Acts 8:26-39 (Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch)
I have to say, Luke set many interesting scenes and introduced a number of fascinating characters in his gospel and the beginning of Acts, but the farther we go, the more intriguing his narrative gets.
In a continuation of the travel motif in his telling of Jesus’ ministry, Luke makes clear at the start of Acts that we will be learning how the good news travels from Jerusalem outward… to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the Earth.
In fact, after Stephen was stoned, he tells us that all but the apostles left Jerusalem to avoid the worst of the persecution, including another of Stephen’s cohort, Philip. Philip found himself in Samaria. Luke describes Philip’s ministry there at the beginning of Chapter 8:
5 Philip went down to the city of Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah to them. 6 The crowds with one accord listened eagerly to what was said by Philip, hearing and seeing the signs that he did, 7 for unclean spirits, crying with loud shrieks, came out of many who were possessed; and many others who were paralyzed or lame were cured. 8 So there was great joy in that city.
Luke doesn’t give us a sense of how long Philip was there before Peter and John joined him, nor how long before the messenger from God told Philip to head out to the middle of nowhere on the road to Gaza.
And he got up and went.
I do kind of wonder what he expected to find there… or perhaps, having done many signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit, he had learned to set expectations aside. That would go a long way toward explaining his openness to just get up and go. And to just start jogging alongside a chariot when the Spirit moved him.
I mean, surely it was not on that morning’s task list to catch up to a chariot belonging to a eunuch from Ethiopia.
We don’t get the name of the man Philip is sent to meet, but we do learn he is among the courtiers of the queen of the Ethiopians. And that he is headed back home from a time worshiping in Jerusalem.
Now – Luke’s original readers would have understood a few things about this man that most of us don’t.
It was not unusual for male members of the royal family to face castration once it was determined they were not in line for the throne. By removing the possibility of producing an heir, the likelihood of their leading an overthrow was slim. This also meant they could be trusted to serve in high level roles, such as caring for the queen’s treasury. So, it is possible that he was not just a courtier, but royalty, part of the royal family.
Many of the people who lived under Roman rule around the Mediterranean were fascinated, captivated even, by the exotic look and sound of people from Sudan, Ethiopia and the African edge of the known world of the time. That would have made this encounter all the more intriguing.
Another detail Luke seems to trust us to know is that there are Jews even as far away as Ethiopia. It’s not clear how long they had been in the country. Perhaps they were influenced by the exiled Hebrew people there. But he was at the very least familiar with the Hebrew scriptures.
So…we have a nameless Ethiopian who is clearly educated and wealthy:
He is literate and reading from the scroll of Isaiah.
He has the means to own this expensive scroll, as well as a chariot and probably someone to drive it. After all, it would be just this side of impossible to hold open a scroll and drive at the same time. The chariot must have been large, given that Philip was able to join this man and share with him the story of Jesus in answer to his question about the scroll.
But despite all his wealth, status, and intellect.
Despite his knowledge of the Hebrew scripture and desire to be righteous, like all eunuchs, this man was only just barely part of the community, marginally allowed to participate at the temple
Not accepted and affirmed…. but not outright rejected.
Until that day.
It all happened so fast.
A conversation, a baptism, followed by the long ride home.
And for Philip- undoubtedly- a conversation with his friends
How did you get there? Of all places?
Out on the edge of reality, experiencing God’s glory and power in a way that was unique, even for the early church?
It’s common question when things seem way out of the ordinary…
Whether beyond our wildest dreams or our worst nightmares.
How did we get here?
How did we get here?
Into the family of God… into this place, worshiping as the Body of Christ?
Like the Ethiopian… our stories start at the font, in the water. With baptism.
Like the eunuch… we each and all needed God’s grace to be extended to us, in order to be welcomed into the family and begin our journey as followers of Christ.
The innate desire to be whole, to be known, to see the new Kingdom of God reign, that may well have been why he was reading in Isaiah…
The passage quoted in today’s scripture is from Isaiah 53, in the section that prophecies about the suffering servant. For most Hebrew people of that time, particularly those living beyond Jerusalem and the few cities the Christ-followers had visited, this passage was still imagining a future messiah. They were – and today’s Jewish people still are – waiting and watching.
But when Philip heard those words that morning, whether he had heard it preached before, whether he had considered it himself before, the Holy Spirit opened his heart and mind with new clarity.
That suffering servant sure sounded an awful lot like Jesus.
And because he was open and willing to follow the Spirit, not just physically, but into new spiritual and religious understandings, Philip had the opportunity to help one more person understand.
Through scripture that clearly made sense to him, this eunuch heard and understood Jesus was the messiah and that he, too, was welcome into the Christ movement.
There must have been, somewhere in that conversation on the road to Gaza, a description of Jesus’ call to repent. And there was likely a mention of the call for followers of Jesus to go and tell others- the commission to make believers, teaching and baptizing them.
