Strange as it sounds, today I’m feeling a little homesick for my friends at our home-away-from-home at Woodland Community Church in Cary, NC. Here is one of the last sermons I preached there before we moved down to Mississippi. Hopefully we’ll get back up there soon to visit!
Acts 8: 26-40, NRSV
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[g] to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 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 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 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.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 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?”[h]38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[i] baptized him. 39 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. 40 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.
The Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Well, we’re back in Acts this morning with the apostles. Last time I was here we talked about the preaching of Peter and the miracles he and John performed to heal the man who was unable to walk and begging at the Temple gates. They were right in the center of the action at this sacred space in Jerusalem. In this story, we meet an Ethiopian eunuch who has just come from there. He’s in his chariot returning home from a pilgrimage to the holy city of Jerusalem, reading aloud from the book of Isaiah when the Philip, a leader in the early church, overhears him.
The Holy Spirit prompts Philip to go strike up a conversation, so he calls out to the chariot, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” That hits me as a very odd opening line, but in this case it works. The passenger in the chariot is so eager to learn more about the God he has just taken an international trip to worship among thousands of other faithful pilgrims in Jerusalem. With that kind of enthusiasm, maybe it’s not so surprising that he invites this stranger to ride with him for a while and elaborate on the text. I wonder how long they talked, connecting the dots from prophet to prophet throughout the Hebrew Bible, culminating in “the good news about Jesus.” However long it was, it was enough to stir something in the Ethiopian eunuch’s heart. He spots some water along the side of the road, maybe a stream or a lake, maybe just a particularly large puddle, and asks, “What’s to stop me from being baptized here and now?” The Spirit of the Lord comes upon both him and Philip when they come out of the baptismal waters, and the Ethiopian treasurer heads home while Philip is supernaturally carried to Azotus to embark on another missionary journey to Caesarea.
There is so much to talk about in this simple story! Granted, simple may not be the best word for it. It’s short and sweet but there is a lot of the Holy Spirit moving, so things are bound to get weird. We talk about how the Holy Spirit is disruptive often, or how the Spirit moves us to do something or say something, but I doubt most of us mean it this literally. I can tell you this, when I felt God calling me to seminary there was no audible voice or supernatural moving service like this to whisk me away from Waco, Texas to Durham. Even within the less dramatic portions of this encounter, though, there is a lot to explore.
This is the first time Luke, the author of Acts, describes for us the conversion of an individual to Christianity, known then as the Way. We have heard about thousands of people putting their faith in Christ and being baptized already, but only in large groups. Huge crowds have heard one or more of the disciples preaching in synagogues or town squares, or they’ve seen their neighbors experience incredible healing from all kinds of afflictions, and they’ve turned to Christ in droves. This is the first time we see the way this good news impacts the life of an individual, so let’s poke around a little bit and see who he is and why his story might have been chosen.
1. This is a person of power. He’s the treasurer to the Candace, the queen of Ethiopia. Imagine the impact of this man who decides how the kingdom’s money is used going in with a refreshed perspective, taking his baptismal covenant seriously. How might he encourage the queen to spend her money now? He clearly has already been taking steps to grow closer to God. He’s been reading his Bible. He’s been traveling to sacred spaces to worship with others seeking God. He’s even eager to engage in an in depth Bible study with an interested stranger. But have all of these good activities made their way all the way to his heart before today? Has he truly believed what he’s read, believed that it is true and that it somehow matters to him and his life? I think we’re meant to understand that this is a turning point for him. His destination will be the same, but when he gets home he will be a changed man. And changing the heart of a person with that kind of power can drastically change his entire nation. We don’t know how his story ended, but I think it’s a pretty safe bet that it made a big and positive impact on those around him.
