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For my sermon this morning I want to depart from the themes of Brian McLaren’s book to go to the Revised Common Lectionary readings for today, the fifth Sunday after Easter. My focus is on Acts of the Apostles Chapter 8 Verses 26-40 about the encounter between Philip and the unnamed Ethiopian Eunuch.
Philip is not the Philip the Apostle but Philip the Evangelist who first appeared in the story of the Acts of the Apostles when they responded to the people’s complaint that the widows were neglected in the daily distribution of food. Therefore they selected from among the community “seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and wisdom to this task.” Philip was one of the Seven chosen. They were later known as deacons. They are the original members of what we call now in FCC, “Dirty Hands.” You have the Diaconate Succession.
We meet Philip during the persecution of the followers of Jesus by Saul before his conversion to Paul. It was reported that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.” It was during that period that one of the Seven deacons, Stephen was stoned to death. Philip was sent to the scattered community to Samaria to minister to the people under persecution. The people there were amazed with the magic show of Simon just as people here are attracted to another magician whose name you know. But Philip was more amazing and converted the people including the magician Simon. We need badly a person like Philip around us today.
Philip was then sent to go on the wilderness trek south of Jerusalem to the region known as the Gaza. On the road he met the North African from Ethiopian, a eunuch, a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was in charge of her entire Treasury. After Philip interpreted the Scripture to him, it was recorded that when they came across a patch of water in the wilderness, they stopped the chariot and Philip baptized the eunuch. Scripture tells us that this Ethiopea from North Africa had gone to worship in Jerusalem as a follower of the Jewish faith. He was converted and became a follower of Jesus. History tells us of the subsequent development of the Ethiopian Coptic Orthodox Church which still exists as a Christian community in the region.
In my preparation I came across Eric Smith who wrote a commentary describing the eunuch and I quote: “There is the spatial dimension: the eunuch is traveling from Jerusalem to Gaza. Then there is the political dimension: he is a foreigner, and a highly-placed one at that, serving in the court of the queen of the Ethiopians. There is the economic dimension: he is in charge of the Treasury, and being conveyed on a chariot (with room for a guest), which suggests that he was a person of some means. And then there are the dimensions of gender and sexuality: this person is a eunuch.”
This eunuch is unique for we meet him in the multiplicity of identities. He embodies diversity.
Now let us look at the passage of Scripture that the eunuch was reading and requested Philip to help to interpret what it meant, and about the person that it referred to. It was from the Hebrew Bible, Isaiah 53. The eunuch from Africa was an African who had embraced the Jewish faith and returning home after his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He must have known the Crucifixion of this political Jesus who opposed the religious and political powers. He must have witnessed the persecution of the followers of Jesus. He must have been told about Jesus whom his followers claim to be the expected Messiah to save Israel. He must be troubled by all that he has seen and heard. Then he remembered the prophecy recorded in his Jewish Scripture. The question in his troubled mind is whether Jesus is the prophet that Isaiah projected.
Let us now examine the text of Isaiah 53:1-12
 Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or comeliness that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
 He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
 But he was wounded for our transgressions,
he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
7] He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,
so he opened not his mouth.
 By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.
 Yet it was the will of the LORD to bruise him;
he has put him to grief;
when he makes himself an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, he shall prolong his days;
the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand;
he shall see the fruit of the travail of his soul and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous;
and he shall bear their iniquities.
 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the great,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;
because he poured out his soul to death,
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and made intercession for the transgressors.
Our approach to the study the Bible is to look at the historical and cultural context of the author and his audience when the message was first proclaimed. This is the work of the prophet Isaiah. The audience were the Jews who were taken into exile to Babylon in 597 B.C.when they were conquered followed by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 568 B.C. The period of the Babylonian Captivity was coming to an end for Cyrus the King of Persia had defeated the Babylonians and will allow the Jewish exiles to return home. While they were in exile their situation improved for they were allowed economic activity.. They became farmers, merchants, bankers and administrators in a foreign land. They contributed to the poor and destitute who remained in Jerusalem. They were not happy and some were homesick for Zion.
