A Gentle Gentile Mission

29-Apr-18

Acts 8:26-40

Psalm 22, which was our Call to Worship this morning, includes rather notably, some gory details that could, with not a whole lot of imagination, be applied to the physical characteristics of a Roman crucifixion. When David the psalmist penned those words, we knew nothing of the Romans and he knew nothing of crucifixion. But he did understand what it felt like to be distant and remote from the comforting presence of God, he knew what living in fear of his enemies was all about, and he was no stranger to physical and emotional illness. It is not surprising to any of us then, that at the height of his suffering on the cross that Jesus should quote from this Psalm and cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In those words, spoken at the very beginning of the Psalm, we find encapsulated, all of the fears, horrors and agonies that the entire Psalm contains. And as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, he experienced those same fears, horrors, and agonies, most specifically though, the unimaginable horror of being utterly abandoned by God.

I bring this up, because whenever Scripture quotes itself, it is absolutely essential that we engage ourselves not just with the quote cited, but with the whole passage from which that quote comes.

Even from the cross, when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He fully intended for those who were listening, to engage themselves with the entire Psalm. And thankfully, the Christian Church has been doing this for nearly 2,000 years. And I say thankfully, because Psalm 22 is not all doom, gloom, fear, horror, agony, suffering and death. It actually has a very happy and encouraging ending. And part of that happy ending is printed in your bulletins this morning. “All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and the families of the nations shall worship before him. For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.”

In the Old Testament, the term “nations” is not always complimentary. From a Hebrew or later a Jewish point of view, it simply means everyone else but us. It is all those other people who aren’t in covenant relationship with God. It is sometimes translated as “heathens”.

And yet the message of verses 27 and 28 is a message that comes straight from the cross, when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He was also saying, folks, there’s something utterly profound going on here that is going to have glorious repercussions for every person on this entire planet for all of eternity. Jesus is saying that his suffering and death is going to stir up the hearts of the heathens, the heathens will remember how gracious and kind God has been, and they will turn to God and worship him. It was Jesus’ intent, as he hung there on the cross, to initiate a mission to the Gentiles. In our passage from last week, Jesus said it this way: “I have other sheep who do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.” Verse 28 of Psalm 22 says: “For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations.” The Romans may very well have killed the King of the Jews, but in doing so, God used them to reveal the Lord of the nations.

And so, if God, working in and through Jesus Christ, is the Lord of the nations, then there has to be some sort of transition, some sort of opening up of the Gospel, so that the heathens or nations can become part of God’s family. And this account of the Ethiopian eunuch does just that. On the one hand, we know quite a bit about this fellow. So much, in fact that we might surmise that he was well-known to Luke’s readers. We know that he is from Ethiopia, which is in Africa. He is a high ranking official in the court of the Candace, we’d call him the secretary of the treasury. And he’s a eunuch We’ll not go there this morning, just don’t think about pink elephants and pictures of Jesus with a lamb slung over his shoulders, and you’ll be fine.* The most important thing that we know about this fellow is that he’s been to Jerusalem to worship, and now he’s on his way home, back to Ethiopia.

What we don’t know about this fellow is his religious status. And there are four options. He could be a heathen, just like all of us. It sure seems as though he was born that way. He could also be a God-fearer. A God-fearer is a heathen who is attracted to the Jewish faith, and who tries to live by the tenets of Judaism as much as possible. He might also be a Proselyte. A Proselyte is a heathen God-fearer who has taken some official steps to convert to Judaism. Or, he might be a full fledged, converted Jew. In the progression of things, then, he could be a heathen God-fearer, who’d become a Proselyte, who’d eventually converted to Judaism. We don’t know where he was on that scale. Luke’s readers might have known, but we don’t. His religious heritage remains somewhat murky to us. Two things to highly commend him however: one, he’d been to Jerusalem to worship, and two, on the way home he’s reading his Bible. That’s impressive. And don’t worry about distracted driving. He’s a high-ranking official. He’s in a limo and he has his own driver.

