Sharing the Weak and Suffering God
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” This is a desert place. 27 And he rose and went. And there was an Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning, seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 And the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over and join this chariot.” 30 So Philip ran to him and heard him reading Isaiah the prophet and asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 And he said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to come up and sit with him. 32 Now the passage of the Scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter
and like a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he opens not his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 And the eunuch said to Philip, “About whom, I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip opened his mouth, and beginning with this Scripture he told him the good news about Jesus. 36 And as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, “See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?” 38 And he commanded the chariot to stop, and they both went down into the water, Philip and the eunuch, and he baptized him. 39 And when they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord carried Philip away, and the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he passed through he preached the gospel to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8:26-40 ESV)
What do we get from this passage?
Go to 5 Ways / Junction 62 on the A1M / Junction 7 on the M11 and wait for a chariot – maybe it would be some sort of limousine with some official in it – and run superfast – or should you stick your thumb out hitchhiker style? Perhaps you might have a sign ‘If you’re reading Isaiah then I can help’?
The Church has struggled with Acts about whether it is prescriptive or descriptive about Church life and discipleship. Should we do what they do or work out what they would have done in our time and place? And yet the stories and the preaching and teaching contained in Acts wonderfully bring Jesus to us – not as a history lesson only – but also as today’s news, 2021 news, news for us all in our situations. At heart the season of Easter presents a special focus on the resurrection reality of Jesus and the faith disciples have in him and in the message ‘We are not alone’ which you can hear as a lot of individual ‘I am not alone’ but it is also true to say ‘we’ – us gathered now, the group, the church, together ‘we are not alone because we are linked and united with Jesus’. We might be the outer edge of the wheel but Jesus remains the centre and the spokes which holds us together.
And it is the interaction that is fascinating for us. Someone wanting to know about religion or faith, positively disposed, questioning, searching means we don’t have to make the case for God or religion or faith. We don’t feel we have to make the case for why a person needs religion or feel like we are on the defensive against attacks in trying to point people to Jesus. If they are asking … that’s great, we’ll tell them what we believe. Of course, that can be a struggle too but in the same way we don’t have to learn or study or rehearse much to talk about one of our family so the more we start with the relationship Jesus has with us – because we are part of his family – the less we will feel we might get tied up in knots. Attributed to D T Niles, evangelism is simply one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. Or who will give us bread.
But I’d like to hop into the carriage or chariot or caravan and listen in and I think we hear something unusual for the world and unique and special in Christianity. The topic is suffering. That’s always hard and horrible and no one wants it – but it is part of living in this world – and the whole point of a God is that he / she / they are supposed to deal with suffering. Humanity has written that into all deities’ job descriptions (!) and I think
the world will at least consider the deity that promises the best response to suffering – get rid of it, no suffering – that’s got to be some power we might harness. However the scandal and shock of Christianity is that we offer the world a suffering God – an apparently weak God – a dead God – whom we are to follow by taking up our cross! This is not a big selling point in the world! And yet that is who Philip pointed the Ethiopian official to see. That Jesus is the culmination of every hard thing in the Old Testament – and for us, that Jesus is not immune to our situation, that nothing we experience is unknown to him, and that even our pain and dying is not remote to him – because they do make people feel isolated – and yet Jesus can be with us in each breath – and he is still with us when our breathing has stopped. Death is no stranger to Jesus, nor is death master over Jesus. The resurrection news only has the force it has if Jesus died – dead, died – end of life, dead. And so Jesus transforms life not with a magic carpet ride over the problems but by his presence with us in our actual life and his help and presence. And this is true nearly 2,000 years later as it was a few decades later.
And the same happens now as it did then. Baptism is never far away in Christian living. I’ve spoken about this quite a lot in the past few Sundays so let me just say that Christian talk – sharing, preaching, teaching, praying, singing, whatever – has baptism as its goal because that is our personal contact point with Jesus – where the Jesus of history becomes ‘my Lord and my God’ and no longer only in the past but now in the
present – in my presence! – not because I have conjured him up but because he uses water and the Word to bring about a new birth, a new creation – disciples of Jesus, you and me if we are baptised. And if we are not baptised then all those words are pointing you to Jesus who has died for you and wants you to live with him – and that gift is given in baptism. People are either heading towards baptism or returning to it each day.
The Ethiopian was baptised and he went on his way and Philip went on his way. And Jesus went with them both and the Church grew.
The Christian Church is still growing though we might not sense or see it in the UK or in the ELCE but it remains true that the Christian Church is growing because the Word of God does not return empty or void. This is the word about Jesus – not so much organisational church or buildings or constitutions – because after nearly 2,000 years it can be that there is so much history – good and not-so-good – that simply gets in the way of Jesus. What people need to hear is why we do gather around words, water, bread and wine and that there together we meet our suffering God, the God who serves, and who meets us where we are at and then says ‘Follow me’. It is the relationship with this God – that he forgives us and makes new creations in Christ – freely, by grace – that needs to be the centre of everything – our lives, our lifestyle, our words, our being – and as one beggar tells another beggar where to find bread so the Church grows and more people know and live with Jesus.
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! Hallelujah!
- Acts 8:26 - 40