Firth Sunday of Easter
A Sermon preached by Fr Peter Wolton on Sunday 3 May 2015 at St George's and St John the Baptist
A royal baby – birth and new life; a mirror for this time in the Church’s year as our worship centres on the birth pangs of the early church and we come to understand the true meaning of Jesus’ ministry, what it is to abide in God’s love, and to be a branch of the True Vine.
In today’s first reading we meet Philip, known as Philip the Deacon, who was one of the first seven deacons, which included Stephen- the first Christian martyr. The seven were chosen by the apostles to cope with the rapid growth of the early church. The rise in believers meant the apostles were not able to distribute food to a community where everyone was committed to sharing everything and preach the word of God.
Following the martyrdom of his fellow deacon Stephen, Philip flees to Samaria where he preaches and heals before being transported by an angel to the Gaza road where he meets a Eunuch from Ethiopia.
On Friday the Church commemorated the life of another St. Philip, Philip the Apostle. We last came across him just before Easter when we read of some Greeks coming to him just after Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead “Sir” they said to Philip, “we would see Jesus”.
Philip was the third disciple to be called by Jesus, after Peter and Andrew. And straightway Philip goes and calls his friend Nathaniel, who on hearing about Jesus gives the curmudgeonly response of “Can anything good come out of Galilee.” Philip does not reply with a long theological discourse but, and I can I see him hopping from foot to foot in his excitement. “Come and See!” he says.
There is something about Philip the Apostle’s infectious enthusiasm for his discovery of Christ that has deep appeal.
Two Philips, one I shall call “Come and see” Philip, and the other Philip the Deacon, both bringing people to Christ.
Thinking about the Philips, I found myself asking the question: “Am I a “Come and see” Christian?” And what lessons can I, can we, learn from the two Philips? I say this, with a recent conversation I had with a parishioner, in the forefront of my mind.
They told me that at work a colleague of long standing said to them “You are not a Christian are you?” and our parishioner replied “Yes I am, didn’t you know.” “No” was the reply, “I had no idea.”
The truth is that many of us are reluctant to talk about our faith; we don’t want to be an “in your face” Christian.
Today I would like us to think about how, like both Philips, we might be both disciples and encourage others to come to know the loving nature of Christ, and to receive the gift of being a member of Christ’s family.
Let’s look at Philip the Deacon:
He is propelled by the Holy Spirit, literally, and deposited into the emptiness of the desert landscape by the side of the main road between Jerusalem and Gaza.
What does he see? An African Court official, wealthy and well educated, lord of the treasury, the George Osborne of his day, reading Isaiah in Hebrew.
The term Eunuch does not necessarily refer to a physical condition but rather could just mean attached to a royal household. The Ethiopian has been worshipping in Jerusalem. He is someone who is not Jewish but from the borderlands and is pious. A powerful man from a powerful kingdom. The chariot, probably a four wheeled vehicle with an awning, moves slowly and Philip, overcoming social reticence, walks alongside, and gets into conversation. The Eunuch invites Philip to get in the chariot and explain the reading from Isaiah. So Philip is pushing, literally at an open door.
I wonder how we might react if someone said to us “I really want to know what it is that so excites you about Christ?”
Philip, during their time together answers the Ethiopian’s two questions. To “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” Philip explains how Jesus had fulfilled the prophecies of the past. And to “What is to prevent me from being baptised?” Philip baptises the Ethiopian, hitherto something only available to the Jewish population, inaugurating the Church’s mission to the wider world, foreshadowing the missionary work of Paul, who at that very moment of the baptism of the Ethiopian was persecuting and murdering Christians, something we are all too aware is happening at this very moment too.
The encounter ends when Philip is snatched away to Azotus, modern day Ashod which today is Israel’s largest port. He then continues his ministry in Caesarea Maritina, fifty miles up the coast where he will settle with his four daughters and be visited by St. Paul, the man he has just fled from, a number of years later. And the Ethiopian continues on his journey, rejoicing, uplifted by Philip’s teaching and company and everything that had happened.
The two Philips had a huge impact on those they met, introducing them to Christ and the church. If today, we are asked “Why are you a Christian” I suggest one of the best answers is “Come and see” – Come to a service at our church and see.
We know it is quite possible to be a wonderful neighbour, to seek the common good, yet not be a Christian.
“The difference is that religious people engage in ritual.” said Father James in a recent sermon. “They do certain things like praying over and over again. Ritual is the religious equivalent of ‘deep practice’.
“We hear again and again of the importance of love of God and love of one’s neighbour – that sums up all of the commandments. The transformation of our character, our lives, our habits quietly happens as we come to church week by week. We come week by week to hear God’s word and to receive simple gifts of bread and wine, and we are reminded that we, here in the United Benefice of Holland Park in 2015, are the body of Christ. It’s what Cardinal Newman described as ‘God’s noiseless work’.”
We hear the same readings and say the same prayers at our services that our Christian brothers and sisters are also hearing and saying in their churches throughout the world. We join the whole company of heaven and on earth in prayer.
As the famous hymn “The day thou gavest Lord is ended” says:
“We thank thee that thy Church unsleeping,
While earth rolls onward into light,
Through the world her watch is keeping,
And rests not now by day or night.”
“The liturgy gives us space to think, question, journey and inhabit the tradition.
Timothy Radcliffe in his book “Why come to church?” writes: ‘the liturgy works in the depths of our minds and hearts a very gradual, barely perceptible transformation of who we are, so quietly that we might easily think that nothing is happening at all. The Eucharist is an emotional experience, but usually a discreet one.’
Ritual, what we do here Sunday by Sunday gathered around this altar, changes the world by changing us.”
Let us pray that we may be a “Come and see” church.
Let us pray that those that do “come and see,” may depart from us, like the Ethiopian, rejoicing.