We’ve been considering what constitutes good news in our preaching recently, mainly focussing on our readings from Acts. I’ll continue that today, but with some reference to our gospel. What I want to consider is how the good news generates connection. Connection.
Jesus says one of his ‘I am’ statements in our reading from John today – I am the vine. (image of vine with grapes) He emphasises that those following him must abide in him. They/we have to be deeply connected. When we are, we bear fruit. We can’t bear fruit on our own; ‘apart from me you can do nothing’, Jesus says. The need to be connected is of course profoundly human and a need some of us have experienced more acutely during lockdowns, saying hello to people out in the street because they are more real than those we see on our screens, wanting a real exchange with a real person, and groaning when those words appear on our screen, ‘your internet connexion is unstable’. It’s a stable connection we crave and this is what Jesus desires for us in our walk with him.
The book of Acts gives many examples of what a stable connection looks like, of what follows when we abide in Christ the vine, when we remain connected. Acts show us the fruit, and perhaps never more so than in this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch (image of Philip and the eunuch).
Philip was one of the 7 Greek speaking deacons chosen to assist the apostles. In chapter 7 of Acts we read of what might be called the acts of Stephen, one of the other deacons, and his martyrdom, and now in chapter 8 we have the acts of Philip. Just before his meeting with the Ethiopian Philip had been in Samaria sharing the good news. Philip was what we might now call a pioneer minister. Samaria was a challenging place for a Jew, but nevertheless many people responded to Philip’s message, so much so that HQ in Jerusalem sent Peter and John down to see what was happening, to follow up and deal with a spot of bother with Simon the sorcerer. Having done his bit, as it were, Philip didn’t hang around.
Perhaps he felt drawn towards this desert road towards Gaza for some peace and quiet after all the excitement of Samaria. (We are now finally at verse 26 of chapter 8!). I don’t know about you, but when I come across the word ‘desert’ in scripture my ears prick up. (image of the desert) The desert so often seems to be the place of encounter with God. So, the people of Israel, led through the desert by Moses and Deborah, Isaiah prophesying to the people in exile that God is calling them to prepare his way in the wilderness (desert) to enable their return home; John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness calling his contemporaries to get ready for Christ’s coming; Jesus, testing out his calling in the desert, and now Philip, taking a road through the desert in response to a prompting by the Spirit. God is doing something! Philip may have been appreciating some time alone, but soon comes the call to connect. He probably saw the dust rising some way ahead signalling another traveller – ‘The Spirit told Philip, ‘Go to that chariot and stay near it.’
What follows is a truly remarkable story of connection. The eunuch had been to worship at Jerusalem. As a eunuch he would not have been allowed in the temple, nor was he permitted to be a Jewish proselyte because his physical state meant that he couldn’t be circumcised. He was what was called a God fearer, but that was as far as he could go. He could never fully participate in the Jewish faith. He was an African, gentile God fearer, wealthy enough to own part of the scriptures, well educated enough to read them for himself and travelling in what would have been an expensive vehicle for that time. Really, how likely were you to meet someone like this in the desert?!
He and Philip obviously spoke the same language, presumably Greek, and so were able to connect. They were also both familiar with this part of scripture – connection again. Philip expresses curiosity about what the guy is reading – a great way to establish connection- and the traveller takes the risk of inviting him into his vehicle to continue the conversation.
I wonder if the passage he was reading stood out because it resonated with his own experience of being cut off, of having no descendants, being rejected and excluded from full participation in the faith towards which he was so clearly drawn? Philip could help him make the connection between his experience and a saviour who had suffered. This identification of our suffering with Jesus’ suffering continues to be a powerful draw for those going through their own desert. It’s been a feature of our faith that has been highlighted during the pandemic – Jesus knows what it’s like to suffer. An image of Christ suffering, sometimes referred to as ‘the man of sorrows’ (image of Christ) became especially popular in the 14th and 15th centuries and would sometimes be hung in a hospital as a way of reminding patients they were not alone in their sufferings. Those of course were the times when the pandemic known as the Plague was sweeping Europe.
Philip has obviously also spoken about baptism, because the eunuch has picked up that this is how to really belong, but will he be allowed to be baptised, given his physical state which so far has excluded him from belonging? Surely something will prevent him? Here’s a test for our pioneer minster. As a former vicar I really feel for Philp at this point. He couldn’t call the diocese to ask whether baptising a eunuch was ok, and if so what words should he use, and how would he record the baptism etc? This encounter takes place even before Peter has met with Cornelius and baptised him and his household. The early church has hardly started on its journey of how far gentiles could be included in its fellowship. Back in Samaria Philip had been visited by Peter and John after his baptising there. No chance of that here, in the desert, with a man on his return journey to a far away country.
(Image of the eunuch being baptised). So, look at how Philip responds; he actually goes into the water with the man. ‘Both of them went down into the water’, Luke says, as if to emphasise the point. This was the full Jesus baptism! They stand together, connected, as Philip baptises him. Then, his task apparently complete, Philip moves on and the eunuch continues his journey – ‘rejoicing’ – a word very much associated with the activity of the Spirit in Luke and Acts.
This encounter is recorded by Luke because it holds wisdom for the groups of Christians amongst whom his gospel and the book of Acts would circulate. So, I’d like to consider just two bits of wisdom it might hold for us (image of the congregation gathered in the church forecourt) Yes, this photo was taken before Covid. Look how close we are all standing!
The first is about being alert to your context and to where the Spirit might be leading, especially in those situations where difficulties arise. So, you may remember that Philip had been called to be one of those ensuring that Greek speaking widows in the church were treated fairly in the distribution of food. The Hebraic widows, it appears, were receiving more. There was grumbling, resentment. Peter, John and the other apostles had a problem which they solved by recruiting Philip and other Greek speaking converts. In so doing, probably without realising it, they expanded the membership base as it were so that there were people who could communicate well outside the immediate Aramaic church circle in Jerusalem, which is what we see Philip doing. Facing up to challenges often seems to push the church outwards. Our immediate challenge is emerging from a pandemic. Might that move us outwards towards people or neighbourhoods we haven’t connected with before? What might be the desert corners of our church or of our own lives where the spirit is moving us towards making new connections?
The second piece of wisdom is to do with the roles of church members. Some are called to provide a stable connection, like Peter, John and others in the Jerusalem church who remained there, even when persecution arose, and built a secure base, whilst others, like Philip the pioneer, move outwards. It’s good to acknowledge these roles and to support
one another in them, but also to be open to where we might be led next. The acts of Philip demonstrate that our calling can change. Philp had a more defined and geographically limited role when he was organising the foodbank in Jerusalem. Now, though, he is in the desert pioneering faith sharing with those traditionally seen as outside the community of faith. Likewise our calling will change over the course of our lives and our role in the church will shift as we and others are open to the prompting of the Spirit.
The thing that doesn’t change is that whatever our role we all have good news to share and like Philip it may start when we are willing to draw closer to someone, to express interest or curiosity; ‘What’s that you’re reading?’ we ask, opening up a conversation. And in all our encounters drawing on our own connection with Jesus the true vine, abiding in him.