Sermon, May 19: Unknown Apostles

What does it mean to be a holy people today, when life has become so different? That’s an enormous question, but not just for us. It had troubled Luke as well. The Book of Acts was probably written towards the end of the first century and there had been plenty of time for conversation between Christians and Jews and their becoming-separated holy books. Conflicts were emerging – was Christianity the fulfillment of Judaism so Mosaic law must be obeyed? Or was God doing a new thing, so that the law might be re-interpreted?
While the story of Jesus is how we understand this new kind of thinking, it’s a story with a beginning and an end. God’s own spirit who is emerging as the primary motivating force in early Christianity. As we’ve been hearing in these weeks since Easter, because of the Holy Spirit, Peter found the courage to speak, and the ability to heal.
The twelve apostles felt compelled to devote their time to prayer and preaching and chose seven people to be deacons – among them, a man named Philip. But conflict with the religious authorities escalated, persecution broke out and the fledgling church was scattered. Philip went to Samaria.
And this story of the events on a wilderness road in Samaria is where we find him. All we know about Philip is his willingness to say yes to whatever he feels is a call from God. What we know about Philip is that when he was asked to be a deacon, to wait on tables and feed the poor, he said yes. When he was asked to leave his home and family and go to heal the hated Samaritans, he said yes. When the angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to that wilderness road” he went – and met the Ethiopian.
Now, the Ethiopian had quite a story. He was the treasurer of the sovereign state of Ethiopia – today’s Sudan – and he had just travelled hundreds of miles to worship the God of Israel in Jerusalem.
He might have been attracted to Judaism because of its moral and ethical teachings. He might even have been someone who’d call himself, “spiritual, but not religious.” In any event, he reached out to a religious institution that would have rejected him simply because of his sexuality. And now he was heading home, reading Isaiah’s poem about the Holy One who was humiliated and deprived of justice in this world. The Ethiopian eunuch would have known a lot about humiliation and being deprived of justice.
“Tell me, please,” he asked Philip, “who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” Or – translated – “Is this a story about some outcast in Isaiah’s time or is this a word from God to me?”
So, Philip told him about Jesus – told him that not only does God know and understand humiliation, but that Jesus had taken that pain on himself.
“What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” the Ethiopian eunuch asked. Asked it when he surely knew that there were many answers to that question and they were all negative – he belonged to the wrong nation, held the wrong job, had the wrong sexuality.
What can stand in the way? “Nothing, nothing at all, “ whispered the Holy Spirit. And so water miraculously appeared in the desert and he was baptized. Can we even begin to imagine what this baptism meant to him? A few years later Paul would say it this way: “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, not male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are heirs according to the promise.”
Heirs, according to the promise – the promise as Philip heard it in Isaiah’s poem, in the Ethiopian’s questions, in the whispers of God’s Spirit. It was enough to send the Ethiopian on his way rejoicing – to share his faith with the people at home. There are unlikely apostles everywhere, known only to the Spirit – perhaps even here, even now.
Because the Spirit is still whispering, even – maybe especially – in places and situations that seem most God-forsaken. So listen, really listen when you sense that God is telling you to go to that unlikely place, to pay attention to those unlikely people, to share the goodness of God as you yourself have known it.
You will know God’s voice when you hear it, be it ever so faint and far-away because it will be saying over and over “no matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are my holy people, welcome here, welcome now.” Amen.

Posted by Rev. Barbara Ewton

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