the book that the unit was reading in Isaiah 55:11, we hear that “My Word will not return to me empty, but will accomplish that for which I purposed it.” Again, who’s the word? Jesus. Jesus will not return to the Father empty, but will accomplish that for which he is purposed. And that’s what we see. Let’s look at verses 35 and 36. Real clearly, verse 35. So Philip started speaking, and beginning with this scripture, the one that eunuch was reading, proclaim to him the good news about Jesus.

In other words, he did the teaching, just like he was taught by Jesus. He started with Isaiah, but he went back through and follow the golden thread showed how all the prophecies, all the stories point to Jesus. He proclaimed the Word of God using the words of God. That’s what he did. What’s the effect? What is always the effect? Look at verse 36. There’s the effect. Now as they were going along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, there is water. What is to stop me from being baptized?” See how quick that is? See how quick that is? He’s gone from confusion to commitment. Just in the time it’s taken Philip to explain the thread to him. And he’s not just like, “Well, I don’t know, maybe I’ll weigh it. He’s like, look, there’s some water.” Remember, remember, it’s the desert. It’s probably not a lot of water. And I don’t know if I’d want to get in desert water if you’ve ever seen desert water, but he’s excited. He says, “Look, there’s water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing You see, when the living active Word of God Jesus is proclaimed. His power always results in repentance, conversion, and baptism. Whereas our sincere but sometimes misguided ways of evangelism decrying sin frightening people with hell, proclaiming God’s love as conditional, not unconditiona.l Well, that doesn’t always have the same good results does. We might say that that common phrase Jesus saves, could be expanded to say, preaching of Jesus saves. It is the instrument of formation. It’s such good news that it drives people to drown and rise to new life. And that’s what Philip does, because he knows that the revelation of Jesus is good news for all people, even Ethiopian eunuch.

The last transformed understanding I want to talk about is the understanding of God as the actor. In the whole story, the answer is Jesus. The disciples are seeing that God in Christ is going ahead of them. You may remember I said that on Easter, but he’s going ahead of them not to just prepare a place for them. He’s going ahead of them to build a people for Himself. theologically, this is known as prevenient grace or common grace. It’s the action of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life that precedes their conversion, and prepares them for it.

Prevenient grace, common grace means that the spirit was already active in the youth, the Ethiopian eunuch’s life, in the life of all those we care about. Because if you’re like me, as I talk about such things, you’re not thinking about the Ethiopian eunuch. We worry about people’s salvation. We worry about it generally. But especially we worry about the salvation of those we love. Problem is worry does very little, poor and ham-fisted evangelism based on intellectual arguments, fear and criticism? Well, that does even less.

The good news is Jesus is going ahead of us. I am an unlikely Christian. Some of you know some of my story. Many of you don’t. I’ll tell you, I was raised in a very dysfunctional family of origin. And I was raised outside the faith. My grandfather was a scientist and a materialist. As a result of that childhood, I was cynical, skeptical, traumatized, deeply, deeply wounded. I’d learned the lesson not just of that abuse, but also of our general society very well. With all due respects to the poem, I had learned what Invictus tries to proclaim that I am the master of my fate and the captain of my soul. And so friends and adults tried. I think I went to a lock-in at Central Baptist once. I was taken to a couple of evangelism events. I had more copies of Josh McDowell than I knew what to do. But it all fell on deaf ears. It all fell on deaf ears because I was so wounded. I was so hurt, because after all, if there was a God, would I have lived the life I’d already lived? The problem was these people were answering the questions they thought I had. They weren’t answering the questions. I did have.

But God. But God, God put me in the choral music program at the secular public high school of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where because it was a competitive choir, what did we sing? We sang the great church music of the ages. As a non-believer, I nonetheless can say, we sang, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And those words wore on me.

My fascination with medieval studies opened me to a world where Faith wasn’t a problem where faith wasn’t people always threatening me or my family. But where faith was an integral part of a functioning society, where faith produced the most beautiful things in the world. And God put in that skeptical mind the love of truth, a willingness to find the truth, however unpalatable it was to my preconceived notions. And eventually, slowly, imperceptibly, my soul changed, so that when my conversion happened, it was easy. It was effortless. I was just ready.

The Ethiopian eunuch foreigner, high official, from a land outside Israel, castrated, unclean was an unlikely convert. But on that day, likely due to the prevenient grace of God for years before he was just ready. Philip was just lucky enough to be there. We’ve been looking at transformation, this Eastertide I want to suggest that the greatest transformation in the minds and hearts of the disciples was the deepened realization that Jesus actually is who he says he is, and actually does what he says he does.

That’s the real gift of the Holy Spirit, what he promises from our reading today. In the Gospel of John, if we go down just a few more verses, listen to what Jesus says in verses 25 and 26. He says about that spirit. I have spoken these things while staying with you. But the advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and will cause you to remember everything I said to you. The reality is the explosive growth of the church.

It’s not because John or James or Phillip or Peter were somehow evangelism masters, because they’ve gone to some conference and learn 10 effective tools, or that they handed out Josh McDowell books. The reality is that the secret to the explosive growth of the church is the Spirit helped them remember their Lord, and the Spirit helped them to understand him more. He does the same for us. That having been said, Listen again to the collect for today with new ears, “Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal glory; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”


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