Sunday, May 06, 2018
Full Service Audio
When I arrived in Toronto twenty years ago, many of the conversations I had about the Christian faith, about what it is that we believe, what the Christian life is like, how we look at Scripture, what is our authority, what are our ceremonies, were limited essentially to members of the congregation or inquirers from the neighborhood who belonged to other churches. Ostensibly, the conversations I had around such matters were limited almost exclusively to people who were already Christian, and simply wanted to know more or my opinion on a certain matter. But things have changed dramatically. I have noticed that I am now having these conversations not always within the realm of the church, but in the broader conversation that takes place within society as a whole. There is a fascination with the faith, and people of other faiths or no faith, want to know more about what we believe and why.
Recently I was amongst a group of people in our neighborhood who I know quite well, and are from very diverse backgrounds: India, Pakistan, Dubai, and New Zealand. We were having a heated debate about cricket and whether the Australian players who were caught cheating should be removed from their positions. Well, you can imagine that people who love cricket as much as we do got very animated about this. What was fascinating was that in the midst of this debate someone asked me about the Christian faith. He said, “Dr. Stirling, you seem to have very strong views about cricket, and that is good, but I notice that you seem to temper some of your ideas with things that relate to your faith. I would like to know more about what it is you believe. What is the Christian life like? What ceremonies do you have to adhere to? What festivals are you required to celebrate? How does someone become a Christian? How do they become initiated into the Christian faith?” Finally, he wanted to know about the supreme authority that we looked to for guidance and advice.
I was completely taken aback! I was only ready to answer questions about cricket! I wasn’t prepared to answer questions about theology and faith before being thrown into this vortex, and I realize that people from other faiths in this discussion – and by the way, we all get along well – wanted to hear what I had to say. They had a Christian in their midst and they thought I knew a few things about the faith, and they genuinely wanted to know.
In many ways, I felt a bit like our character in the Bible today, Philip, a disciple, who encountered this person who also wanted to know about the faith. I tried to use an analogy and said, “The basic authority that we have as Christians is in the Scriptures. It is in The Bible, and we seek to follow the precepts of The Bible, that is our standard.”
Then, one of them asked after that, “Well, which Bible? I mean, you have two Bibles, don’t you? You have an old Bible and you have new Bible. Which one of them do you follow? Do they both have authority for you?”
These are great questions, and I said, “Well, both. We don’t divide them up in our own minds. They are all the Word of God.” So, they were quite taken aback.
They said, “How do you then interpret what you find in te Bible, and is there any room for interpretation, or do you find you get a word, and it comes straight down, and that’s it, and you obey it?”
I said, “There is an interpretation – there is no doubt about it – and we have some principles and some methods whereby we interpret the Scriptures.” Then, using a cricket analogy – forgive me for doing this, folks, I said, “It is like what they know in cricket as ‘The leg before wicket rule’ (the LBW rule).” The LBW rule is that you are not allowed to put a part of your body between the ball and the wicket; you must use the bat. If you do put your body in between the ball and the wicket, then you are out: “a leg before wicket”. I continued, “There is always an umpire who determines whether the ball would have hit the wicket or not.” They all got the analogy. To help you perhaps if you like baseball, it is like a strike zone and you need that strike zone to be interpreted by an umpire who will let you know whether you are “in” or whether you are “out” of the strike zone. In other words, there is a standard, but the standard often needs to be interpreted or explained.
Of course, we have the guidance of prayer and the Holy Spirit, but in this story of Philip and the eunuch on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, we have so much to learn about the Christian faith. The passage is a microcosm of the Christian faith. It helps us deal with our society as a whole. It gives us a guideline. The story is very simple. Philip, one of the disciples, is led by the Holy Spirit to walk along a dangerous road from Jerusalem to Gaza. The road historically has always been dangerous. In fact, many commentators speculate that it was so dangerous that it was probably the place that Jesus had in mind when he told the story of The Good Samaritan and the robber who came along. It is that dangerous! As he goes along that road, he sees a chariot, a very unusual scene and in that chariot is an Ethiopian man who is a eunuch. The Spirit moves Philip to talk to this Ethiopian man. We find out from the Book of Acts that he was the Treasurer of Queen Candace. According to the Muriatic passages, we know that there were queens of what was known then as Kush, who were very powerful and wealthy, so Candace must have been one of them. This must have been a very wealthy man in many ways, and as the Treasurer oversaw a lot of money. The fact that he was on a chariot on that road tells you he was very, very wealthy and powerful.
Philip goes to him and they have an incredible conversation. It is the kind of conversation that we should be having. It was a conversation about the Scriptures. We read that this Ethiopian eunuch was actually on his way to the Temple in Jerusalem. He would be a worshipper. Now, the Ethiopians often were known as “Beta Israel”. In other words, they were Jews, but they were of African descent. Even in the doctrine of the Policy of Return in 1977, Israel recognized the Beta Israelis, and allowed them to come back into Israel from Ethiopia or other parts of Africa. So, there is a long history, a long tradition of Jews who came from the Ethiopian area. He was on his way to Jerusalem, and he was going to enter into the Temple. On his way to the Temple while he is reading his Scriptures from Isaiah 53 he encounters Philip, and wants to know how to interpret the reading. This is the first part of this encounter. He knows that he can’t just read it on its own. What he wants to know is this, and is this not a foundational question that every one of us has asked t some point in our life: “Are the Scriptures only written for the time in which they were written, or are they applicable for us today?” That is what he wanted to know. In other words, is Isaiah only about in the time of the Prophet Isaiah or is there something in this passage that talks to him right here, right now?
