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.
Reading from Acts
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 Easter 5
“In his humiliation justice was denied him.” This is a very strange verse, a verse I don’t immediately understand. Like the Ethiopian Eunuch, I would like Philip to sit by my side to explore the meaning of these words.
However, Philip is not here. You are. – Let’s explore the story together. The Ethiopian Eunuch is a very powerful political-economic figure, isn’t he? Luke describes him as a court official. In fact, we would call him “the chancellor of the exchequer” for Candace the Queen of the Ethiopians. He was, Luke says, “in charge of her entire treasury.” Her entire treasury – imagine that. He must have been quite a figure riding in a chariot – and reading the prophet Isaiah on top of it all. Who normally rides in a chariot? Military commanders to be sure – they are the heavy cavalry. Chariots are instruments of war – they thunder down roads scattering everyone in their path, don’t they? I suppose if a tank were coming down St John’s Road, wouldn’t all of us scatter? The powerful would ride in a chariot in ancient times. Court officials would obviously travel in chariots. Here is a man of status in that political world travelling along the road as only a court official in charge of the treasury could do.
But this important man is a eunuch. This makes him a very peculiar figure in that world. Who takes a eunuch seriously? – well, Candace did, but who else? In the middle east of ages ago powerful men were like David and Solomon, with many wives and concubines. They flaunted their “power” in the guise of their manhood – their “women”. A eunuch could do nothing of that sort. He was isolated and marginalised, even though he was in charge of the entire treasury.
The eunuch can be seen as a metaphor for the people to whom the message of Jesus would mean so much. The gospel could be explained through the history of humanity, and those people, who experienced many of the things described in the bible, would like to understand – if only it were explained to them.
So our verse would make perfect sense to a great many of the people of the time, as they experienced this fact – “in humiliation justice was denied.” Like the eunuch, they asked to whom does such a verse of a sacred book refer? They experienced humiliation and the denial of justice, but why is such a figure in the book? To those on the outside, this verse makes no sense.
Philip went up to the eunuch and sat with him. He thus was able to talk this man through the whole history of salvation and reveal Jesus as that man who was humiliated and denied justice. His eyes were opened and he saw, he understood that Jesus and he were linked intimately.
What linked them? That Jesus lived and died in real time in front of witnesses was very important at the time, and even today it is. The link was death. Jesus was the man whose “life is taken away from the earth.” This was revealed as good news. Philip proclaimed it, and the eunuch saw it.
His eyes opened, and he saw the symbolic reality of his life and that of this man, Jesus, who was humiliated and denied justice and whose life was taken away from the earth. In this symbolic reality the eunuch and we finally comprehend life.
His eyes opened and he saw water where this happened. The Ethiopian then asked “Why not baptise me here?” Everything has changed for this fellow. He now understands the book he had on his lap – he now sees the divine here and now – he now sees his life in a greater context, a universal and eternal context.
In what context, do we see this story of the eunuch? Let’s look at the beginning of the story again. The eunuch “had come to Jerusalem to worship”. This fellow had come all the way from Ethiopia to worship in Jerusalem – this is a mighty act for anyone to accomplish. Easier for this rich man, but quite a feat nonetheless. Going to Jerusalem was not something people would normally do, especially a Jew of the diaspora, although the Passover farewell “Next year in Jerusalem” rings in contemporary ears. Candace’s exchequer is able to travel to Jerusalem to worship, to read the word of God and to ponder it, but more importantly to discuss it with those around him. Philip appeared at the right time for him and was able shed light on the passage of scripture before him.
The New Testament is full of people who are Jews. They go to the Temple to worship at the centre of the world, the centre of their religious world. This is overturned, their everyday understanding of worship and what is expected is completely changed into a new day, the dawn of the new age when a river, instead of being merely flowing water becomes a means of transformation, the vehicle for baptism.
With these new eyes, the world is transformed and the world no longer has the old values. Now the eunuch sees everything in a very different way. That water, for instance, becomes baptism.
The extraordinary continues when Philip is taken away to the coast to preach and teach in all the cities there. Philip himself goes into a new world of sharing the gospel, the Word of God, just as he did with this Ethiopian, this eunuch who was ever so powerful in the life of Queen Candace’s court.
Philip was then transported to places far away where he continued his work. But how did this happen? I do not want to explain away this miracle, but I would ask you to remember that such miracles happen in our lives – for instance, how do we come to be in this church at this time? Can we explain away how we come here? No, I don’t think we can. We often say we just arrived, don’t we?
We have arrived, this is the new Jerusalem for us where we will worship, where we will travel with the book in our lap as we ponder its meaning. We are here at the centre of our world where we have come to worship, and we depart to new destinations. In the new world where God is the centre of all reality, we could barge around in chariots or walk about quietly. Here we live and move and have our being in places never imagined in the era of the young churches. This is the new age where Philip has walked before us, discussing the good news with anyone who would spend time with him. Are we prepared to live in this new world? Will we sit down with strangers and talk of many things – whether it is cabbages and kings or what is right and good? I certainly hope so.