Easter 5 2015: ‘Key Questions in Christianity’ : First in the series
Psalm, 22. 25-end
I John 4.7-end
John 15. 1-8
This morning I’d like to start a little three part series considering key questions in Christianity. As we sit here in church today, 4 days before a General Election, the journalists, the pollsters, are feverishly working this country, trying to find the questions that will probe into the psyches of the undecided; they frame the questions this way and that way. It’s an art. It’s a science, and it’s big business. Getting the questions right is often the key to breakthrough… whether we’re sitting in a counsellor’s office being asked to talk about our earliest childhood memory, or sitting in a boardroom asking what reality lies behind the accountant’s figures.
We come into church to contemplate an unseen thing called God, which begs some of the most important questions we’ll ever ask. Some of you might question from a scientific perspective, ‘How can I even begin to think about something I can’t measure?’ Some of you may ask from the depths of pain, ‘How can God let this happen to me?’ Sometimes your questions might be very precise: ‘Should I apply for this job? Is he the one?’ Or perhaps they’re very open ended: ‘what’s it all about?’ ‘why am I here’?
If you’ve got a lot of questions this morning, take heart, because when you look closely at that collection of Jewish and Christian holy writings which we call the Bible, you find it’s shot through with questions, people asking questions of God, of Jesus… Jesus and God asking questions of them in return. In this series of sermons on key questions, we’ll look at some of these questions and also at how people try to find answers. If you want the whole series, not only do you need to appear at Laxton (9am) or KC (10am) next Sunday, but also have to make a special appearance at the Ascension day service at 7:30pm on Thursday 14th May, here in Kings Cliffe. We’re hosting the whole Deanery group of churches to the service which celebrates one of the most questionable doctrines in the church, the ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven after his resurrection. Philip will preside, I’ll preach, and we’ll serve bubbly afterwards to help us all recover.
But today we keep our feet more or less on the ground, with the story of an early Philip who chases after a man riding in a chariot. The story from Acts, takes place on the road from Jerusalem to Ethiopia, through Gaza. Three place names which all raise troubling questions 2000 years later. As does the charioteer’s sexuality… for this man is a eunuch. That means that like my poor dog Zebedee, he has been de-testicled so that he might devote himself more wholeheartedly to his female boss. Eunuchs were a part of life in the ancient world, and interestingly, whenever eunuchs feature in a bible story, they play a positive role. Jesus mentions eunuchs in the 19th chapter of Matthew, saying, ‘there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can’. (19:12)
But not everyone could. Eunuchs were not accepted in the religious economy of Judaism. According to a few verses in Deuteronomy, those who were sexually mutilated were not permitted into the temple of God. So although this Ethiopian eunuch, we are told, has been to the temple in Jerusalem to worship, we must assume that he didn’t get very far into the labyrinth of structures which sectioned off Jew from Gentile, male from female and the pure from the impure. In fact, as an Ethiopian, and a eunuch, this man was very much kept at arm’s length from the Holy of Holies.
Nevertheless, this eunuch was engrossed in reading a chapter of the Jewish scriptures in the book of Isaiah. And that’s interesting, because in the book of Isaiah God mentions not only that he will ‘recover the remnant that is left of his people, in Ethiopia’ (11:11) but also says that’ eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, will be welcome in the house of god and will receive a name better than sons and daughters (56:4-5).
So what’s it going to be? Deuteronomy or Isaiah? Eunuchs in or eunuchs out? Even within the Jewish scriptures there was conflict. Add in the Christian writers of the New Testament and the waters are muddied further. So the first question of this story in the book of Acts is very pertinent. Philip hears the Ethiopian reading something from Isaiah, (everyone read aloud in those days) and he runs up to the chariot asking ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’
Do you understand what you are reading? That’s an enormous question which Christianity asks of us. Do we understand what we are reading when we look at the scriptures, these words supposedly inspired by God? And also, do we understand what we are reading when we look at the world around us, at nature, other people, books, films, etc… Do we take it all in? Can we make any sense of it? Is there any pattern, or is it just a pretty random stream of impressions, like a facebook, twitter or Instagram feed?
How can I make any sense of it? asks the Eunuch, unless I have someone to guide me?
His is a very good question. And it shows a certain amount of humility. We all, in fact, rely on guides to help us interpret everything about the world, even though many of us like to think we can go it alone. The eunuch I guess, understands that he needs someone to teach him, someone who has felt the embrace of God, who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s spirit. He needs, as all of us do, a Philip to guide him.
