If You Are Not Rejoicing After This Sermon, I’ve Done a Lousy Job!

Sermon delivered on the fifth Sunday of Easter, May 6, 2012, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Acts 8.26-40; Psalm 22.24-30; 1 John 4.7-21; John 15.1-8.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

So what is guaranteed to make you rejoice after hearing this sermon? Here it is: Jesus loves you. Amen. Let’s recite the Creed. Just kidding! No, today I want us all to take stock of our faith, in your ability to hear the Good News preached (a sign of the Spirit’s Presence in you), and in my ability to preach it (a sign of the Spirit’s Presence in me). No pressure there for anybody! Seriously, there really is no pressure on any of us, precisely because of Christ’s presence working in us in the power of the Spirit. So today I want us to look primarily at our story in Acts to see what might be contained in it to send us on our way rejoicing, just like the Ethiopian eunuch.

To appreciate part of what Luke is wanting us to see in this story, we have to look at some rather unpleasant facts about the eunuch in today’s lesson. He would have been castrated and probably also mutilated. This would have qualified him to serve in the royal Ethiopian court, presumably because he would not have posed a sexual threat to the women there. All well and good if serving in a royal court is your one and only goal. But being castrated would have also prevented him from ever being circumcised, which would have therefore excluded the eunuch from becoming a Jew or being part of any Israelite congregation, and thus also from participating in public worship in Israel (cf. Deuteronomy 23.1).

And so we have the makings of a rather sad and poignant story. Despite being banned from worshiping the God of Israel, at least with other Israelites, this Ethiopian had apparently been drawn to God and had come to Jerusalem despite being excluded from the Israelite worshiping assembly to see for himself and perhaps to worship this God at a distance. Now on his way home the eunuch represents all that it means to be marginalized and excluded because of an inherent condition. We don’t know why this man was castrated but it really doesn’t matter. The point Luke wants us to see is that here is a god-fearer who is drawn to Israel’s God and finds himself excluded from their worship because of who he is.

None of us here has to be castrated to know what it feels like to be marginalized because if we have lived long enough it has happened to us. We may have been shunned by a friend because of what we believe or do. We might have been the last one chosen for the neighborhood pickup games when we were a kid (or not chosen at all). We may have been shunned as a teenager because of our body size or looks or lack of athletic ability which made others consider us to not be cool enough to hang out with them. Or we may have been passed up for a promotion at work, despite the fact that we were eminently qualified for the position. The list is endless but you get the point. When we are marginalized, whether knowingly or unknowingly, it doesn’t make us feel very good. In fact, it dehumanizes us because when we are marginalized we are tempted to lash out at others in an attempt to make them feel our pain. And it almost always makes us wonder if we can ever really be loved, unless we go through some interesting psychological gymnastics to mask or camouflage our hurt and pain at being rejected. And of course human rejection (which is what marginalization really is) can often lead us to wonder if God will not also reject us because of who we are or have failed to be. We need to be honest about this if we are ever to go away rejoicing after hearing today’s NT story because it is yet another representation of the alienation and isolation that human sin has caused.

And it is to the glory of God that the eunuch doesn’t let his marginalization turn him away from God as so many others who are marginalized have done. No, here he is on his way home after having been ostracized, reading from the Hebrew Scripture and trying to learn more about this God whose Spirit had obviously descended on him and had begun the work of claiming him forever. Imagine that. Here is God pursuing one who was generally shunned by both Jew and Gentile alike, albeit for different reasons, and we need to pay attention to this because like the eunuch, with all his hurts and brokenness, God pursues each of us too, with all our hurts and brokenness.

So how do we know God loved this eunuch? Because in the Spirit the Lord sent Philip to explain a key passage of Scripture to the eunuch. As John reminds us in today’s epistle lesson, God is love and shows that love to us by what he has done for us in Christ and what he is now doing for us in the power of the Spirit. Love is always demonstrated in our actions, not our feelings, and so Philip interprets verses from Isaiah 53, that great chapter that talks about the Suffering Servant and how God’s rescue plan for sinful humanity will come to fruition in Jesus the Messiah. We have to wonder if the line from Isaiah that talked about humiliation and being deprived of justice had not caught the Ethiopian’s eye and lit a fire in his heart for God’s justice to finally come on earth as in heaven. Whether that’s true or not, here was Philip explaining to him that in Jesus, God had taken on all the evil of the world, and the wrath it had incurred, and born it himself so that we wouldn’t have to bear it, including the evil of being marginalized and rejected for our physical or psychological traits. Here is a Messiah that the eunuch could love, especially since he got a very real taste of Jesus’ love and God’s new creation in the way Philip treated him. The eunuch’s condition didn’t stop Philip from sharing the Good News of Jesus or baptizing him. No one is excluded from the Kingdom who responds to God’s healing love in faith! What’s not to love about that?

