Sermon Options: May 6, 2012
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian is full of surprises. We are dazzled by the speed and action of the account. The story functions mainly as a reminder that in God’s new community—the church—old boundaries are not only smudged, they are being erased. The Ethiopian’s conversion is one in a series of three conversions (the Ethiopian, Saul, and Cornelius), which redefine for Jewish-Christians the dimensions of the people of God.
All people have a built-in sense that observes life and makes judgments about life from each person’s unique perspective. Quoting Thoreau, Eugene Peterson affirms this in his book Working the Angles: “I should not talk so much about myself if there is anybody else whom I knew as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience.” People can only assume truth from their angle of vision. Acts, however, changes all of that. God’s gracious perceptions of persons make them fit and, therefore, God’s realm keeps expanding.
One of many surprises in this story is that anyone would be traveling in the middle of the day in the Near Eastern heat. A friend who lived in Iraq said that often the daily temperature reached 135 degrees F. Thus, the question of why one would travel in the heat would naturally arise. We might also ask how Philip was transported to and from the Ethiopian, but the text is interested mainly in telling us something else. The text wants us to see God’s grace in action.
This new community of the Spirit, seen in its ideal vestment at Pentecost in Acts 2, opens up the community of faith to even those who live at its very edges. Ethiopians in biblical times were generally thought of as persons of color, as well as foreigners who lived beyond the reaches of the African desert. Therefore, Ethiopians were viewed as marginal in a negative sense, but also in a positive sense as persons who engendered curiosity. They were often held in esteem and amazement. Since the Ethiopian was a minister for Queen Candace, we can only assume he was a person of high status. Whether he was a Jew or Gentile is still open for debate.
God, of course, created all people and created them to be in fellowship with one another. Sometimes, though, humans put limits on who is welcome and who is not in particular communities. As pastor in my first church, I was curious why the members seemed to be so open and warm toward me. I was young, inexperienced, single, a recent progressive seminary graduate, just returned from Africa and, on top of all that, I was from California. These, after all, were not particularly stellar pastoral credentials to bring to a small United Methodist church in rural central Texas! But the people seemed to respond to my ministry, making me all the more curious.
One morning before Sunday school I cornered two of my older members in the kitchen and asked them: “Why did you accept me so completely, since I am about as different from anyone here as we could imagine?” They merely replied, as if waiting months for the question, “You are one of us, now!”
When the church welcomes all persons as those for whom Christ has died, then we will be near the kingdom of God. (David N. Mosser)
Love at the Center
1 John 4:7-21
The Roman army had subdued his kingdom, and now the king of Armenia stood before the conquering general. The king fell to his knees and pled with the Roman general: “Do whatever you wish with me, but I beg you to spare the lives of my family.” The general spared the life of the king and his family.
Later, the king asked his wife what had been her impression of the Roman conqueror, but she responded, “I never saw him.”
“How could you have failed to see him?” asked the king. “He was only a few feet away. What were you looking at?”
With tears welling up in her eyes, the queen replied, “I saw only you, the one who was willing to die that I might live.”
Each of us who has given his or her life to Christ can put ourselves in the story, for we know what it is to have someone love us enough to die for us. Such remarkable love is at the very center of the character of God, and thus it is at the center of our walk with Christ.
I. God Demonstrates His Love to Us
God has shown his love to us through Jesus Christ (v. 9). Through his death on the cross, Christ paid the price for our sin at the cost of his own blood. God so loved us that he “sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (v. 10). Never has there been a more awesome display of love than on Good Friday, when Jesus took our sin upon himself and carried them to a cross. And never has there been a more awesome display of the power of love than on Easter morning, when Christ emerged victorious from the tomb.
God has also shown his love to us through the indwelling Holy Spirit (v. 13). We have ongoing evidence of God’s love in our lives, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Just as a wedding ring on the finger is a constant reminder of the love of a husband or wife, so the continuing presence of God’s Spirit within us is a reminder of God’s love for each one of us.
II. Our Response to God’s Love Is to Love One Another
The implication of God’s amazing love is clear: “since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (v. 11). If we have experienced God’s atoning love through Christ, and if we continue to experience God’s love through the indwelling presence of the Spirit, then we are compelled to become instruments of God’s love to others. Just as metal conducts electricity, we are to be “conductors” of divine love—allowing it to pass through us and touch a lost and hurting world.
If God’s love has really come to dwell in us, it makes a transforming difference. It is impossible to be a repository of divine love and, at the same time, be motivated by hatred for others. Love and hatred are like oil and water—they do not mix. If God’s love is present, there is no room for hatred or bitterness.
Have you experienced God’s love in your own life? As you yield your life to Christ’s saving presence, you will come to understand authentic love as you have never known it before. Let love transform you! (Michael Duduit)
Formula for the Good Life
Every day is the first day of the rest of your life. What are you going to do with it? What are you doing today for tomorrow? What are you going to do today that will make you happy for the rest of your life?
The formula for the good life is incredibly simple: Holiness = Happiness.
Jesus explained, “Remain in me, and I will remain in you . . . I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (vv. 4-5 NIV).
The degree of happiness in a person’s life is directly related to the degree of holiness in a person’s life. As branches, our life and energy are linked to our connection to the vine, or God.
A man with a debilitating alcohol problem went to his doctor for help. The doctor said, “Now sit down and let me show you something.” The doctor proceeded to fill one glass with whiskey and another glass with water. He put a worm into each glass. The worm in the whiskey quickly keeled over, while the worm in the water seemed to be getting along quite well. The doctor asked his struggling patient, “What does that tell you?” “Well,” the man said, “I guess it means I won’t get worms if I drink whiskey.”
Some folks just don’t get it. Some folks just don’t get Jesus. They don’t see the obvious. They don’t see Jesus as the answer to all of their questions. They don’t see Jesus as the way to the good life. Some folks, as Jesus said, just don’t have eyes that see or ears that hear (Mark 8:18).
We can’t do too much about the spiritually deaf and blind. They require God’s intervention. But as the parable of the sower reminds us (Matt. 13:1-23), we still have the privilege and responsibility to work with our Lord for the salvation of the world. We can point people to Jesus as Lord and Savior. We can proclaim Jesus as the way to the good life.
Let me be direct. I have never met a person who has invited Jesus into her or his life and nurtures that relationship through the spiritual disciplines who isn’t happy, whole, joyful, and secure.
Let me be even more direct. If a person isn’t happy, whole, joyful, and secure, that person isn’t close to Jesus (vv. 5, 7-8). If a person is holy, that person is happy. If a person isn’t happy, that person isn’t holy.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life. If you want to be happy, get closer to Jesus! If you want to be happier, get holier! (Robert R. Kopp)