in the Stranger's Guise
A sermon on Acts 8:26-40 by Nathan Nettleton, 10 May 2009
One of the challenges faced by both the early church and us in today’s church is that of giving any kind of plausible account of our claim that we still have a living relationship with the risen Christ. The difficulty, both then and now, is obvious. Even if we were in no doubt that the crucified Jesus was risen from the dead and walked among us again, and let’s face it, the gospels admit that even the first hand witnesses were a mixture of belief and doubt; but even if we had not the least doubt, the fact is that that physical experience of the risen Christ turning up and shaking hands with people is only reported to have lasted for forty days. So what then? In what sense do we claim that the risen Christ continues to make contact with us, speak to us, and guide us? Or is it all wishful thinking?
There are multiple ways to explore and answer that question, but tonight I am going to focus on just one; one that presents itself in one of the readings we’ve heard tonight. The story recorded in the Acts of the Apostles of the encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian court official is a well known and popular one, and one that can be looked at from many interesting angles. It is a popular one for exploring God’s concern for the outsiders. Not only does it contain the first record of the baptism of a gentile, but he is an interesting and multi-facetted gentile. He is a black African from a country that was frequently described in those days as the “ends of the earth”. He is a person of “complicated sexual identity”, and so his conversion and baptism are a favourite sign of hope for those who have been excluded from the church because of their sexual identity. And he is a high-ranking representative of a monarch famed for wealth, wisdom and military might that rivalled even Rome itself, so his submission to the even greater power and wisdom of the crucified and risen Christ is a remarkable sign of what it means to be converted to following Jesus.
But as interesting and fruitful as all those angles are, I want to go somewhere else with this story tonight. And to do so, I need to touch on a another story, not one we heard tonight, but one of my favourites, and one most of you will be familiar with. It is told by the same writer, and that is significant. The Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel according to Luke are a pair, two parts of the one bigger story told by Luke, and so connections between stories in the two are especially significant. At the end of the Gospel according to Luke, among his resurrection stories, we find a story that has a lot in common with this story of Philip and the Ethiopian official. It is the story of the encounter between two dispirited disciples and the risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.
In the Emmaus Road story, the disciples are travelling away from Jerusalem, when they meet a stranger who guides them into an understanding of how the Hebrew scriptures speak of the suffering and death of Jesus, and their hearts burn within them. Then there is a sacramental moment, the stranger breaks bread with them, and their eyes are opened to recognise him as the risen Christ, whereupon he vanishes from their sight. And here in the story on the road to Gaza, the Ethiopian official is travelling away from Jerusalem, when a stranger appears and guides him into an understanding of how the Hebrew scriptures speak of the suffering and death of Jesus, and his eyes are opened to recognise Christ in the Word. Then there is a sacramental moment, the Ethiopian official asks Philip to baptise him, which he does. And then immediately Philip vanishes from his sight, snatched away by the Spirit to another place.
The similarities are too marked to be coincidence. This is the same writer constructing his telling of the stories in a way that draws attention to their similarities. And when we put that alongside other points that Luke stresses it becomes even more apparent. It is in Luke’s gospel that when Jesus sends out the 72 disciples to proclaim the Kingdom, he says to them, “Those who welcome and hear you are welcoming and hearing me, but those who reject you, are rejecting me.” And so here in these two later stories, in one case we know that the stranger is Jesus, though the people in the story don’t at first, and in the other we know that it is not Jesus, but one of his followers, and yet we see that in welcoming and hearing Philip, the Ethiopian official finds himself welcoming and recognising the risen Christ and giving his life to him in baptism.
The gospel writer, then, is actually proposing that not only are these stories similar, but that in fact, the outcomes are similar. The first story may have taken place during the forty days of the physical presence of the risen Christ, and the second story after his ascension into heaven, but, Luke is saying, the risen Christ is present, speaking, guiding, illuminating and transforming, in both of them. You may not immediately recognise the moments when the risen Christ is present ministering to you, but neither did the disciples during that forty days. Christ is risen, and as we affirm in our prayer at the table, his ascension is so that he can be everywhere present; it does not make him less present.
There are two practical insights I want to highlight from this. The first is that it calls us to maintain a stance of openness towards the stranger. In our liturgy we acknowledge that we are all strangers to one another to some extent. No matter how well we know each other, we remain also significantly unknown and unknowable. We can always still surprise and delight or shock one another. And so even within our congregation, this openness to the stranger is essential. That’s why in our governing of our congregational life we say that discernment and decisions must always happen in open meetings, because we can never know who will be the stranger who bears the word of God to us on any given occasion. Samara has insightfully prompted us this week to think again about the importance of identifying and acknowledging those who comprise the core of our congregation, but this would never be for the purpose of excluding anybody else’s voice from the conversations. The gospel makes it quite clear that the voice of Christ is just as likely to be heard from one we might not recognise as from those already well known to us. So we maintain an expectation that the risen Christ will make his voice heard even knowing that the one who gives voice to his word will often surprise us.
And the second thing I want to highlight is that sometimes we are in Philip’s position in this story. Sometimes we are the strangers through who Christ would speak to another. So often we are reluctant because we feel under-qualified and under-prepared. We don’t know enough. We are too unsure. We don’t have the words. But the message is, it’s not about you. The risen Christ is just as capable of using you as he is of using anybody else. And many a time, the unqualified and unprepared are able to speak more directly into another person’s situation than those with their heads stuffed full of knowledge. Interestingly, when Philip asks the Ethiopian whether he understands the scriptures he is reading, he doesn’t reply that he needs an educator or an authoritative interpreter. He says he needs a guide. A guide is one who has been down a track before and can show another what they know. That’s all we are called to do in most cases: bear witness to what we have seen and experienced ourselves. The rest is the Holy Spirit’s job, not yours. As we say in our covenant, we are called to be ambassadors for Christ, sent into the world he loves in mission and ministry.
The risen Christ is indeed among us, living and active. Sometimes he is reaching out to us in the stranger; sometimes he is reaching out to the stranger through us. But always he is everywhere present, made known in scriptures, in the waters of baptism, and in the broken bread and outpoured wine. Christ is risen!