Sermon preached for the Fifth Sunday of Easter at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church.
1 John 4:7-21
Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.
Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.
In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.
Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another.
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world.
God abides in those who confess that Jesus is the Son of God, and they abide in God.
So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.
Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.
We love because he first loved us.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.
The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 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 silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
It may still be Eastertide, but the lectionary has thrown us forward, past Jesus’ ascension, into the earliest days of the church, into the reign of the spirit.
Acts is the story of what happens when you let the Holy Spirit call the shots in your life. And it’s a pretty wild ride.
Our story this morning begins with a set of directions for Philip, a deacon in the church who has proved himself something of a preaching phenomenon. He’s been in Samaria, converting the locals by the thousands. Doing big, splashy church growth.
But then the Spirit calls him away from that, to a road going from Jerusalem—the center of the world, as far as the early Christians are concerned—to Gaza. Scripture makes a point of telling us this is a wilderness road. Not a trading route, not a major thoroughfare. There’s nothing on this road, nowhere important to stop, nothing impressive to see.
Yet Philip goes.
And as it turns out, the Spirit wasn’t really sending him to a place after all. The Spirit was sending him to a person.
I don’t know much about the wilderness road that went from Jerusalem to Gaza, but I know the feeling of being lost in wilderness of a different kind. Four years ago now I was privileged to attend the PC(USA) General Assembly, our national gathering, in Detroit, Michigan. I was excited to go, but something happened to my ear on the flight over, and I arrived in Detroit disoriented, in pain, and with only half my hearing. I managed to last two days, but eventually I caved. I needed a doctor.
Finding an urgent care took me out of the safe, shiny square of the hotel and convention center. Nestled in the back of a cab, we went down a road that I can only say was part of an urban wilderness. I had heard that Detroit was in rough shape. Now I saw it with my own eyes.
Alone, exhausted and in pain, I was just barely holding it together when the nurse called me back. I was bound and determined that at twenty-three years old I was not going to cry, but it was taking some effort.
Luckily for me, the Spirit was calling the shots.
My experience with urgent care doctors is that they are often somewhat brusque—they have to be, with their workload. I don’t fault them for that. But the doctor who helped me that night was nothing but kind and patient and loving. Everything about her was soft, from the lavender of her hijab to her voice. She took the time to ask how I was doing mentally as well as physically. She explained my diagnosis—a burst eardrum—gently and clearly. She told me it was okay to cry if I was in pain. She even recommended a community theater production of the Wizard of Oz down the street, for a little joyful distraction. She was an angel of the Lord with a clipboard and a stethoscope.
She gave me some pain meds, but the time she spent with me—the time she took to see me as a person and not just as a medical problem—did more for my healing than the meds possibly could. She took the time to be curious about who I was—what I was doing in Detroit, how I felt, if there was anyone I could call—rather than simply treating me as a medical curiosity. It made a world of difference.
The right kind of curiosity made a world of difference for Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, too.
The character of the Ethiopian eunuch is like no one else in our Bible, so completely foreign that it takes several adjectives, all piled up against each other in the Greek, to lay out just how “other” he is. He is Ethiopian—a country, as far as most Jews were concerned, that marked the very end of the world. The racism of the ancient world would have mocked him as primitive or othered him as “exotic.” He was a eunuch—not a practice upheld by Judaism or Christianity. And he was also a court official, a powerful politician, for the queen, in charge of all her money. He was the chairman of the Fed, only with no restrictions.
All in all, to your average Palestinian Jew or early Christian, this man would have been a curiosity. The kind of person you only heard about, or caught glimpses of when a diplomatic envoy came to town. Someone strange and mysterious and almost not-quite-human.
And then, to make him even stranger, it turns out that this utter foreigner is also sorta-kinda-Jewish. Not really, of course, because of his ethnicity, but he was a God-fearer, a Gentile who practiced Judaism, came to Jerusalem for festivals, read the Torah. As a eunuch, he would not have been allowed in the temple, even in the temple courtyards. But still, he rode weeks, if not months, just to get to Jerusalem, just to hang on the outskirts, for the chance to be part of a people he must somehow have felt God was calling him to join.
To the first hearers of the stories of Acts, this man would have seemed like a curiosity in the worst sense of the word, very nearly a sideshow freak. Someone to stare at and speculate about. But not someone to get to know. Not someone to go beneath the surface with.
And yet Philip does. Philip doesn’t seem to bat an eyelash at the man’s nationality, or religion, or job. He talks to him like he’d talk to any other person, like he’s simply one more child of God along the road.
Which, of course, he is.
The man is reading Isaiah, and Philip asks—and this is important, he asks, he doesn’t assume—if the man understands what he’s reading. The man admits he needs a guide, and invites Philip up into his chariot for a little traveling Bible study.
