5th Sunday of Easter
The first step in unpacking this unusual story is deciding who it’s about. There are only two people and our sermon can easily be about either one of them. Our Scripture lesson can preach about the unnamed Ethiopian or about this follower of Jesus named Philip. It can be about how the Gospel came to Ethiopia through an unlikely person or it can be about how God led Philip to share the Gospel with that unlikely person.
This story is really about both of these men, but this morning I feel led to make this story about Philip. Which is not to say that next time it won’t be about the eunuch. This Ethiopian eunuch is certainly interesting, to put it mildly; but interesting does not interest us. Where God is leading is what interests us. We’re interested in is listening, listening for the often still, small voice of God; listening for God to show us where to go. And that seems to be what Philip’s story is all about.
I call it “the nudge.” I’ve heard it called other things, but it’s the same Spirit. In spite of what some other places in the Bible might lead us to believe, God’s voice is not loud and booming very often. It can actually be a little hard to hear if you’re not listening. And it’s subtle: often, it’s just the thought that you haven’t seen someone in a while, so you pick up the phone. Sometimes it’s finding out that something you felt called to share, was the very thing that someone else needed. It can even feel like God saying, “Hey, go see what that guy in the chariot is reading.”
What Luke tells us about this Ethiopian is fascinating; what he leaves out is even more so. But the Ethiopian is not the one we need to keep our eyes on. What we read about God doing in and through Philip is something we need to pay attention; it’s something we need to and learn from.
The more I study this story, the more central I think Philip is. I mean, not just central to what this particular story is about, but central to the story of Acts. The irony there is that this is really the last time we hear about Philip (except a brief mention in Acts 21, where Paul runs into him). He baptizes the Eunuch, then in a flash, he’s off proclaiming the Gospel along the coast. That is essentially the last we hear of him. He’s not a major player in the history of the Church; he’s no Peter or Paul, he’s not even a Stephen or Barnabas; but he is central.
Philip was one of the seven, early in Acts, who were appointed by the Apostles to do the real work of ministry. While the Apostles were busy studying Scripture and praying (and probably gazing at their navels), they needed someone to actually get stuff done. Philip was a doer.
I’m kind of kidding, of course. The church needs folks whose job it is to study Scripture and pray; it had better or I’d be out of a job. But in a way, I’m not kidding: the church always needs folks to get stuff done too. Sometimes the folks who study and pray are more important for the moment, but sometimes the doers are more important for the moment. It’s up to all of us to discern which moment we are in.
The moment Philip was in was a tricky one. Jesus has ascended, leaving his followers with his Spirit. Right before he left, he told them, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth,” but then they didn’t go anywhere. Jesus said they’d be witnesses in Jerusalem, but then they never left Jerusalem. They seem to have forgotten, as we still tend to forget today, that the Good News is meant to be delivered; Jesus intended the Gospel to start here, but then to go to people and places that are not here. They forgot, it seems, that they were supposed to leave Jerusalem. That is, until Saul came along.
There is a Holy Irony here: Paul, the guy who would be central in taking the Gospel to the Gentiles, was also the guy who, in a way, persecuted the followers of Jesus out of Jerusalem to do it. I believe God works in this way, sometimes: what we see as tragic or terrifying, in the moment, is actually “the nudge” of God. The persecution of the followers of Jesus in Jerusalem, led them to take the Gospel beyond it.
We should expect this sort of thing from God. After all, we know how God worked in Jesus. We know how he was persecuted, tortured, and executed—a thing that, in the moment, looked tragic and terrifying—but that wasn’t the end of what God was doing. The followers of Jesus need to expect and teach ourselves to look beyond the tragic and terrifying; to see Salvation on the way.
That is the moment Philip is in: appointed to do the hard work of serving Jesus, he is chased out of Jerusalem by people like Saul and starts actually doing the work Jesus commissioned the Apostles to do.
He is chased out of Jerusalem, but he’s not running, is he? Luke tells us that, “An angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’” Now, first of all, I love how Luke crams so much into so few words, while at the same time leaving so much out. We know that Philip is headed south when he meets this Ethiopian follower of Judaism (who is probably not allowed to worship fully because of, you know) and we know that said Ethiopian is probably headed back to work for Candice the queen. Yet at the same time, Luke just slides right past the part about the angel. Is it me, or does Luke assume a level of familiarity with angels that the rest of us do not actually have?
I sense a “nudge,” I don’t hear angels. I see the handiwork of God in what some might consider “coincidences”; I don’t see angels. I sense the movement of God’s Spirit in me and in others; I don’t know that I’ve ever met an angel. I believe in angels—I’m not “that” pastor—I’m just saying: God is vastly more subtle with me. I don’t personally know what Luke is talking about when he talks about angels. Fortunately, we don’t have to. We don’t have to because there is a vastly more important point to be made here: angel or “nudge,” the more-important point is that Philip got up and went. God does amazing things with our get up and go, but what comes first is being aware that God has been trying to “nudge” us in the first place.
I made a list. I make a lot of lists: Google Calendar and little slips of paper with to-do things on them are the centerpieces of my organizational structure. But the list I made isn’t my list and it’s not exactly a to-do list either. I made a list of all the things that Lou Ray used to do for the church, both here and for the larger Church. It took me a while, but it was worth the effort. I think I’ve stumbled onto a different kind of spiritual practice; it was surprisingly enriching; I’ve found myself keeping a similar list for myself; mentally, I’m making similar lists for you.
We are called “the Body of Christ,” but there are implications there that we don’t like to think about. Like any body, there are parts that don’t just grow back. As Paul would remind us, that doesn’t make any one of us more or less important the Body; we all have our part. That’s why I recommend making lists for ourselves and one another; I mean, don’t literally. In your head, think through the things you bring to Christ’s Body; think through the things that others bring. I think you’ll find that there is not a person here that we can do without; and yet, somehow, we someday will; and somehow, by the power of God’s Spirit, the Body of Christ will continue anyway.
When our Body loses a member, there are two ways we might respond; I want us to learn to choose the second. We can merely mourn; mourning is important. Grieve well. To a point, push at it like a sliver in your hand to remind yourself it’s still there, but don’t just mourn. Listen for what God’s Spirit is telling you to do about it. Listen, because grieving is never the end of what God is up to. Listen, that you might hear, and get up, and go.
This list I made, I put it up on the information board in Berry Hall, but it isn’t a sign up list. Some have already stepped up to take on some of the more urgent roles that Lou Ray had around here, that’s not the point of this list. By the way, when you look at this list, I think you’ll agree that no one person should be responsible for all of these things. At some point, we need to not let each other take on everything. I’ll give you an example: one of Lou Ray’s roles in my life was to remind me to take the dirty dishes that get piled up in my office and bring them to the kitchen to be cleaned. As I was doing that for myself this week, I reflected on how that’s not a job I should have needed anyone to do for me. I love her for doing it, but really, I should have stepped up a long time ago.I invite you to reflect on the list I’ve made, to listen for God to show you a place in the Body you didn’t know you were called to. But there is a deeper message here: as we long for a growing, vibrant church—as we seek to be faithful to deliver the Good News to our world—the first thing we do is listen. We have been listening and I believe we have heard the “nudge” of God, but we never stop listening. Let us continue to listen—through Scripture, through the movement of God’s Spirit in ourselves and one another, and maybe even to angels—but then let us be prepared to go. And in our going, may we find the blessings that God has in store for us.