Acts 8: 26 – 40 Absence Makes the Heart Grow May 29, 2022


Absence Makes the Heart Grow

Acts 8: 26 – 40


(preached on May 29, 2022)


The magazine, National Geographic, once featured a cover story on the apostles: the men and women who spread the good news of Jesus from Jerusalem all over the Mediterranean region and beyond.  In the article, a map shows how this band of Jesus’ followers traveled along the trade network of the ancient world, as far north as Italy and as far south as Egypt.  A historian describes them as “[a] tiny, vulnerable, poor, often persecuted group of people who were on fire with something” (National Geographic, March 2012, p. 48).


In those days, the church as you and I know it did not exist.  Peter and Philip and Andrew and the others simply called their new religion “The Way.” You and I have heard the story so many times that we tend to forget what an amazing story it is: this small band of apostles, on fire with the new life they had found in Jesus, spreading the message of God’s love.  They did it without newspapers; without phones or fax machines or email or text messages or blogs or Twitter or Instagram or any of the media we use to communicate today.


They spread the message in person.  They stood up in marketplaces.  They climbed onto fishing boats.  They sang in prisons.  They sat down to dinner with Roman centurions.  Most of the apostles had been born and raised in the countryside of Galilee.  Now they were traveling hundreds of miles from home to spread the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ.


Sometimes I wonder, in all their travels so far from home, were they ever homesick?  In all the strange places they visited, did they ever wish for the familiar sounds and sights and tastes of home?


If you’ve ever been homesick, you know that homesickness can be painful.  I had my first experience of homesickness when I started college, at Duke University in North Carolina.  I had been away from home before, but always before I had known I would be coming back.  This was different.  I was finished with high school, embarking on a new venture.  If I did what my brothers and my sister had done – and I fully expected to – I wouldn’t return to live in my parents’ home again.  I would visit, but I expected make my home in a different place.


I remember going to bed in the dorm that first night at Duke.  Earlier that day I had kissed my father goodbye.  My roommate had not yet arrived and I was alone.  I climbed into the bed beside the window and looked out at the sky.  It was a beautiful late summer night.  The moon was nearly full.  From somewhere in the building I could hear a chorus of women’s voices singing a lovely song about the Carolina moon.  I had never heard the song before.  All of a sudden, I felt incredibly homesick.


I had been eager to be out of my parents’ home.  I couldn’t wait to get to college.  I was surprised to feel homesick.  But now, as much as I had crowed about wanting my independence, I was lonely.  I was separated from my parents and my friends by hundreds of miles.  Of course I could easily keep in touch with them.  By today’s standards it seems very low-tech, but there was a telephone at the end of the hall.  I could call my parents any time.  The telephone was a great way of staying in touch.  It helped to collapse the distance between us.  Home didn’t seem quite so far away.


Imagine, though, how miles of separation would have felt before the invention of the telephone. Did the apostles feel homesick, long ago?  I’m sure they did at times.  But they were committed to spreading the message of God’s love in Jesus Christ.  They willingly left familiar faces, willingly left their homes, to be strangers in a strange land.  When they missed their families, they may have reassured each other by saying that absence makes the heart grow fonder.


But I like to think they adopted a shorter version of that saying: that absence makes the heart grow.  I’m sure they found their hearts growing as God filled their hearts with love for both friend and stranger, as they reached out with the love of Christ.


The apostle Paul understood that absence can make the heart grow.  His letter to the Ephesians was written about a hundred years after Jesus’ birth.  It was written to a community of Christians who were feeling cut off, far away from the wider Christian family.  Paul reminds them that they are part of God’s purposes, members of God’s family.  He writes, “For [Christ] has … proclaimed peace to those who were far off and those who were near.”  He says that no matter how far off you may be, no matter how cut off you may feel, you are not beyond the reach of God’s love in Christ.  The love of God collapses the distance between them and their fellow believers.  The love of God fills that absence and helps their hearts grow.


Hundreds of years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah also spoke words of hope to a people who felt cut off.  Isaiah was writing to his people, who were in exile.  His people, the Hebrew people, had been forcibly removed from their homeland by the armies of the Babylonian Empire.  In exile, they felt cut off from home, and cut off from God.  Isaiah foretold the coming of a Savior who would bring them back from exile, who would give his life to reconcile his people with God.   A Savior whose love would help their hearts grow.


In our passage for today, from the book of Acts, the Ethiopian eunuch is reading from the prophet Isaiah.  When the apostle Philip comes upon him, riding in his chariot, the Ethiopian is reading these words from Isaiah:


“…Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter…he does not open his mouth…he was cut off from the land of the living…”

The Ethiopian is a court official of Candace the Queen.  He is also a eunuch; in other words, an emasculated man.  In those days it was common for a man who served in a royal court to be a eunuch.


This man is riding from Jerusalem back to his home in Ethiopia.  We don’t know why the Ethiopian has been in Jerusalem.  He may have been on some state business for the Queen.  But we do know he has an interest in the religion of Jerusalem because he’s reading from the sacred writings of the Jewish people:  the book of the prophet Isaiah.


The Ethiopian is drawn to the Jewish faith.  He may even want to convert to Judaism.  But because he’s a eunuch, he will never be completely accepted into the Jewish faith.  In that faith, at that time, he would always be an outsider.  In many cultures of the ancient world, a person’s value depended on having children.  Because he is a eunuch, the Ethiopian is not able to be a father.  He might have a lot of authority in the Queen’s court.  But he will always be an outsider.


It must have hurt to know that he would always be an outsider.  He badly needed some good news.  So when Philip offers help, he jumps at the offer.  We don’t know just what Philip said.  But I can well imagine Philip explaining that the prophet Isaiah was speaking of his own people, the Jewish people who had been cut off in exile. Philip shares the good news about Jesus.   He says that Jesus hadn’t had a family of his own, but he had generated a whole family for himself; a family that continues to grow and thrive to this day (Liz Goodman, “Preaching the Easter Texts,” Journal for Preachers, p. 9).


The Ethiopian doesn’t waste a minute.  As soon as they come to some water, he wants to be baptized.  He wants to join the family of Jesus, to say “yes” to the love of God in Jesus Christ.  So Philip baptizes him.  In baptism, he says “yes” to the love that helps the heart grow.  The eunuch goes on his way rejoicing, overjoyed in the knowledge that he who once was far away is now brought near.  He’s is no longer cut off.  He’s part of the family of God.


It’s unlikely that he and Philip ever saw each other again.  But now they were both members of the family of God, a family that grew from a small band of men and women on fire with the love of God in Jesus Christ, a family that grew to reach from Jerusalem to Europe to North and South America, to Asia and Africa: to every continent with the message that no matter how far off you may be, you are never beyond the reach of God’s love in Christ.  Now you and I know that wherever we are, whenever we are absent from one another, the love that helps the heart grow will collapse the distance between us.  That love will hold us in the family of God.





Rev. Elva Merry Pawle

Easter 7