How to be Close to God

John 15:7-10, Acts 8:26-40, 1 John 4:7-12, 16

Rev. Doug Van Doren, Plymouth UCC, Grand Rapids, MI, May 3, 2015


So, here is Philip in this great story from Acts, cooling his heels in Samaria. When there he is accosted by an angel who tells him to get up and go into the desert, in the mid-day heat, to the road that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. "You know, that wilderness road." And with that, the angel is gone.


I don't know about you, but I'd want more information. I might say, "Well, OK, but it's hot out there, maybe I should wait until it cools down. And by the way, why? As you said, it is a wilderness road, where's the traffic? I want to be where the action is, you've seen my success with that Samaritan."


But isn't that typical of angelic orders - they are woefully incomplete! Like the angel that appears to old Abram settled in Ur for generations. "Get up, Abram, leave all of this, all that you have ever known and go to a new place." "Really, where?" "The place that I will show you!" Or the Angel to Mary, "You are not going to believe this, Mary, but God has some big plans for you." "Oh yea, what, and how is it all going to turn out, tell me that!" Or to Joseph, "Take that child to Egypt." "Ah, OK... you mean right now?" And there are myriad more.


Who is Philip, and what is he doing in Samaria, isn't that "enemy territory?" Yes, it is - or was. Philip is there, by default. He has fled Jerusalem. This is not Philip of the 12 Apostles. A couple chapters earlier, the Apostles discovered that they were having a hard time meeting the expectations of the ever-larger community of followers. And they were catching flak (boy that started early!) because many thought that the Hellenistic followers were getting second shrift to the Jerusalem followers. You see, among the Jews there were those centered in Jerusalem, who were culturally not very influenced by, or knowledgeable in, Greek culture. The Greek culture had shaped everywhere but Jerusalem and Palestine in the previous centuries. The Hellenists were clearly Jews, but much more worldly. Maybe they were seen by the Jerusalem Jews as not quite as pure or untainted as they were.


However, the Apostles certainly did not want to neglect the Hellenistic widows, so they appointed seven Hellenistic Jews to minister to them. Philip was one of those seven. No sooner is that done than there is a massive persecution that breaks out against the followers of Jesus. They all flee, except the 12 Apostles.


So basically, Philip is out here cooling his heels in order to escape the mayhem and threat in Jerusalem where already one of his fellow Hellenist disciples, Stephen, has just been stoned to death.


First lesson: this is not some well-planned church expansion program, at least not on the part of the disciples. Philip who signed up to wait on the Hellenistic Jews finds himself on the frontiers of this new movement. He finds himself in unfamiliar, even hostile territory, among unsavory people whom he, as a real Jew along with all his compatriots, had scorned for generations.


But isn't that so often how things go in our lives. We have our path all planned out or at least we have a sense of how it should go. Then something happens, perhaps beyond our control, or as a consequence of our behavior, and we find ourselves somewhere we did not expect to be - somewhere we maybe did not want to be. Can get a witness! I know a talented dancer who always saw himself in NYC, but he married, and his wife's family was in this area, and she wasn't a big-city girl. He agreed to come to Grand Rapids, and discovered a thriving dance scene that needed and appreciated him, and he made a huge impact and was completely satisfied, professionally and personally.


Philip, no doubt, wanted to be in Jerusalem where the action was, where the 12 Apostles were, where Jesus had taken his final stand, where it was happening, even to the extent of persecution. But what does he discover in Podunksville? God is there too. God is way ahead of him; there is need there too, maybe far greater than in Jerusalem. Maybe a lot more is happening outside the heavy religious air of Jerusalem than he could imagine.


A Conference Minister was talking with a young woman who worked for the denomination's state office. She is in charge of Conference communications throughout the state. He had asked her about a meeting of communication representatives from around the state. She responded that she wouldn't be there because she would be gone for the next two weeks.
    "Vacation?" He asked.
    "No, not vacation, I'll be working with a prison ministry," she responded.
    He told her how much he admired her for doing this prison ministry.
    "Actually, I do it for rather selfish reasons," she said. "After working full-time here at this level of the church, I really need the spiritual renewal that comes from getting out of this place, out into the world where God is busy, out with people who are still surprised and grateful that God loves even them."


