Texts: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
In today’s first lesson from the book of Acts, we see how stories and traditions have been passed on since the earliest days of the church. The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch was one of my favorites growing up. So many fascinating details! A chariot is making its way through the wilderness; seated in the chariot, dressed in exotic robes of office, is someone who obviously is important. The camera pans over the barren landscape, then slowly zooms in for a close-up. Doesn’t that sound like a great opening scene for a movie?
“A court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” My young mind thought Candace was an interesting name; that didn’t change even when I learned later that was her title, not her name, just like president or empress. Ethiopia, even now, seems far away and hard to get to; back then, it represented the end of the known world. And what was with this eunuch business? When a well-meaning Sunday School teacher finally explained how one got to be a eunuch, I was puzzled about what some people would give up in order to get a good paying and powerful government job. Of course, some wonder the same thing about government leaders today...
But there’s more to the story. This Ethiopian eunuch “had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot...reading the prophet Isaiah.” This foreigner, from a far-away country, wearing odd clothes, with a different skin color, might have been treated with suspicion in a social setting. He would have been excluded from worship by the religious authorities because of his physical condition. Citing passages from Leviticus and Deuteronomy, they would claim he was not whole, not worthy of joining with others in worshiping God. Yet that did not stop him from traveling to Jerusalem to worship. Here was a man who was seeking, who wanted to learn, who already heard the whisper of God’s voice, already sensed God’s gentle beckoning.
And who arrives to help? Philip! This is not Philip, the apostle. This is a different Philip, sometimes called Philip the Evangelist or Philip the Deacon. He was one of the Seven mentioned earlier in Acts who were appointed by the original Twelve to help with the increasing work load in the rapidly expanding early Church. This Philip might have been a second string player, a second round draft pick, but look what happens. He has learned to listen for God’s guidance in being in the right place, at the right time. He quickly recognized what the eunuch was reading aloud in his chariot—reading aloud was the custom then, people did not typically read silently to themselves, even when they were alone. Philip strikes up a conversation with the eunuch, and “proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.” We don’t know how long they rode together in that chariot. We don’t know all the words that were exchanged. But we do know that Philip’s life had been transformed by the message of Jesus and so great is the power of the Resurrection that the sharing and the telling of that story continues to have the power to transform hearts and shape lives. The Ethiopian eunuch has found what he was seeking! He stops the chariot, asks to be baptized, “and went on his way rejoicing.”
We have here a vision of radical inclusivity. Someone from outside is welcomed into the family by sharing stories and traditions; someone who was excluded is now embraced; someone who was seeking is now filled with joy. The eunuch returned to Ethiopia, and the church there still endures, despite tremendous struggles and challenges over the centuries since that time.
We don’t read aloud much anymore (more’s the pity!). We certainly don’t read from papyrus scrolls. E-books and Kindle readers abound, smart phones are everywhere, yet people around us are still seeking answers, looking for encouragement and hope, and hungry for some good news. And how can we whose lives have been touched by the power of the Resurrection respond? Many of our interactions with others these days seem to be via emails and text messages and FaceBook postings. Are these electronic media ways we can quietly yet confidently pass on to others some of the stories and traditions which have been passed down to us? Maybe nonverbal messages might be part of that communication process: a smile to the cashier at the grocery store who is obviously having a bad day, or a friendly wave to a confused pedestrian at a crosswalk. And who can forget the importance of a gentle touch or warm embrace when things looked really, really bad? If our minds, like Philip’s, are receptive to God’s guidance, I think we will find that ways open up for us to share the good news about Jesus.
I see hints of the power and importance of passing on stories and traditions in two other places in today’s scripture readings.
First, the Gospel of John includes the familiar words describing Christ as the vine and us as the branches. These words should have special relevance to us as residents of the state of Washington. Until we moved here 12 years ago I had no idea that Washington State is the second largest grape producing state, second only to California. Washington grows almost half of all the Concord grapes in the United States, widely used in juices, jellies, and other food items. Even those who do not drink wine have heard about familiar Washington grape varieties like chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, and I suspect some here can even pronounce Gewürztraminer!. Small vineyards and wineries can be found all around us—we are surrounded by grape vines bearing abundant fruit.
After living here for a while, though, one wonders if Jesus should have used a different plant for his analogy, something like the invasive Himalayan blackberry, which seems to pop up everywhere, grows with great gusto, and is difficult to destroy. Aren’t those desirable qualities for a church? Jesus, though, seems to be making a different point in the words of today’s gospel reading. “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” The great value of the grape vine is not just growing for the sake of growing, but growing and bearing much fruit. Our lives have been touched by the story of Jesus; the good news of the Resurrection flows through us, to be savored and enjoyed and shared with those around us. When we interact with those around us, let’s hope that they see us not filled with thorns and prickles like Himalayan blackberries, but rather overflowing with abundant forgiveness, love, and joy. We as the branches draw strength and nourishment from Jesus the vine, and become for those around us conduits of life.
The other place I see the power and importance of passing on stories and traditions is in today’s Psalmody. “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of nations shall bow before God...Their descendants shall serve the Lord, whom they shall proclaim to generations to come.”
We heard these same words recently during worship. This section of Psalm 22 was included in the solemn chant at the end of the service on Maundy Thursday. The opening words of the psalm are probably more familiar: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Why would the closing words from the same Psalm be repeated on a Sunday of Easter? Perhaps a clue might be found in Pr Seth’s Easter sermon. He noted that the Gospel of Mark comes to an abrupt end: “[The women] went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” He suggested the gospel writer is counting on us to tell the rest of the story, to proclaim that the story does NOT end there.
On the cross, Jesus cried out the first words of Psalm 22; in great pain, totally exhausted, maybe he wasn’t physically able to finish the rest of the psalm aloud. But he (and the disciples that were listening) knew all the words of that psalm; in his final moments he had confidence in how it would end; and as he handed over his spirit into the hands of his Father, he handed over to his disciples his message, the responsibility to “proclaim God’s deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying to them, ‘The Lord has acted!” Jesus is counting on us to continue his work of teaching, healing, and sharing the good news of God’s power and love.
It was almost a year ago that we first visited Agnus Dei. I have come to see this congregation is filled with people who believe the gospel; who want to work for justice and peace; who are committed to practicing hospitality and to creating a welcoming community. I am filled with confidence and hope for our future as the stories and traditions are told and passed on, as we tell others about the good news about Jesus.
So great is the joyful story of the Resurrection that we celebrate Easter not just on one Sunday, but for a whole week of Sundays—7 Sundays in all. Today is the 5th Sunday of Easter: just 2 more to go! Join with me today in reaching back with one hand to all the faithful who have gone before us, in reaching forward with the other hand to all those who are yet to come, taking our place in that unbroken chain of witnesses to the power of the Resurrection, and proclaiming again: Alleluia, Christ is risen! (Christ is risen indeed, alleluia!) Amen.