Plymouth United Church of Christ

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Sermon, Year B, Easter 5, May 6, 2012
Plymouth United Church of Christ, Eau Claire, WI
© Rev. David J. Huber Focus Scripture: Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8

Every now and again, the best laid plans of mice and men go oft awry. And sometimes so it is with sermons. You may not know that, but it is true. My intention had been to focus on the Gospel: ďI am the vine, you are the branches.Ē Especially this being a communion Sunday, I thought that was the natural, logical way to go. To go with the Gospel, with the relation between the wine of communion and the fruit of the vine. We are the branches, with a command to bear good fruit. There is certainly a connection there. Right there at the end of this passage, Jesus says, ďMy father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.Ē Harkening back, if you were here last week, last weekís sermon about how itís not so much about belief, though thatís the starting point of our faith, but itís really more about how we live out our belief and whether we do or do not; how we live out that belief. God is glorified by us bearing good fruit. I believe, and I canít provide this, and I could be wrong, but I believe that while Godís preference is for all of us to be believers and to be believers who bear good fruit, I think God would probably prefer a loving, joyful, kind, good, peaceful, patient, gentle, self-controlled non-believer over a believer who does nothing. Hopefully, we are people who doóand I think we are. We at Plymouth are people who do. Who do live out our faith. We give away quotes, and we have the St. Francis Food Pantry, Community Table, we come together and live in love and fellowship over potlucks and cleanup days and thrift sales. We show Godís love and we live our faith. And by taking part in communion, by sharing in the cup (one can think of wine as the fruit of the fruit), we take fruitfulness inside us, and pray that inspires us to fruitful faithfulness.

As I said, my plan had been to dive deeper into that text, and you had a little of what I was going to expand on and talk abotu. But the Holy Spirit was at work this week. Just as it was with Philip in this Acts passage, when the angel shows up and tells him to somewhere else. So the Spirit kept showing up to me and pointing me to this Acts text, which I was not going to talk about at all. But the Holy Spirit kept driving me there.

Those of you who were here two summers ago may remember that I preached through Book of Acts, and you may then remember that it is the story of the first 30 or 50 years of the church after Jesusí resurrection and ascendance into Heaven. Itís the story of that first generation of the Church after his resurrection. Itís the story of the disciples trying to figure out how to continue Jesusí movement. Jesus has left them, and so they are asking these questions in trying to figure out how do we organize, how do we teach, how do we include new people. And as their numbers increased in various cities, they had this question of how do we keep all these churches connected. How do we keep all these followers connected together? And who has authority? Always that question of who has authority to decide what should be and should not be. It was an exciting time for the church. They were growing in leaps and bounds, but it was also a a time of struggle and anxiety. Because they were growing in many ways than they could organize themselves around, and there was also a lot of persecution going on.

So Peter and a few other disciples had stayed behind in Jerusalem to try to coordinate this movement, and that worked for a little while until there were too many evangelists out in the world starting churches all over the place and spreading the Word. That caused some strife, especially a lot with Paul because he was off converting Gentiles, people who werenít supposed to hear the word. It was a movement that soon got out of their control in many ways. And this was due to the Holy Spirit, sending them in new directions. Trying to get them to let go of some of their need for control and trust in the process, trust that the Holy Spirit was at work doing all these new things, and that all that was happening for the good and was by Godís will. As I mentioned, they were also being persecuted so they had to flee out of Jerusalem. Some fled to Samaria and some went into Judea to start converting. The Holy Spirit is a bit of a rogue through all of this. Sending them into places they didnít expect. Maybe that they didnít want to go. And certainly the Spirit was active in this text that we read earlier, when an angel comes to Philip and says, ďGo to the wilderness road to Gaza.Ē The angel doesnít say why. Just says to go. This may bring back some thoughts of the Exodus. God saying to Moses, ďLead your people into the Promised Land, the land of Milk and Honey but first you have to go into the wilderness.Ē The wilderness being a place of testing and suffering, but also a place of change and a place to learn to trust God. That God will provide what is needed. And Philip at this time has been off in Samaria and been very successful converting people, starting churches, leading a lot of people to Jesus. He has a really good thing going, and then the Holy Spirit says, ďGo to the wilderness road to Gaza.Ē And he does. Thatís a pretty bold move, to leave all that success to go into the unknown. And on that road he meets this Ethiopian eunuch from the queenís court of Ethiopia who is on his way home from Jerusalem after worshiping in Jerusalem. Quite an unusual encounter. We know, in our modern day, because we have globes and maps, that Ethiopia is not the end of the world. But at the time Ethiopia was the southern border of civilization. Kind of the end of the road of what people knew as civilization. So here is this Ethiopian showing up. And by talking to him, Philip is saying that Godís Word is for all of the world. Godís desire for an ethnically rich body of Christ sends Philip on this journey, and sends other disciples off to the west into Europe and off to the east into Asia to spread the Word to all of the world.

