s108o00 Somerton Park Fifth Sunday of Easter 21/5/2000
"The eunuch asked Philip ... "What is to prevent me from being baptised?"" Acts 8:36
I must admit sometimes I wonder and smile at the words: "the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing." (Acts 8:39). I suspect that it is my perverse sense of humour that makes me wonder if the eunuch was pleased to see Philip go :-) I have known of the occasional clergy-person who have "worn out their welcome".
The traditional answers about to whom the prophet Isaiah was referring in these words about the suffering servant - range from the prophet himself, to the nation of Israel, and, for Christians, to Jesus who was crucified and raised to life. And we assume that this latter is how Philip explained them to the eunuch. We assume it, we are not told.
And yet I wonder if the real impression made on the eunuch, was that the words referred to he himself.
As a eunuch, he was specifically excluded from the assembly of the Lord (Deuteronomy 23:1). Here he was, probably through no fault of his own, someone whose "life had been taken away" through his inability to have children and then through his exclusion from the worshipping community. He was a person of considerable rank and authority, and had travelled all the way to a foreign country, to worship a foreign God, only to be turned away. Still he did not give up. As he travelled away from where he had thought (it seemed mistakenly) grace and mercy could be found, he continues to read the religious texts of the very people who turned him away. Presumably he was turned away for racial reasons - I suppose he didn't go around with a T-shirt which said "eunuch" on it. I can well imagine he was well used to not having anyone to explain the texts to him - obviously he had not found anyone to answer his question in Jerusalem. Much of his own suffering he had done in silence. Truly for him, "In his humiliation, justice was denied him". It was he who wondered "Who can describe his generation?"
So, as he read these words of Isaiah, I suspect he thought that he himself, as a court official, shared many of the life experiences of the suffering servant of Isaiah (53:7,8.)
He was well used to barriers being put in his way.
We read that the evangelist Philip told him "the good news about Jesus". Whichever particular aspect that Philip chose to explain how he perceived Jesus to have been good news, the eunuch obviously interprets Philip's words that now in this Jesus, there were no barriers to his own personal admission into the community of faith - despite his deformity. So when he sees the water, he asks: "What is to prevent me from being baptised?" In essence he is saying to Philip: "Prove it to me that there were and are no barriers."
I can well imagine he was expecting to be told quite a number of reasons. Nothing's ever as simple as it sounds. There is always the "fine print" somewhere. I am sure we ourselves could list some barriers - like not having been to a Christian church before, that in all likelihood he would never have an opportunity to be confirmed or to join in any Christian worship in the future, or ever to do as Jesus commanded and receive the Holy Communion. He was sent off with only the rudiments of faith, with not even a New Testament to read. Indeed, as it was the Spirit who took Philip off, perhaps we can conclude the eunuch was meant to continue his travels with none of these things.
And the clear message of why he went on his way rejoicing - was that in Jesus there are no barriers to anyone. He had been accepted for who he was, despite his deformity - and he would travel to his own home and position with precisely this message - that everyone is accepted for who they were. Indeed it begs the question, perhaps the Spirit whisked Philip away before he opened his mouth and spoiled the clarity of that message :-)
The words in John 15 about the vine and the branches, to which so many generations of Christians have aspired to be part of, are very superficially comfortable. I find the devotion to these words curious indeed, for they are actually far more confronting than comfortable. If we aspire to be branches but bear no fruit we are removed, thrown into the fire and burned! But even if we do bear fruit we are pruned and only a small part of us escapes the fate of that which is unproductive!
From these words I conclude that God isn't especially concerned about my personal salvation, but how I contribute, or not contribute, to the whole. God is primarily concerned with how I accept other people. God's perspective is primarily concerned with the well-being of the whole of humanity, which is a direct function of how individuals accept one another.
The glory of the Father is the commonwealth of humanity, free from oppression, humiliation and injustice.
So when we read the words of Jesus: "If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you" (John 15:7) we can hardly ask that we (personally and exceptionally) escape the pruning. We can hardly ask that we be free to oppress, humiliate or be unjust towards others, no matter how justified we think we might be in doing so. When we abide in Jesus, our prayers can hardly be a wish list of things for ourselves - they will always be for others, in acceptance.
When we read the words: "Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing" (John 15:5) it is clear that it is when we don't put barriers in other people's was, when accept others, we "abide in him". If we are putting barriers in other people's way, if we are not accepting others - we are essentially doing nothing - at the very least nothing useful - towards the kingdom of God.
And those final words of Jesus are similarly confronting. We are so used to thinking that we are disciples already, yet the final words of our gospel are: "My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples." (John 15:8). We become disciples at the end of our journey, as it were, a reward.
We are so used to picture the risen Jesus as stationary, somehow locked away in the sacrament or aumbry, only to be let free for occasional encounter at the direction of the priest, as it were to exercise within the confines of the Church, only to be securely locked away again before the conclusion of the service :-)
But Jesus cannot be locked away in tomb or in the prison of this building. Jesus is not stationery. We will find the risen Jesus wherever we go. In our families, in our neighbours and colleagues.
So while it might be true that at one point in time we abide in Jesus, if we wish for that to continue, we will have to follow, when and where Jesus leads. And that leading will be to precisely the same sorts of places to where he lead the disciples of old - to enjoy the mutual hospitality of those around us.
And this peripatetic nature of discipleship is indeed it's own reward, for we will be treated to much beauty and much heroism as we do.
I am sure that I am not speaking for just myself here when I say, largely we exist, not for ourselves but for our children, and perhaps, in due course, for our grandchildren. I personally am in no hurry about this last matter :-) Eventually we will go the way of all flesh, and our only legacy will be how we have or have not enjoyed our time, and how we have managed not to have oppressed, humiliated or been unjust to others. We may go prematurely or our time might be long. As I say, I am sure that everyone here with children would echo these sentiments.
And as, in our early parenthood, we live for our children, in the restricted confines of our homes and families; so in later times when our children are taking on this same role, perhaps we are able to look to others who need our care and attention. There are always others around us in need of some encouragement. It may not be that we in fact have to do all that much in fact. Like Philip, we are simply called not to put barriers in other people's way. It may be as simple as a smile, as we communicate our acceptance of them as they are. Just as there was nothing preventing the eunuch in today's story from being baptised, so no one needs to live up to our expectations.
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