Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter

April 28, 2024. Texts: Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21; John 15:1-8.

It’s about fifty miles from Jerusalem down to Gaza. But Philip didn’t bat an eye when an angel of God showed up one day and instructed him to go there. He went expeditiously, by way of a wilderness road.

About the same time a very high ranking royal court official was making his way along that same road. He was headed back to his home country. His purpose for going to Jerusalem had been to pray and worship in the Temple.

It’s a journey of about eleven hundred miles from Jerusalem south to Khartoum which is the capital of Sudan. In the time of Jesus, Sudan was identified as part of Ethiopia. It was a further one hundred thirty miles from Khartoum to the upper Nile city where the palace of the Queen was located. The court official’s pilgrimage was an amazing testimony to his faith. Though he was not a Jew he believed, heart and soul in the God of Israel.

How is it even possible that Philip and the Ethiopian man crossed paths? They were headed in the same direction on the road. Philip was on foot, the court official was in a chariot. And why was an important and wealthy man travelling on a wilderness road?

We may not have considered these questions before. More likely we’ve concerned ourselves with the Ethiopian man, who was a eunuch and not Jewish by either birth or conversion. You may have heard that these things would had kept him from being admitted to the Temple at all, much less be permitted to worship there.

However, the long and the short of it is that neither of these circumstances would necessarily have caused the man to be denied entry to the Temple. Foreigners and non-Jews were typically welcome to worship there. Being a eunuch was a circumstance of life, not a sin. It did not prevent one from worshipping God; the only restriction was from a few roles in Jewish ritual practice.

In truth, to not welcome the Ethiopian man would have been a greater breach. It would have broken the commandment to welcome the stranger. And in this story particularly, the welcome is everything.

After all, didn’t Philip welcome the angel and the wilderness road trip? And wasn’t the Ethiopian man welcomed into the Temple? And didn’t the Ethiopian man welcome Philip into his chariot? And didn’t both the Ethiopian man and Philip welcome the chance to study the word of God together?

It all ended satisfactorily. In Isaiah’s Servant Song Philip illuminated an expanded image of God’s deliverance through love. The Ethiopian man welcomed this good news about Jesus, God’s Messiah.

Despite this encounter happening on a remote road in the desert, water was at hand. Then there was baptism, and rejoicing! And the Ethiopian man returned to his homeland, over many miles and days reflecting on how God becomes known to us.

And Philip? The Holy Spirit had other work for him. His trip was diverted to Azotus where presumably God’s good news was needed urgently. The disciple welcomed this new venture without a murmur.

The good news of God begins in welcome. Mary and Joseph welcomed the Christ Child into their lives. The disciples welcomed Jesus into their lives. The Word of God goes anywhere God wills, but it thrives wherever it is welcomed.

The first Christians created community out of the tatters of shredded human lives. With their radical practices of welcome they did God’s holy work of putting people back together again, reconnecting them with hope and helping them dream new dreams. No wonder the community grew so exponentially.

The Johannine community likewise knew the promise and power of God’s love. “Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” “Beloved, since God loved us so much, we ought also to love one another.” It was an insight that was wildly contagious. They just couldn’t stop themselves from letting it out: God is love. The branch that feeds on love will produce the fruits of love.

Conversely, inhospitality is not the way of God. Hate does not come from God. Hate rejects and vilifies. Hate and inhospitality are not of God.

Whenever we wonder what God would have us do, the best answer always begins in a word or act of unambiguous welcome. We were welcomed by God’s Word, Jesus. In turn Jesus commands us to welcome others.

An unconditional heartfelt welcome is always an act of love. Love multiplied soon goes to infinity. And infinity very aptly describes the dimensions of God’s holy reign where love abounds, does it not?