So thatís a lot of new stuff the Holy Spirit caused for these disciples who originally thought that this movement was just for the Jewish people, and probably just to be restricted to Israel, maybe even Jerusalem. And there is in this story another great leading of the Holy Spirit that happens in this encounter with Philip and the eunuch. And that is what grabbed my attention and caused my sermon to derail. I couldnít get past this one section. I was so happy in the Samaria of the Gospel text, and the Spirit kept leading me to the wilderness of this Acts text. It occurs after Philip has explained the Isaiah passage that the eunuch has been reading. He explains it in light of Jesus. And the Eunuch asks to be baptized. He says, ďIs there anything that can prevent me from being baptized?Ē And Philip baptized him right there. Right where they are. Right there on the side of the road. Philip baptized this eunuch.

How crazy is that? Itís pretty crazy! We know that the eunuch had gone to Jerusalem to worship. We donít know he was Jewish or one of the God-fearing Gentiles who liked the Jewish religion. He could have been either one. But what we do know is that heís a eunuch: heís been changed. Heís been castrated. Heís different. And as a eunuch, he is not allowed to enter the inner part of the Temple. So even if he is Jewish, he canít participate fully. And if heís a Gentile, he canít even go into the Temple at all because heís a Gentile. And yet heís gone there to worship, even knowing that whatever religion he is, he is not going to be allowed full participation in this community. He goes there to worship. So Philip baptizing him is quite miraculous!

ďIs there anything to keep me from being baptized?Ē he asks, probably expecting to hear, ďYeah, youíre a eunuch. You canít be part of this community.Ē

But this baptism is also crazy because the eunuch has no church community; has had no lengthy catechism or preparation; no tests of faith; no testimony of faith. All the things that we so often worry about around baptism are completely ignored. Thatís what grabbed my attention. Itís all been thrown out the window. Think of these passages from Johnís first letter that we read last week and read today that say itís not about worrying about right belief, or nuances of belief, or microbelief, but act in love. Thatís faith: to act in love. The Isaiah passage the eunuch is reading: ďlike a lamb silent before its shearer ... in his humiliation justice was denied him.Ē I think the eunuch would identify with that. He knows what it is like being a lamb before its shearer, and he knows humiliation and injustice. Heís gone through that as a child when they made him a eunuch when he was 10, 11, 12. And he knows he canít be part of the community because of that, because heís been shorn. And yet here the suffering servant, Jesus, is the leader of this new community. I would think the eunuch finds some identification here. So he asks, ďOkay, I canít be part of the old community, can I be part of this new one?Ē And Philip says, ďYes, of course.Ē Because the Holy Spirit says yes.

Philip acts in love. He baptizes the eunuch. Which is very exciting. It excites me. Itís a very liberating thought to think that maybe all one needs to be baptized is the desire. If we trust in the Holy Spirit, maybe thatís enough. But it also kind of bothers me that his baptism comes so easily. because I have been taught that baptism is something to take seriously, which it should be. So seriously that maybe you slog through hours or months of preparation, take a test or two, maybe answer to your elders or the bishop. Some kind of process that one has to go through to be baptized. And I wonder what does this story say to us? Are we too restrictive? And if not about baptism, perhaps something else? Are we too restrictive? We have an open communion table. Open to anyone who wants to eat or drink from it with the only condition being that you want to. All who are hungry and all who are thirsty are allowed to come to this table and eat and drink. The only condition is that you want to do so. But there are some barriers to baptism, and maybe even others things. One meets with the pastor a few times if itís a believer baptism, not a baby baptism. Maybe a little quick quiz to make sure there is some right belief. In some churches there is a year-long process that ends with baptism at the Great Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday, which is a beautiful and momentous thing. But even outside those churches, I donít know of any church without some kind of preparation, at least to say, ďThese are the vows youíll be saying, letís talk about them so you know what you are going to be doing.Ē

But there are no vows in this baptism of the eunuch. And there are no vows recorded from John the Baptist. No vows that Jesus has taken at his baptism, or suggest that people must take. All Jesus said to the disciples was to go out and baptize in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Jesus says that to his disciples, and then he disappears, and left everything to his disciples to figure out. And being human beings, one of the first things they did was to start writing policy. The need to come up with some rules and a plan about how we are going to do all of these things. And the Holy Spirit kept changing their policy. Kept redefining their boundaries for them, and always by expanding them. Making them larger and larger, including more and more people, and left us these stories to continue to challenge us in todayís world to look to our boundaries. To look to our comfort zones, our places of retreat behind policy and belief to see where we ought to knock down some walls and let anyone who desires to be a disciple to be a disciple. To allow anyone who wishes to glorify God to glorify God. And to bear good fruit for the Kingdom. The good fruit of deed and action born out in love. ďMy father is glorified by this: that you bear much fruit and become my disciples.Ē

Let us pray: Loving God, full of surprises, your Holy Spirit blows where it wills, often jarring us out of our comfort and complacency into greater generousness of belief and deed. Where we are narrow, make us wide. Where we are motionless, bring us to action. Help us overcome our rules to live further into your rule. But know that we are often anxious because we donít want to do the wrong thing: we donít want to do what you dislike, so we like to play it safe. Help us, we ask, please give us greater trust in your infinite grace than we have in your limited wrath. Help us, we ask, please, to know that a risk taken in love will never be judged harshly and is, in fact, what you call us to do. Help us as individuals and as your body that is Plymouth to be fruit-bearing disciples willing to take risks of faith to glorify your name. Amen.

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Plymouth United Church of Christ
2010 Moholt Drive
Eau Claire, Wisconsin, 54703

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