Sunday, 3 July 2011

Acts Series Part 5: Why that Chariot?

Pentecost 3 year A 11 Sermon Acts Part 5
Jesus orders his disciples back to Jerusalem
to wait for the empowering of the Holy Spirit
before daring to make more disciples…
They know they can trust his promise
because of their time with the resurrected Christ.

When the Spirit comes…Peter delivers a dramatic message... chastising Israel for crucifying the Messiah… and calling on everyone to repent and be baptised in Jesus’ name.
Warning the crowds…to save themselves …
from a corruption generation

The church is born…thought still seeing themselves as Jews
but with a new covenant…a new Israel…a new people of God who would be alight to the nations…
where Israel had failed…and would proclaim the good news…of God’s love…
to the ends of the earth

In the weeks that follow...thousands joined their ranks.
And in obedience to Jesus’… Nazareth declaration
they set about to be a visible sign…of good news for the poor

they hold everything in common…so anyone in need will be looked after…
they devote themselves to the Apostles teaching and to prayer and to table fellowship…
in each other’s homes

But their popularity… their preaching in Jesus name…
and their insistence on the reality of the resurrection
make the Jesus movement… a huge threat
to the religious authorities.
Peter and John are jailed…but with divine help
escape to continue preaching. Again they’re arrested and flogged… but see their suffering
as badge of honour.

The Jesus movement grows so fast…they have to create
new ministry teams…to ensure the welfare of the most vulnerable
while the Apostles focus on teaching the good news about Jesus. They contend with internal friction
between Greek and Hebrew speaking believers
and some who hide…portions of their wealth

And Stephen… one of the best and brightest
in the new ministry team…gets hauled before the religious authorities…
to face trumped up charges…of heresy…
At the Sanhedrin… Stephen delivers a dazzling and stinging account of Israel’s disobedience
and God’s faithfulness.

For his audacity…Stephen is dragged from the court
and stoned to death…….
while a young man named Saul…looks on in approval

On that day… as Dr Luke tells us…in the fifth part of our series on Acts
On that day as godly men bury Stephen and mourn for him …a great persecution breaks out in Jerusalem...
and all of them except the apostles
are scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.

And the young man who looked on… as Stephen died
begins to destroy the church. Going from home to home Saul drags off… both men and women
and throws them into prison.  [pause]

But instead of killing off the Jesus movement…
those who fled Jerusalem… simply started preaching
the good news about Jesus… wherever they went.

And so today’s story is about one of Stephens friends who fled…a man named Philip…who heads south  across the border to Samaria…trusting the guidance of an angel…to proclaim the Messiah… in a foreign land

What happens next might seem like a simple story
a chance encounter on the road…some good teachingone new convert… baptised and on his way

But what happens next will actually ensure
the spread of the Gospel… deep into the African continent …and produce a church… which is still strong today

And what’s more…the story of Philip’s encounter
with the Ethiopian Eunuch… is an amazing illustration of God’s timing …and shows once again
how the first Christians… successfully witness to the good news of Jesus …
without the New Testamentwithout the four Gospels and the letters of Paul…
because the tools they needed were already at hand.

To appreciate just how amazing Philip’s encounter is let’s ask two questions:

One:  Why that particular chariot? And two
Why does the Eunuch just happen to be reading
that particular verse from Isaiah?

Ok let’s deal with question one…
Just how is the Spirit’s leading Philip
to that particular chariot…on that particular busy trade route to the South…
an amazing illustration of God’s timing?

Well, first it turns out…the man in the chariot is Minister of Finance for the Queen of Aksum
now known as Ethiopia

Map slide
to get home he’ll sail three thousand kilometres south …upon the Red Sea to the Capitol of Adulis…
on the Gulf of Aden…where for thousands of years trading ships have come and gone…
from India and China.  

Second…this man of wealth and influence has with him
and is reading from what’s probably an expensive collection
of scrolls… intended for the royal library.
Most likely a Greek translation of the prophet Isaiah.
And Greek of course was the lingua franca across the Roman Empire.

