Have you ever had something go wrong during worship? The day after I was ordained a deacon the bishop came for a visitation. It was my job to read the gospel. We took the gospel book down the aisle, opened it, and I started to read, “The Holy Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ, according to John.” I quickly realized something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what. Then a parishioner came up behind me and whispered, “That’s last week’s gospel.” Whoops! So I turned the page and went on, “A continuation of the Gospel according to John.” Afterward the parish deacon said to me, “Every week I make a mistake. By the end of my life, I may have made them all.”
We’re celebrating the feast of Philip today. Jesus called Philip to be one of his disciples about the same time he called Andrew and Simon Peter to leave their fishing nets. Philip appears several times in the gospels. Once when they met a big crowd – more than would fit in this cathedral – Jesus asked Philip how they were going to feed them all. Philip answered, “Well, even six month’s wages wouldn’t be enough” to feed this bunch! But a boy’s lunch was blessed and became enough for all.
Later, when Jesus went to Jerusalem for the Passover (during the events we remember during Holy Week), some foreigners – Greek visitors – come up to Philip to ask for a meeting with Jesus. Philip and Andrew go off to find Jesus, and when he hears the request, he responds by telling them he’s going to die, and that if they want to find their lives they’re going to have to lose them. During the final supper Jesus has with his disciples, Philip asks to see the Father, and Jesus reminds him that they’ve been looking at him for quite a while and they should have begun to get some idea of what God is like.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his followers began to gather in groups in to remember, tell stories, and eat a blessed, holy meal. Those communities had plenty of poor and hungry people in them, and they started to designate some of their number to ensure the hungry were being fed. Philip was a member of the first group to be named to that ministry – they were called deacons. Deacon is a word that means servant or minister, and we understand that every baptized person shares in that kind of ministry. Acolytes are a great example.
Most of what we know about Philip is related to feeding people and introducing people to Jesus. The second story we heard today is another example. Philip and another deacon, Stephen, were in Jerusalem, where Stephen had been preaching about Jesus. After a while, Stephen moves from preaching to meddling, as they say. He accuses some of the leaders in the Jerusalem community of being less than faithful, and they respond by dragging him out and stoning him to death. Philip leaves Jerusalem and goes up north to Samaria. He’s been preaching there with greater success, and his community in Jerusalem has sent others to Samaria to follow up, and teach these newcomers more about Jesus. That’s where Philip gets a call to head south toward Gaza.
He runs across this Ethiopian court official, riding along in his chariot, reading from Isaiah. In the ancient world everybody read aloud, so it’s easy for Philip to recognize what he’s reading. It’s like seeing the video the next car’s passengers are watching, and running over to talk about it. The Ethiopian has been in Jerusalem to worship at the Temple, but because he’s a eunuch he can’t be a full member of the Jewish community. He knows about God, but he hasn't met anybody who will invite him into a deeper relationship. Here’s Philip’s chance to teach somebody what he learned from Jesus when he asked Jesus to “show us God.”
The eunuch asks who the prophet Isaiah is writing about. Surely he’s heard the prophet’s words as a description of him and his condition: “in his humiliation justice was denied him… his life was taken away from him.” Philip begins to tell him good news of Jesus, the friendship he offers to those who follow him, and the ways he proclaims liberty to captives and freedom to the oppressed.
It was a minor fault, but that’s what the deacon did for me when I got it wrong. We can all do that kind of work. Everybody here is meant to be a Philip or a Philippa – feeding their neighbors and telling or showing them good news.
That’s what being an acolyte is all about – being a friend of Jesus who can show the people around you what Jesus is like. He was a friend to anybody who needed one. You have a remarkable opportunity here today to make new friends from another part of the country or a different church – wow! When you’re on your way home, you might talk about what the person you shared lunch with showed you about Jesus. Philip became a friend to somebody who wasn’t welcome at a lot of dinner tables or in church. Have you ever done that?
The way you serve as an acolyte can be an invitation to come closer and become a friend – or it can be a real turn-off. Do you think your ministry as an acolyte is joyful enough to invite somebody else – or is it only a DISMAL BURDEN? If you find no joy, then I would suggest you go looking for another way to be a friend of Jesus’. There isn’t just one way to show people what God looks like, but all those ways have to show the love that God has for us. I know it can be hard to get up early in the morning you’re serving, and it can be challenging to learn all the different ways that worship is done – and believe me, every church does it differently! But we need to show others that it’s good to be a friend of Jesus, not a drag.
Those two people who reached out to me on my first Sunday as a deacon showed me that even when we get it wrong, we still have friends in Jesus’ community.
When Jesus says to his friends that they’re supposed to go and make disciples everywhere and baptize them and teach them what he’s taught them, that’s what he means. Go and make friends like the friend he’s been to them, someone who loves and forgives and encourages and sets free. That is a privilege and a joy, and there are a whole lot of different ways to do it, including swinging thuribles and lighting candles and herding cats.
And don’t take yourself too seriously. We’re supposed to do our best, remember that we are forgiven even before we ask, and that we won’t get it all perfect until the Second Coming of Jesus – at which point it won’t matter. So remember to find joy in what you’re doing. God loves you – now show the world! God loves you, Jesus is your friend, Jesus is your homie, now go find some more! Discover new friends here, and new skills, and let the world see your joy – shout it out! Jesus is my friend – let me be your friend, too!