You can join this week’s worship service by visiting here.
Below, you’ll find Andy’s reflection and Steve’s prayers for this week.
You can find this week’s Children’s Time video here.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
Scripture: Acts 8: 26-40
Music: Over My Head; Hole in the World
Musicians: Pete Betts, Emma Etheridge, Andy O’Neill, Jenny O’Neill, Bryan Spencer, Stephen Spencer
Across from the third and final building in which Jenny and I lived in Edinburgh was a former bank building that had become a church and had, most recently, been abandoned. There were only two pieces of written evidence to tell its story. The first was a plaque on the foundation cornerstone, which established it as a bank built in 1870. Ironically, the second was a worn sign on the side of the building that read, “Jesus saves.” Surely, a ringing endorsement for any bank.
Most biblical scholars agree that the Book of Acts was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. Where Luke is about the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, Acts is about how the Good News of the Risen Christ spread around the Mediterranean in the years immediately following.
This week’s lesson is about the apostle, Philip, who (confusingly) is not the Philip who was a disciple of Jesus, but was named as an apostle along with six others early in the Book of Acts, and was given responsibility as a deacon, or church leader. Today’s story begins with the Holy Spirit speaking to Philip, telling him to leave Jerusalem and travel toward Gaza.
On the road, he meets a fellow traveler. Within a few verses, we learn a lot about this traveler. We’re told that he’s from Ethiopia and that, in fact, he is the queen’s treasurer. We’re told that he’s a eunuch – a court official who has been castrated – a practice common in some ancient empires. We’re also told that he has just been to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple and that, when Philip happens upon him, he is reading aloud from the Book of Isaiah.
Like a jigsaw puzzle, these pieces of information help to give us a fuller picture of what’s happening in our story. For example, because he’s reading, we know that the Ethiopian traveler is educated. Because he’s returning from the Temple in Jerusalem, we know that he’s a follower of Yahweh, the God of Israel. We can also infer that he would not have been allowed to enter the Temple; not because of his dark skin, but because the law forbade eunuchs to enter the temple proper.
This makes his reading aloud of the prophet Isaiah more poignant. He would surely have read Isaiah 11, in which God remembers his children in Ethiopia and promises to restore them; and Isaiah 56, in which God promises to give faithful eunuchs “a name better than sons and daughters.” The question on his mind, as he returns from Jerusalem, is: which am I? Am I the eunuch barred from the Temple in Deuteronomy, or the eunuch restored as a child of God in Isaiah? Am I in or out? Am I welcome in the household of God, or not?
And this is the point at which the Holy Spirit brings Philip and the Ethiopian traveler together. Traveling together for a while, he asks Philip, “When Isaiah talks about the one who was humiliated and denied justice, about whom does he write, himself or someone else?”
As a eunuch, he knows full well what humiliation and justice denied feel like. He is a court official to a queen, but is only allowed to be such because of his castration. He is an oddity, and has spent his entire adult life as someone who is different, kept at a distance, identified only according to his lack of sexuality. So, his question is very personal: “is this a word of God for someone else, or is this God’s word for me?”
Philip’s answer is unequivocal: God understands your experience of humiliation and sorrow, because Jesus took on those burdens himself. With a single thought, Philip fuses the eunuch’s story and Jesus’ story together. In that moment, we see what it means to spread the Good News; we see a living account of God’s gifts of redemption, restoration and hope; a hope symbolized in the final question that the Ethiopian traveler puts to Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And Philip replies, “Nothing at all will stand between you and God’s love.” God spoke a word that day though the prophet Isaiah, and through the Risen Christ and his servant Philip, and that word was, “Yes.” “You. There is nothing that places you beyond my love and blessing.” And, just like that, another person is welcomed into the family of God.
But what is it that has happened here? Is this a story about Philip’s strength as an apostle? Is it a story of conversion, from Judaism to Christianity? Is the Ethiopian’s baptism the missing piece of the puzzle that, once tumbled into place completes his journey? Is he, only now, saved?
These questions are important as we seek to build relationship with people of other faiths, and with people of no faith. Tolerance is fine; being OK with a stranger believing something different than we is a start; but relationship asks more of us. It’s important to consider what stories like this say to us about what it means to love our neighbours.
