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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Community Around The Bible - 04/29/2018

Have you ever had one of these Philip-like experiences before?

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’  (Acts 8:26) I did on Friday.

I was getting ready to visit with a friend. Typically, when I see this person, we talk and then read some scripture together, pray and share communion. As I was getting ready to go meet her, I had this very strong inkling that I should take this passage from Acts 8 with me. I didn't know why exactly. I knew I wanted to preach on it and I felt like I should read it to her and listen to what she had to say.

This is one of those texts you can preach on for years and never say the same thing twice. So when you are looking at a text like this for preaching, it's good to hone in on one just one or two things because if you try to say something about everything, you're going to preach forever and no community really likes that.

So I was drawn in first by something the Ethiopian eunuch says: God continues to guide Philip and tells him to  “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip runs up to this chariot and he hears the eunuch reading the prophet Isaiah. And he asks him “Do you understand what you are reading?” And the eunuch says: “How can I, unless someone guides me?” (Acts 8: 29-30, paraphrased)

So I got to my meeting with my friend – this reading tucked inside my little red book – and I waited for the time to suggest reading it. Before I could even bring it up, she was telling me a story. It's was a story of a bible study she had attended in which she was afraid she had challenged the leader and maybe ruffled his feathers a little bit. The group was reading something that had more of a spiritual nature … like what you might find in the book of Revelation. Or maybe like what we hear from the Gospel John today: “I am the vine and you are the branches … whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers.” (John 15:5)

So the group is doing this study and really just skims over verses like this … verses that are kind of out there in some ways … or, that could mean many different things to different people and mean nothing at all to some people. So my friend suggested the leader might want to stop and explain and talk about these kinds of verses … about how the writers of all these books that make up our bible often used metaphors and allegory to communicate really big ideas. Or how we might understand what is being said in the language and examples of our own times … our own homes and hometowns.

It was a valid point and I'm really glad she brought it to the attention of that little community gathered around the bible that day. And it also, of course, pointed me right back to what the eunuch said to Philip … “How can I (understand), unless someone guides me?”

Keep in mind here who is saying this – this man is a eunuch, so in very real ways he felt what it was like to be viewed as an outsider – Jewish law prohibited men like the eunuch – people with difference sexual identities – from fully participating in Israel’s worship. But he was also a powerful man – a representative of the royal court of the queen of Ethiopia and in charge of the nation's treasury. He was a seeker, having gone to Jerusalem to worship this God of the Jewish people he'd heard of somewhere along the line. He was rich – a man returning home in his luxury vehicle. And he was highly educated – not only able to read, but also able to read in other languages, in this case Hebrew.

This is the man of privilege and power and connection who says  “How can I (understand), unless someone guides me?” I think this helps us see that this man does not need others because he cannot read the words in front of him. Rather, what we see here is that our scriptures are meant to be read and discussed in community and that, I suggest, is an interesting and fruitful lesson from the reading for us to consider – especially for us Christian people of the American variety who hold fiercely to our sense of individualism.

When it comes to the expression of our faith lives especially, this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch reminds us that God means for us to be in community. And I'd be willing to bet that we can all think of instances that bear that out.

I think, for instance, of a time in seminary when I was feeling quite alone and wondering if seeking ordained ministry was really what I was supposed to be doing. I went to my mail box feeling that heaviness in my bones, only to find a perfectly-timed letter from a person in my home congregation who wanted to encourage and support me.

Or maybe you think of very tough times when you were dealing with a serious illness or the hard-hitting consequences of mistakes you had made – maybe you're dealing with something like that right now. But despite that disease or struggle or shame you muster the strength to go on because you know you have prayer warriors lifting you up to God, or you see a sister or brother in Christ and they smile at you because they love you just as you are and they are going to try to love you as well as Jesus would if he were standing right in front of you in that moment.

Or maybe you think about how strangely unsatisfying it would be to come to the the Table of the Lord's Supper or the sin-cleansing waters of baptism all by yourself. God certainly means for us to be in community around the sacraments that bring God's promises to us – promises of love and forgiveness and eternal life when this earthly one is over.

Often people tell me stories of how a particular passage from the bible is really important to them and how they understand themselves. Then they will talk about it with another person and that same passage will take on a whole new meaning. Or it will come up at a Bible study and suddenly there are a host of different ways the passage can speak to us. It is through this sharing and listening that the Spirit builds our understanding of these sacred writings. Soon we begin to see not just our lives through the lens of the passage, but many other lives too. Soon we see that a beloved piece of scripture can simultaneously comfort us and convict us where we have failed to love God and neighbor as well as we could.

And here's the reason I think this matters for us today as much as it did for Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch all those years ago when the disciples were first beginning to continue the ministry Jesus started … as humans we are created to be in community and as Jesus-following people we are meant to gather around the Word in community. At the same time our wonderful and rugged sense of American individualism can make it really easy to find all sorts of reasons to isolate ourselves. Rather than go to worship at church or get involved in a bible study or adult forum, we can chose to skip it because ...

… it makes us seem too needy or vulnerable or we fear we have nothing to contribute.

… or we can stay in the comfort of our own homes listening to preachers and singing songs with virtual faith communities on TV.

… or we come to believe that nobody wants to be around us and our illness or grief or anxiety anyway.

… or we might feel like we are in church when we are in the woods or on the water, or wherever in this beautiful creation we see God's hand.

Now I'm not saying God does not work through these places and situations too … I have no doubt God at work in all these ways and many, many more.

But this story boldly and pretty clearly reminds us that we are indeed meant to gather around God's Word – first and foremost – in community, and not only for what God is trying to show us through the scriptures, but also for the ways God desires to work through us to open the scriptures to others.

And so I'll end with a prayer this week – a prayer for us people who do gather around this Word in community regularly.

Let us pray. God, you are the mastermind and master artist behind all that we see in your complex creation of community – community between you and us, us and one another, us and all the creatures of your world. Help us to protect and nurture the communities you call us to. Open our minds and hearts to your Word and the never-ending and fruitful ways it takes shape in us and others. Let us be beacons that draw others to this Way of community, this Way of forgiveness and love, this Way of growing in your Word – for the sake of ourselves and the sake of all your children. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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