Acts 8:26-40 & John 15:1-8
5th Sunday of Easter (29.4.2018)
St Andrews Scots Memorial Church of Scotland, Jerusalem.
Rev Dr John McCulloch
The Place of Encounter
Let us pray
May the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart, be acceptable to you o Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
Poet Denel Kessler captures how the desert can become a place of encounter and of transformation. He writes:
It is possible to change.
Enter the dusky wilderness
in stillness, in silence
moments will open
like desert bloom
brief and luminous.
Father Jan Majernik once said that ‘The desert is a theatre of the human struggle of searching for God’.
Throughout scripture, the desert is a place of testing and of encounter. Christ was led by the spirit into the wilderness where he was tested, but it also was a time of deep spiritual renewal. The children of Israel were led into the desert after being liberated from slavery in Egypt, and the 4th century desert father St Antony sold all he had and gave his money to the poor, withdrawing into the desert for twenty years, where he lived in complete solitude. It is said that when he returned to the towns and villages, people would flock to him for comfort and healing, for even without speaking a word, his whole being radiated the peace and compassion of God.
The desert is a place where all is stripped away, and where we come to depend on God alone.
The passage we read earlier from Acts chapter 8, tells of how Phillip was led along the desert road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, who was reading from the book of Isaiah. In verse 32 we are told that the passage of scripture he was reading was ‘as a sheep led to the slaughter …, he opened not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him…’.
The inclusion of this remarkable story in the book of Acts is of huge significance, because it shows how the early Christian community was breaking away from a form of religion that based itself on exclusivity. The book of Acts is an account of how God’s saving grace was breaking out beyond the narrow confines of one chosen people, to embrace the whole of creation. God’s incarnation into human form was an act that dignified the human condition, reminding us that all are made in the image of God. All are welcome. All are accepted.
Christ’s ministry in this very land bore this out, for he went around healing and teaching the good news of the kingdom of God to all.
But there were times when Jesus withdrew into the wilderness, to that place where he could hear the voice of his Father.
In Acts chapter 8 the desert road becomes a place of encounter, between Phillip and the Ethiopian eunuch, between the eunuch and God…
In his book The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote: ‘What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well’.
As Phillip travels down the road with the Ethiopian they come across a pool of water, and the Ethiopian is baptised by Phillip. The sacrament of baptism reminds us that we are accepted into God’s family not because of any merit on our part, but because of the free gift of grace offered to us in Christ.
On that desert road, Phillip opened up the scriptures to the Ethiopian eunuch, and became the channel through which God’s love flowed to him. As it says in John 7:38 ‘whoever believes in me, … “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water”.
During that encounter on the desert road, Phillip is used of God to lead the Ethiopian eunuch to the deep wells of God’s love. Through word and sacrament, the Ethiopian eunuch is grafted into the vine of God’s grace, accepted and welcomed, no longer cut off, no longer a stranger, but a child of God.
In our gospel reading from John 15 we are reminded about the importance of abiding. Christianity is essentially a way of being in the world.
When our hearts and minds are rooted in the God of peace and love, this transforms the way in which we see our world, it transforms the way we live. But when a branch is cut off from the source of life it withers and dies.
Sometimes we strive and do things out of a place of anger and frustration, and cut ourselves off from the source of life. When this happens, our lives become like a withered branch that does not bear fruit or bring blessing to others.
God always longs to re-graft us into the vine, where we abide in him, ceasing from our striving, and drawing deep from the wells of his grace. When we are grafted in to the vine, even if the terrain around us is barren and dry, the green leaves of compassion and grace flourish, because the roots go deep into the ground where water can be found.
During this season of Eastertide we think of another branch. It was a branch that was cut off from the land of the living. Once a flowering tree where the birds of the air would nest and fruit would grow, this tree was uprooted and cut down. It was then turned into a tool of torture by the military empire of the day. A rugged cross, standing outside the city walls… And it is to this place of abandonment and suffering that our saviour goes.
In so doing, he identifies himself with all those who have been tortured and crucified down the years, with all those who have been pushed to the margins, with all those who have been denied justice.
And by not responding in violence to those who crucify him; an act of unspeakable love and compassion flows out to the world. The green shoots of rebirth grow in the very place of death and destruction. Death is defeated.
New life comes forth.
This is our Easter hope.
So let us go into the world with this hope kindled in our hearts.
May our lives bring the hope of God’s undying love to the wastelands of our world, for we worship a God who is always wanting to heal, restore, liberate and resurrect.
He longs for all to be welcomed and re-grafted into the vine, to a place where all can draw from the wells of life.
May your kingdom come o Lord, may your will be done. Amen.