Because we usually baptize infants, we tend to see baptism as a rite of passage. Our other sacrament, communion, happens many times during the year and involves everyone, so our sense of it is different. Baptism tends to be seen as a one-time deal; and, indeed, very few Christian denominations practice re-baptizing people who join their church. It is generally accepted to happen only once.
But if we think of it only as a moment, then we miss its real gift. While it is often the basis for membership within a church, baptism is primarily a profession of faith. The baptized, or their parents, make promises concerning the life of faith and relationship with the community and often restate these through confirmation and the renewal of baptismal vows.
But baptism is not a guarantee that everything will now work out for us. There are many who refer to their baptism as the moment when they came to Jesus, when they were saved from a life of sin. And it isn’t my right or responsibility to adjudicate whether or how this bears out in the accounting of their lives. But it strikes me that, since my baptism, all kinds of things have gone well, and all kinds of things have not.
It strikes me that baptism is not a single moment in which we go from one side of the fence to the other, rescued from beyond the pale. Nor is it like having the missing piece of our puzzle finally filled in, making us complete. After our baptisms, there is a long way to go, and there are a lot of pieces we may never make fit.
It seems to me that baptism is a moment of blessing, followed by a life that is forever seen through the lens of that blessing and what it means. It doesn’t cure us of the human condition. Rather, baptism blesses all of who we are: our beautiful pieces, our misshapen pieces, even our missing pieces. Which means that our work of faith is not to make everyone like us, insisting that they be saved by becoming members of our faith, but by being a blessing to them, loving them as we have been loved.
It’s God’s single word, spoken through faithful servants, spoken to each of us, spoken through our whole lives; and that word is, “Yes.” “You. All of you, and all of you. There is nothing that places you beyond my love and blessing.” What a beautiful word to hear, in this time and place. And what a beautiful word to share. Amen.
Holy One, your words have been shared from generation to generation. Sometimes, they are clear and a source of comfort, guidance and strength. Other times, they are bewildering and we are unsure of what they mean or we fail to see the relevance for us these thousands of years later. Then we have an insight or someone helps break open your word and we begin to see it in a new light that helps us to move deeper into a connection with you and your way.
Be with us and guide us, Loving God. Help us to have ears to truly hear how your word speaks to us. Grant us wisdom and help discern the difference between those who speak your truth and those who twist your words to mean everything and anything. In so doing, may we truly feel that we are grounded in your grace.
In these days, everything still seems unsettled. We are growing even more tired and weary especially as the news does not seem to be improving. Our minds are overloaded and our attention span drifts more easily. Help us find the strength to continue to do what we can to keep ourselves, our families and all of our brothers and sisters safe. In this time, we truly need an extra measure of your grace, your comfort and the ability to see beyond the pandemic.
Grant us hope, especially as we struggle and the courage to open our eyes and envision a new way forward rooted in your call of compassion and healing of peace with justice for all.
We pray for ourselves, our families, our community:
help soothe our anxieties and calm our fears,
help us to discern how best to care for ourselves and others,
help us to breathe and slow down our racing minds,
open our hearts to your deep love for us.
In this time, we know there are many who are taking risks and doing things in new ways to help care for us and others and we pray for them;
for all of the essential workers,
for scientists and medical personnel and all who are helping to deliver vaccines.
We give thanks for those who continue to make calls to check on others and for those doing the best they can to brighten the day.
We pray for all whose world has been turned upside down;
for those who have lost work,
for those who are sick,
for all who are affected in any way by the pandemic economically and or socially,
We pray for those who are grieving, on this day we pray for the families of; Ron Davis, Harriet McCulloch and Yvette Swan, bless them with strength, grace and hope on this day and in the days to come.
We ask that you be especially with the people of Nova Scotia and all those across Canada and the world affected by the newest pandemic wave.
We pray also for the leaders of the world that they may respond quickly to the needs in India and the countries in Africa who have received virtually no vaccines.
In spite of the pandemic, in spite of the fear and sense of loss, help us, O God, that we might see through your word, how you see us; that we are all your beloved children and part of your sacred creation.
We pray in the words Jesus taught us,
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come; thy will be done;
on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,
forever and ever.