Here is a Messiah that we can love too, and for the same reasons! As John also reminds us in his epistle, this is a God we can love because God first loved us and has shown us his love by becoming human and atoning for our sins so that our alienation from God and each other can be ended forever. It does not matter who we are or what we have done or failed to do. It does not matter if we have been accepted by others or shunned by them because God does not see or judge us as the world does (cf. 1 Samuel 16.7ff). No, God sees through our brokenness and knows that we have the capacity to be his true image-bearers and reflect his glory out into the world if only we will respond in faith to his healing love offered to us. That is God’s heart’s desire and he has shown us that in tangible ways, most notably in Jesus the Messiah, but also by giving us a community of faith who will love us and for us to love in return.

And because God does love us, while God always accepts us as we are and where we are, God is never content to leave us there. That is why he has given us his Spirit to help us become the human beings he created and longs for us to be so that in the power of the Spirit we will develop the character needed to live in his promised new creation! If you really believe this and do not go away today rejoicing in God’s great love for you, I don’t know what on earth can possibly ever make you rejoice. And if you really don’t believe this, I encourage you to ask us to join you in a serious and ongoing conversation with God in prayer so that you do believe it.

So what do we take from this? Two things come to mind immediately. First, as all our Scripture readings suggest this morning, when we finally accept God’s gracious offer to us in Christ to live and be changed, it makes us want to share what we have with others because the Gospel is about God’s love for us, not our worthiness to be loved. The love of God in Christ was a game-changer for Philip, and he wanted to share his Good News with the Ethiopian eunuch. Apparently, Philip’s desire to share the Gospel with the Ethiopian was catching because tradition has it that the eunuch went home to become the first evangelist to his native land. Imagine that. And like Philip and the Ethiopian, when we really believe that God loves us, warts and all, it cannot help but change us and make us want to respond to Christ’s love by sharing that love with others, through both our actions and words. People will see us and wonder what drugs we are on—and they will want some too, which will give us a chance to explain things to them!

Of course, if we are going to share our story, we must know it thoroughly. So second, we must be diligent in reading and wrestling with Scripture on a regular basis. We must also persevere in prayer and be faithful in our worship. And we must do this both individually and together because as we have seen, the church is a tangible sign of God’s new creation and we are called to live in it together starting right now. But in the end, our witness is about the faithfulness of Jesus and our willingness to let him be the vine so that we are not caught in the lie of self-help and the hopelessness that inevitably ensues from trying to be self-made people.

Don’t let the world, the flesh, or the devil deceive you. People are starved for the truth (and there is a Truth to be had—his name is Jesus). People are also starved for a relationship with God. They long for a better day and we as Christians can promise them a better day starting right now by living in the power of the Spirit so that like us, they too can be changed gradually into the very image of God and become fully human. And because we have seen the empty tomb, we believe God’s new creation has arrived, although not yet completely. Of course, when that day arrives in full, we will see clearly what we only see dimly by faith right now. We will see the love of God directly because we will be living in God’s direct presence. There will be no more marginalization or rejection or brokenness or evil or death or suffering when that happens. Christ has defeated evil, sin, and death decisively and claimed us as his own, unworthy as we are, and nothing can separate us from his great love for us except our stubborn refusal to accept his gracious invitation to us to come and join the party. We don’t have to worry about having to qualify for this great gift because it is offered freely to us. That is the kind of God we love and worship, the God of Scripture, and in that love we find God’s peace and joy in any and every circumstance of life. And when we appropriate God’s love for us, it means we really do have Good News, now and for all eternity, which will of course make us go away rejoicing in this great and awesome God of ours. Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.