Sunday’s sermon: Stay With It

Text used – Acts 8:26-39

  • There’s a scene at the very end J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring[1] – the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy – that’s been running through my head this week. I had planned on reading the short passage to you, but when I looked at it again, I realized (with a bit of chagrin) that the part that’s been running through my head is one of those parts that they altered when Peter Jackson made The Fellowship of the Ring into a movie 20 yrs. ago in 2001.[2] So let me tell you about this scene:
    • Basic story of the Lord of the Rings
      • Frodo, a Hobbit from the Shire, finds and evil, master ring sought after by the dark Lord Sauron → if Sauron gains possession of the ring, it will mean the end of freedom for the entire world → Frodo is tasked with traveling into the heart of enemy territory and destroying the ring → 9 traveling companions that accompany him (make up the fellowship): Gimli, the dwarf; Legolas, the elf; 2 men: Boromir and Aragorn; Gandalf, the wizard; and 3 other hobbits: Pippin, Merry, and Samwise Gamgee (Frodo’s gardener and the one who is by far the least excited to be so far from home caught up in all the danger and drama of such an adventure)
    • So as I said, the scene that has been occupying my mind this week comes at the end of The Fellowship of the Ring when things for this fellowship have gone from bad to worse. Their company has already started to splinter, and Frodo realizes that in order to keep both his companions and the ring safe, he must continue on alone. So while the others are all occupied with yet another battle, Frodo steals back to their boats, and sets out on his own. Or at least … he tries to.
      • Paddling away from the shore all alone
      • Sam, who has figured out what Frodo is doing, comes running through the forest → reaches the edge of the water just as Frodo is paddling away (maybe 30 ft. out from shore, clearly already in deeper water) → cries out, “No, no, no! Frodo! Mr. Frodo!”
      • Frodo says to himself as he continues paddling, “No, Sam.”
      • Sam hesitates a moment → begins wading deeper and deeper in the water
      • Frodo hollers at Sam to go back: “I’m going to Mordor alone!”
      • Sam’s response (all the while wading deeper and deeper): “Of course you are … and I’m coming with you!”
    • The dedication and devotion, the unconditional and inescapable love in this scene is palpable. It’s what drives the scene, and it’s what imprints it on your memory when you see it. Despite Frodo’s intention and concerted effort to strike out on his own, despite his belief that his friends and companions are better off without him, Sam comes after him. Sam follows him. Sam stays with him which, in the end, makes all the difference.
      • Journey that changes both Frodo and Sam → changes that would never have been possible – changes they never would have made it through – if they hadn’t been together
  • Scripture reading this morning = story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch – story of another profoundly transformative journey that wouldn’t have happened had any of the participants not been present → So let’s talk about these main players a bit.
    • Philip, the Evangelist (not to be confused with Philip the Apostle) → This is not the Philip called by Jesus to be a disciple along with Andrew, Peter, and Nathanael in John 1.[3] This is a different Philip.
      • Back in Acts 2, we have the story of Pentecost and the birth of the early church, and after that early church started, we read that the community of believers grew exponentially – text: The believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the community, to their shared meals, and to their prayers. … They praised God and demonstrated God’s goodness to everyone. The Lord added daily to the community those who were being saved.[4]
      • By Acts 6, the size of the faith community had grown so large that the original apostles decided to appoint 7 leaders to help ensure the fair distribution of resources to everyone → one of these 7 was Philip, the Evangelist[5]
        • Beginning of Acts 8 makes it clear that it’s this Philip – Philip, the Evangelist – who’s involved in our story today, not Philip, the Apostle
    • Okay, so what about the Ethiopian eunuch? What do we know about him? – a bit of a juxtaposition → Let me read you a description by Rev. Dr. Margaret Aymer, professor of New Testament studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary: a man, an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official over the treasury of the [Ethiopian queen], a pilgrim coming from Jerusalem, a reader of the prophet Isaiah. Luke’s list illuminates the power and the marginality of the unnamed chariot-rider. His wealth and literacy are signified by his chariot and the scroll of Isaiah. He is an Ethiopian, a descriptor likely referring to the color of his skin, and possibly also to traditional items of clothing. As Jews were exiled to Ethiopia after the Babylonian conquest (Zephaniah 3:10), and as he has just made a pilgrimage to the Temple, he may well be a Jew. Five times over the entire narrative, Luke calls this person a eunuch—a castrated man. Eunuchs were easily spotted, being shorter and softer than their peers, and usually beardless. Enslaved boys and men working in positions of power were often castrated to render them infertile and ensure the purity of the royal line. Being a eunuch would have restricted his access to the portion of the Temple reserved for Jewish men, even if he were born a Jewish male (Deuteronomy 23:1)[6] → So this man was a man of power and position, of wealth and privilege … but only up to a point. He’s someone who was essential to the royal household, but excluded from the house of God. He’s someone who held great power and great knowledge but was only trust with those things because of the physical alterations that had most likely been forced on him when he was jus a boy. He was different. He was Other. And yet it was to him that the Holy Spirit directed Philip.
