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Sunday Service, 21st June 2020

Opening prayer

Almighty and eternal God, we thank you and praise you for creation, for the beauty of the earth, hill and vale, tree and flower, for the majestic mountains here within our homeland, for the gentle flowing hills of the borders.

We thank you too for the fact that not only have you created us, given us life as individuals but you have redeemed us and set us free. You have found us and made us your own, named us and called us ‘Beloved’.

We thank you that you have promised to be with us always and that nothing in all creation can separate us from your love.

We confess that we have lived superficially, pushing you at times to the back of our minds, avoiding you, even as you have come after us.

In our relationships we have given less than our full selves, listened impatiently to the views of others, hardened our hearts to the demands of justice. Routine has become our ally and honesty our dread.

Lord, we have shut ourselves up. Come after us, knock on the door of our lives, that we may open up to meet others and rediscover ourselves, know your love and begin to live again.

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen 

Hymn 181 For the beauty of the earth. Listen here.

Scripture Reading

Acts 8: 26–40 (NRSV)

Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, ‘Get up and go towards the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.’ (This was a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’ So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ He replied, ‘How can I, unless someone guides me?’ And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:

‘Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.’

The eunuch asked Philip, ‘About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’ He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.

Photo by Zach Vessels on Unsplash

Sermon by Rev. Robert Gemmell: The Nudging of the Holy Spirit

In the second of our whistle-stop tours of events within the Acts of the Apostles we focus our attention on the strange coming together of Philip and an Ethiopian, in a world where travel was very limited and Ethiopia would seem very far off and one of its countrymen would seem exotic. He was no doubt black and the colour of his skin would make him an object of wonder and curiosity.

On an initial reading of our passage it would seem that Philip was the protagonist, the central character in our narrative, or even the Ethiopian eunuch. But are they?

We find three occasions when Philip finds himself being nudged. First of all it is an ‘angel of the Lord’ that provides the impulse that prompts him to leave Samaria and join the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, and the angel prompts him to do so at the height of the day.

Secondly, when Philip sees the Ethiopian, it is the Holy Spirit who does the nudging. And thirdly, when the Ethiopian comes up out of the water of his baptism, the Holy Spirit then snatches Philip away.

The angel does the nudging, and Philip finds himself being led out on to a deserted road where contact is made with an important official in charge of the treasury of the Queen of Ethiopia. He was an important man with a lot of power.

We don’t know for certain, but I would imagine that there must have been something about the Jewish God or the Jewish way of life that attracted or challenged the official. It has been suggested that he was in fact a Jew. Perhaps because of his interest in all things Jewish, he had been able to procure a copy, or at least part, of the Jewish Scriptures and we find him reading, but reading without any real sense of understanding, words from the prophecy of Isaiah. Enter Philip, centre stage. ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’

And so a door of opportunity opens for Philip. He is able to come alongside the traveller and assist him in a process that would lead to the opening of the man’s eyes and ears of understanding. And the particular passage that the Ethiopian was struggling with? ‘Like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered, like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off, he did not say a word. He was humiliated, and justice was denied him. No one will be able to tell about his descendants, because his life on earth has come to an end.’ (Isaiah Chapter 53)

The questioning mind of the Ethiopian was open to what was being explained to him. There seemed to be, on his part, an eagerness to learn more from the pages of the prophecy.

‘Who is the prophet speaking about, himself or someone else?’ Philip started from this particular passage and began to explain to him the good news about Jesus.

We don’t have the actual content of what Philip said, but it evoked a response from the Ethiopian about the Christian faith and about the question of baptism. While the manuscript we have leaves our understanding a little bit up in the air, other manuscripts provide an additional verse for our attention: ‘Philip said to him, “You may be baptised if you believe in all your heart.” “I do, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”’

If we include that verse found in some manuscripts then his commitment led to a further question: ‘Look, here is some water, is there anything to hinder me being baptised?’

We read: ‘The Ethiopian ordered the carriage to stop and both Philip and the Ethiopian went down into the water and Philip baptised him.’

