Listening to the Spirit
Acts 8:26-e John 15:1-8
I don’t know which of today’s stories you most like, the gardening metaphor of the vine and branches, which could go down well in Stannington, or Philip’s mysterious encounter on the road. I think they both work well together, the vine metaphor reminds us of the importance of being connected to church, while Philip’s encounter reminds us of the critical role of the Holy Spirit in the lives of the Apostles. I am however going to start with Philip’s story.
Luke describes the Ethiopian as an Eunuch, which is a key point I want to draw out. Although later on the term Eunuch becomes synonymous with official, here Luke qualifies that the eunuch is also an important official, indicating that we can take the term eunuch literally. This would explain why although the Ethiopian Eunuch had been up to Jerusalem to worship, and had his own copy of Isaiah which he was trying to understand, he was not classed as a convert to Judaism, as a Eunuch would not meet the Scriptural regulations for conversion, this concern is also echoed in his question asking if there is any reason he could not be baptised. There is an added significance in appreciating the Ethiopian’s status, in conjunction with the text from Isaiah, as only a little further on, in chapter 56:3-5, we find the words: ‘let no foreigner who has bound himself to the Lord say ‘the lord will surely exclude me from his people’, and let not the eunuch complain, ‘I am only a dry tree’, for this is what the Lord says ‘I will give them an everlasting name that will not be cut off.’’
The promise of God is to give life where there is none, to give hope where it has failed, to rejuvenate the dried and shrivelled up branches.
Philip has clear divine leading over this situation, and has pioneered the gospel to the gentiles before even Peter or Paul. Another element that we can draw out of this story in Acts is the importance of the Spirit in the day to day lives of the apostles. From leading them to talk to people, to being able to interpret the scriptures themselves. Despite having been worshiping at Jerusalem at this critical point in time when Jesus has been crucified, the eunuch was unable to understand the scriptures. He needed the help of Phillip to make the connection, he needed the Holy Spirit, at work in a person to interpret them.
To really understand scripture we need to wrestle with it, we need to let it shape our lives. Stanley Hauerwas claims this: that appealing to Scripture is not about appealing to written texts but to the life of a narrative community called church. Further to this the truthfulness of the Christian story is demonstrated by the capacity of its followers to live it out.
You see, Scripture is not just the words on a page, it is also about how they are interpreted and lived out by real people, by you and me. To be church is to live the self-sacrificial story of the cross through thick and thin. To be acutely aware of our dependence on the Spirit of God in our daily lives.
And we see this in the story of Philip where he is living a life directed by the Spirit. He is told to walk along the road, and then the Spirit sends him to walk near the Ethiopian, to interpret the scriptures for him and then baptize him. No sooner has God used Philip to explain the gospel to the Ethiopian, the Spirit takes Philip elsewhere.
We are empowered by the Spirit to understand and to share the gospel. We need to be connected to and living the story of Jesus to produce the fruit that confirms the fathers glory
It is generally true to say that the best way to be connected to Jesus is to be connected to church. Church is the living and visible embodiment of Jesus on this earth, but it is only generally true. As a community of people, our Human weakness means that sometimes church can get it wrong, so we can only say it is generally true.
Although God’s chosen means of interaction with the world is through the church, God is not contained by church. The kingdom of god extends beyond the bounds of the church.
We need to remember that the model for the church is Jesus, who was active, not just in the expected places, like synagogues and the Temple, but also in the unexpected, like sharing mealtimes with the rejected, the dispossessed and the unworthy. In fact part of the purpose of church is to help us to learn how to recognise the Spirit of God at work in the church, so that we can use that skill to recognise the Spirit of God at work in the world outside the church.
At some point we have to take the things we have learned in church and apply them in the world. We need to follow the prompt of the Spirit to go out into the world.
In meeting with the Eunuch, this is exactly what Phillip is doing. He has followed the Spirit in sharing the gospel with someone who is keen to follow God, but faces rejection, a barrier to full acceptance into the Jewish community because he is a eunuch, and who is struggling to understand scripture.
Later on in Acts we see a massive controversy erupting over whether gentiles can be accepted into the church without first converting to Judaism, and Stephen Fowl claims that we have under-appreciated the role of the Spirit in interpreting scripture in these events.
It starts with Peter having a vision of unclean animals coming down from heaven and a voice instructing him to eat, he refuses on the grounds they are unclean, but the voice tells him that God can make them clean, but Peter doesn’t understand what it means. Even when immediately afterwards, gentiles appear at his door asking him to come with them he doesn’t get it, he thinks he shouldn’t go with them because they are unclean gentiles, and the Spirit has to prompt him to go with them.
Peter only understands the vision after he has spent time in community with the gentiles and recognises the signs that the same Spirit is at work in them too.
Even after these signs it still takes the Jerusalem church a great deal of deliberation before they will accept the Gentile Christians are no longer unclean.
And yet even before this has occurred, Phillip is ahead of the curve, following the prompt of the Spirit, and offering baptism to someone outside of those laws.
As Christians we should never underestimate the importance of listening to the Spirit, through which we are able to interpret scripture in new ways, and finding validation for that interpretation through the community of the church. So what do we need to do? We need to remain open to the work of the Spirit in new and unexpected ways, because God delights in taking what is unclean and rejected, and making it clean and accepted.
The promise of God, is to give life where there is none, to give hope where it has failed, to rejuvenate the dried and shrivelled up branches of those who need him.
To remain in Jesus, sometimes means letting go of our preconceived notions of what qualifies people in the eyes of God, and instead watching and listening to what God is actually doing.
Are there any times when you have had to balance rules against the prompting of the Spirit? How did you decide what to do?
How does focusing on the church community as a form of living Scripture change your understanding of church?
Who helps you understand scripture, and who could you help understand scripture?
What preconceptions do we as a church have about people or situations that we might need to listen to the Spirit about?