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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Easter 04/29/2018

Every Sunday during the Easter season the first reading is from the book of Acts which pretty much everyone agrees is volume II of Luke, picking things up with Jesus’ Ascension and then, with Jesus no longer physically present, the story moves on to the formation of the early church. The weekly Acts readings don’t follow any particular sequence but with any of them a verse worth keeping in mind is chapter 1, verse 8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

That verse pretty much gives you the outline of Acts as the overarching theme has to do with the Spirit’s work in spreading the gospel and thus growing the church, starting in Jerusalem and then moving outward from there to the ends of the earth. As you read any part of Acts then, it can be helpful to think about how a particular story fits into that chapter 1, verse 8 outline. Another thing worth keeping in mind is that while Acts includes stories about a wide variety of characters, it could easily be argued that throughout the book, the main character is the Holy Spirit; there’s not much that happens without characters being guided by or filled with the Holy Spirit.

As I said there is no particular sequence to the weekly Acts readings especially because it’s not until the end of the Easter season on Pentecost Sunday that we get the story from chapter two that gets the Holy Spirit ball rolling. That’s the story of wind and tongues of fire and people speaking in strange languages, all which is evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence among those disciples gathered in Jerusalem. That’s Jerusalem Pentecost which begins the chapter 1, verse 8 outline and there will be more about that in three weeks. Acts however, includes what we could call other Pentecost stories as other individuals and groups become the recipients of the gift Holy Spirit.

In the verses that immediately precede today’s portion of Acts, there’s a Samaritan Pentecost, Samaria being another place mentioned in chapter 1, verse 8. Remember though that Samaritans were not viewed kindly; that’s why the parable of the Good Samaritan packs a punch; no one would have expected a Samaritan to be good. But the Samaritans too receive the gift of the Holy Spirit when Philip followed by Peter and John go and proclaim the good news to them. With that, a significant boundary is broken down and crossed.

In chapters 10 and 11 there are stories of Gentile Pentecost, the main one featuring Cornelius, a Roman military officer as the lead character. It’s another boundary being crossed, further evidence that the good news concerning Jesus is intended for a wider population than the Jewish religious insiders would have anticipated.

In today’s reading, the Gentile circle becomes even wider. Again it’s Philip, guided by the Holy Spirit, heading south, away from Jerusalem toward Gaza and on the road he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch and if you were a God fearing Jew of that time, an Ethiopian eunuch would have raised more red flags for you than a Samaritan or a Roman soldier, telling you that this was someone you ought to steer clear of.

First of all he was a foreigner, another Gentile, in that respect like Cornelius, the Roman soldier. On top of that though, the Ethiopian was a eunuch, thus making him unclean according to Old Testament law, unclean and therefore unwelcome in the temple. The text though says that the Ethiopian had gone to Jerusalem to worship which at first struck me as odd because he was an outsider; but apparently while not being Jewish, he was what was known as a Judaizer which was someone who was interested in and sympathetic to Judaism even to the point of adopting some of its rituals and customs along with reading and becoming familiar with Jewish scripture such as the Isaiah text he was reading in his chariot.

One has to assume though that his desire to worship in Jerusalem would have been short circuited. His status as a foreigner and as a eunuch would have prevented him from entering the inner court of the temple. He couldn’t fully participate in Judaism. That’s the set up for his encounter with Philip on the wilderness road.

With guidance from the Holy Spirit, Philip approached the Ethiopian and his chariot and guided by Philip, the Ethiopian came to understand the verses he was reading from Isaiah in a new way. He heard them as being about Jesus and you have to think that Philip would have told him how Jesus had made a habit of crossing boundaries and welcoming people thought to be unwelcome, people like Samaritans, people like Roman soldiers…people like him. What the Ethiopian eunuch heard was that the grace of God, the grace of Jesus was wide enough that it even included him. Seeing water, he asked if he could be baptized and with Philip’s blessing, it was done and the Ethiopian was on his way rejoicing.

It’s another Pentecost story, another story that extends the mission outlined in chapter 1, verse 8. It’s also a story of grace and you don’t have to be an Ethiopian eunuch to need to be reminded of God’s grace. Whoever we are, there is something about us that would exclude us from a relationship with God if it were not for grace. Like the Ethiopian though, we find that God’s grace is wide enough to include all of us, even you, even me. In and through the death and resurrection of Jesus, by his grace, we have been made acceptable in God’s eyes. That’s the good news, for all of us.

So this is a Pentecost story and it’s a story of grace and it’s also a baptismal story which is fitting as we will celebrate the sacrament of Holy Baptism with Kiara here in a few minutes and it’s the Holy Spirit that ties it all together. As I said, the Holy Spirit is the main character in the book of Acts and today’s story is no exception; the Spirit is the force behind all that happens, including the baptism. That is just as true today in what we will do; the Holy Spirit is the one who acts and with that act of the Spirit, Kiara will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who will guide her just as that gift is given to and guides all the characters we read about in Acts.

Clearly though, there is a degree of mystery about all this. We talk about receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit and being guided by the Holy Spirit as if we know exactly what it means and how it works, but in honesty, no one really understands it. The Bible however, provides us with images that help us better understand the relationship into which we are invited and relative to baptism, today’s image of the vine and branches is a good one. “I am the vine, you are the branches.” In baptism we become branches on the vine which is Jesus. We abide in the vine which is Jesus.

In the second lesson today and in the gospel, if I counted correctly, the word “abide” shows up 14 times. However, abide is not a word we use very much, if at all, although it’s a nice word; “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide” is a favorite hymn for some of us, so we use it there but that’s about it. I checked the Good News translation of the Bible and they substitute “remain” for “abide” and as much as I don’t normally like that translation, and as much as I like the word abide, I think “remain” works better; it makes the meaning more clear. Whether it’s “abide” or “remain” though, it represents an invitation into a close relationship. I don’t know a whole lot about vines but I’m pretty sure that with grape vines, which is what I assume is imagined here, with grape vines it can become difficult to distinguish the vine from the branches; it’s hard to tell where the vine ends and the branch starts.

By the gift and power of the Holy Spirit, through baptism, that’s the kind of close relationship made possible for all of us. “I am the vine. You are the branches. Abide in me as I abide in you.” Strengthened through Word and Sacrament the Holy Spirit works in us and we grow in our baptismal identity.

Today we celebrate with Kiara as she begins her baptismal journey. Any time someone is baptized though, for all of us it’s a reminder of our own baptismal journey, a reminder of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us. Through the Holy Spirit a relationship with Jesus himself is made possible. Today then, we celebrate with Kiara and her family as she is invited into this relationship and becomes part of the wider church family. We give thanks and together, we join the Ethiopian as we go on our way rejoicing.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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