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Daily Devotions from the United Reformed Church Service for Sunday 2nd May The Fifth Sunday of Easter
One: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus, our King, is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!
Many: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
One: Rejoice, O Earth, in shining splendour, radiant in the brightness of our King! Jesus has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!
Many: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! One: Rejoice, O holy Church! Exult in glory! The risen Saviour shines upon you! Let this place resound with joy, as we sing, echoing the mighty song of all God’s people!
Hymn The Day of Resurrection St John of Damascus 749, translated J M Neale 1862
The day of resurrection! Earth, spread the news abroad; The Paschal Feast of gladness, The Paschal Feast of God. From death to life eternal, From earth to heaven’s height, Our Savour Christ has brought us; the glorious Prince of life.
2: Our hearts be free from evil, that we may see aright. The Savour resurrected in His eternal Light. And hear his message plainly, delivered calm and clear; “rejoice with me in triumph, be glad and do not fear.”
3: Now let the heav’ns be joyful, and earth her song begin! The whole world keep high triumph, and all that is therein! Let all things in creation their notes of gladness blend, For Christ the Lord is risen, our joy that hath no end.
Hello. My name is Andy Braunston and I work with four lovely United Reformed Church congregations in and around Glasgow. I also manage the Daily Devotions project for the URC working with a team of over 100 writers who create the daily reflections and prayers which are emailed out early each morning to well over 4,000 people. The Daily Devotions network was also used to ensure that we were able to get recorded services, like this one, produced each week so that those at home due to frailty, illness or shielding can take part in URC worship alongside those who can’t meet in person due to legal, safety, or moral restrictions. We’ve seen a remarkable growth in church attendance since lockdown – which is something of a paradox. The availability of worship on the Internet has let all sorts of people dip in and see something of what we’re about. In our service today we think about how one of the earliest evangelists helped someone on the edge of Jewish life and faith find his place in the Kingdom.
Prayers of Approach, Confession, and Forgiveness
Holy One, long ago you called a people to yourself, choosing them to be holy as you are holy, giving them your Law and Commandments, that they might rise to be a light to the nations.
Holy One, in due season you sent to your people, Jesus, your Word made flesh. To the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation, to outsiders he gave the grace of your presence, he lifted up the lowly, treated women as equals, and taught His followers to love others as themselves. Yet for his pains he was brought low, betrayed by one who loved him, handed over to torture, ridicule, shame and death, and was laid in a borrowed tomb. Yet you defeated the powers, even the powers of death, and raised Jesus on high, to be the first fruits of our faith, opening the way to grace for all.
Holy One, you send your Church power from above that we might worship you in spirit and in truth, witness to your saving works, tell others of your love and serve in your name.
Forgive us when we fail: fail to acknowledge the Jewish people as the apple of your eye; fail to follow the teachings of Jesus, fail to worship, witness, evangelise or serve as we should. Forgive us, Lord, and give us time to change. Amen.
Here is Good News! God is the Source of all mercy, and, through the birth, life, death and new life of Jesus, His Son, is reconciling the world to Himself and has sent the Holy Spirit amongst us for the forgiveness of sins. Through the ministry of the Church may we all receive pardon and peace, in the knowledge that we are forgiven, in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Hymn:Let Us Build A House Marty Haugen (b.1950)
Let us build a house where love can dwell and all can safely live, a place where saints and children tell how hearts learn to forgive; built of hopes & dreams & visions, rock of faith and vault of grace; here the love of Christ shall end divisions:
All are welcome, all are welcome, all are welcome in this place.
2 Let us build a house where prophets speak, and words are strong and true, where all God’s children dare to seek to dream God’s reign anew. Here the Cross shall stand as witness and as symbol of God’s grace; here as one we claim the faith of Jesus:
3 Let us build a house where all are named, their songs and visions heard and loved and treasured, taught and claimed as words within the Word. Built of tears and cries and laughter, prayers of faith and songs of grace, let this house proclaim from floor to rafter:
Prayer of Illumination
Speak to us, O God, as you spoke of old, through your Word, Jesus Christ, broken open for us in Scripture and Sermon, life and faith. Amen.
