Sunday, April 28, 2024

Billy, Philip, and Water in the Desert.

Perhaps one of the most famous stories is of an invitation to Billy, a young farm boy, to drive a vegetable truck packed with youth to a tent crusade. He joined the others inside and the evangelist made such an impression that Billy felt called to become an evangelist, even though he had had very little formal education. Little did he know that he – Billy Graham – would preach to millions, including presidents and world leaders, and many churches would be reinvigorated by those who responded to his call to get out of their seats and come up front.

Probably our own encounters will not be so dramatic as that, but you never know what the God of surprises has in store for you. However, if the journey we take this week will forge a new friendship, give you fresh insight through a chance conversation, or simply bring solace or hope to a lonely person, that journey will have been worthwhile.

We catch up with Philip in this section of Acts after some extraordinary turmoil. Stephen, a Deacon in the early church, is seized and taken to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council. There he testifies to Jesus in an extraordinary speech (you can read it in Acts 7 and 8) and he is stoned to death for his beliefs and this is witnessed by Saul, who we know better as Paul. Saul persecuted the early Christian community to the point where they scatter, but as they did, they continued to make Jesus known. Philip flees to Samaria - the home of the Samaritans (outsiders as far as the Jews were concerned) and many come to faith through him there. God then tells him to head south, on the desert road which is where we encounter him.

So we have heard the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch this morning. And it would be all too easy to preach something about the church being sent where the spirit wills and preaching the Gospel to those there especially the outsider like a eunuch. Standard stuff.

But that isn't quite what's going on here. The eunuch has status and authority as they hold charge over the Queen's treasury. In some senses in that sense they don't need of good news - they have status, wealth, and authority. Despite their status in the court, they were socially excluded because they are incomplete, they were considered to be less than human.

But there's more going on here still. The eunuch is already searching for God as they are reading about the silent sacrificial lamb in the prophecy of Isaiah, the lamb which is traditionally understood as the person of Christ.

The Lamb does not open his mouth and is silent but Philip opens his mouth and interprets the scripture for the eunuch. So far so predictable. You might now expect Philip to encourage his hearer to affirm a new faith in the Lamb of God at this point. But there's more going on here.

The Law says that eunuchs were forbidden from entering the Temple. The eunuch's searching faith was so strong that they were not only reading scripture but had gone to Jerusalem to worship, even though the Law designated them an outsider.

Guided by the spirit and by interpreting scripture, Philip extends a welcome to the excluded eunuch into the presence of God. Christ's tent is enlarged to include the excluded. But there's more going on here.

In response, the eunuch notices, that journeying along this desert road, there is water nearby. All that is needed for baptism. It is the eunuch who spots water in the desert. It is the eunuch who is thirsty for God's grace, having sought it perhaps after years of knockback & exclusion. And Philip's response? To oblige

And then I'm left wondering who includes who - eunuch or Philip? Who extends the tent of Grace? Philip interprets scripture and reveals Jesus to them. The eunuch seizes the opportunity and invites Philip to include them in the family of faith by Baptism. It is the eunuch who sees water along the desert road. They take hold of that hope in Christ with both hands. 

And then it got me thinking - I'm the father of an enby (non-binary) child. They have experienced exclusion from many sections of society and all sorts of institutions and especially the church.

How many times have they, despite it all, shown me water in the desert? How many times, as they have stood up for justice and welcome, not for them but for others oppressed & forced to the edge, how many times have they shown me the water of grace in places that seemed dry. dead, barren?

We, the church, continue to need the stranger, the outsider, the excluded to show us the water of grace on the road that is our life. We need to remember our Generous God, doesn’t just pour His love on those on the inside of the tent of faith, but the eunuch reminds us this morning, that God’s generous love is poured out and available to all.

I wonder what the same angel that sent Philip on that desert road, might be saying to us? We have been hearing wonderful stories about some of the outreach our parish is undertaking in recent weeks, and we will continue to hear those stories in the weeks to come. Those stories are designed to be an encouragement - to hear of the way that our church communities are responding to God's leading to make known the love of God in Jesus through friendship, fun, learning, community, and so on. But those stories about the work of these groups are encouragements to each of us to be generous with our hospitality - to encourage someone we know to come to something we are putting on and to experience friendship, fun, learning, community and so on and in so doing experience something of God through us. But it goes both ways - Philip interpretted scripture and the eunuch showed Philip the means of grace. The eunuch saw water in the desert and Philip baptised. The eunuch responded to what Philip shared and showed because they had been looking for years to be included in the community of faith and Philip responded to the request for baptism. Who might be searching like that, who we are already traveling with?

Pray - LIving God, Philip included the eunuch in the story of faith. The eunuch included Philip by revealing the means of Your grace. Keep us wide-eyed and open-eared to those we journey with - and when asked for an affirmation of faith, and to be included in God’s grace - let us say Amen.