One of my all-time favorite movies is the 1981 blockbuster, “Raiders of The Lost Ark,” where Indiana Jones discovers the Ark of the Covenant, the 4-foot long container holding the two tablets of the 10 commandments that God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai. After a long struggle with the Nazis, Indiana Jones takes the Ark back to the United States, and at the end of the movie, <spoiler alert!> you see it being stored with millions of other crates in a non-descript, humungous warehouse.
That’s fiction, of course, but it makes the church-nerd in me wonder: where is the Ark of the Covenant today? Was it destroyed, is it intact and in a cave somewhere waiting to be found again, or is somebody keeping it?
The Christian Orthodox Church of Ethiopia claims that it has the actual ark. They say that when the Queen of Sheba, ruler of Ethiopia visited King Solomon around 1,000 B.C., she witnessed first-hand Solomon’s great wisdom, the great temple, and the great land of Israel. She and Solomon fell in love, and had a child that was born after she returned to her homeland. He was named Menelik. Years later, Menelik traveled to Israel to visit his father. Unbeknownst to Menelik, his traveling companions stole the ark and brought it back to Ethiopia. And today, the legend goes, it’s being guarded by a group of priests in a chapel high in the mountains of northern Ethiopia. Nobody but the priests are allowed to see it.
It’s quite a story…a legend, really. We don’t know if any of it is true. But we do know that the Christian church in Ethiopia is ancient. In fact, since around the year 350 A.D., Christianity has been the official religion of Ethiopia, and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church is one of the oldest churches in the world.
We also know that the Ethiopian church is thriving. In fact, the Lutheran Church in Ethiopia is the second largest Lutheran church body in the world, with 5.3 million members, behind only the Church of Sweden, with 6.7 members. As a frame of reference, our church body, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is fourth on the list, with 4.6 million members, behind Sweden, Ethiopia and then Tanzania.
And it just might be that in our first scripture reading for today, we find the reason why the Ethiopian church has such a long and storied history.
The primary characters in our story are Philip, a Jesus follower, and another man…an Ethiopian eunuch, who was, scholars believe, an important government official. He was probably the man responsible for the Kingdom’s treasure.
But while Philip and the Ethiopian are important characters…this story really isn’t about them. This is a story about how the Holy Spirit says “go.”
First, God sends an angel of the Lord to Philip and tells him to go from Jerusalem to Gaza. And so, Philip, being obedient to God, goes. He travels on foot down what we now call “The Gaza Strip.”
And on the way, something unexpected happens. He bumps into this Ethiopian government official. Scripture tells us that: “This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading from the Book of the prophet Isaiah.”
The Spirit again tells Philip, “Go. Go to that chariot and stand near it. Just stand there.” Philip is confused…but goes.
Now for the record, this was a pretty significant violation of Jewish law. The eunuch was…well…a eunuch. The law forbids Jews from coming into contact with both foreigners and eunuchs. So there was no way Philip was supposed to go talk with him. But the Spirit is clear, and Philip is obedient, so he goes.
He sees this Ethiopian official reading from the prophet Isaiah, and Philip asks him “do you understand that what you’re reading?” The Ethiopian replies, “well, how could I without someone to guide me?” And so, Philip sits down next to him, and they read it together. And they get to the part where Isaiah wrote “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…”
When the Ethiopian asks Philip, “who is Isaiah writing about?” I’m guessing that Philip must have smiled and thought to himself “now I understand why I’m here, talking to this man.” And so Philip tells the Ethiopian the story of Jesus; about is life, his teachings, his death and his resurrection. This story is powerful. And hearing the story changes the Ethiopian; it transforms his heart; and he believes.
The Ethiopian looks down and sees some water, and he asks what I think is a great, rhetorical question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized? Right now? Right here?”
Phillip doesn’t think twice. Philip baptizes him.
And the Ethiopian, the scripture says, goes on his way…rejoicing. And, I think it’s safe to assume, telling that story to all that he meets. And the church in Ethiopia was born.
Meanwhile, Philip? The scripture says he continued on his way to Caesarea, and that while he traveled, he “proclaimed the Good News to all the towns” until he arrived. Not one…not a few…but to all of the towns.