How many of us have discovered the same thing when we step outside the confines of the church to serve, like in Interfaith Hospitality Network?


Maybe Philip hadn't been listening when the Apostles told the story, back in Acts 1 before the Ascension, when Jesus said, "You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."


The disease of forgetfulness is not just a 20th century problem! I think, however, that it is a particularly prevalent religious malady. How easily we forget the promises. Abram no doubt heard with consternation, "Go to a place that I will show you," wanting to know ahead of time where that place was, what it looked like. But he forgot that "to show you" meant that God would have to be with him to point it out! Maybe Philip forgot the words of the Psalmist (or perhaps he was a bit lax in reading the scriptures) "Where can I go from your spirit, where can I flee from your presence. If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I say, 'Let only darkness cover me, even the darkness is not dark to you.'" Maybe he forgot that Jesus said, "I go to prepare a place for you." And that if God is God of this world as well as the next, God is already in the place Philip will find himself, and is already preparing the way. Must be he forgot Jesus' final words of the commissioning, "Lo, I will be with you always, even to the ends of the earth."


Or, more likely, Philip did hear those words, "You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and throughout the world," but thought that the "you" meant you, and you, and you, not me!


But in spite of himself, he is right where God can use him. The writer of the book of Acts wants to be clear that this unimaginable idea of including the Gentiles as God's people (unimaginable from the point of view of the Jews) was God's directive, not some harebrained scheme of the disciples who had gotten into the communion wine. That is why God sends the heavy hitter - the angel, to Philip. The angel is followed by the Holy Spirit. Maybe that is also why Philip is only told where to go, not what will happen when he gets there or what the outcome of his work will be.


In other words, though God is directing this, it takes a whole lot of faith to respond. It takes trust to own that you, too, are a disciple, and that God will not abandon you on that wilderness road. Then it took Philip faith to believe that this foreigner, this Jewish proselyte or "wannabe," a Eunuch, who would have been regarded as "unclean," one who is doubly marginalized, could be the reason Philip was out here. Philip must have thought to himself, "There must have been a mistake; maybe the angel said north rather than south."


Now notice something very important here. Philip is led both by the Spirit, and, now, by the Eunuch as well. He doesn't first go up and start preaching at the man. He doesn't tell him to stop and listen, or to come over here so I can tell you what's what. He goes with him. Philip accompanies him; he sits beside him; he sees what he is doing and is genuinely interested. He listens to this man's need, which we can all relate to, "How am I supposed to know what this darn book means without a guide!" The Eunuch invites Philip to be his guide. Then he directs Philip again, "There is water, baptize me: I, too, am whole in God's sight; I, too, am God's child." And Philip follows.


How often we think we know what is best for others - our objects of mission. How easy it is for us to further marginalize people by not listening to them. We hear a lot of white people pontificating about, and some condemning out of hand, the unrest that is going on in Baltimore. But are they listening to the people of color there? Had anyone listened to them, they would have heard of the scores of complaints about police brutality over the last several years. They would have heard a community who feels, with a lot of evidence, that they are under siege and cannot trust what officers will do.


Are we listening? Are we listening to what people of color are saying here in Grand Rapids? Are we listening to the calling of the Holy Spirit to move beyond the places where we are comfortable, to hear beyond the voices that sound like us, and say the things that reinforce what we already believe? Are we willing to be led by those, like the Ethiopian Eunuch, who have been pushed to the margins?

By the grace and leading of the Holy Spirit and the Ethiopian Eunuch, Philip got it. The writer of the 1st letter of John got it. God is love, and God doesn't put boundaries on love like we do. To abide in God is to abide in love. And God's love is "perfected" in us.


Why does God call Philip? God needs someone with legs to run alongside and hop onto that chariot. God needs someone with ears to listen to the Eunuch's needs. God needs someone with speech to talk with him, someone with hands to fulfill his request to be included, through the sign of baptism. God needed someone, a part of the human community, the very community that marginalized this man in the first place, to say, in human word and action, "We were wrong. You, too, are a child of God, and we will treat you as such."


You know, when we listen, and trust, we disciples and God make a pretty good partnership. May it be so. Amen.