David Barton’s Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter
— Acts 8:26-40, John 15.1-8 —
I want to talk about healing, but I want to do it by saying something about the readings set for today.
The first reading brings us a rather exotic figure – a man from Ethiopia, clearly quite wealthy, with his own chariot and driver, who has made an enormous journey to get to Jerusalem. The bible has two significant mentions of Ethiopia: this man and, in the first book of Kings, the one we have all heard of: the Queen of Sheba. She visits Solomon in great state, and is clearly rather taken with him. And in Ethiopia the story goes much further. The queen gives birth to a child, called Menelik and Solomon is his father. And there is a tribe in Ethiopia called the Falashas, who claim to be descended from him. To this day, the Falashas are distinct, and they have a faith very close to Judaism, quite different from their Christian and Muslim neighbours.
Odd. But it may explain why this man appears, reading Isaiah, on the long return journey home after a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
But he has not had a good time in Jerusalem. The fact that he is black is of little significance – there was very little racial prejudice in the ancient world. This man is a eunuch, and probably like many such people in those days, he was more mutilated than that. I am sorry to mention these things, they’re not ideal for a Sunday sermon. But unless you understand that you won’t understand the story or the force of these readings. This man had been all the way to Jerusalem for the festival and he would not have been allowed to celebrate it. He was not a whole man. So he would have been excluded. The door closed in his face. He would have had to worship at a distance. In more than one way he was a victim of our inhumanity to each other,. Small wonder then that he reads Isaiah 53: in his humiliation justice was denied him. Yes indeed.
And Philip, in no way knowing why he had to go down this desert road, but now discovering, makes the connection. The cross was the place of justice denied. The place where our inhumanity to each other is writ large. And it is also the place where the love of God is most clearly seen – a love that is unfathomable, and unstinting – an unconditional welcome to all of us without any reserve. And suddenly the Ethiopian’s world is overturned. What does it matter if he is socially and religiously excluded? He is quite simply loved from the heart of everything, and nothing will compare with the wonder of that, and nothing will be the same again. He is baptised and made a member of a new family. And he goes on his way rejoicing.
Notice the extraordinary urgency and energy of this passage: the power of this change, the energy that drives Philip to the desert and then onwards to Azotus. This is the new creation, the new life of the resurrection at work. And of course it is very relevant to our life as Christians and what we do today in a service of healing.
I think we have a problem at Eastertide about finding the right language for this energy and life that comes from God. There are no real words for it. It’s a mystery that is both real and ineffable. The New Testament writers had the same problem of course. And they reach for the most powerful images of their day, which are in effect farming images. Seeds and harvests, farmers and barns; last week it was sheep and shepherds, this week it’s vines. And that is not easy for us. We are 21st century people. We left that kind of world behind long ago, and now those images can seem rather poetic and cosy.
But think again. Ancient societies were completely dependent on a good harvest. Drought could mean starvation and your life on the line. We don’t know the extraordinary power of a seed, or how powerful and prolific vines are. If we are going to understand the extraordinary force the resurrection unleashes into the church, then we need to remember that. And let’s be clear: the gospel is not cosy. It’s not about poetic imagery and all of us responding by toddling along to church and doing our best to be good. It’s about being rescued as this man was. It is not about being safe, or comfortable, it’s about being saved. It says: Wake up! You and the world can be otherwise than you imagine, and here’s the power to change.
What these readings today give us is a picture of the powerful flow of life into which you and I are grafted. And that’s what the church really means by healing. Yes, it is about our sickness. But it pushes deeper: its about the whole person. Christianity is driven by the desire to relieve suffering. But it is suffering in the sense of turning round our failure to be the person we know ourselves to be, so that we can become who we truly are. “The glory of God is a human person fully alive.” And always, it comes to you and to me first. That’s where the healing love of Christ is directed. Philip knew it. Remember Peter in the upper room refusing to have his feet washed? But it was necessary. We don’t want to make the same mistake. We simply need to let the love of God wash over us and heal the wounds we all of us have and make us whole.
And it’s when we understand that, that we begin to understand the vast scope of God’s love. In a few moments we will remember the tragedy of Nepal. And we might remember too that other terrible tragedy in the Mediterranean. Thousands of desperate men and women crowding onto utterly unseaworthy boats. And the news yesterday of the murder of so many Yazidis, just because of their faith. They are part of what we do today.
We are not separate from them. We share the same humanity and above all in Christ we are bound up with them. When I preached to you the other week I pointed out just how much the parable of the last judgement is tied into the resurrection. It is the same here. I was hungry, and you gave me to eat, naked, and you clothed me. The drive of God’s love is to you and to me and to all of them. That’s its power, and that’s it’s purpose.
This act of healing we do today is a declaration of that.
Stuck in a traffic jam on the ring road the other day I ……….. heard an account of how the Slovenian language is the only language to have an additional personal pronoun between “I” and “we”. Sandwiched between “I” (singular) and “we” (plural) is a single word meaning “both-of-us-together”. When we look at the pictures of Nepal, or the boats in the Mediterranean we need to remember such a word.
And if you come forward for healing this morning such a word is what we need to have in our minds. As Christ’s love comes to us, so it flows out to people we do not know, wherever they are, in whatever need. We need to trust to the truth of that.
It is a great mystery we enter into whenever we do this – just as, whenever we celebrate the Eucharist, we enter a similar mystery. We have no words for it, no descriptions, but we need to open ourselves to its truth, and feel it’s truth, and the power of the life and energy that is at work here.