  • So let’s dig into the heart of our story a bit: Angel directs Philip to a specific place and time: travel the road from Jerusalem to Gaza at noon → as Philip is traveling, we’re also told that this Ethiopian eunuch is making a similar journey in his chariot (an incredible luxury at the time) while reading a scroll containing the words of the prophet Isaiah (another incredible luxury) → text: The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.” Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how can I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.[7] → Acts relays a particular passage out of Is 53[8] which the eunuch had been reading → Philip starts with that passage and “proclaimed the good news about Jesus to him”[9] → results in the Ethiopian eunuch being so moved that the minute he spies some water along this desert road that they’re traveling, he orders the carriage to halt so Philip can baptize him on the spot
    • I mean, we have to admit that this is quite the powerful, dramatic, inspiring story, is it not? There’s action. There’s heart. There’s the mysterious but purposeful movement of the Holy Spirit. There’s a sensational, life-changing ending. There’s even a bit of a cliffhanger because after the impromptu baptism, we’re told “the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away.” Whoosh! Gone! It’s like a scene straight out of some epic movie, right?
    • Because it’s so epic – because it’s such an enthralling story – there are a lot of important elements of this story that we could focus on today:
      • Could focus on the passage from Is that Philip uses as his jumping-off point → passage about how Jesus would suffer humiliation and injustice despite his innocence
      • Could focus on how Philip proclaimed the good news from Scripture → Gr. = literally “evangelize”
      • Could focus on the powerful pull of Philip’s testimony in that it inspired the eunuch to immediately ask to be baptized into this new life and this new faith
      • Could even focus on the dramatic nature of the Holy Spirit, first directing Philip to this mysterious time-and-place-but-no-clear-purpose meeting, then whisking him away out of nowhere after he had completed the baptism
        • Our text this morning: When they came up out of the water, the Lord’s Spirit suddenly took Philip away. The eunuch never saw him again but went on his way rejoicing.[10]
        • Other versions even more dramatic (believe it or not): When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more and went on his way rejoicing.[11] (NRSV)
  • But there’s another part of this story that really captured my attention and my heart this week. Let me read that part to you again: The Spirit told Philip, “Approach this carriage and stay with it.” Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you really understand what you are reading?” The man replied, “Without someone to guide me, how can I?” Then he invited Philip to climb up and sit with him.[12] → It’s the moment when the Holy Spirit directs Philip to the chariot in the first place – the moment when Philip is given his mission. And it’s this part that’s stayed with me because of one seemingly-simple phrase: “Approach this carriage and stay with it.Stay with it.
    • As I said, phrase seems to be a simple one but, in actuality, is far from simple → Gr. “stay with it” = powerful word, indeed
      • Join closely together
      • Unite with
      • Cling to
      • Even “become a follower”
      • Gr. for “glue”
      • Connotations of intimacy, of a connection that is not fleeting but has staying power → word often used when referring to marriage
    • The second he heard this word – this command – Philip would have understood that this was no quick and simple task the Holy Spirit was calling him to.
      • In truth, we have no idea how long this task actually took! → All that our passage tells us is that somewhere along the way from Jerusalem to Gaza, after hearing Philip’s testimony about the good news of Jesus Christ, the eunuch chooses to be baptized.
        • Jerusalem to Gaza = roughly 76 mile journey (by today’s roads, anyway) → more than a day’s journey by horse and carriage, possibly even more than two days
    • When he heard the Holy Spirit’s direction, there’s no way Philip could have known how long this mission would take – how long he would be required to stay with this man … this man whom he didn’t even know, whose life story was a mystery to him. And yet, when Philip heard the Holy Spirit direct him to “approach this carriage and stay with it,” he didn’t even hesitate. Not for a moment. – text: Running up to the carriage, Philip heard the man reading the prophet Isaiah.[13] → Running up to the carriage” … running up to it! Philip embraced this call – this directive to the unknown, to the new, to the different – wholeheartedly and literally at a run.
      • Reminds me of the end of that scene from The Fellowship of the Ring: despite his inability to swim, Sam tries to swim out to Frodo in the boat, but weighed down by his things and his lack of experience, Sam sinks → at the last moment, Frodo reaches down in the water and grasps Sam by the hand, pulling him to safety → Sam reminds Frodo of a promise that he made to Gandalf: “I made a promise, Mr. Frodo – a promise. ‘Don’t you leave him, Samwise Gamgee.’ And I don’t mean to. I don’t mean to.”