Philip answers him, and he answers him by pointing to Jesus Christ. He makes the case for the Good News of the Gospel, and he shares with this Ethiopian eunuch, the grace and the story of the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth. What the content of that conversation was we don’t know; whether it was about what Jesus had said, his teachings, his life, his death, and his resurrection. It probably included all the things that Philip had witnessed in his life about Jesus.
Now, this is a principle that is as old as the very disciples themselves. It is where Scripture interprets Scripture, where essentially we know what something is in the light of something else. This was the glorious part of this whole text: He brings Jesus alive into this text from Isaiah 53. The eunuch really wanted to know this! He wanted to know it because he sees in the Bible contradictions, and as a eunuch, as someone who has been physically mutilated at some point, he wants to know if he is going to be accepted by God. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 23, a eunuch is not allowed into the Temple. But according to Isaiah 11:11, as long as the eunuch abides by the Sabbath, he can go into the Temple.
Philip, in line later on with the great likes of Martin Luther and John Calvin, looks at the passage of Isaiah through the eyes of Christ. He brings the passage alive for the eunuch. He not only interprets it, he identifies with it. The eunuch is someone who knows and has felt exclusion, despite his wealth and his power and prestige. He is not someone who belongs either in the presence of the Queen or in the Temple of Israel, and he knows it, and is conflicted. Then, as he reads this passage, and I read it again, listen to the message here: “Like a sheep, he was led to the slaughter; like a lamb, silent before its shearer: so he does not open his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation, for his life is taken away from the Earth.”
That is the passage in Isaiah. And so he, the eunuch, asked the question of Philip, “And whom, may I ask you, does this prophet say this?” And Philip then talks about Jesus. The one who was denied justice, the one who experienced suffering, the one who had no further generation come from him because he died at the hands of others. Suddenly, you can feel the eunuch go: “Now this I understand! This I get! I fully understand! This Jesus can identify with me! I know of what he speaks!” This is someone who had justice denied him and who seemingly has no future. Philip explained to him the goodness and the grace of Jesus Christ. It was as if a whole world that he had never seen before came alive: Now there is music, and there is hope. He had been searching; he had wanted to go to the Temple; he was reading Isaiah and when he encountered Philip and the Good News of Jesus, he found what he was looking for.
There is an incredible story of an Italian man who lived in the latter part of the eighteenth and the early part of the nineteenth century, who died in penury and poverty, and had nothing and no one in his life. When the people in Milan, in northern Italy, went to his place – his name was Luigi Tarisio – to find anything that they could sell to pay for his burial, they discovered 240 violins. Two hundred and forty violins, twenty-four of which were Stradivariuses! He had gone to Paris and Vienna and bought some of the world’s most exclusive and beautiful violins, but he died with nothing, surrounded by these. At the bottom of one of the drawers there was one violin by Stradivarius that was particularly special. It was known as “The Messiah” because it made the most beautiful sound. This had been hidden away. No one had heard these violins played, and until this man died, no one knew that these existed anymore. They had been lost to humanity. But now they are discovered and there is a whole new world of music there for people to hear and to play. For Philip to explain to the eunuch the Good News of Jesus Christ, it was as if they had discovered what had been hidden for so long.
The eunuch is thrilled with this and says to Philip when they get by some water, “Do you think now you can baptize me? I am ready to be baptized – right here, right now!” So, we not only have interpretation, we not only have identification, we now have induction. We now have the brain of the eunuch in the Christian faith. On the surface, Philip could have had a lot of reasons not to baptize him. One of them could have been the fact that he was Ethiopian and he didn’t live in the neighborhood, and he probably would never see him again. Another one of the arguments was that he was physically mutilated, and that was not acceptable. Or, that he followed the wrong monarch, or had too much money. He could have come up with any reason not to baptize him. But Philip didn’t. He baptized him. He brought him in to the Christian faith. He enabled him to participate fully. The eunuch rejoiced! In his whole life, he was now finally accepted by God, because of the Good News of Jesus Christ.
This whole story started so slowly, didn’t it? It started on a road to Gaza, with a chariot and a passage like Isaiah’s, and it ends with a man being baptized and rejoicing! If that is not an image that we need in our minds and our hearts in this day and age, I don’t know what is. It started slowly, but it finished strong. It started as a simple inquiry, and it ended up with someone committing their life to Christ. It started with a man who was clearly troubled reading Isaiah 53 to somebody rejoicing, singing and praising God! Why? Because Philip, under the power of the Holy Spirit, had the courage to share with that Ethiopian eunuch the Good News and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We have that opportunity, we have that calling today and maybe, maybe, it begins with a conversation about cricket, and it ends with a conversation about Jesus Christ. Whatever it starts with, it is what it ends with that really matters. Philip, oh Philip, you have given us something to think about! Amen.