Perhaps, Philip explained all of this in the context of his own story,
remembering his baptism,
remembering Stephen’s faithful witness,
reminding his new friend that he had been sent on this particular day to this particular road.
And the eunuch knew a beautiful thing when he heard it.
Is there any reason I can’t be baptized?
Philip also knew a beautiful thing when he heard it… and didn’t hesitate.
Is there anything to keep you from being baptized?
This person’s race, nationality, or sexual identity… None of it was a barrier to the Holy Spirit. Here he was with a human being who heard the good news about Jesus, who was compelled to become part of this way of knowing God, and who had requested baptism.
Who was Philip to stand in the way?
Even their being in the wilderness – on a road through the desert – there was water!
In Luke’s gospel, he made clear:
Wherever Jesus is, there is salvation.
Jesus has ascended, leaving the Spirit to guide and empower his followers as they continue his work. Luke is making clear that wherever those followers are open to the will of God, there, too, is salvation.
Wherever the Body of Christ is, there is salvation.
Salvation looks a lot like a puddle or pond or oasis of grace on the side of the dusty road through life
Salvation looks an awful lot like welcome,
Salvation looks an awful lot like hospitality beyond what etiquette requires
Salvation looks an awful lot like love without prejudice, without assumptions.
Salvation looks like becoming part of the beloved community.
See – the good news isn’t that Jesus suffered
The good news is that Jesus didn’t stop at suffering
The good news is that Jesus understood that we humans get way too comfortable allowing people to suffer:
That as long as we are comfortable, we are ok allowing others to suffer
from hunger and illness,
from relational exile,
from addiction or imprisonment,
And he wasn’t OK with us being OK.
Jesus witnessed all of that, healed all of that and fought against all of it and suffered tremendously himself as a result.
Not because God wanted to experience suffering through Christ,
Not because God was so angry with humanity that Jesus became the outlet for divine wrath.
Jesus’ shared in the suffering of those around him so that he might show the children of God how to get uncomfortable for the sake of others,
so that when we hear that other sibling are suffering…
so that when we see others causing suffering…
we are moved to compassion and repentance, as well as advocacy
The life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus was God saying loudly and clearly for all time:
it doesn’t have to be this way.
We don’t have to get tangled up in getting every detail right,
Or worry about who should be in or who to keep out…
By grace, even our missteps are redeemed. Our hearts are freed to focus on God and the loving heart behind the rules and rituals.
The sending of the Holy Spirit and the empowerment of the church was God saying loudly and clearly for all time that we are God’s plan
We are God’s Kingdom come and God’s will being done.
Right here on earth as it is and will be in Heaven.
Not just praying it, but believing it and being the builders of that Kingdom.
All of which begs the question, how did we get here?
For real… how did we get here?
How did we – the church in 2017 in America – get here?
How did we – by and large – become a body that is more comfortable behind gates and walls and fences than out walking among those who are suffering?
How did we get here?
How did we become more like the rich young man who refused to lay down his wealth so that he could follow Christ without distraction?
How did we get here?
How did we become a body that allows our members to claim allegiance to Christ while using their power to place millions of people in harm’s way through endless wars, environmental destruction and cruel legislation?
How did we get here?
More importantly, are we ok being here?
Because, I’m pretty sure we are not where the Spirit of God is.
Oh, yes, each of us has moments. And groups of us are able to come together for short stretches of time and do good work in the name of the one who saved us.
But being faithful witnesses in our Jerusalems, our inner cities…
Bearing witness in our Judea and Samaria, our states or even the nation…
Being humble servants like him… Taking the healing message of Christ…to the ends of the earth?
As I scan the headlines, I don’t see much in the way of hope, compassion, grace or peace.
I don’t see the people of God working to bring the Kingdom of God to fruition.
At least not one that looks like the Jesus we’ve been reading about all spring.
Which makes me want ask…
How do we get to the places Jesus calls us to be?
How do we get there?
The answer is at the font.
Remembering who we are, whose we are
Remembering the painful joy that flows from confession, repentance and grace
The answer is at the table.
Putting ourselves in a place to remember that God nourishes us and sanctifies us
Remembering that Jesus continues to proclaim to and through us
It doesn’t have to be this way…
Because wherever the Spirit of God is, I am with you
So that wherever the Body of Christ is, salvation is
The answer is sitting in the pews around us.
Being the true Body – united in love.
United in a purpose that goes beyond us.
The answer is in the neighborhood
Being the Body by meeting real needs with true compassion
The answer is in the phone book and on the internet
Being the Body by calling the larger body to repentance.
Advocating on behalf of not only yourself but on behalf of those without access, without a voice, without the power or energy to advocate for themselves.
How did we get here?
We got here by the grace of God
We got here by the work of Christ
Where will we go next?
That depends… on just how open we are to the ministry of the Holy Spirit