And the man exhibits that great gift of the Spirit—curiosity. He’s curious about scripture. About God. About the lamb who was slain. He’s curious, and his curiosity means he’s willing to listen to Philip—who, from the eunuch’s perspective, is probably a bit of a country bumpkin street preacher, an oddity himself. Philip shares with him the story of Jesus, and I wonder if he remembered to tell the stories where Jesus talked with and ate with and healed all those people the world thought of as curiosities—the blind and lame and the children and the women and the Samarians and Romans—all those people the world saw as stereotypes, and Jesus saw as beloved.
I wonder if the good news that Philip shared, that the Ethiopian eunuch heard, was that there was a place for him, not on the outside edges of this new faith, but right in the heart of it. That as long as he knew love, he knew God.
Whatever Philip told him, the eunuch is so moved by it that he asks to be baptized at the next pool of water they see, and Philip baptizes him, and he rejoices. Two grown men, one an Ethiopian, one a Greek, one a court official of a foreign queen, the other a deacon in the world’s newest and smallest religion, splashing about in a puddle together, for the sheer joy of God’s spirit being present with them. For the sheer joy of Christ having lived and died for both of them. For the sheer joy of having spent the time to get to know each other a bit, for not having missed out on this opportunity to go beyond the stereotypes and meet a brother in Christ.
In Samaria, Philip had been converting people by the thousands. And yet the Spirit whisks him away to spend an afternoon with one man, to perform one baptism, to welcome one new child of God into the fold.
The Spirit does that, you know. Asks us to do strange, inefficient things. Sends us down wilderness roads. Prods us to hop into chariots with people we don’t really know. Keeps at our heels until we really get to know people, beyond our first assumptions.
Curiosity is a gift of the spirit. I believe that with all my heart; I’ve witnessed it in the lives of Christians around me, and in my own life. If our faith is vibrant, if it is still a living, growing thing, then we will be full of curiosity: for God and who God is; for the scriptures we hold dear; for the world God made and how it works; for God’s children and who they are. If we are living in the spirit, we won’t be content with pat answers and easy stereotypes. We won’t be satisfied holding people at arm’s length. We’ll want to know them, who they are, who God made them to be, what their potential is. We will be curious to see God in them, in who and what and how they love.
It is tempting to see people different from ourselves—the very poor and the very rich, the foreigner, the gender minority, the celebrity, those on the fringes of society in any way—tempting to see them as curiosities, museum pieces to be studied or categorized. But Jesus calls us to see them as siblings, people whose lives are brimming with fragments of God’s love, people through whom we just might see more of God.
I was thinking about my time in Detroit this week less because of the doctor—as wonderful as she was—than because of what happened next. Like Philip, I found myself hopping in a car with a stranger.
The front desk at the urgent care called a cab company for me, and I went outside to wait for it. And wait for it. And wait for it. It was dark then, I had no idea where in the city I was, and still, no cab.
Probably half an hour later, it finally pulled up. I had just opened the door when a voice came crying out from behind me.
It wasn’t my cab. The frantic woman bearing down on me had first dibs. English wasn’t her native tongue, and in her panic I couldn’t quite understand everything, but I understood that this cab belonged to her.
I stepped away and prepared to wait again, briefly wondering if was going to end up sleeping in the urgent care lobby. But just before she shut the door, the woman asked me where I was trying to go.
I told her the name of my hotel, and she spoke briefly with the cabbie. It was on the way. She told me she’d drop me off, if I wanted to come with her.
It was dark, and I was tired, and I couldn’t see any evidence that she was an axe murderer, so I did what I’d always been told not to do, and got in the car with a stranger.
She’d calmed down a bit, and I could understand her better. We began chatting about our nights—her injury was more serious than mine, and she was headed to the ER. She was alone in the city too, at a different convention. She was Brazilian. She had a piece of fish bone stuck in her throat.
She asked what had happened to me and I told her, and I had to wipe a tear away. I apologized, and told her how silly I felt crying over an eardrum.
“Sweetie,” she said. “I’m fifty-four years old. And I’ve cried like a baby three times tonight.”
It made me feel so much better. Humans in pain cry. It’s just a thing we do. And she might have been a total stranger, but she was also a fellow human. A sister in Christ, as it turned out. We prayed for each other as the cabbie sped through Detroit. She hugged me when I got out at the hotel. She went on to the ER, and like the eunuch with Philip, I never saw her again.
And even as tired as I was, I went on my way rejoicing.
To this day I am grateful the spirit put me in a car with a total stranger. A stranger who reminded me that when we are curious about each other, when we reach past language barriers and assumptions and stereotypes and our own reluctance, we might find God’s love is lurking in the most unexpected places.
Who might the Spirit be sending you to?
I encourage you to get curious.