From You Comes My Praise: Guide My Steps, John 15:1-8; Acts 8:26-39
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, May 2, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
Perhaps you and I take for granted the opportunity to learn in this day and age. In this nation we consider it our “right” to receive a basic education so we can make choices that will help us be successful in our lives.
It hasn’t always happened, unfortunately. A basic education hasn’t always been provided consistently for everyone, even though laws have been passed over the years attempting to ensure that “right.”
Learning about faith is a more personal matter. Some of us have been raised in the faith and remember family and church members who intentionally guided us, answering our questions, offering us information, and mentoring us. Some of us didn’t have those kinds of relationships earlier in life, but was later introduced to the faith. And then, at some point we were each asked to make a decision: did we want to be a Christian? Did we want to become a member of a church? Did we want to live as a disciple?
Yet even then, not everyone has always felt welcome into the community of faith. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch relates one such experience in the early church. We can perhaps think of similar stories in the modern church.
Let’s begin with a little background to what we’ve read today.
The book of Acts is the continuing story of Gospel of Luke, revealing to us the acts of the apostles/the activities of Christ’s disciples, as they go out into the world, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. The early church grew in an amazing way, in the midst of threats and persecution. Faithful people were imprisoned because of what they believed and how they chose to live, and yet the disciples and converts persevered: preaching, teaching, and living out their faith.
The 12 disciples, now including Mathias, who has been chosen to take the place of Judas, have named and commissioned seven wise and spirit-filled men, who are able to help care for some of the needs of people in their community, so the disciples can focus on prayer and their ministry of the Word. We might think of a relationship similar to elders and deacons in the church, or pastors and lay persons who are commissioned to minister to the needs of the congregation. Among the seven men is Philip, who had gone to Samaria after the stoning of Stephen, and in response to the many persecutions happening against the church. Called Philip the Evangelist, he has a gift for preaching and teaching and witnessing for Christ. After much success in evangelizing Samaria, he is met by an angel who tells him to go south toward Gaza, the town at the southern end of Israel, just before the great desert. Philip goes, and that’s where he meets the Ethiopian eunuch.
A eunuch was one who was purposely castrated before puberty, and then would be trained for particular tasks that would become the devotion of his life. This Ethiopian eunuch is a high government official in the queen’s court and he’s returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem where he has gone to worship, we’re told in verse 27. Somehow, he acquired a scroll of Isaiah, which was a very rare and expensive thing in those days. He was reading aloud from it in his chariot—which was the practice in that day, presumably as his chariot driver manages the reigns of their horses.
As Philip approaches, he hears the Ethiopian reading from the Prophet Isaiah:
“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter. He didn’t open his mouth. Justice was denied him. He was cut off from the land of the living.”
Philip asks the eunuch: “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
The eunuch responds: “No, how can I, unless someone guides me?”
The eunuch invites Philip to get into his chariot and to sit down beside him. Philip climbs in and the eunuch asks, “Who is the prophet talking about? About himself or someone else?” Philip begins to teach him, proclaiming the word of the prophet from new eyes—from THIS side of the resurrection. Philip shares with the eunuch the Good News of Jesus Christ.
The eunuch listens, and is so convinced by Philip’s words, that when he sees some water (in the desert, mind you), he asks to be baptized. “What’s to prevent me from being baptized, if all that you say is true?” Thinking of no reason not to, Philip baptizes him. When they come up out of the water, Philip is snatched(!), scripture says, and taken to the next place where he’s needed, where he continues to preach the Good News. The eunuch continues on his way home rejoicing, thankful for all he has seen and come to know, and that he has been received into the family of God.
It’s an interesting story, isn’t it? And a bit of a puzzle. I can’t help but wonder how the Ethiopian eunuch first heard about God…what brought him to the temple to worship. He’d traveled a very long way; he was obviously deeply motivated…committed to finding answers, to learning, to understanding.
And he would have gone all that way to Jerusalem to NOT be allowed into the temple. Because first of all, he was a foreigner, and secondly, he was a eunuch—and both of those groups of people were strictly forbidden to enter the temple. They could stand in the outer court, they might hope for a quick glimpse inside, but they weren’t welcome to come inside, to kneel down alongside others, to be a member of the community of faith. He was denied what others took for granted.
But now, everything has changed. He is welcome. The barriers have come down. He’s been baptized and welcomed into the family of believers as a follower of Jesus Christ. And now he is headed back to Ethiopia, and the love of God and the Good News of Jesus Christ makes its way into a new place in the world.
The Gospel lesson from John that we read this morning describes God as the vine grower, Jesus as the vine and we are the branches. Branches that bear no fruit are removed, and even branches that bear fruit are pruned in order to bear more fruit. All three need to be connected; to abide in one another, in order for this to happen.
As I think of these 2 texts together, and as I consider the place where we find ourselves today…somewhat patiently awaiting next steps on insurance and in dealing with our church building, and nearing the end/recovering from a world-wide pandemic that has impacted every corner of our lives—including the church: are we being called to rethink our strategy of fulfilling our mission of making disciples? How have we been pruned to be more effective and to bear more fruit? And, how might this relate to the Ethiopian eunuch and persons in this day who aren’t a part of a faith community? Who might we reach out to who hasn’t been included, and yet longs for community? Who needs to be connected to the vine in order to receive the life-giving nourishment that a faith community can provide?
I see three active participants in the scripture from Acts. We’ve spoken of the first two: Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. The third is the Holy Spirit. The presence of the Holy Spirit opens up the opportunities to which the others respond.
The Spirit continues to move today, guiding and inspiring. In the same way, God continues to prune: to help us to see what’s important, to focus our call and our mission.
To whom is God calling us? Who needs to hear? To be connected? How will we—how will you respond?
May God guide our steps…that all might offer praise.