Sermon for the fifth Sunday in Easter
All through this season of Eastertide, the lectionary has us reading these stories of what life in the early church looked like as it was lived in the Spirit and within the light cast by the resurrection. Because we don’t read these stories in order, and we read only a relatively small handful of them, it can be easy to miss one of Luke’s main points; that the circle of resurrection light is widening, and widening quickly. As Luke tells these stories, you get a sense that these apostles—who had only rather recently been a band of hapless disciples, straining to understand what Jesus was talking about—were now in an anything-is-possible state-of-mind. Fasten your seat belts… this is going to get a bit wild.
- To listen to the sermon press play:
“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’… So Philip got up and went.” This is the sort of thing that happens in the book of Acts. Angels appear, people are called to move—and to move into strange territories and unexpected situations—and they do. In Philip’s case, it moves him into very unexpected territory indeed. Luke describes the road from Jerusalem to Gaza as “a wilderness road,” which among other things means it is potentially quite dangerous. Traveling down that road “was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” This man “had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.”
“Go talk to him,” the Spirit prods Philip, and so he runs over to the chariot. He runs, which is all part of the wildfire character of these stories. “Do you understand what you’re reading?” Philip asks him. “How can I,” the man replies, “unless someone guides me?” And at that he invites Philip to climb up into the chariot beside him.
Press the pause button for a minute. This man is a court official from Ethiopia, in charge of the queen’s treasury. We’re talking serious power and serious privilege here. He’s clearly literate and educated—he’s reading from Isaiah, most probably in Greek—and while no mention is made of this, he must have been accompanied by servants. No person of his stature would have risked making such a journey alone. And Philip? We know very little of him. John tells us that Philip came from the town of Bethsaida in Galilee—which connects him to Andrew and Peter—and that along with Nathaniel he was one of the earliest disciples called to follow Jesus on the road. Philip is a Greek name, so he quite probably spoke the language, but he may or may not have been literate. To this Ethiopian court official, Philip must have appeared something of a backcountry peasant… and to Philip, the Ethiopian official must have seemed a most exotic creature, the sort of which he’d never before dreamed of speaking with.
I need a guide to help me understand these words of Isaiah… come sit beside me. As it happens, the Ethiopian man has been reading one of the “suffering servant songs” from Isaiah: “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.”
I know that man! I know the lamb Isaiah was talking about! I spent the better part of three years with him; I heard his stories and his teachings, I watched him heal and restore broken people. I was there the night they arrested him—the night “justice was denied him”—and some of our group saw put to death. His dead broken body was placed in a tomb, yet on the third day the stone was rolled away and his body was gone. And I’ve seen him! I’ve touched him, eaten with him, watched as he was taken up into God. But that wasn’t the end either! The very Spirit of God has been in and through and around us ever since, just as he said it would be. I know the Lamb Isaiah was writing about!
In this Galilean peasant, this prestigious court official has unexpectedly found his guide. Philip’s proclamation is apparently so compelling that when “they came to some water the man said, ‘Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?’”
Well, a couple of things, actually. The man was a Gentile, and this is all happening before the church has begun to work out the question of the inclusion of the Gentiles in the church. Yes, he was reading from the prophet Isaiah, and yes, he’d gone to Jerusalem on a sort of pilgrimage, but as a Gentile that would only have taken him so far. Though it had just begun to expand into Samaria, the Christian movement at this point was still very much a Jewish movement. Can a Gentile become a Christian without first becoming a Jew?
There is actually some possibility that the man had actually been born a Jew, for there was a community of Ethiopian Jews. There is a tradition—historically unverifiable, but treasured by the Ethiopian Jewish community all the same—that the Queen of Sheba carried Judaism back to north Africa following her visit to King Solomon. So maybe he was a part of that community.
More critically, though, the man was a eunuch. As a child he had probably shown some particular promise, and so was castrated so that as he grew up he would be a safe and dependable choice to serve as a close and trusted official in the court of the queen; safe particularly in the eyes of the queen’s husband… According to the torah (Deut 23:1), that made the man forever an outside, ineligible to be a participant in the life and practice of Israel.
“Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Here’s how Philip didn’t answer.
He didn’t say, “You know, I better go and talk with Peter about this one. I mean personally I’d love to baptize you, but we’ve not really come across a situation like yours before.”
He didn’t say, “We’ve yet not worked out our manual of policies and procedures, but I’ll tell you what. Next time all of us are together in Jerusalem, I’ll bring a motion to the council, that in extraordinary circumstances we allow for the baptism of eunuchs, conditional on their having completed a study of the servant songs in Isaiah.”
He didn’t say, “Sorry, but I’m afraid that castration thing excludes you from full membership in the Body of Christ.”
And he didn’t say, “Alright, I’ll do it… but don’t tell anybody about it. Lets just keep this all quiet and confidential, just between man and you.”
No, Philip said nothing like that. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have said anything at all, but rather, “both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.” It is a bit of free-wheeling move for Philip to have made, but maybe he’s just the sort of free-wheeler who does the church a lot of good.
Not that there is anything wrong when the council of Jerusalem is eventually assembled to wrestle through the matter of the full inclusion of the Gentiles, as recounted in Acts 15. But you know, part of what let them make the decision that they did—to fully include Gentile believers in the Body without insisting they first become Jews—was experiences like this one. Philip wasn’t quiet about what he’d done, nor was Peter in any way secretive about baptizing the centurion Cornelius. They did it because they each believed it was the right thing—the only thing—to do. These radical acts of inclusion helped the Body open its own imagination to the new thing God was doing in the life of the world. Hear what the Spirit of God is saying to the church…
And according to the ancient tradition of the Ethiopian church, that court official wasn’t secretive either. In that tradition, he is seen as the one who brought the Gospel into Ethiopia, and seeded what was to eventually become the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. In that man, a new and unexpected branch is added to the vine, bearing fruit in ways that Philip could never have dreamed of when he first heard that angel tell him to go for a walk along that wilderness road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.