Acts 8: 26-40
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 is 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.
Psalm 22: 1-5 from the Psalter of the Free Church of Scotland, Sing Psalms, sung by members of Rosskeen Free Church, 2014
My God, my God, O why have you Forsaken and abandoned me? Why are you far from giving help, From listening to my anguished plea?
2 My God, I cry to you by day; You do not hear when I complain. I call to you throughout the night; In silence I cannot remain.
3 Yet you are holy: on the praise Of Israèl you are enthroned. 4 In you our fathers put their trust; They trusted, and were not disowned.
Today we hear the much loved story of Philip and the nameless Ethiopian Eunuch. A favourite with Sunday School teachers who’d enjoy showing drawings of an exotically dressed foreign official to peak children’s interest – before they’d get distracted and ask any difficult questions about what a eunuch was.
We hear the story and we link it, as I suspect we’re intended to, as part of the story of the Church expanding its boundaries. The Church wasn’t just for those in Jerusalem, it wasn’t just for those in Israel, and, as the Book of Acts continues, it’s clear that the Church wasn’t just for Jewish people. There’s shades of that message of inclusion here but there’s more going on.
At first reading we might think the story is about race and ethnicity as these are concerns of the modern world. Yet the fact this man was Ethiopian shouldn’t be read that he wasn’t Jewish (we’ve not yet really got into the mission to the Gentiles by this point of Acts after all). The Jewish people consisted of many different ethnic and racial groups so the fact this official was an Ethiopian probably wouldn’t have struck Philip, or any other Jew of that time, as odd. Jewish teaching had been known to Ethiopians since the time of Solomon after all with his diplomatic alliance with the Queen of Sheba. The text shows that this man had been on a visit to Jerusalem to worship. In his chariot he’s reading aloud from the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah – he clearly had money as scrolls didn’t, and don’t, come cheap. The reading aloud, incidentally, was a common practice in the ancient world until the time of Augustine when it seems the demands of monastic life meant that reading in silence was taken up. Our Ethiopian friend is puzzled with and engaged by the passage he’s reading – he knows his stuff. It seems that this man was either Jewish through birth a convert to Judaism. Clearly his queen had no issues giving him time off to make his pilgrimage – maybe she was Jewish too. So we meet this guy in the context of a pilgrimage where he’d been to Jerusalem to worship.
Philip would not have been struck by the man’s ethnicity – the sin of racism is, after all, primarily a sin of modernity, and post modernity. Slaves, for example, in the ancient world were drawn primarily from defeated peoples or from people sentenced to slavery by the courts for their crimes rather than a blanket enslavement of a particular race. Ancient slavery had a different basis, still a dreadful basis, than the slavery based on racism that the English, and then the later British state, pioneered from the 16th Century onwards. There is, however, a crucial issue of difference and inclusion in this story that we miss – it’s back to those embarrassing questions that rather more knowing Sunday School children might have asked – the issue of this man being a eunuch. We usually see eunuchs in the ancient world (and in the not so ancient early modern world) as castrated males who usually worked in the palace. Ideally they were castrated before puberty and so were deemed safe servants to attend to women in the palace – no issues then of affaires and mixed blood lines. Eunuchs might have been the most personal servants for royalty and so ensured their trust; their inability to have children meant, supposedly, they had no families to promote or advocate for. Often they came from humble origins and gained high rank. The term might also have been used to mean any male who was not able to procreate. An early Church handbook on worship and discipline, the Canons of Hippolytus, rejected eunuchs for baptism associating them with male prostitutes. So simply naming a man as a eunuch was making a statement about his social and sexual standing. He had great importance as a trusted palace official, but he would have always been see as less of a man by his contemporaries and he would have had no children to remember him or mention his name in the genealogies. He was, therefore something of an outsider. Philip was then sent to help this outsider who may have been Jewish but who, if he was, would have been troubled by the Bible. He would have known that there was a debate within Judaism about the place of Eunuchs. No doubt the opening words of Psalm 22, which we sung a few moments ago, about being forsaken by God spoke to this Ethiopian man so long ago as they still speak to many who are excluded from the Church now.