This reminds me of the song “Rivers of Babylon” of my vintage.
By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yeah we wept, when we remembered Zion.
When the wicked
Carried us away in captivity
Required from us a song
Now how shall we sing the lord’s song in a strange land.
The Psalmist lamented much earlier too which inspired this song.
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
3 For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
6 Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!
Isaiah too composed four songs known as The Servant Songs to prepare the exiles to return home. Isaiah 53 is the fourth one. The exiles faced an uncertain future for the people were dispersed and the Temple Worship ceased with little hope of national and religious rebirth. Isaiah was singing about the situation of the nation of Israel and not about any individual or prophet or prophecy. The Suffering Servant is Israel.
One thing worthy of note is that there is no mention of the Resurrection in this song. My first Old Testament teacher, Robert Pfieffer, commented that the Song of the Suffering Servant has an earlier beginnings in a hymn in honor of a pagan god which inspired Isaiah. It was sung to the dying and resurrected god of vegetation, Tammuz-Adonis. It was a hymn of a mystery cult. The Suffering Servant song is then an embellishment of the image of the pagan god. Scholars like the renowned S. Mowinckel are not surprised that “Isaiah himself who after his own martyrdom was celebrated by his disciples as a cult hero, and thus was regarded as a divine being, like Adonis.”
But our early Christian community after the Crucifixion interpreted it to be a fulfillment of prophecy of the coming of the Messiah which Judaism rejects and is still hoping for the Messiah to appear till today. The Suffering Servant refers to the Messiah and not to the nation of Israel in exile. Our tradition has personalized this song and associated it with the Crucified Jesus. Yes the Jews interpreted the Exile as a punishment of Yahweh for their sins and disobedience. The Suffering Servant bore the sins of the nation and not their individual personal sins.
In the New Testament account in Acts, the community interpreted it differently. It was further extended to claiming that Jesus died for our personal sins. We happily proclaim our victory, about how Christ died for our sins. Because Christ died we live and we accept the interpretation of the early Church. We were instructed about Jesus who was sent to die in order to save humanity. Atonement or at-one-ment is the process of reconciliation and restoring the broken relationship of Christ with humankind.
In my own theological studies beginning in 1952 I learned about the different classical theories of atonement which is provided by any respectable seminary since then. But there seems to be a reluctance to present them except the one which the person has preferred. Let me share systematically these theories again.
The ransom theory is based on the transaction with Satan or the Devil. We have sinned by falling into the clutches of Satan who tempted us and we yielded to temptation. Satan demands a ransom to be paid. Christ in His death pays on our behalf the ransom due. Christ becomes the ransom. By his death we are therefore freed or saved.
Then we have the penal satisfaction theory which is based on the negotiation with God. God the Law-giver has formulated the penal code. When we sin we have violated the law and justice must be served. Christ in His death satisfies the demands of justice. The penalty is paid and we are freed and saved.
The sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross becomes the ransom or penalty that has to be offered to appease Satan or to satisfy the Law-Giver, God. If we believe that Jesus died for our sins we have cause to sing merrily about being washed in the blood of the lamb as symbol of Christ who was made a human sacrifice for all of humanity and now we are whiter than snow and purified.. All we need is to believe that this is what Jesus did and that is enough. Is that so and how easy it is just to believe and confess with our lips this doctrine.
I am inclined towards the moral influence theory. The life and mission of Jesus is to set an example of what a moral life is as we face the challenges in living on this planet earth. There is this moral influence that Jesus was spreading and calling His followers to follow his example even though it led to death. That it is only right for us to confess our sins and to repent and turn away from our sins and follow the way of Jesus and walk where he walked. It is not to believe in the doctrine that Jesus died for our sins but to believe that Jesus was crucified because of our sins. It was not the personal sins of the Jewish people in general that Jesus was crucified but specifically the sins the Jewish religious hierarchy in collaboration with the Roman authorities and those who support them. Crucifixion is not a Jewish religious act of punishment but a secular act of the penalty of death as a punishment for opposition to Roman Rule and condoned by those who oppose the ministry of Jesus.