So he reads out the passage from Isaiah 53: ‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was denied him’. And he asks Philip, ‘about whom does the prophet say this?’ who is the shorn one? ‘Is this only about Isaiah and his situation, or could it be about me as well? ‘
As a eunuch, this man undoubtedly knew something about being shorn, about humiliation and about justice denied and he seems to be wondering whether God might be speaking directly to him and to his own experience. When Philip hops on board, and begins to explain the whole relevance of this piece of scripture it turns out to be even better news than the Ethiopian imagined. Not only does God know and understand the eunuch’s experience of being humiliated and ostracised; Jesus himself took on that lowly and outcast state.
When the eunuch’s story of shame is refracted through the story of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, it becomes a narrative of redemption, restoration and hope.
The answer to the question ‘what is this Bible all about?’ is always threefold. It’s a story of God’s interaction with specific people in history long ago. It’s about the person of Jesus Christ who took on that story and transformed it. It’s about you and me and the way our story can connect into those other stories and be completely transformed by these new connections.
Once this threefold way of reading scripture had been explained to the eunuch, he experienced a sense of liberation which the great Methodist hymnwriter Charles Wesley described like this: ‘My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose went forth and followed thee’.
The Revd Richard Coles quotes those lines in his recently published autobiography, as he describes his moment of conversation to a Jesus who loves him, even though he is gay, even though he has broken every single rule in the book during his years as pop star. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed thee.
It is the Holy Spirit moving through the world, which moves us towards that liberation. This story of Philip and the eunuch as you may have noticed, actually has a third main character in it, the Holy Spirit, which propelled Philip into Gaza, helped him run alongside the chariot, and encouraged the eunuch to bravely ask for his help. The Holy Spirit is what soaks the dry dusty millennia old words of scripture with water for our souls.
‘What is to prevent me from being baptised?’ asks the eunuch. Well quite a lot actually. He is the first non-Jew in scripture to ask this question, he has pledged loyalty to a foreign queen, he is the wrong race and the wrong sexuality. Philip consults, we assume, the Holy Spirit and says ‘Absolutely nothing’. Nothing can come between you and God’s desire to give you new life, new freedom. Jesus has been shorn, humiliated, and outcast on our behalf. He has taken all that to the cross, and shown in the resurrection that all of that is now ultimately defeated.
And so the chariot stops. There in the desert, they find oasis. A moment of calm when the horse stops galloping, the chariot stops thundering, the questions cease, and the eunuch is welcomed as a child of the same heavenly father which we worship today.
When they come out of the water, the spirit snatches Philip away and sends him off to Ceasurea, where we learn later in the scripture, he settled and produced 4 daughters who became prophets.
The eunuch, meanwhile, goes back to Ethiopia, ‘on his way rejoicing’ the scriptures tell us. There he must have been instrumental in founding the Ethiopian Coptic church, one of the oldest group of believers in Christendom. A church which is materially poor, but spiritually rich. A church which just declared as saints 19 martyrs killed by ISIS. A church which we will soon be supporting as Christian Aid week this year focuses its fundraising on Ethiopia.
The Eunuch’s questions:
How can I understand, unless someone guides me?
About whom… does the prophet say this?
‘what is to prevent me from being baptised?’
Are key questions in Christianity. How will you find the guidance you need on your spiritual journey? Is coming to church enough for you? Do you need to join a Bible study group, to try to make more sense of the scriptures? Do you need a spiritual director? Or somebody to talk through your questions with? How can we understand unless somebody guides us?
And about whom… does the prophet say this? Where does my life map on to the stories of the scripture? How do the words of the Bible become alive to me? How does the Holy Spirit use me in the great story of salvation?
And ‘what is to prevent me, even me, from being baptised? The story of Philip and the eunuch tells us that nothing matters except our desire to be part of God’s story. Nothing disqualifies us. Not our race, or gender, or sexuality, or nationality, or past mistakes, or even the mistakes we’re going to make in the future. In fact this eunuch shows us the key role of the outsider in the religious life. It is often the person outside the fold, outside the club, outside the inner circle who can formulate the questions which are needed by us all, to reconsider, recalibrate and find our way to rebirth. What a gift to the church this eunuch was… the first to open it out to those of racial and sexual difference, the first to take the gospel message into Africa. We need not be afraid of honest questions asked by those outside the church. Or by honest questions asked by those of us inside the church. They are gifts. As we open up questions, and look to the scriptures and the holy spirit for answers, we find we stumble across oasis of water, of refreshment, symbols of new life. Once we stop the chariot and get down off our high horse, what is to prevent us from being baptised, again and again in that new life? Absolutely nothing.