May 5, 2024

The Grace of the Resurrection

The Grace of the Resurrection

Easter 5, 28 April
Readings: Acts 8. 26-end; 1 Jn. 4. 7-end; Jn. 15. 1-8
Theme: The Grace of the Resurrection.

Our passage from the Acts of the Apostles today continues the themes that we have been exploring over the Easter weeks. As I mentioned previously, all the movement of the Acts of the Apostles is away from Jerusalem and the first reading from Acts demonstrates this ‘geographical theology’ as we might call it. It is the wonderful story of the Ethiopian eunuch who is returning to Ethiopia after having gone up to the Temple to worship, probably at the annual feast of the Passover. In writing his gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, we can see in today’s reading from Acts, how the evangelist Luke uses a repeating structure to his narratives that he deploys in various ways in his writings. If this passage from Acts reminds you of other passages, you will have already intuited this educational structure of writing which Luke is using. The obvious parallel with today’s reading from Acts is that of Luke 24. 13-35 the ‘On the Road to Emmaus’ passage. In Acts 8 the same structure as in Luke 24 is used, namely, an encounter on the road, a conversation which results in the explanation of the meaning of the Holy Scriptures and then a sacramental celebration in which the main protagonist (Jesus) then disappears.

So, in Acts, we have another journey as a setting for the passage, but this time, not to Emmaus rather from Jerusalem to Gaza. In other words, following the Resurrection the message of Jesus, the Gospel, will spread out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. This journey from Jerusalem to Gaza is a part of the journey of the eunuch back to his home country Ethiopia which had a Jewish community and subsequently one of the earliest Christian communities, that today has its own patriarch as part of the Orthodox communion of Christianity. It represents one of Luke’s central messages that the Gospel will be a ‘light to the gentiles and the glory of the people of Israel’, as we have it in the nunc dimittis (Lk. 2. 29-32). The spreading of the message to the ends of the earth is thus embodied in this incident from Acts as the apostle Philip spreads the message through this eunuch to Ethiopia in Eastern Africa.

The character of the ‘eunuch’ is not a random character chosen by St Luke for his narrative. It is a way that St Luke represents the inclusion of the excluded into full communion with the new Jewish community of the church. As a eunuch, this Ethiopian treasury official to the Queen, would not have been allowed access to the Temple to worship. In other words, like turning up to a World Cup Match without a ticket, he would have had to stand outside and soak up the atmosphere from the other side of the walls. However, now through the message of Christ, this eunuch will be brought into full communion with his Jewish faith, through Jesus. How so?

Well, Luke uses the general structure, which is the structure we have adopted as the standard form of a Christian act of worship, namely, Bible study followed by communion. This is represented in the story by the fact that as Philip encounters him on the road to Gaza, he is reading the prophet Isaiah. Though he is reading the scriptures, the eunuch makes it clear that he does not really understand what he is reading. He needs someone to explain that for him. So, just like the Emmaus story, as Jesus meets Cleopas and the other disciple on the road, the scriptures are explained to the disciples of Jesus. Once they understand the scriptures the next step is sacramental. In the case of the eunuch this is to ask Philip for baptism in the water, in the case of the disciples on the road to Emmaus it is to celebrate the Eucharist. In both sacramental acts, the agent of the act disappears as soon as the sacrament is celebrated. In other words, the presence of the resurrected Christ communicated to the disciple through the sacrament is mediated through the Holy Spirit. Just as it is the Holy Spirit who overshadows Mary at the conception of Jesus, so too as Jesus’s resurrected presence comes to us both at Emmaus and on the road to Gaza, the same Holy Spirit makes Jesus present to us through ‘snatching’ the body away from us. In the case of Emmaus, this is the body of Jesus and in the case of the passage with the eunuch, it is Philip who is snatched away. In other words, the sacraments communicate to us a visible sign of an invisible grace, an outward manifestation of an inner experience: the personal encounter with the risen Christ. This sacramental presence of the risen Christ is, as the 1662 catechism of the BCP (857) puts it an, ‘Outward and visible sign of inward spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace’.

So, Word and sacrament belong together in the new dispensation of faith inaugurated by the risen Christ. They are the ‘sure and certain’ ways in which the grace given by Christ is made manifest to us. Sadly, polemics in Christian history have deformed this union with one approach to Christianity often under-emphasizing the importance of the scriptures and the other frequently under-emphasizing the importance of the sacraments. It is so that we can truly receive the invisible God that we proclaim the scriptures and celebrate the sacraments. They are the new ways in which God is made present to us through the Word and through the sacraments. It is the same Holy Spirit who makes Jesus present to us in the study of the scriptures and the celebration of sacraments, just as this same Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary and made Jesus flesh in her womb. Yes, we might think of our study of the scriptures and our celebration of the sacraments as the way in which the resurrected Christ is incarnate in our own souls. Jesus lives in us through the power of the Holy Spirit as the love of God the Father. As our second reading from St John today proclaims, ‘for God is love’.

So, perhaps as a way of summarizing this new resurrected presence of Jesus amongst us, we might finish by praying together, 2 Corinthians 13: 14 otherwise known as the grace:
‘The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Amen.