The book of Deuteronomy excludes eunuchs from the Lord’s people; they could neither be part of the priesthood nor the assembly of the people. Yet the passage from Isaiah that our friend is reading is followed by a rather different theology:
and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
which shows the writer of Isaiah took a rather different view to the writer of Deuteronomy. However, the passage the official was reading is also instructive. It is part of the long poem about God’s suffering servant who will redeem His people. The passage speaks of one who like a sheep is lead to slaughter; the passage, once Philip helped him understand it, showed the official that God knew and understood the experience of being humiliated and rejected as Jesus himself took on that outcast state. Jesus, explained Philip, like the eunuch was denied justice. Jesus, like the eunuch was rejected by the people. Jesus, on the Cross, was, like the eunuch in life, humiliated and belittled. But in Jesus, and for those who follow him, this suffering, rejection and humiliation is transformed into exultation at his own side.
So with Philip’s help, the eunuch sees the Isaiah passage as speaking to him of the Jesus who died for him that he might no longer be cut off from the people and might be made whole. He might not have children to remember him but, like the unnamed woman who anointed Jesus for his death, this guy is remembered now 2,000 years later as an example of radical inclusion.
So what can we learn from this difficult tale now? After all we don’t use castrated males for royal service but we still fall into the habit of stigmatizing and excluding people we’re not fully comfortable with – and we might even try and use bits of the Bible to support us. The Book of Acts, as a whole, is a record of the whirlwind power of the Holy Spirit pushing boundaries.
Not just those in Jerusalem. Not just those in Israel. Not just Jews and God-fearers but gentiles too. Not just those who fell into the sexual norms of society but those outwith those norms.
All are included, all are invited, all can be baptised.
The Holy Spirit continues to push our boundaries, to make us uncomfortable with the status quo, in Reformed speak the Holy Spirit always seeks to reform the Church to make us more faithful to God’s Word, Jesus.
Over the Centuries the Holy Spirit has moved us on from being the Church of any one people, and helped us understand the Church is truly Catholic.
The Holy Spirit has helped us understand that slavery is abhorrent, that women must play a full and equal part in the Church with men.
In more recent years the Holy Spirit has helped us recover more of a sense of the responsibility of all the People of God to respond to the vocations we are given and, over the last 30 years ago, the Holy Spirit has stirred us to think more deeply about how to include gender and sexual minorities in our life and witness.
Just as the Ethiopian eunuch would have had to contend with different Biblical passages giving different perspectives so the Holy Spirit has helped us, over the years deal with Biblical passages that seem to make God partial to one people, to leave behind Biblical passages that seem to support slavery or oppress women. We’ve learned different perspectives about those Biblical passages which were often used to stigmatise lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered people.
These debates continue and people of good will have different perspectives but the Holy Spirit continues to catch us in the whirlwind power that swept Philip to our Ethiopian friend and away again once his work was done. The Spirit continues to blow through the Church seeking to stretch and reform us, to inspire us to include more folk as we worship, witness, evangelise and serve our world.
Will you pray with me?
O Holy Spirit, You move where You will, blowing away our dusty certainties and outworth truths, always reforming us in the light of Jesus, God’s own Word. Help us when we cling to what You are blowing aside, change us when we use the Bible to oppress, wound and exclude, and drive us, like you drove Philip, to bring Your people home. Amen.
