Video of this sermon from May 2, 2021
Our readings from the Book of Acts have been skipping all over the place in these weeks after Easter. Instead of a logical, sequential story line, we’ve danced all around the healing of a crippled man at the Beautiful Gate, without ever hearing the story itself. And we won’t get back to Chapter Two, where all the post-resurrection activity began, until the Day of Pentecost at the end of Eastertide.
Today’s reading is literally full of hops, skips, and jumps. At this point, you might be wondering why this whole sermon series is even called “Getting our ACTS Together.” It seems so disorganized and chaotic. Stay with me. Our story is shifting from Peter and John to Philip the Deacon. The ride might get bumpy, so hold on.
Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward 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?” [And] 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. – Acts 8:26-40
Since we’ve suddenly jumped from Acts 4 to the middle of Acts 8, let me give you some background. First of all, this Philip is not the disciple Philip. The disciple was from Bethsaida (Jn 12:21) and this Philip is from Caesarea. This Philip is one of the seven “deacons” – or table servers – chosen by the apostles back in Acts 6, to take over the daily distribution of food. Later on, (Acts 21:8-9) this Philip will become known as Philip the Evangelist, and we will learn he has four unmarried daughters who prophesy. But right now, Philip is only recognized as one of the Seven, full of the Spirit and wisdom (Acts 6:3). Just before the events of this story, he has been preaching the good news throughout Samaria, and many have come to believe in Jesus.
And when I say “just before the events of this story” I mean the beginning of chapter 8. It’s important to see the relationship between Acts 1:8 and Acts 8:1.
Acts 1:8 gives us Jesus’ final words to his disciples before he ascends into heaven. He says:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
By Acts 8:1, we learn how this happens. It’s the day Stephen is stoned to death, and Saul (who will later be known as Paul) approves of Stephen’s death. Then Luke writes, “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria.”
So yes, the gospel spreads, but it does so because the believers are scattered from Jerusalem, into Judea and Samaria … and this brings us to Philip’s conversation with the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza. Luke adds the comment that this is the wilderness road. In other words, we are heading into “the uttermost parts of the earth.”
We are heading into the unknown. Just as we journeyed through the wilderness with Jesus during the season of Lent, Philip is now drawn into the post-resurrection wilderness by the Spirit’s power. And what is Philip’s response? Does he balk, or question the prompting of the Spirit? No. Verse 27 says, ”He got up and went.” And when he goes, the Spirit prompts him further: “Go over to this chariot and join it.”
Now this instruction makes some pretty big assumptions, when you think about it. First, it assumes Philip can run faster than a horse-drawn chariot. He must have been in great shape!
Second, it assumes some stranger on foot will be able to “join” the person in the chariot. That person is an Ethiopian eunuch, a high-ranking official, in charge of the Ethiopian queen’s treasury. He’s rich enough to have a chariot. He’s rich enough to own his very own scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he’s powerful enough to make demands of others without flinching.
Yet, he’s an outsider among outsiders, as far as Jewish custom goes. Precisely because of his status as a eunuch, he cannot fully participate in Temple worship. But that’s where he has just been – worshiping in Jerusalem!
But once again, Philip does exactly what the Spirit prompts him to do. And here we find the four questions that will frame a life-changing conversation between these two men.
First, Philip asks the politically powerful yet physically impotent stranger,
“Do you understand what you are reading?”
The way the question is worded tells us a negative response is expected. In today’s language, Philip might go on to ask, “Do you even get it?” And the powerful, rich official of a land that lies at the uttermost end of the known world answers with a question of his own:
“How can I, unless someone guides me?”
Even with all his power and wealth, the eunuch recognizes his own limitations, and is quick to admit them. He knows he needs help, and he’s not too proud to ask for it. We might think the Bible is self-explanatory, that it should be taken at face value. “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But this God-fearing Ethiopian wants to go deeper, to truly understand what he is reading in all its complexity and mystery.
So he invites Philip to come up into his chariot and sit with him. Luke doesn’t say so outright, but Philip apparently accepts the eunuch’s hospitality. And when he does, there is a slight shift that we might not notice if we stick to a superficial reading of this story. See if you can catch it.
The passage of Isaiah they discuss is from Isaiah 53. It’s part of one of the Servant Songs, which we have come to understand describes Jesus as the “lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth”.
The eunuch wants to know: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”
The first two questions had to do with clarity. This one is about identity. And we get the feeling the eunuch wants to know, “Could this prophet Isaiah be talking about … me?” Who among us hasn’t seen ourselves in scripture? Quite often, we identify with one or another character as we listen to Jesus tell a parable, or we read an account from the Old Testament.
Not quite so often, we might be shocked to see ourselves as a Pharisee, or a Sadducee, or a Philistine or a Samaritan … as a cheat or a thief or a betrayer. We don’t want to be lumped together with those people we classify as undesirable. We’d much rather side with the “good guys.”
So it’s understandable if this eunuch, this man who is not completely a man in his time and culture, this outsider who lives not only on the fringe of society, but geographically on the edge of the known world – it’s understandable if he wonders if this person who “in his humiliation justice was denied him” might just be … him.
And what happens next proves to be a turning point not only for the eunuch, but also for Philip. From this point in scripture, Philip the table server becomes Philip the Evangelist. Unlike the “lamb silent before its shearer [who] does not open his mouth,” Philip opens his mouth to explain how this scripture – and all scripture – points to Jesus. Philip shares the “Good Jesus News” with this Ethiopian eunuch.
Which brings us to the fourth and final question: What is to prevent me…? the eunuch wants to know. It’s another question of identity. Can I belong? And the silence of the original manuscripts at this point gives the answer: nothing.
Just as Paul writes to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)
Nothing can prevent this beloved child of God from being baptized. Not his skin color, not his physical deformity, not his homeland, not his wealth or education or power. Philip doesn’t need to say a word. They go down into the water, and when they come back up, Philip is snatched away and the eunuch goes on his way rejoicing.
So what happened to Philip? I don’t mean ‘what happened to him next.’ I mean what happened to Philip during this encounter? It’s easy to focus on the exotic Ethiopian’s conversion, but Philip has undergone a conversion of his own. He’s been transformed by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Persecution may have driven him and other believers out of Jerusalem, but it hasn’t kept him from becoming even more vocal about his faith in Christ. Yet, even as he traveled through Samaria, preaching about Jesus, he was still in familiar territory. What possessed him to head out for an unknown destination, insert himself into this stranger’s life, and welcome that stranger into the family of faith?
Philip put himself at the Holy Spirit’s disposal, and when he heard the Spirit urge him forward, he didn’t hesitate. He went. He opened his mouth. He went down into the water, and when he came back to dry land, he found himself – not on the road to Gaza any longer, but back up the coast in Azotus, where he continued to share the Good Jesus News as he headed back home to Caesarea.
Philip’s conversion was just as powerful as the eunuch’s. He was transformed into a voice for all outcasts, all outsiders, all those people we might not like to identify as part of us, but who belong just as surely as anyone to God’s beloved community.
On this fifth Sunday in the season of Eastertide, this first Sunday of the month, when we celebrate the sacrament of Holy Communion, I think it is fitting that we hear a story about the sacrament of Baptism, lavishly offered to one who didn’t think he belonged. Both sacraments remind us that we do belong, and so do those we might not think to include, unless we get a nudge from the Holy Spirit.