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Bearing Much Fruit

  • April 29, 2018
  • 08:00 AM

Sermon for April 29, 2018 (Pascha 5, Year B)

Offered by Nathan Ferrell at The Episcopal Church of Saint Mary

Texts:             Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22:24-30; John 15:1-8


Title:               Bearing Much Fruit

Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia!

The Lord is risen, and it is so good to be back with you here- especially now that we are in these Great 50 Days of celebration.

We are given this time each year to simply bask in the joy of the good news that we have heard, and also to learn a little bit more each year about our job to practice resurrection as we walk through this life with Jesus.

Today our guide is the deacon known as Philip. I love this remarkable little story, and I think we need to look at it in some more detail.

In the church, we often talk about the word “evangelism”. Which is a fancy church word for “speaking of good news”.

This is the bedrock for why we are here. It’s called Good News. It’s a message that speaks to the deepest longings of human hearts, a message that brings hope for people who are struggling to make sense out of this life.

Philip was sent as an emissary of this good news. But consider how he operated. The voice of God spoke to Philip, “so he got up and went” (Acts 8:27).

He was prepared. He was ready to move, ready to respond. There is no hint of reticence or resistance. And went the Spirit told Philip to move over next to one particular chariot, he did it. And then he listened. This is important. He listened to what the man was saying.

But, wait, you might wonder, how could Phillip hear the man reading? This may seem very surprising, but the practice of reading silently, internally, only within one’s own mind – this is a fairly modern human practice.

In biblical days, reading was generally done audibly, orally, out loud for all to hear. Perhaps because most were still illiterate. We can’t say exactly why, but we know that this was normal practice. And as an aside, all of the biblical texts were written in this way – to be read aloud, within a community of listeners.

So Philip heard this Ethiopian man reading aloud from the scroll of Isaiah. And what did Philip do? What did he do?

He asked a question! I love this. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

What a great question! An open-ended question. The man could have responded in many different ways. Or not at all.

But his response is profound. “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

Even in his day, this text from Isaiah was an ancient scroll. Hundreds of years old. This is like you and me reading letters written by Martin Luther or Erasmus or Shakespeare. Some of it is very difficult to understand without a teacher, without a guide to explain the meaning of these old words.

So the Ethiopian responds very simply and astutely, “How can I understand without a guide, without an instructor?” And he invites Philip to get in and speak with him.

Notice, please, that Philip is never the initiator of anything in this story. There is never any sense of compulsion in Philip. He is never anxious, never worried. He never says, “Oh man, I’d better get up and do something.” No, he just simply responds to whatever God brings his way!

So Phillip is there, listening and observing. He is open and receptive. And he is a good servant, not trying hard to make something happen. Just responding to what’s around him.

Beginning with this Song of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, Phillip explains the whole story about Jesus.  And the Ethiopian asks about baptism. Phillip obliges…and then the Spirit moves him along.

Now, we don’t know this. We cannot say this with any certainty, but let’s consider for a minute WHY the Ethiopian was reading THIS particular passage from Isaiah.

Why this passage? Perhaps it was one of his favorites – a favorite passage because it spoke directly to him, and to his experience!

I promise not to go into any details at all in this setting, but you DO understand what it means to be a eunuch, correct? What it means, in a very real sense, is that HE himself was A suffering servant. “In his humiliation,” Isaiah says, “justice was denied him.”

This man lived as a pawn in the games of the powerful. Decisions were made for him. Pain was inflicted upon him, and why? So that his body would not be a threat to someone else. As a young boy, like a little sheep, he was led to the slaughter. Oh, his life was spared. Kind of. But certainly not his freedom. He was owned by those in power.

Could it be that he heard this Song of the Suffering Servant and wondered what kind of God identifies with human pain in this way? Who is this God who knows and understands what it means to suffer at the hands of those with power?

Perhaps THIS is why the eunuch is reading and meditating on this passage. And through this open, flexible and fruitful servant named Philip, God brings healing and hope to this wounded man.

Does this help you to understand a bit more about our calling as disciples who are moved by the Spirit to bring good news to those who are suffering?

My friends, we are called to listen, to be open, to be flexible and adaptable and ready to move where the Spirit leads.

This is PRECISELY what we intend to embody, to practice, when we walk forward to receive Communion.

We place our hands together, palms open. A universal human gesture which signifies openness, trust, humility. We come forward ready to receive, as if we are praying, “Here I am, Lord, open and ready to receive whatever it is that you have to give.”

You know that the Church is preparing to draft a new version of the Prayer Book. This is not something that I expect to have any input into whatsoever – church politics are really not my thing. Sorry.

But if I did, I know of at least one thing that I would change! (Well, there are many…)

When the invitation is given to come to the Table, the Presider says “The gifts of God for the people of God” and then I have the option to say, “Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith, with thanksgiving.”

I love these words. They are beautiful and ancient – and central to the Anglican practice of Communion for the last 500 years.

BUT, I would love to change them! After all, we do not take the gifts of Communion. We receive them.

It’s a subtle change in language, perhaps, but it points to a vastly different change in perspective. No, we DO NOT, we CAN NOT take the gift of God. We can only receive it with open hands, and open hearts.

Like Philip, we remain open to going where God wants us to go, and doing what God wants us to do!

I recently heard the story of a small church who has been partnering with a local mosque to share backpacks with local children in an under-resourced community who struggle to have everything that they need to go back to school after the summer.

I shared this with the Outreach Committee. The local church pastor took a group to the mosque and asked if there was anything that they could do to help. And the imam explained that they were trying to prepare and distribute these backpacks to the local children. And that, well yes, if this church group wanted to help, then they could go door-to-door in the neighborhood and invite everyone down to the mosque to pick up a backpack.

So this is what they did. I’m sure you can understand that it was a bit challenging.

You know, a group of Christians going door-to-door and inviting people to come to the mosque. It’s just not what these folks are used to! And at one particular house, the man at the door responded and said, “Uh, yeah, sure, thanks. (PAUSE). Hey, what a minute, are you guys Muslims?”

You see, he did some quick social profiling and realized that these white people are not what he would expect as representatives from the local mosque!

The churchmember at the door was on his toes and the Holy Spirit was guiding him, because he responded and said, “No, we’re Christians. We follow Jesus, and we think that, if Jesus were here in this neighborhood, then he would help all of these kids to get ready for school.”

After all, what did Jesus say? “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.” Much fruit!

But, my friends, that will never happen as long as we keep our fists and our hearts closed, as long as we demand on everything staying the way it is, on trying to stay as comfortable as possible.

My friends, we are bearers of good news. Good news! Turn to someone and say, “We’ve got good news to share.”

That’s right! We’ve got good news to share.

The pain you feel? The pain that those around you are feeling?

God has felt it too. But that is never the end of the story. Because the love of God is stronger than death. The Lord is risen. And if we stay connected to that Vine, we will rise with him. Now, and always. Amen.

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