Come out of the darkness, come out of the shadow come out of the endless night, all you who are poor now, all you who are broken all you who are bowed by fight. Come into the light of God’s sacred intention come under the shelter of Her hand, here you may find riches, here you may find healing, here now you may rise and stand.
2: Come out from your prisons, come out from your ghettos, come out from behind your walls, leave all your distinctions, leave all your derisions, and answer Her when she calls. For She is your end as She was your beginning She is the desire of all your days, in Her love is fullness, in Her love is wholeness, holy will be all Her ways.
3: No more will you rest now, no more take your ease now, no more let your life go by, always you will seek Her, forever desire Her, until the day that you die. Her love will consume you, blazing deep within you burning away all that is not true, until you embrace Her, in flesh and in spirit, holy you and wholly you.
Affirmation of Faith
God’s reconciling act in Jesus Christ is a mystery which the Scriptures describe in various ways.
It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil. These are expressions of a truth which remains beyond the reach of all theory in the depths of God’s love for humankind.
They reveal the gravity, cost, and sure achievement of God’s reconciling work in which we trust.
We bring our prayers to God for our world, the Church and those we love and worry about…
God of creation, we lift our world to you. We thank you for its beauty, for new life in our gardens, for trees in full leaf, for flowers and new growth to brighten our days. We praise you for nature busy at work with birdsong and the sounds of young animals dancing and playing in fields. Help us to be wise stewards of all you give us, O God.
God of all nations, we lift to you places of conflict and division, bitterness and distrust. Bless those who make peace, who reach out across social and ethnic divisions to make things better. Bless with your love and wisdom those who lead our nations in elected or appointed office, that they may work for the good of all.
God of the Church, help us as we navigate these times. Help us to reach out to those who wish to explore spirituality and help us to love and care for each other as we process so much loss and change over the last year. Be gentle with us, O God, as we are blown by Your Spirit.
God of mercy, we remember before you those we love and worry about (pause) and we remember our own needs before you O God (pause).
We join all our prayers together as we pray….
We practice our faith in a range of different ways – worship is the one we always think of, but we practice our faith in the ways we treat others, in how we vote, in how we use our money and resources. Our faith isn’t just something we practice on a Sunday but with our entire lives. Over the last year despite not being able to get to church, or not being able to get to church very much, we’ve still been giving – giving to charities, giving of ourselves and our love, giving to the Church knowing that it’s ministry continues despite pandemic and lockdown. And so we give thanks:
All things come from You, Loving God, and of Your own do we give You. Help us to use our resources well, that our worship and witness, our evangelism and service, will bring glory to You, now and forever, Amen.
Hymn: It is the Cry of My Heart Terry Butler
It is the cry of my heart to follow You. It is the cry of my heart to be close to You. It is the cry of my heart to follow All of the days of my life.
Teach me Your holy ways, O Lord, So I can walk in Your truth. Teach me Your holy ways, O Lord, & make me wholly devoted to You. Open my eyes so I can see The wonderful things that You do. Open my heart up more and more And make it wholly devoted to You.
May the One who drove Philip out to the edge, the One who called the Ethiopian man giving him a legacy he never dreamt of, the One who reforms the Church again and again, drive you to evangelise, call you to His Service, and reform you in His image, that the cry of your heart, will join the cry of all Creation in giving praise to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
Ach Gott Von Himmel Sieh Darein (“O God from heaven see this”) by Johann Pachelbel (organ of The Spire Church, Farnham – 2020) Songs of Praise Toccata by Robert Prizeman (organ of St Andrew’s, Farnham – 2019)
Thanks to Derek McDonald, Dan Morrell, Myra Rose, Jamie Stewart and Reuben Watt for reading various spoken parts of the service.
Where words are copyright reproduced under the terms of Barrhead URC’s CCLI licence number 1064776, Some material reprinted, and streamed, with permission under ONE LICENSE A-734713 All rights reserved. PRS Limited Online Music Licence LE-0019762