Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: grant that, as by your grace going before us you put into our minds good desires, so by your continual help we may bring them to good effect; through Jesus Christ our risen Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.
Risen Christ, your wounds declare your love for the world and the wonder of your risen life: give us compassion and courage to risk ourselves for those we serve, to the glory of God the Father.
Eternal God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life: grant us to walk in his way, to rejoice in his truth, and to share his risen life; who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’
The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
25 From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
I will perform my vows in the presence of those that fear you.
26 The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord shall praise him; their hearts shall live for ever.
27 All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations shall bow before him.
28 For the kingdom is the Lord’s
and he rules over the nations.
29 How can those who sleep in the earth bow down in worship,
or those who go down to the dust kneel before him?
30 He has saved my life for himself; my descendants shall serve him;
this shall be told of the Lord for generations to come.
31 They shall come and make known his salvation, to a people yet unborn,
declaring that he, the Lord, has done it.
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Saviour of the world. God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God. So we have known and believe the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgement, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
1 John 4:7-21
‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine-grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. 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. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.
Sermon on Sunday, Easter 5
Does anyone remember the television programme, “Due South”? It was about a Canadian Mountie in Chicago, how everything was going wrong for him, but the Canadian did not give up on good manners and gracious behaviour toward everyone he met. Even the bad guys are disarmed by his kindness. It is a wonderful tale. I think we should see the Acts reading through the prism of this saying, “going south”. Let’s hope we can go south like the mountie, listening and talking with all people we meet however they are.
Philip had to take “the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This is a wilderness road.).” He had to head south. But going south means that things have gone wrong, doesn’t it? (At least that is what the expression means to us today.) So, who wants to take a wilderness road? Don’t we all want to travel on the high road? Don’t we all want to be in the middle of the city, with its bright lights and entertainment? Don’t we want to be in the midst of the great crowd which distracts us from the south? When we are gathered together in those crowds, do we really want to go to those lonely, desert places? Do we really want to head south?
These are not as wild questions as you might think on the face of it. Haven’t we been in the desert because of lockdown? Don’t we want “to get back to normal”? This is the cry of everyone, isn’t it? Our leaders have been saying this for over a year, chafing at the bit of isolation.
I am convinced that we have not learned anything from lockdown. Too many are wishing to give up thinking for themselves and let the crowd do the work for them again. It is peer pressure on a grand scale. But perhaps it is a more subtle phenomenon than I am suggesting. The crowd, after all, does inform each individual’s course of action in life, either as something to go along with or to react against (or maybe some combination of these two opposite tendencies). After all, don’t we feel comfortable in a crowd? Don’t we become a part of that mass quite happily and cease to be our very vulnerable selves? There is an empowerment when we become part of the crowd – at the same time as we give up our autonomy.
That crowd is not to be found in desert places. In the wilderness we have to make do for ourselves, for we are alone and it is very clear to me that we might be in need of help, just like that Ethiopian court official.
We have all been on that road south, haven’t we? We find ourselves on that road when we are isolated and feeling abandoned, and for many lockdown brought this feeling to the front of their minds. Perhaps we have been on that road for a long time. If we have been lucky, we have been on that road and not felt oppressed or depressed by the journey. When we are on the road south, that is precisely when we want to discover a friend, when we want someone like Philip to appear so that we can discuss those very hard questions that seem to have no answer. We want someone to talk with about those matters which have to do with the fundamentals of life.
But why don’t we speak with people with the fervour of Philip? If we were as enthusiastic as that travelling disciple, perhaps someone might ask us the same question the Ethiopian courtier asked Philip, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ and we should be delighted to oblige. But apart from our showing enthusiasm, Philip also is an example that we should be very good listeners, hearing the questions people really have on their minds.
“The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’”
The Ethiopian was confused about his reading in Isaiah. Who wouldn’t be, then or now? Who is this lamb who stood silent before the shearer and butcher? Who would remain so quiet in his humiliation when no justice would be given?
We all have our own confusion when we are heading south – even if we are in the midst of a crowd. Don’t we see things on that road that do not make any sense to us? Don’t we require some sort of angel to reveal the true course of life to us?
The usual state of affairs is that everyone is pointed to the crowd and the crowd’s non-expectation of the good. Don’t we say, “That is the way it has always been. We can’t change it.”? With that opinion ringing in our ears, we give up our search for what is right. It seems doing the right thing is not what anyone wants to do – that everyone is expected to be absorbed into the crowd, into themselves, and do nothing. The siren call of the crowd, what “they” say, overcomes each one of us and we are put to sleep in that cocoon.
However, the philosopher has always exhorted us to the good as an ideal reality. And the way to the good is not amongst the herd, but rather it is when we hear when conscience calls in that dark night. No one else except the individual alone can hear that call, but we must listen for that, not the call of the crowd.
That brings us back to our reading from Acts. The court official has heard something in the book to hand, but he cannot make sense of it. Then Philip appears and talks with him.
Philip does not badger – he just recounts the saving history to the Ethiopian as he knows it. I think we need to learn the lesson Philip is teaching here.
He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.
Philip wants to know what the eunuch understands about the passage, he wants to share what he himself understands as well. This is a dialogue, a true interchange of thought between two people. The result of Philip’s hearing the confusion of the Ethiopian and the Ethiopian’s willingness to be guided in the story, is a true joy, a joy that results in the impromptu baptism at some random water on that road through the wilderness as they travelled south.
“Going south” – I wonder what that means to you. Does “going south” in our reading signify the awful state of affairs which our modern expression means? No, I think going south is an opportunity to show the love of one another which the epistle of John tells us about, that love that reveals God in the world – a love that is not normally revealed in everyday life, in the everyday of the crowd. Love lets us spend time with someone on that road south, just as Philip travelled a little along the way with the Ethiopian back to Queen Candace’s court.