Third…Philip discovers the Ethiopian’s been in Jerusalem on a pilgrimage to worship in the Temple
Though African to the core…it turns out
the man in the chariot …is a practising Jew

But to me… the most amazing thing… is that this man
can fully identify …with the suffering servant
in the passage he’s reading. He knows what suffering
is all about.

Yes, he may be wealthy and important and educated
but as a boy…he’d been castrated against his will
and trained to be a servant in the royal household.
And the Ethiopian had suffered this abuse…
before he was hormonally mature…because intact malessimply couldn’t be trusted…
in the Queen’s chamber.
How wonderful the very scripture he’s reading aloud
to his driver…is the song of the suffering servant
from the scroll of Isaiah

He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
   And… as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
   so he didn’t open his mouth.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
   Who can speak of his descendants?
   For his life was taken from the earth.

This passage from Isaiah fifty three…speaks so strongly to the eunuch’s experience…
that  he longs to know moreis the prophet speaking of himself or someone else?

And right there in the Eunuch’s chariot
Philip begins to explain the good news about Jesus
with that that very passage. [pause]

Luke’s gospel… tells us Jesus declared his mission from the scroll of Isaiah
and from the words of the prophet…
Jesus understood his identity as the servant of God…
who’d suffer the sins of the world…to bring good news
to the poor…and freedom for the oppressed.

Only those with eyes to see…and ears to hear would understand.

Dr. Luke… though a gentile…knows the servant songs in Isaiah are four poems…
about a "servant of YHWH" called and anointed by God…to lead the nations.
But the servant is horribly abused…and sacrifices himself
accepting the punishment… due to others.

Historically Israel understood Isaiah’s suffering servant…
to be a metaphor for the Jewish people themselves
as it says in the scroll…‘Israel you are my servant whom I’ve chosen

But the suffering has a purpose
either God’s covenant people will act as God's agent
to bring about peace and justice and wellbeing for the world
or God will send another…a Messiah from the line of David …who would suffer… to accomplish God’s purpose…

This Eunuch is the right man to be reading about
God’s suffering servant… and his chariot
is the right vehicle…to take the good news across the sea … where it can be planted in fertile ground.

Psalm 68…written for King David 1000 years before
promises Ethiopia shall reach out her hand unto God. 

What an amazing convergence of events
The Holy Spirit and the great river of faith
had found its way… around a mountain of resistance
in Jerusalem… and would now flow beyond Egypt
and the Sudan…and into Ethiopia…

Ethiopian today slide
Today… the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church [i]
has a membership between 40 and 45 million people.
It’s one of the few… pre-colonial Christian churches…
in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The word Tewahedo refers to the Orthodox belief…
in the one single unified nature of Christ; fully God and fully human
to accomplish the divine salvation of humankind.

Two thousand years ago…because of Philip’s obedience
to the Holy Spirit…an Ethiopian eunuch came to believe the suffering servant in Isaiah fifty-three
 foretold the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth as God’s anointed Messiah
and at the first sight of water
he was baptised in Jesus name and became his disciple.  
As disciples of Jesus today…like Philip and the Ethiopian…each of us has our own road to travel
and good news to share…news
of God’s love and God’s will…revealed in Jesus Christ
If you’ve ever been strengthened by the Word of God or comforted by God’s presence
then you have something of the good news to share.
If you’ve ever known God’s mercy and forgiveness …or God’s abundant blessing…
then you have something to share.

If your faith has ever brought you through the darkness and into the light…
you have something to share with someone… who’s never experienced these things.

My prayer… is that like Philip…you’ll be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit…to walk beside someone who comes your way …for as long as it takes to build a relationship of trust
and to answer their God questions where they are.

You never know… how far the great river of faith
will flow… from what you do.

[i] [የኢትዮጵያ ኦርቶዶክስ ተዋሕዶ ቤተ ክርስቲያን]