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May 6, 2012
05-06-2011 Sermon This morning at UPC we are ordaining and installing our new deacons and ruling elders. We should take a moment to appreciate that what we are doing this morning is unique to Presbyterians. No other Christian Communion extends the practice of ordination to include lay members of the church, who are elected by the congregation and ordained to these offices. In our polity, pastors, deacons and ruling elders make up the spiritual leadership of the congregation. Yet how do we understand that term, spiritual leadership? While various definitions are available, let’s look for help in the story that we read this morning from Luke’s Acts of the Apostles. This story tells of a day in the life of one of the very first deacons in the church, a man named Philip.
First, a little background. In the opening chapters of Acts, Luke tells about the ministry of the disciples in the days following Jesus’ resurrection and the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost. The disciples’ ministry was growing, and now they needed help. So it was decided that seven others would be appointed to serve as deacons. These newly chosen deacons would attend to the needs of the widows, carry food to the hungry, manage the distribution of goods to the poor, and so on. Well, Philip was among the seven chosen, and various details of his work as a deacon are recorded in Acts.
Most notable, though, is Luke’s description of Philip as a Spirit-led person. In the book of Acts, Luke describes the Spirit’s presence among the disciples in bold, explicit, even mystical terms. In today’s reading, for example, an angel of the Lord appears to Philip…the Spirit tells Philip where to go, what to do and say…the Spirit even whisks Philip from place to place, making him mysteriously disappear and then reappear in another locale. Make of that what you will, but do be sure that you get Luke’s intent. His point is that these early church leaders were caught up in the life and work of the Holy Spirit. After Jesus’ resurrection, the Spirit came upon the disciples and sent them out as witnesses and emissaries of God’s ever expanding love and grace. Whatever else leadership in the church entails, it entails, first and foremost, a willingness to be guided and empowered by God’s Spirit.
So in our reading this morning, an angel of the Lord appears to Philip and instructs him to take a desert road, the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip may be stunned to receive this instruction, because he has been having such great success in his ministry. Everywhere Philip goes, great crowds come to hear him. Healings, miracles, and mass conversions accompany him. When the angel of the Lord appears, Philip may well assume he is about to be sent to a place of prominence, a major urban center perhaps, where his talents can be employed and appreciated fully. Yet the Spirit sends him south to Gaza along a deserted road.
But the road Philip is instructed to take isn’t completely deserted after all. Philip meets up with an Ethiopian Eunuch, an official in the court of the queen of the Ethiopians. This eunuch has been to Jerusalem to worship in the Temple, and he is now returning home. Chances are the eunuch had not been welcomed into the Jerusalem Temple. Eunuchs were castrated males, and the Law of God, as stated in the book of Deuteronomy makes it clear that no one who is sexually mutilated “shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord.” Given this verse from Deuteronomy, the eunuch has likely been given the impression that, according to Biblical teaching, he and his kind were unwelcome in God’s court.
But when Philip encounters the eunuch, he’s not reading Deuteronomy. He’s reading Isaiah. Isaiah is more generous regarding foreigners and others who may be sexually different. Our Call to Worship this morning from Isaiah promises that “eunuchs who keep my Sabbath” will be welcome in the house of God, and will receive “a name better than sons and daughters.”
So what is the word of God to this marginalized, pushed-aside person? Do we find God’s will in Deuteronomy, or Isaiah? Are people like the eunuch in, or out? Are they welcome in the household of God, or not? How can this eunuch know what is true, how can he understand unless someone guides him? The theologian Tom Long wrote that the eunuch needed to be taught by someone who has felt “the embrace of God, who can read the cold ink on the page in the warm light of God’s Spirit. He needs, as all of us do, a Philip to guide him.”
This morning our new church leaders will answer several questions regarding their acceptance of, and obedience to, the authority of Scripture. But this story of Philip and the eunuch reminds us that if all we have is the written word of scripture, the eunuch’s acceptability can be argued either way. That’s why we need leaders who not only know scripture, but also know the God of scripture. The more we as church leaders feel embraced by God’s love and grace, the more we can guide others into that same embrace.
Which, by the way, is exactly what Philip does for the eunuch. As they sit together in the chariot, the eunuch reads from Isaiah 53, the scripture that describes someone who “like a sheep…was led to the slaughter, and in whose humiliation justice was denied.” The eunuch asks Philip, “About whom is the prophet speaking—himself, or someone else?” At this point in the conversation, the eunuch almost surely means, “Is this only about Isaiah and his situation, or is this passage about me as well?” After all, the eunuch has been humiliated and denied justice. He wants to know: Is this word from God for someone else, or is this God’s word for me?
And that’s the point at which Philip, led by the Spirit, shares the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. He tells the eunuch how Jesus, the man sent from God, himself suffered injustice, humiliation and rejection. Philip explains that Jesus was shorn of his dignity, humiliated, and denied justice in order to identify God’s love for the world, especially for those who question their acceptance by God and their place in the assembly of the Lord.
At that moment, the eunuch stands up in the chariot and shouts, “Look! There’s water. What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” Well, Philip could have ticked off a number of things that might prevent this baptism. He was a eunuch and thus in violation of the purity code. He belonged to the wrong nation, held the wrong job, and possessed the wrong sexuality. Philip could have reminded him of all these things.
Instead, Philip hears the voice of the Holy Spirit speak a different answer to the man’s question. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” asks the eunuch. “Absolutely nothing,” whispers the Spirit. “Absolutely nothing.” So the eunuch commands the chariot to stop, and he is baptized right then and there. Walls of prejudice and prohibition that have stood for generations come tumbling down, blown away by the breath of God’s Holy Spirit. And with the help of one of the church’s first officers, one more person who has felt lost and humiliated is found and restored in the wideness of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.
Now, friends, new officers, that’s spiritual leadership at its best.