 

        • Wherever the road led
        • Whatever trials and challenges lay ahead
        • Whoever else they were going to encounter along the way
        • Sam had no idea about any of those things – any of what lay in store for them – but he knew that whatever it was, staying with Frodo was where he was meant to be.
    • Philip had no idea what God had in store for him, but he knew it would require him to cultivate intimacy and connection with someone wholly unlike himself. He had no idea what God had in store for him, but he knew that it wasn’t going to be a change encounter – a quick in-and-out gospel blast on his way to somewhere else. At that point – as his arms and legs were pumping, as his feet were pounding the hard and packed dirt of the roadbed – he didn’t even know anything about what awaited him in that carriage. It was only after he approached it that he heard the eunuch reading Scripture and offered his interpretation. But God said to Philip, “Stay with it,” and so he ran, not away from the uncertain, but straight toward it. Amen.

[1] J. R. R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin), 1954.

[2] The Fellowship of the Ring, directed by Peter Jackson (New Line Cinema, 2001), DVD (New Line Cinema, 2001).

[3] Jn 1:43-51.

[4] Acts 2:42, 47.

[5] Acts 6:1-7.

[6] Margaret Aymer. “Commentary on Acts 8:26-39” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/ethiopian-eunuch-baptized/commentary-on-acts-826-39-3. Accessed Apr. 25, 2021.

[7] Acts 8:29-31.

[8] Is 53:7b-8a.

[9] Acts 8:35.

[10] Acts 8:39 (CEB).

[11] Acts 8:39 (NRSV).

[12] Acts 8:29-31.

[13] Acts 8:30a.

Sunday’s sermon: Jesus Who Mystifies

Text used – Luke 24:1-12

What an Easter morning! We have the early morning. We have the women coming to make the ritual preparations for Jesus’ body. We have the tomb and the stone so startlingly and unmistakably not where it’s supposed to be. We have two messengers garbed in gleamingly bright clothes bearing the strange and unbelievable message: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised.”[i] There it is! Right there! We have the good news: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

But what was missing on that first Easter morning? Women? Check. Messengers? Check. Empty tomb? Check. … But where was the risen Savior? When we read Luke’s account of the resurrection, Jesus is nowhere to be seen. This seems to be a bit of a thing with Luke, doesn’t it? Last week, we read the Palm Sunday passage … but Luke’s version was missing the palms. Now this week, we read the Easter passage … but Luke’s version was missing – well – Jesus! Seems like a pretty crucial omission, right? Well, before we talk about why it’s so important that Jesus is absent from Luke’s resurrection story, let’s talk a little bit about what is there.

First, there are the messengers and their full proclamation: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.”[ii] This is important because it’s the first in a number of spoken testimonies of the Risen Christ that we get in Luke. Remember that each of the gospels was written with a specific audience and intentionality in mind, and that Luke was particularly written as the gospel for the Gentiles. These were people who didn’t grow up with centuries upon centuries of Jewish texts and traditions that pointed the way to the Messiah – people who didn’t bear the history of oppression and deep-seated desire for freedom that the Jewish people bore. These were people who would have heard about Jesus not in the synagogues or the Temple but through word-of-mouth: on the streets, in the markets, at the town well, and so on. And here in his gospel account of the most miraculous and significant event in the life and ministry of Christ – his resurrection after death – Luke delivers the good news not through long-foretold means or by harkening back to the words of the great prophets of Israel, but by word-of-mouth. In this, Luke evens the playing field. He makes the good news of the Risen Christ the same good news for everyone who hears it. He unifies the body of Christ in both the deliver and the receipt of that message, no matter what their background or current circumstances may be.

The second element that we do find in Luke’s version of the resurrection story is the women. The women, the women, the women! Never ever ever forget, friends, that the first people to preach the gospel were, in fact, women. They had gone to Jesus’ tomb early that morning on the day after the Sabbath to perform the necessary rites and rituals for the dead in the Jewish tradition – prayers, anointings, and paying respects to one that they had so dearly loved. Their presence at the tomb itself is not the surprise in this story. As Rev. Dr. Michal Beth Dinkler of Yale Divinity School puts it, “They have a completely predictable, if gut-wrenching, job to do, one they have likely done many times before. Yet, to their great surprise, the women do ‘not find the body of the Lord Jesus’ (24:3). Jesus is absent. Most of us are desensitized to how utterly shocking this must have been: if anyone should be present in a particular place, it would be a dead body in its tomb. But Jesus’ body is missing.”[iii] But Jesus’ body is missing! Instead, in its place, they find the two gleaming messengers and the good news of the gospel waiting for them: Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!