We must consider seriously the significant difference between the statement that Christ died for our sins to that of Jesus was crucified because of our sins. So the act of Crucifixion of Christ continues and is being repeated if we do not follow the way of Christ. By confessing the doctrine that Christ died for our sins can be misleading if we do not follow the way of Christ and continue to live in sin. There is this tendency to believe that since Jesus has died for our sins in the act of Crucifixion on Good Friday we are forgiven the sins that we commit since then in our time. Maybe we claim it and admit that we repent but without the necessity to show the fruits of repentance.
Allow me to refer to Gwee Li Sui who preached his sermon on worship which he delivered not in Singlish but in good English which a university teacher can do. He actually made a critique of our practice of what we call worship which was really subsumed in the early Church. This has been lifted up to the premier position whenever we come together as a congregation. Singing is not the totality of worship and is but a vehicle or instrument of worship. The four primary modes of church worship. are namely teaching, fellowship, Communion, and prayer. He based his understanding of worship in this quotation from Colossians 3:16, Paul exhorts the faithful in Colossae in this manner: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” Singing is an instrument for worship and must not regarded as the most important segment comprising all of worship. Through singing of hymns and spiritual songs we communicate the four distinctive elements of worship – teaching, fellowship, communion and prayer. Unconsciously the worship segment has become a performance by the music team and the congregation becomes spectators watching and listening when they should join in singing together with those who lead in the songs. The emphasis is more to cater to our feelings and emotions and not to feed our minds or brain and forgetting to love God with our mind and our heart and our soul or our spirit. This relates to my discussion on resurrection and crucifixion. There is no resurrection without crucifixion which is obvious. There is no singing of the joyous songs of resurrection without the contemplation of the crucifixion. So five Sundays after Easter we get this reminder of the Crucifixion.
Let me relate this now directly relate to the message that I got when I saw the reading of the extracts of plays written by our friends Desmond Lim, Russell Heng and Chay Yew. It was a dramatized reading with heaps of emotions and torrents of tears by the actors in this performance of Gender and Sexuality. They depicted the struggles of a transexual male to female, the relationship navigating over racial, age, cultural and economic status, the hate and love – friend and lover situations of two gays. They depicted their agony and suffering and the utter necessity of facing up to their individual selves with honesty. The presentations was so intense and performed dramatically whirling with human emotions. Even I can resonate with their struggles with the different forms of complex relationships. How much more are some of you able to identify with their agony as they struggle to be honest. I am sure a good number of you saw the play and may want to read their plays that have been published. This is real life and we cannot ignore it. We enter into a state of denial. This reality and we have to process it honestly if we are to celebrate. When we enjoy our reconciliation to sexuality we need to remind ourselves of those who are closetted and suffering.
Then last Sunday in the prayer segment Jiame remind me of the book, Disturb the Comfortable and Comfort the Disturbed. I have been aware for a long time the companion statement. Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. My tendency in my ministry has been more in afflicting the comfortable for I realize that the people who come to our Church are more comfortable than afflicted than those who remain clossetted and isolated and lonely. We are fast becoming a comfortable church with the lifestyle accompanying it when I follow you in your Facebook postings even though many chose not to be on Facebook .Yet I am certain that many who are not able to have the courage to come to FCC are deeply afflicted and where are the Philips who go out to reach them as they suffer in loneliness and in silence and find life difficult to celebrate. My conviction is that if more of the comfortable are afflicted then there will be less to be comforted. The afflicted find it harder to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. You are not totally free are others out there are unfree.
My dear friends often wonder about me and my ministry. It is time for me to celebrate and be comfortable. And through a simple and frugal living, I have the means to do so, I admit. But my approach to life is that I can be comfortable and celebrate only if I have done more in afflicting the comfortable and enough to comfort the afflicted. I cannot be comforted by claiming that Christ died for my sins but I need to recognize that Jesus is being crucified continuously because of my sins and I must always repent and show fruits of repentance.
The Crucified Jesus the sinless who is most sinned against spurs me on to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. May it be the same for you.