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Sermon for Easter 5

Acts 8:26-40

Click here for mp3 audio 33 Sermon for Easter 5

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

The sermon today is on the first reading from Acts chapter 8.

The reading of Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch is integral to not only to the story of the early Church but to the doctrine of the apostles.  We know that the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostles doctrine, that is, their teaching on precisely who Jesus was and why He had come into the world.  It was the same teaching that they had received from Him like the disciples on the Emmaus Road which we did not hear this Easter season but also like he told to all the disciples in Galilee in Luke 24 which we did hear about two weeks ago.  Jesus explained to them all: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, 46 and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”  And to top that off, Jesus told them all just before He ascended into heaven, that the Gospel would be preached even to the ends of the earth. (Ac 1:8)  Our reading today in Acts is an example of this happening.

The Ethiopian eunuch was from the ends of the earth and in more ways than one.  Take a look at any old map of the Roman Empire at the time of Acts and Ethiopia, actually modern day Sudan, was truly at the bottom edge of the map.  The Ethiopian eunuch was already something of an inquirer to the faith.  He was on his way home after coming up to Jerusalem to worship.  But how he could have worshiped is left to speculation.  But like the lame man form last week, he could not have entered the temple because of his ritual status as a eunuch.  He could not have received circumcision and therefore would not have been a Jewish proselyte.  Left where he was, he could have only remained an outside observer to the religion of the One true God.  He was a man with Sudanese dark skin, from a country at the ends of the earth, forever on the fringes of the true religion, until he met Philip who showed him that the Gospel of Jesus Christ was for people like him, even those from the furthest away.

God is actively working to enlarge the Church: it is His ongoing plan.  Look at what all He did to include this one Ethiopian eunuch.  An angel of the Lord tells Philip, not an apostle, but a mere deacon, to go to the roadside where he would meet the Ethiopian (v. 26), then it is God’s Spirit that specifically tells Philip to go over and join him in the chariot (v. 29), and then it is not mere happenstance that Philip overhears the man reading the precise portion of the Servant Songs from Isaiah most relevant for the discussion of all matters messianic—Isaiah 53.  Then, not accidentally Philip and the Ethiopian happen upon water at the point when the man is prepared to become a follower of Jesus (v. 36).  Finally, the Ethiopian goes on his way with joy, and Philip is snatched away by God’s Spirit to another location up the coast (v. 39). Thus, Luke aptly illustrates two of his major themes in one story—God’s mighty power to act and to carry out his plan to save which was meant to include all sorts of people, even people who don’t look like Jews, who are from countries far, far, away and even people who would not have been included because of physical infirmity.  God actively works to extend His kingdom.  (Witherington in his commentary points out these markers of God’s activity.)

What is more, this passage seems to be a direct fulfillment of another prophecy from Isaiah, this time from chapter 56.  Just as an aside, I hope when I mention prophecies from the OT I don’t sound like one of those TV preachers where the connection they make is only tenuous at best.  These things that I’m pointing out are in fact solid readings from the prophets.  Isaiah 56, verses 3 to five read:

3       Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,

“The LORD will surely separate me from his people”;

and let not the eunuch say,

“Behold, I am a dry tree.”

4       For thus says the LORD:

“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,

who choose the things that please me

and hold fast my covenant,

5       I will give in my house and within my walls

a monument and a name

better than sons and daughters;

I will give them an everlasting name

that shall not be cut off.

The parallels here are clear.  And I’m not trying to be cute here, but truly the Lord has included the one who was cut off into his everlasting family.  He could have no offspring and could not be full participant in Judaism but was about to become one of the spiritual brothers of Christ and suddenly have a huge multitude of relatives, even descendants.  The early Church father, Irenaeus, (Against Heresies 3.12.8–10) gives the Ethiopian eunuch the credit for bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to Ethiopia and he attests to believers there from the first century.  This Ethiopian man who was unable to have any physical descendants became the spiritual father of all Christians in Ethiopia.  This is the strength of the activity of God to enlarge His kingdom.

We should just note here that the Ethiopian’s conversion came by the proclaiming of the Word of God and by Baptism.  Beginning with the word of God, Philip told him the good news about Jesus.  By the way, this good news must have included something along what Peter had preached at Pentecost, repent and be baptized every one of your for the forgiveness of sins because this Ethiopian sees a bit of water and says, “what prevents me from being baptized?”    In this way, God has not changed his methods of bringing people into the kingdom.  We might be in awe of the thousands who came to faith on Pentecost or last week as we heard Peter preach in the temple courts.  But more often people come to believe in Jesus Christ as Messiah and Savior because it was taught to them and explained to them just as we see here.  God used extraordinary means to put Philip in the right place to be the ordinary way for this man to hear the Word and be baptized.

The connection to the Gospel reading today is very clear.  Jesus is the vine, the apostles and people like Philip, people like you, are the branches.  Philip was not doing his own thing; he was proclaiming Jesus and thus he bore fruit.  The reason Philip bore fruit was because he heeded the call of the angel of the Lord and had heard the teaching of the apostles to be able to explain to this Ethiopian man that Jesus was the Suffering Servant Messiah of the one true God.  The Holy Spirit does not just blow in from nowhere but He brings people in to hear the message of how all God’s promises throughout the ages have found their “Yes!” in Jesus.  This work is for all people, in all places, from all places, from all stations in life, no matter the color of their skin or their “ritual status” formerly under the Levitical law.  Among those promises is the assurance that the Holy Spirit continues to call, gather, and enlighten by the Word and through the Holy Baptism.  The Word and Baptism connect us to Jesus.  He is the vine; we are the branches.

God actively works through the Holy Spirit to enlarge the kingdom of God.  God’s plan is to include any and all, even people who wouldn’t normally qualify, to be in the kingdom.  He includes them by making them whole in Jesus.  The Holy Spirit does this by proclaiming Jesus in the preaching of the Word and by making whole in Holy Baptism.  I make these points because we now live in a world where these simple teachings of the apostles are subtly under attack not just from without but from within.  Whenever Church is not about these things, the apostles’ doctrine, the prayers, the breaking of bread and the fellowship, we are doing something other than what we have been given to do.  Sunday school is not about fun; it’s about Jesus, and of course we can have fun doing it.  Bible class is about hearing and knowing better God’s Word so that we can be more like Philip the deacon.  The Sunday service is about the preaching of the Word and the breaking of bread, not joke telling and getting’ to see each other.  Fellowship is about recognizing what we have in common in Christ, even with men like the Ethiopian eunuch.  Or, as John reminds us today, that our life in Christ should be characterized by our love for God rather than His great love for us.  The main thing must always be the main thing.  Jesus, who He is and what He was done is the main thing.  That’s why church attendance is not optional, why baptizing and teaching is not optional, why breaking the bread is not optional, why the apostles doctrine is not optional.  Whenever we focus on other things as the ways the Holy Spirit might use to keep us together, we have taken our focus off the thing the Holy Spirit has promised to us to call us together and educate us about the great work God has done in His servant Messiah Jesus Christ.  This is what the Holy Spirit has done through Philip for the Ethiopian.  This is what God has done through this congregation for you.  God grew an entire church out of one eunuch.  There’s no telling what God will accomplish through you; but I can promise this: God is active to do it.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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