April 29, 2018
The Fifth Sunday of Easter
(Acts 9:26 – 31; John 15:1 – 8)
Change is difficult. We all are resistant to change at times. Our branches need some pruning now and again.
It's a challenge in families, in businesses, in churches, in communities and in entire countries. Certainly, it was a challenge for those following Jesus and maybe it was for the eunuch in today’s Epistle reading also.
In fact, the only person who really likes change is a baby with a wet diaper. That's a welcome change.
Throughout history, people have been afraid of innovation. The list includes:
German writer Johann Georg Heinzmann, who warned people in 1795 about reading. He said that consuming words leads to a "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria and melancholy." Be careful about reading! Kind of an odd concern for a writer to have.
Then, in 1803, preacher Jedidiah Morse said, "Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation, that evil and beguiling spirit which is now stalking to and fro through the earth seeking whom he may destroy." Safe to say that he wasn't open to new forms of praise music in his Sunday services.
In 1906, composer John Philip Sousa lamented that phonographs were causing "deterioration in American music."
In 1926, the Knights of Columbus warned that the telephone would "break up home life and the old practice of visiting friends."
About the same time, a dean at Princeton observed that cars were becoming a threat to America's young people. "The general effect of the automobile," wrote Howard McClenahan, "was to make the present generation look lightly at the moral code." He worried that youths with cars would begin to drive all over the place on Sundays ... everywhere but church.
And finally, in year 2008, The Atlantic magazine asked the question, "Is Google making us stupid?"
The jury is still out on that one.
Resistance to change is a constant in human life, even around innovations that have proved to be beneficial: Reading, telegraphs, phonographs, telephones, cars and the Internet. Yes, there are problems associated with each, but, on the whole, they've been a huge help to people around the world.
In the eighth chapter of Acts, an angel of the Lord challenges a Christian named Philip to innovate. “Get up and head south on the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, the desert route.” The angel is ordering Philip to leave the city of Jerusalem, and to go in a new direction off the beaten path.
As he begins his journey, Philip meets "an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, that is, the queen of the Ethiopians,". This man has two strikes against him from a religious point of view: First, he is a foreigner, and admittance to the assembly of the Lord is generally reserved for the Israelite community. Second, he is a eunuch, and the Torah is explicit: "No one [who is an eunuch] shall be admitted to the assembly of the Lord" (Deuteronomy 23:1 The actual text is a bit graphic for polite company, so I will let you read the actual words at your leisure, should you so desire).
But the Ethiopian eunuch believes in the God of Israel, and he has just made a long and difficult journey to worship in Jerusalem. He is now on his way home, and is reading Isaiah.
Why Isaiah? Maybe because Isaiah gives him some hope as a foreigner and a eunuch. In chapter 56, the prophet gives encouragement to "the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths" and "the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord.”
At this point, the Holy Spirit gives Philip another innovative order. "Go and join up with that chariot," says the Spirit, even though the man is an Ethiopian and a eunuch. This is a change from what Philip has been doing in Jerusalem and in Samaria. But, whatever. Doesn't seem to bother Philip that God would take him from Jerusalem where he's having huge revival meetings, performing many miracles, bringing many to Christ, and send him out to a desert to talk to one man, a foreigner at that! No more Pentecostal services; there’s work to be done!
The Bible says, "He got up and set out".
Notice that the Angel of the Lord basically says, "Get up and go,” and Philip "got up and went." Simple. God says "Get up," we get up. God says "Go," we go.
Philip immediately runs up to the chariot and hears the man reading the prophet Isaiah. "Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and as a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opened not his mouth. In (his) humiliation justice was denied him. Who will tell of his posterity? For his life is taken from the earth.”
Fortunately, Philip does not share the concern of Johann Georg Heinzmann, who saw reading as the cause of "nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria and melancholy."
He is not even worried about running alongside a chariot, a vehicle which might have earned the condemnation of the car-hating Princeton dean.
No, Philip is willing to innovate.
"Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch.
"How can I, unless someone instructs me?" the eunuch replies. And he invites Philip to get in and sit beside him.
Philip moves in a new direction by joining the Ethiopian eunuch and helping him to understand Scripture. That's what we are called to do - to take steps and help someone to understand. Call it the Ethiopian Innovation.
So what happens when we sit beside and guide? Sometimes we have to give straight answers to tough questions. The Ethiopian eunuch asks, "I beg you, about whom is the prophet saying this? About himself, or about someone else?”
Philip doesn't answer, "I think you need to undertake a careful examination of present-day studies in biblical history in order to assess their diverse orientations and different methodologies, while, at the same time, not neglecting the risk that the exclusive use of one methodology runs face to face with a comprehensive understanding of the biblical testimony and of the gift of God given in Christ."
No, Philip simply says that the prophet is talking about Jesus. He tells him that Jesus died on the cross like a sheep led to slaughter, to demonstrate just how far he will go to show his love for us. This sacrifice brings us forgiveness of sin and the restoration of a right relationship with God, whether we are American, Ethiopian, man, woman or eunuch. And then, to prove that death is not the end, God raised Jesus from the dead and raises us as well.
That's the Jesus story, as simple as can be. It's what the Ethiopian eunuch needed to hear, and what the outsiders of our society need to hear as well. It's a story we can tell if we are willing to sit beside and to guide.
Don't fall victim to the fears of preacher Jedidiah Morse, who said, "Let us guard against the insidious encroachments of innovation, that evil and beguiling spirit." Maybe we should skip reading any bible verses online – it might be insidious.
There's nothing evil about the Ethiopian Innovation, because it brings people to Christ. That's often the result of giving a straight answer and telling people about Jesus. As Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch are going along the road, they come to some water, and the eunuch says, "What is to prevent my being baptized?"
Philip cannot think of a single thing to prevent it, so he joins the eunuch in the water and baptizes him. Then the Spirit of the Lord snatches Philip away, and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing. The Ethiopian eunuch who had struggled as an outsider is now an insider - an insider in the community of Jesus Christ – and probably a shocked one at that, given Philip was “snatched” away.
When we "sit beside and guide," we give straight answers to tough questions. Change will sometimes come due to the answers to the tough questions. We mustn’t be afraid to be innovative and help others on their road to understanding Christ. Any innovation that helps someone to better understand or become closer to Christ, is always a good thing.
Let us pray.
For people throughout the world who are victims of religious extremism or who fear those who believe or practice differently. We pray to the Lord.
For pastors and teachers, catechist and theologians, mystics and prayer leaders, who are dedicated to enhancing our relationship to Christ, that they be continually filled with the Holy Spirit. We pray to the Lord.
For hearts and minds to be open to knowing Christ in this community; and for all among us who need the healing of this relationship, especially the sick, the dying and all who suffer. We pray to the Lord.
That the Church may continue to make Jesus known to the world through words of hope and works of love. We pray to the Lord.
That world leaders may cooperate with one another in an effort to seek peace and prosperity for all. We pray to the Lord.
That our love may express itself in concrete actions of visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, and protecting all life. We pray to the Lord.
Loving Father, Your Son taught us to ask for what we need. Fill us with confidence in those moments when we too are called like Philip to proclaim Your Truth. May Christ’s words always remain in us. We thank you, Father most holy, for the wonders of your generous care. Show again Your love for us as we call upon You. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA