The Rev'd Stephen C. Holton
Christ Church, New Haven, Conn.
Fifth Sunday of Easter
April 29, 2018
My grandfather had a habit of picking up people on the side of the road that needed rides. Well, to be more accurate, there was one person he’d pick up and drive around town--an older man who collected and sold cans for a living. He’d see him standing on the side of the street, pull over, and the man, with his cans, would hop in for a ride to who knows where--another part of town? To his home--or where he stayed? I never knew anything about this stranger, and frankly it made me a little uncomfortable. After all, as children we were taught never to get in the car with a stranger! Strangers with candy, or puppies, or kittens--don’t talk to them, and don’t get in the car with them. That’s probably still good advice. But my young mind wasn’t really able to realize that, while I didn’t know the man with the cans--I still don’t know his name--my grandfather did know him. He wasn’t a stranger to him. And he was glad to give him a ride when he could.
Don’t get in the car with strangers. Sound advice.
And so I wonder what Philip is thinking when he gets in the chariot with this Ethiopian court official. If this were a movie, we’d be shouting at the screen, “Don’t do it, Philip! Don’t get in the car!”
It’s such a strange scene. It must have been strange for Philip. And, come to think of it, it must have been strange for the Ethiopian man to invite Philip into his chariot! It’s a strange scene all around.
To understand how we’ve gotten to this strange scene, let’s remember that in the weeks after Jesus’s death and resurrection, the disciples, the earliest followers of Jesus, were experiencing a liminal time--a time of waiting--probably a time of fear, even of what might happen to them. After all, their spiritual leader, the person they had believed was the messiah, had been executed--and they had seen him again after his death--resurrected. They’d talked with him, eaten with him, and then he had left--ascended into heaven--with mysterious words about always being with them--about sending his Spirit among them. Words sending them out to tell the story of what he had taught them about God’s love.
Indeed, just as he said, fifty days after his resurrection, during the Festival of Weeks--the celebration of the wheat harvest, the celebration of the giving of the Law--right there in Jerusalem, a huge thing had happened. As the city was filled with people coming to celebrate the festival, the crowds were seized by a spirit moving like the rush of a mighty wind-- a wave of excitement, of energy, moving through the whole town--and Peter’s preaching helped three thousand people come to believe the good news of Jesus’s death and resurrection--and begin to understand what that meant for them. That they had hope, a new life in God, a new life in Jesus, the Messiah.
More and more people were coming to know Jesus than had ever met him in his lifetime--all through the witness of these disciples, sharing the good news of Jesus with townspeople, with friends, with family--even with visitors to the city. People were even living differently; they were living in community, sharing their goods and wealth, providing for one another, and especially for those in greatest need. The Jesus movement, the Way, was taking on so much traction that the disciples called on seven people to serve the widows--the needy--among them. And Stephen and Philip along with five others had hands laid on them, received the Holy Spirit, and went out to serve.
Stephen’s preaching of the good news about Jesus was so enlivening that some people who heard it were converted. And others were afraid. Afraid of what it might mean for the way that they worshipped--the change that it might mean in their understanding of their relationship with God.
And so Stephen was stoned and killed by an angry mob.
That stoning is the turning point in Acts, this chronicle of the earliest days of the Church, the Body of Christ. We hear that the Church in Jerusalem is persecuted after Stephen’s stoning. And so Philip goes out--led by the Holy Spirit, he leaves Jerusalem--perhaps he’s afraid, perhaps he’s seeking a safer place to be--but the Holy Spirit must have other ideas, because Philip has been sent to this wilderness road, a dangerous place, to be sure.
He’s gone from Jerusalem, which had become dangerous for followers of Jesus, to Samaria, where a good number of Samaritans received healing, and hope, and the good news of Jesus as the Messiah. After this successful time in Samaria, the Spirit sends Philip south, along a wilderness road to Gaza. And he goes.
Along that road he meets the Ethiopian--a powerful government official, the treasurer of the kingdom, in charge of all its wealth, second only to the Candace, the queen, herself. Her kingdom would have been in what is now the southern part of Egypt and the Sudan, but she--or rulers like her--had conquered widely. The treasurer was a representative of a powerful foreign government--but he was far from home. He had come up to Jerusalem to celebrate the festival of weeks, the harvest festival, and he was returning. This man was what scripture refers to as a “godfearer,” someone who is not Jewish, not a member of the tribes of Abraham, but was interested in God. He was curious, seeking. Reading the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Trying to learn more.
But he was on the outside.
Eunuchs were often chosen in antiquity and even into the late 19th and early 20th Century as servants to powerful rulers; they could not procreate, obviously, and so could be trusted not to disturb the royal line--and because of their outsider status in terms of gender, reproductive abilities, and the like, they were wedded to the royal household as the one place they could gain status and power. Indeed, this treasurer, valued as he was by his queen, could never have been admitted to a synagogue (Deuteronomy 23).
And so he must have been very curious, very persistent, very faithful indeed, to have come such a long way, and to be reading this scroll, probably in a language that was not his native one, as he travelled along the road.
Philip, drawing near, heard what he was reading, and called out--and the treasurer called him into his chariot to explain what he was reading.
Upon understanding that the Jesus Philip spoke of was the Messiah foretold in the prophecies, the treasurer asked to be baptized--“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” (Acts 8:36) And Philip baptizes him on the spot--and he goes away rejoicing.
We’ve been reading Acts together as a parish at the Sunday forum--just as the Christians of the first few centuries of the Church would have done, just as they do today--rehearsing, re-hearing, re-membering the stories of the spread of the good news of Jesus Christ--and how the world was changed--how the world is and can be changed today by hearing those stories--by learning that good news, that Jesus is the anointed one, the Messiah. That Jesus is the change agent. That Jesus is Lord.
And one of the questions we’ve been asking is what those stories have to say to us today.
The story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, the Jewish deacon and evangelist and the seeking treasurer of the Candace’s kingdom, has a number of things to tell us today.
The most obvious--and one of the most exciting things about the story--is the shift in focus, the ever-broadening, ever widening circle of awareness of the messianic truth of Jesus. We can think of this awareness as ever-growing ripples, like ripples in a pond, spreading out with the energy of the Holy Spirit: from the first disciples gathered around Jesus, to the thousands in Jerusalem at Pentecost, the number of people who learn about Jesus is growing. But the kinds of people that learn about Jesus, that come to follow him, are growing as well. Remember that Philip goes to the Samaritans--people who claim the Torah but who have an acrimonious relationship with the Jewish people. Even the Samaritans are claiming Jesus as messiah--receiving the good news! Peter and John go to check to be sure what they’ve heard is right, and sure enough, the Samaritans believe--and when Peter and John lay hands on them, they receive the Holy Spirit. God’s Spirit is moving--even among people who are not part of the community the disciples come from. The circle is widening.
And the circle is drawn even wider with the Ethiopian, isn’t it. He is a man from far away, even from the ends of the earth, some ancient writers would say. He is most definitely not Jewish--he can’t even enter the Temple. His skin is possibly different from Philip’s, and his gender is, well, indeterminate by modern standards. He is a eunuch--out of the bounds of normalcy. He is other.
And yet he is seeking God. “Here is water! What is there to prevent me from being baptized?” And he is baptized, and he receives the Holy Spirit. God is present with this foreigner, this man with different skin, with a different genderedness. He is part of the new community, the ekklesia, the Church which is Christ’s body. And it only took baptism, it only took the Holy Spirit, to help everyone else--including the Ethiopian treasurer--to recognize it.
Now, let’s not pretend that this was an easy revelation for the disciples. James and Peter and Paul and Barnabas and all the disciples gather to hash out how it is that observant Jewish folks, descendants of Abraham, and gentiles, people with no tie to this shared common heritage or even to the law, can all follow Jesus. In some ways the whole history of Christianity, the history of the Church itself, hangs on this meeting--this Jerusalem council--and perhaps our failure to be united as the Body of Christ hangs on our failure to really believe that God is for everyone! Perhaps we’ve failed to live into the truth of the Jerusalem council!
But even in the midst of our brokenness, I want to hold up that, while we have a long way to go, we are at least talking about, at least being attentive to, the issues that the Ethiopian eunuch presents.
We are at least talking about issues of race, of genderedness, of orientation and expression, trying to work towards a more just society, a more just church--trying to look more like the Body of Christ that the Holy Spirit spreads across the entire world, even to the ends of the earth--trying to think more comprehensively about the Church than just a club of folks like ourselves, however we define that.
In some ways it’s easier for us to talk about the Ethiopian’s foreignness, his queerness, his other-ness, and embrace him. It’s great that Philip got up in that chariot! It’s great that Philip baptized him! That’s good news!
But I want to point out one thing that I’m not sure we are are as comfortable with--that I’m not sure we are as attentive towards. I told you earlier about how uncomfortable I was with that stranger I didn’t know getting into my grandfather’s car.
But that’s exactly what happens in this story.
The Ethiopian, the treasurer, the powerful government functionary, invites the wandering Philip, walking down the road, into his chariot.
He takes a chance.
It’s the outsider, from our perspective, the one from the ends of the earth, that invites Philip in.
That’s worth some reflection. Who is inviting us in? Who is longing to hear the good news of Jesus? Who is longing for healing? Who is longing for hope?
Maybe it’s folks close to us. Family, friends, neighbors. Or maybe it’s someone from the ends of the earth that we least expect. In a moment we least expect. Somewhere along a byway, a wilderness road, where we never expected ourselves to be.
Are we listening like Philip? Are we looking around? Are we hearing the world cry out--even in places we might not expect?
The Ethiopian invites Philip in. Let’s listen for that.
But let’s also ask the question--are we willing to respond? It’s probably very uncomfortable for Philip to approach the Ethiopian and ask, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Probably as uncomfortable as the Ethiopian asking Philip to get in the chariot with him. It requires breaking down a barrier of separation--of politeness, of caution, of individualism--you name it--whatever it is that separates us. Maybe even breaking down barriers of prejudice and misunderstanding. But Philip has heard him reading--and, empowered by the Holy Spirit, he asks the question. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” And then he tells the story of Jesus.
Friends, we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. We received the Holy Spirit at our baptism. We received the Holy Spirit when we were confirmed, when hands were laid on by someone who had hands laid on by someone and someone else, going back, that had hands laid on by the disciples who knew and walked with Jesus. God’s Holy Spirit is filling, is empowering you, to go out from Jerusalem and tell the good news of healing, of hope, of salvation, of everlasting life--the good news of new life in Jesus Christ.
Just to tell your story. Your story of how you’ve been saved by Jesus.
And that’s enough.
The powerful treasurer ran off rejoicing. I’ll bet he went back and told the queen, all his employees, maybe even the whole kingdom. We don’t know.
And we don’t know what will happen when we tell our stories either. But we can trust the Holy Spirit--that the Holy Spirit is moving, that God is faithful. And that something exciting is happening.
Will we take the chance? Will we listen? Will we climb into the chariot, break through boundaries, and share the story of Jesus?
Here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized? What indeed. Remember your baptism. Remember you are empowered by the Holy Spirit. And let’s go out and share the Spirit of God with the world.