1 John 3:18-24
“The Curious Ethiopian”
Grace and Peace to you my brothers and sisters in Christ, Amen.
Ten years ago, when I went to Fort Jackson for basic training, there was only one kind of book I and the other trainees were allowed to read, religious scripture. Not books about religion or study books on various subjects that are religious, but only holy texts related to any religion. You could read the Bible, the Torah, the Quran, the Book of Mormon, but not Sci-fi books, nor American History books, nor even the Book of Concord. Only Holy Scripture. Because of this I ended up reading the Bible quite a bit; anything to fill up the long gaps between training so I didn’t lose my mind to boredom. The same was true for many of the other Trainees. And it is because of this that many who never lifted the Bible started reading Scripture which led them toward the road laid down by Christ Himself. I can imagine the interaction these newly born Christians would have with a life-long Christian. So what led you towards Christ? Why, Boredom did.
But on a serious note, these Trainees were picking up the Bible, and many were confused and lost. What does this mean? What am I reading? They would then reach out to either a chaplain or a fellow Trainee to help them be a guide, someone who could help navigate them through Scripture and help them receive the Holy Spirit so that their eyes would be opened and the Truth, which is only found in Scripture, revealed. It was because of this search amongst the Trainees, a search for an adequate guide, that I eventually received my call into ministry.
Leave me alone; let me read my book in silence. I was quite the unsociable type, very introverted, still am, but more so back then. And because I loved reading, I usually filled my time at Basic Training by reading the Bible. Many Trainees knew I was a Christian, and a life-long Christian, not new to the faith, but many falsely assumed I was well learned in the faith; believe it or not, I wasn’t. But they ended up coming to me for answers and guidance and I couldn’t shoo them away, so I tried my best to help them out in hopes that they would be satisfied and not interrupt me again. They kept on coming back… and eventually asked if I would become a Chaplain.
Some of you may have similar stories or know of someone who went through the same narrative. Some of you may have been like the Trainees who read the Bible, but had no clue what they were reading and need a guide to help them see and hear Scripture as it is. It is a curious thing, for I have given several sermons, and even more devotions, about going out and spreading the Good News, but seldom do I speak about the curious incidents when someone who is not a Christian seeks you out. And it is indeed curious because we do acknowledge that the world naturally hates God and Jesus and Scripture. Christianity and the Culture will always be at odds. But occasionally, you will come by a person who out of curiosity will open the Bible. And as they read, they are faced with the same internal struggle most Christians face: the battle between the Sinner and the Saint; the struggle between faith, which comes only from the Holy Spirit, and our cultural norms; the combat between the Old and the New Adam. The only problem, they are lost and have no clue what to make of Scripture. Such people would either run away from Scripture, but others would either seek out aid or welcome aid. This leads us to the story of the Ethiopian.
Now there is one major difference between my Trainees and the Ethiopian, as well as myself and Philip. Whereas the Trainees were compelled to come to me, the Holy Spirit compelled Philip to go to the Ethiopian, stating, “Go over and join this chariot.” As Philip approached he heard the Ethiopian reading aloud Isaiah 53. You may recognize the verses because I have said them during our Lent Wednesday services and on Good Friday, “Like a sheep he was led to the Slaughter and like a lamb before its shearer is silent, so he opens not his mouth. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” We know that these verses in Isaiah were referring to Jesus, but did the Ethiopian? So, Philip asked the Ethiopian as he approached, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Now, unless this Ethiopian was a Christian the answer would obviously have been no for not even the high Priests fully comprehended these Scriptural texts until far after Jesus’ death. The Ethiopian was not a Christian, thus his response, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”
Here is the thing, and you have heard me say this many a times, unless the Holy Spirit guides us, none of us would know, let alone love, God, therefore without the Holy Spirit acting as our guide there is no hope for us to understand Scripture, let alone have faith in it. How can I? How can I understand Scripture? How can I understand, unless I have a guide? I can’t. I literally cannot, nor will I ever, understand. And why? Because without the Holy Spirit opening my eyes, I, a sinner, will always look away, preferring to be blinded by the veil of sin; for it is the Holy Spirit alone that lifts the veil of sins away from our eyes and allows us to see the truth, that the Sheep who was led to the slaughter like a lamb silent before its shearer, the Sheep who was humiliated and denied justice, whose life was taken away; this Sheep is Jesus Christ who died on the Cross so that you may be saved.
Had Philip not acted as the Ethiopian’s guide, revealing Scripture, preaching the good news about Jesus, the Ethiopian would not have understood, the Ethiopian would have been left in the dark, and the Ethiopian would not have asked to be baptized and, after his baptism, rejoice.
Before his baptism, this Ethiopian was like the branch that did not abide in Jesus.
We read in today’s Gospel, Jesus’ teaching on what it means for Him to be the true vine and us the branches. We are all branches, each and every human, but only those that abide in the vine bear fruit. Obviously, the branch that is not attached to its vine but lies on the ground is incapable of bearing fruit. Why, because it is dead, withered, lifeless. The Vine is the source of life, and only branches attached to the vine are also alive and only living branches can produce fruit and the fruit it produces are proof that the branch is attached to the vine. Sounds like a Faith alone argument; well that is because it is. The fruit are good works, and good works cannot be produced unless the producer, the branch, is alive, but the branch is not alive, aka saved, unless it is attached to the Vine which is the source of life. If a branch is not attached to the vine, it does not abide in the vine, it is dead. Same goes for humans, for if they do not abide in Christ then they are not truly alive but are dead and can only produce dead faith. Only a Christian, one who abides in Christ, one who is saved from death and is now alive, truly alive, can produce good works.
The Ethiopian, before his baptism, did not abide in Christ, he was a dead branch, and this is why he was unable to understand Isaiah 53. But after Philip baptized the Ethiopian, the Ethiopian rejoiced because through baptism he did abide in Christ and Christ in him. Whereas he once was lost, now he is found. Whereas he once was dead, now he lives. Whereas he once did not understand, now he does.
Dead branches cannot hope to understand, that is why they need guides to help them, to help them the same way a gardener would cut a slit into a vine and slip a branch into the slit, tying it down, so that the branch would become one with the vine. So too does the Father send the Holy Spirit to help us branches attach to the Vine. The Ethiopian is such a branch. For the Holy Spirit sent Philip as a guide to lead the Ethiopian towards baptism and through baptism the Holy Spirit entered into the Ethiopian thus providing him with enough reason to rejoice; why, because he is saved and he knows he is saved.
You are no different, you are all branches attached to the true vine, you all abide in Jesus and He in you, and through your baptism the seal of God has been placed on your forehead, declaring you a Child of God. You are saved, never forget this, never forget this.
Let us pray,
Dear Heavenly Father, there are many who yet do not know You and are lost even when they read Your Word. Guide us by Your Spirit, use us for Your name sake, so that as instruments we may serve as guides. Help us proclaim the Gospel and baptize, so that others may receive your Spirit. In Your Holy Name we pray, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.