Suddenly, Philip, the reluctant storyteller, became that guy who has an amazing experience, and when he’s at your dinner party, just won’t stop talking about it.
And can you blame him? If I were him, I’d tell that story everywhere I went!
I love the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, and I’ll be honest…I want you to love it too. I want you to watch how the Spirit is working in that place and at that time; and then I want you to ask yourself, how is the Spirit working here in this place, and in this time?
I believe that God’s Spirit is always working around us…and I believe that one of the things God tells us all the time…is the same Word he said to Philip: “go.”
“Go” is a word heard consistently throughout the scriptures. I think just about every book in the Bible has a story where God is telling someone to “get up and go.”
- Abraham is told to go to a new land.
- Moses is told to go back to Egypt, to lead the slaves into freedom.
- Deborah, the judge
- Mary and Joseph…
all of these familiar Biblical names have heard God’s Word of “go.”
If one spends enough time reading the stories of our faith, it becomes pretty apparent that Christianity is intended to be a faith in motion. And as our story today reminds us, when we take seriously this instruction…when we get up and go…the Spirit goes to work through us, and the world changes.
So, I’ll ask the question again: “how is the Spirit working here in this place, and in this time? How is the Spirit working in and through us? How is the Spirit working?”
I have to admit that the idea of following the Spirit’s instructions… getting up and going…is a challenge. It is a challenge because every day I have lists! I have lists of things to do…lists of people to call…lists of places to be…and I, like many of us, value productivity, efficiency and accomplishment. But sometimes I wonder if in the midst of my quest to get everything done, I might miss what the Holy Spirit is putting right in front of me.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian is a reminder to me that there are times when the work of the Holy Spirit is disruptive to who I am…to my goals and plans. There are times that the Holy Spirit looks at my lists, and I’m guessing giggles just a little bit.
“No Todd…here’s what I’ve got for you today. Get up. Go…”
Sitting at the center of this relationship with the Holy Spirit is trust. Trust that God has a call for us; trust that God only cares about what is best for us, and for the world; trust that God will be with us throughout it all.
Would Philip have walked the length of the Gaza Strip…over 100 miles…if he hadn’t trusted God?
This past week, here at Trinity, 25 young people, students at the Alternative Learning Center or Choice Academy, made use of the Husky pantry to get food for themselves or their families. About half connect with the pantry through RealLife, the outreach ministry of Young Life to that community, the other half connect through the schools social workers. Jane Elsner, who directs RealLife, said in an email that some of the kids that were there, outside of the school lunches they receive, haven’t eaten a meal in a couple of days.
These are kids who have been through a lot. And for many, being in a program like RealLife, or even stepping into a church, is like foreign territory for them. It’s like walking down the Gaza strip.
But God’s Spirit is tenacious. And they may not even recognize it, but I believe that God’s Spirit whispers in their ear “go.” I give them a lot of credit. They take a chance…and they trust. And so, they come here…and they participate in RealLife, and they come to know what it’s like to be a part of a community of people who care about them.
And they meet Trinity people who say “what do you need? Food? How many are in your family? How can we help you?”
- They hear a Word whispered…a Word of the Spirit that says “go”
- And they hear a Word whispered…a Word of welcome
- and they hear a Word whispered…a Word of hospitality
That’s how God’s Spirit sometimes works. By whispering.
How else does God’s Spirit work here, at Trinity? Or in our community? Or in your family? Or in your life?
Today, God’s Spirit is whispering in your ear, as an individual…and in our collective ear as a community. What is the Spirit saying? The Spirit is saying: look around…what are the needs? Your needs…the community’s needs…the world’s needs; Look and see. And then, “get up…go…”
People here have heard the call and have gone before: Ethiopia, Chile, the Pine Ridge Reservation, Detroit, Colombia, Duluth, Tanzania, West Virginia, Jamaica, the foodshelf, Beds for Kids, Clotheseline, Habitat for Humanity, to the care centers…
When you listen, what do you hear? Where will the Spirit lead you? Where is your Gaza strip?
God’s Spirit whispers to us, God’s Son promises to never leave us. This is the Good News we all experience.
Like so many before us, listen to God’s Spirit whisper. Hear the Word, and get up, and “go.”
Thanks be to God!