And so now, enter an angel of the Lord, who speaks quite directly to Philip. Now keep in mind that this is Philip the evangelist, not Philip the apostle. There are only a limited number of names in the world, and sometimes we get confused. Just count the Bobs and the Waynes around here , and you’ll know what I’m talking about. And so Philip hears from the angel of the Lord, and the message is that it is time. Get thee hence on the road that goes south; the one that ends up in Gaza. And Philip obeys. I’m impressed. And as Philip goes, he encounters the eunuch in his limo. It must have been quite a sight. And in a world where social classes kept their distance, (Jesus often got in trouble for not keeping his distance from his lowers) Philip knows right away that this Ethiopian is of a higher social rank than he. And so he hangs back. But the Holy Spirit says to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” And so Philip, once again, obeyed. And as he got closer, Philip heard the eunuch reading and he recognized that the Ethiopian was reading from the prophet Isaiah, specifically the part that we would call chapter 53. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Not at all! Come up into the chariot with me. Now not many of us would invite a perfect stranger into our cars, but Philip must have looked awfully Jewish to this Ethiopian, and a Jewish interpreter of the Scriptures was just what he needed.

And already there is a question from the eunuch. “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” I haven’t really kept track of how many passages of Scripture that have been flying in and out of this sermon this morning, but I can be sure that Philip did the right thing. Philip took the time to explain the whole of Isaiah chapter 53. We don’t have time to look into the whole of chapter 53 this morning, but everyone of us does this week!

And out of that chapter, I am sure that Philip explained some historical interpretations of Isaiah 53, and some contemporary ones as well. Philip probably talked about Isaiah’s personal anguish, he most likely talked about the people of Israel in exile, and their eventual deliverance, but he ultimately brought the passage to focus on his Lord Jesus Christ. I’m imagining hours of discussion. I can picture Philip talking about the character of Jesus, how he gently enfolded children into his embrace, and how he “was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people.” (Luke 24:19) I am sure that Philip spoke of how, in spite of all of his goodness that Jesus had been unjustly condemned to die, and how like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and how that had been a great paradox, because Jesus had once described himself as a shepherd. I am also confident that Philip spoke of how that shepherd had intentionally given up his life for his sheep. And, in trembling tones, I am certain that Philip spoke of his Lord’s resurrection from the dead, and how that had, all at the same time, been the most terrifying and most wonderful thing that had ever happened.

And as this conversation unfolded, something amazing happened. It all began to sound like good news. That is where the miracle is. The miracle comes not in bombastic, or frightening or hateful proclamations, but rather with gentleness and with peace and with grace and love. If Philip had been bombastic, or frightening, or hateful in his sharing of his faith, he would have been pitched out of the chariot in no time at all. The Ethiopian would not have tolerated it.

But Philip understood relationships. He understood the relationship that Jesus had with his heavenly Father, he understood the relationship that Jesus modeled while he was here on this earth with all whom he came in contact, and very importantly, Philip understood his own relationship with his Lord. And he understood the love and the grace that surrounded all of those relationships. And with that love and grace he shared his faith with the eunuch, and the eunuch responded, and found eternal life.

There’s lots more that we could chat about this morning. We could chat about Baptism, and the nature and the timing and the mode of Baptism. We could even talk about why there’s no verse 37 in our Bibles. We could talk about the awesome power and nature of the Holy Spirit, and how we might better respond to the calls that the Holy Spirit makes on our lives. And, we could spend a very long time chatting about proclaiming the Gospel with gracefulness and with gentleness and with peace and with love so that the Gospel becomes good news to those who hear it.

But what I want to finish up with is relationships. There’s something tucked into verse 39 that’s easy to miss. It goes without saying that as Philip and the eunuch sat together in the chariot, that they developed a relationship. It is obvious that Philip loved and cared for this Ethiopian, but after the baptism, Philip got snatched away, and the eunuch saw him no more. But the eunuch went on his way rejoicing. Think about that. How do we know that? Philip, the one who is presumably telling this story to Luke, is gone! We know it, because this eunuch became part of the family, just as Jesus had predicted from the cross. And because this eunuch was part of the family, he had a story to tell, as well. And now, our family has just learned it. That’s what relationships are all about.

*A reference from last week’s sermon

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