And I have to say, I don’t think the women get enough credit for what happens next. They are surely bewildered beyond belief by the situation in which they have found themselves, yet they do not run away. They do not clam up for fear of not being believed. Scripture tells us, “When they returned from the tomb, they reported all these things to the eleven and all the others.” Dr. Dinkler speaks to the heart why this element is so crucial. She says, “Jesus’ absence from the tomb creates the opportunity for the women to speak boldly and faithfully on his behalf, and they do. Their proclamation that Jesus is present—he is alive on earth again—is an act of redemptive remembering, in two senses: their remembering is a recalling of Jesus’ earlier teachings, but it is also a remembering insofar as they re-member the body of Christ. They seek to draw together again a community that has been dismembered—torn apart— by fear, confusion, grief, and distress.”[iv] Despite whatever fear, whatever confusion, whatever disbelief, whatever joy, whatever … whatever may have been swirling around in their own hearts and minds, the women told the story anyway. They delivered the good news anyway. They let the gospel message of Christ’s resurrection override anything and everything else going on around them and inside them. They let that light shine!

The final element that’s present in Luke’s gospel resurrection story is doubt. Uncertainty. Disbelief. Even after the women have delivered their compelling testimonies – their very first sermons! – and shared the good news of the Risen Christ, the rest of the disciples don’t believe them. Our text this morning said, “[The women’s] words struck the apostles as nonsense, and they didn’t believe the women. But Peter ran to the tomb. When he bent over to look inside, he saw only the linen cloth. Then he returned home, wondering what had happened.”[v] This is an important element in the telling of Luke’s version because it makes space for the disbelief of others. Imagine being a 1st century person going about your daily business and suddenly hearing that that revolutionary Jew that your neighbor told you the Romans had put to death had suddenly come back to life, and that this happened because God (a god you’ve never believe in, by the way) supposedly loves you. That’s a hard sell! What a crazy message! What an unbelievable message! By including so much detail about the disciples’ own disbelief, Luke holds space for others’ disbelief as well. It’s okay to struggle with accepting this Risen Savior story because even his closest followers and confidantes didn’t believe it right away … but that disbelief doesn’t make it any less real, any less true, any less life-changing.

So why is the lack of an appearance by the Risen Christ so important for us as we read this ancient story today? Because in all likelihood, we will continue to go about being in this world without ever laying eyes on that Risen Christ. Sure, some people have spiritual experiences in which they have visions of Christ appearing to them, but those experiences are the exception rather than the rule. They’re uncommon. And sometimes when things are tough … when things are strained … when the world feels upside-down and injustice feels rampant and we haven’t been able to worship in-person together or take communion in the same space together or hug people outside of our own households for more than a year, we can sometimes feel like the good news of a Risen Christ is far off – like the reality and the unconditional love that burst forth from that empty tomb along with Jesus is hard to grasp, hard to feel, just … plain … hard.

Just like life, our faith journeys are not a steady plateau of feeling connected and joyful and immersed in love all the time. We have mountaintop moments that embody all those things and more, but we also have valley moments – moments when the dazzling brilliance of the mountaintop (or the gleaming brightness of the messengers’ clothes) feels oh, so far away. In those moments, we can feel mystified by the perceived absence of that same Risen Christ. Where did he go? Why isn’t he here with me? How can I find him again? Will he be able to find me again? What will become of me while I wait? Should I stand still or move forward, trusting that we’ll catch up with one another again? While Luke’s gospel doesn’t give us answers this morning, it does give us reassurance that it’s okay to not always have the answers. The women that morning didn’t know where Jesus had gone. Neither did Peter after he’d run to investigate the tomb on his own. But Jesus Christ was still risen. God’s Love still walked out of that tomb and was waiting for the disciples just around the next corner … down the road a piece … ready, willing, and more than able.

Let me leave you with the words of Rev. Dr. David Lose, pastor at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Minneapolis. This is what’s called a reverse poem, so when I read it one way, you’ll hear one message, but when I read it the other way, you’ll hear another:

Amen.

[i] Lk 24:5-6.

[ii] Lk 24:5-7.

[iii] Michal Beth Dinkler. “Commentary on Luke 24:1-12” from Working Preacher, https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/resurrection-3/commentary-on-luke-241-12-7. Posted for Apr. 4, 2021, accessed Apr. 4, 2021.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Lk 24:11-12.