Post-baptism, the Ethiopian, having come to a measure of understanding of the Christian faith, then continued on his journey ‘full of joy’.

Eusebius, who is a highly regarded historian of Christianity and lived from around 260–340AD, refers to the fact that the Ethiopian returned home and became an evangelist and founder of the Coptic Church. While our text says nothing of this, we can understand how this story of an Ethiopian who appears from nowhere, responds to the Gospel, and joyfully goes on his way, elicited an exciting and imaginative response from the Church. In his story we see what the good news can do.

And Philip? We read that the Spirit of God ‘took him away. And Philip then found himself in Azotus; he then went on to Caesarea, and on the way he preached the Good News in every town’.

In this account we see the nudging, prodding and prompting of the Holy Spirit influencing the life and response of Philip – and of the Ethiopian.

A relevant question from all of this – does it bring any form of challenge for us today? I wonder if we have ever found ourselves in similar circumstances to those confronting Philip. Have we ever been aware that the Holy Spirit, perhaps through Scripture or even through a word of a friend or colleague, through our own quiet time, is gently nudging us to consider a change in direction for our lives, or to take some particular course of action? It is never too late in life to wrestle with the possibility of trying something new.

Our experience will probably not be quite so dramatic or life changing. Nor does the prompting have to be as seemingly crazy or absurd as in the case of Philip. All it needs to be is real – real for us, within the privacy of our own situation. And the result? It can become the means the Lord uses to bring a message of hope and encouragement to others in their pilgrimage through life. An example at the moment is the ways in which Churches and ministers are having to learn new ways of communicating with congregations and parishes at a time when the traditional and familiar ways are not open to us. It seems a very short time since most of us had never heard of Zoom or webinars or live streaming but we have had to adapt.

A life that has impressed me over the years is that of the Rev. Geoff Shaw. Ron Ferguson in the preface to his biography of Geoff Shaw wrote:

He was a substantial man. Not a perfect man, or a saint. He must at all costs be kept out of the stain glass windows. His life should be celebrated where it belongs – in the world. He was a frontiersman, one of a new breed of Christian who explored uncharted territories that most of us would prefer to leave alone. His journey was more lonely and more costly than most of us recognised at the time. But because he lived his life at the margins he has the power to address us about central things.

The genius of Geoff Shaw lay not so much in his ideas as in the manner in which he incarnated them. He tenaciously refused to separate speaking from doing, praying from acting, spirit from body, peace from politics. And he knew the difference between being relevant and being fashionable.

For me, Geoff Shaw, a student of Edinburgh Academy, member of Cramond Kirk, the minister, the politician, the first Convener of Strathclyde Regional Council, was a man among others, but a man true to his faith whose life was nudged in different directions at different times. Geoff died a comparatively young man in 1978.

As we step out into the challenge of another ordinary week in extraordinary times it may just be that the Holy Spirit may nudge you. Will you be paying attention? If not, might you miss the nudge? Philip might have missed it, but he didn’t. What about you?

Photo by Xevi Casanovas on Unsplash

Hymn 200 – Christ is made the sure foundation. A favourite hymn of Geoff Shaw. Listen here.

Prayer of thanksgiving and intercession

God of creation who has come to us in Jesus,
lead us in Your way of love and fill us with Your Spirit
Choose us to bring good news to the poor,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
to bring sight to the blind and set free the oppressed.

Spirit of truth and judgment who alone
can cast out the powers that grip our world be with us.
At this time of pandemic, give us Your discernment and
the strength to support all those working to aid those suffering.

Spirit of integrity, You drive us into the desert to search out truth.
Give us the clarity to know what is right,
that we may abandon the false paths we often choose for ourselves
but may follow the way and purpose of Jesus Christ.
God of history, You share our joys and crushing sorrows.

You hear the cries of the afflicted, You fill the hungry and You set free the oppressed.
We pray for the end to all injustice.
Inspire us with the all-embracing love of God
Challenge us with the sacrificial love of Jesus
Empower us with the transforming love of the Spirit
That we and all God’s children may live and be free. Amen

With thanks to the World Mission Council.

The Blessing