Fifth Sunday of Easter, Year B, 2015 – Acts 8:26-40; Psalm 22; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8
I remember twenty-five years ago, having a conversation with two of my friends. Both were medical scientists. One was doing research on nerve sheaths, the destruction of which causes multiple sclerosis. The other was training to be a surgeon focused on physical intervention to cure deadly diseases. They told me something astonishing about future advances in molecular biology and in particular, DNA. They told me that the time would come when you could, for example, take a DNA sample from a diseased heart, isolate the genetic flaw that was causing the disease, fix that part of the DNA and then return it, re-combined, into the heart. It would then replicate perfectly healthy heart cells that would repair the entire heart – make it new, so to speak. I was incredulous, but not about to challenge them because, as they say, the topic was slightly above my pay grade. A couple of decades later, they are more than half way there with stem cell transplants. Some cures for cycle-cell anemia involve implanting healthy DNA back into the patient.
The process is life-giving.
Today’s reading from Acts chapter 8 is really about the same kind of thing. It’s about the Holy Spirit re-setting the DNA of the people of God, so that the Church, growing out of Israel’s soil would be ready to take on the mission God always intended.
As you may realize, the long history of Israel up to this point was inward-looking. That’s not surprising given the fact that both in terms of religion and politics, Israel was surrounded by fierce opponents. The early church growing out of this soil was similarly insular. They inherited Israel’s DNA. So we see in the first seven chapters of the book of Acts, Luke’s account of the early church’s explosion, that all the spectacular activity of the first church is centred entirely around Jerusalem and involves a struggle with aggressive persecutors like Saul. When the persecution intensified everyone except the apostles fled to the countryside. Then the Holy Spirit moved the company of the apostles to send Philip to Samaria. They recalled the instructions given by Jesus before he ascended – which Luke records in chapter one of Acts. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”. So Philip was sent to Samaria. There, he preached the gospel of Jesus Christ with such power, that is to say, with signs in wonders and miracles, that to the great surprise of the apostles in Jerusalem, a great many Samaritans believed and were baptized.
To the early church this would have seemed very odd. Samaritans were outliers, as every good Israelite knew. Here, a little background will prove helpful. Samaritans were descended from the original tribes of Israel but they split from Israel over the location of the chosen place to worship God. Not in Jerusalem, the Samaritans insisted, but on Mt. Gerizim. Samaritans embraced a religion that was a mixture of Judaisim and idolatry (2Kings 17), so it is no surprise that they were considered half-breeds and were despised by the Jews. To make matters worse, Samaritans welcomed the outlaws and criminals banished from Israel. Jews considered them the worst of the human race. But here they were, responding to the gospel preached by Philip! The apostles then sent Peter and John to check things out. They laid hands on the Samaritan believers and they received the Holy Spirit with obvious manifestations that the apostles recognized as genuine.
One could say that it was beginning to dawn on the apostles that something basic in their DNA had just been changed. They were now looking outwards to see that the love of God and the reign of God was being extended to people they had never thought deserved a second look – this despite all the efforts Jesus made to connect with Samaritans during his ministry. Thus even with their wonky beliefs, God’s plan was for them to grow up into the fullness of Christ as part of the church, just like anyone else.
Now we turn to the section in Acts chapter 8 that was read to us this morning. Immediately after the event in Samaria we are told that an angel of the Lord directed the apostle, Philip, to go down the remote coastal road from Samaria to Gaza. There he comes upon the Ethiopian eunuch. For any Jew, the eunuch would have been an outlier twice over. First, because he was from a foreign country and secondly because he was a eunuch. Eunuchs, we should remember, were excluded by Jewish law from full participation in the community (Deut 23 and Levit 21). The irony, of course, in this story is that this outlier was a pious proselyte, yearning to find out more about God’s pusposes. The text says, he had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home when Philip met him. Luke recounts that he was a high-ranking official from the court of Queen Candace. It also tells us that despite his high position, he was searching for meaning. Perhaps he knew what it meant to be cut off, perhaps against his will, from the normal comforts of family life. Here we find him returning from Jerusalem sitting in his chariot, reading the book of Isaiah. Where on earth, you may well ask, did this Ethiopian eunuch manage to get a copy of the book of Isaiah? This wasn’t the world of e-books. He wouldn’t have found it in his hotel room in Jerusalem. There weren’t used book stalls in the cities. Only synagogues might possess a treasured copy. Was he possibly making a rare acquisition for the palace library of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians?
It should move us deeply and inspire us as people of God that he was looking to the written texts to find the living God. Like the people in Josiah’s day, discovering the scriptures and reading them afresh can lead to repentance after years of apostasy. The written word reveals the living word in truth. The eunuch knows this and is immersed in the book of Isaiah when Philip, instructed by the Spirit, ran up to the chariot. He asked the eunuch if he understood what he was reading. The answer revealed his humility before the Word.
Luke tells us that the very text at which the scroll was opened at was Isaiah 53, the passage about the suffering Servant of God. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth”. Did the humiliation of the Suffering Servant resonate with the eunuch’s own situation as an outlier? He asks Philip, “Was the prophet talking about himself or someone else to come?” This gave Philip an opening to connect the text to Jesus and the eunuch came to faith in Jesus as the Son of God.
One commentator points out that if the eunuch had been reading the whole scroll, he might have known that this passage contained an echo of a later chapter in Isaiah that spoke of God’s promise to draw in the outcasts of Israel including those “eunuchs and foreigners”(Isa 56). Even they would receive God’s promise. The eunuch hearing and believing, asks to be baptized. We aren‘t told what became of the eunuch upon his joyful return to Ethiopia. Tradition has it that he started the church in Ethiopia.
Let’s return to the theme with which I began. The DNA of the people of God, the church at its very inception, was re-combined and affixed forever at its very centre. No longer introspective and protective, the church was impelled outward to all the outliers – Samaritans, those half-breed Jews first. Very soon the Holy Spirit would fall upon Paul. He would spear-head the gospel into the whole gentile world – heathens and outliers who were looking for God.
The Church’s mission has not changed. God’s heart is still for those outliers, wherever they are. The Holy Spirit still moves the Church out to the forgotten, those who are always thought to be outside God’s grace.
By the Holy Spirit the church’s DNA was changed forever. And the church seeks leaders, like the ones who will be ordained along with Jonathan this afternoon, who know this to be true.
Who are the outliers today, right here in Riverdale perhaps? Those who struggle with faith? Those who don’t come anymore, or who would never think to look for life in the company of Christian disciples? Perhaps they are simply happy pagans; happy with their lives and completely unaware that their families, jobs and plans were meant to connect with a greater purpose. Let us never assume that they are outside God’s loving purpose of mercy and grace. Let us know as we have seen in this chapter of Acts, that every outlier was meant to live in communion with God.
For this we exist as a people here at St. Matthews. For this we turn always to the Scriptures and see how it points to Jesus. May our collective hearts respond when we see our neighbours at our joyous celebrations. May we pray for them as they stroll down these streets or stop at the coffee shops or chat with them when opportunities arise. We who were once outliers have been made alive in Christ and we together enjoy a life in him week after week.
But there are others that Jesus longs to bring into the fold; where they with us will find salvation we never knew was possible and where, sinners all, we meet our risen Lord in the sacrament of his body and blood. The whole Church was changed when it turned its face to Samaria and when Philip ran up to the Ethiopian eunuch. We are all here because of that.