2. Secondly, as we have already touched on, this is a person who was already seeking and worshiping God faithfully. At every turn, he is taking the initiative to grow in knowledge and love of God. He’s making the trek all the way from Ethiopia to Jerusalem and back. Now Ethiopia was used to describe a number of nations south of Egypt at that time, so this may fluctuate, but an internet search tells me it is about a 1600 mile journey, from Jerusalem to modern day Ethiopia. The estimated travel time between the two today is 64 hours by car; it was a much larger undertaking back then. To pass the time on his trip home from this pilgrimage, our traveling friend reads Scripture aloud. He invites this nosy eavesdropper Philip into his chariot to ride along and discuss the prophets, and he is the one who asks to be baptized by the roadside, not Philip. Philip doesn’t so much “convert” him as Philip simply becomes an instrument of the work God has been doing for some time. The Holy Spirit is already working mightily within him, drawing him into deeper relationship with God and with the Church. Philip, then, is not a hero but a guest. When we go out into the world in our everyday lives and even on specifically focused missions trips, sometimes we forget that we are not bringing God anywhere. God’s already there. God is bringing us. Never underestimate the ministry people are already doing among themselves. God is there with them, sometimes waiting for us, preparing for us, and getting the guest rooms ready in the homes of those whose daily lives already speak of God’s hospitality and love to all the world. This story is a helpful reminder that God is too big to be boxed in by one language or culture. We worship a God who is alive and dynamic and multi-faceted, and experiencing God through the eyes and ears of others helps us to recognize this truth. God is God the whole world round. Igziabeher (Amharic: əgzi’abəher), or Lord of the Universe in Ethiopia’s Amharic language, is also El Shaddai, Hebrew for God Almighty.
3. This is a person we know very little about for sure. We’re not even told his name. Pastor Mark told me that last time he preached on this passage he decided to call him Ed because he just felt like someone so important to the Gospel deserved a name. Based on the sparse details we do have about “Ed”, though, Bible scholars and religious thinkers have been debating about him for centuries. Some claim he’s Jewish, after all there was a pretty large, active Jewish community in Ethiopia at the time. Others say that he must be a Gentile who is sympathetic to Christian ideas but who has not been baptized. He’s Ethiopian so we assume he has black skin, but there’s great debate about what that means in terms of the ways people in his time and place understood race. Even his nationality isn’t completely clear, because Ethiopia was sort of a catch-all name for the area south of Egypt as opposed to the name of a single, defined nation. This man’s a eunuch, a word that raises numerous questions about his gender identity and sexual orientation because of the ambiguous ways it has been used historically. Does it mean he’s a straight man who was sterilized because of how closely he worked with the queen? Was he gay? Was he technically transgender, no longer identifying as a man because of the alterations to his body? Was eunuch actually just a professional title referring to his status as a court official? All of these are plausible options according to the folks who study these things. We simply don’t know his actual religious affiliation, race, nationality, gender identity or sexuality… and I kind of think that’s the point. It doesn’t matter– and yet it really does. However we understand him, God loves this person. God created this person, sent someone to baptize this person, and thought this person’s inclusion in the Church through baptism was an event so worthy of celebration that it has been marked down in scriptures for us to study and pass along for generations. This is one of the first times we see an individual following Christ through baptism– as opposed to large crowds– and this person is all of us. He’s the image were comfortable with, the one we identify with. And he’s the person whose identity we can’t quite put our finger on because it doesn’t fit into our common categories for identifying ourselves and one another. He is simultaneously insider and outsider, us and them.
And if you happened to be here the very first time I preached at Woodland last November, you’ll remember, there is no them. We learned that from Zacchaeus, too. Regardless of how different we may be, we are all created and loved by God, worthy of respect and compassion.
For not telling us much about himself, this Ethiopian eunuch sure tells us a lot about God. We also learn a lot about God from his conversation partner, Philip. How does he approach this conversation? How does Philip approach this person who seems to be very different from himself?
It’s interesting that the two are studying a passage of Isaiah that highlights Jesus’ silence when so much of this story in Acts is about the influence of a heart-to-heart conversation. Perhaps this is to remind us that we need to balance both in Christian life, there is a time for silence and a time for speaking boldly. And in some cases, silence is the boldest choice of all. Jesus refused to defend himself against the people who lied about him and conspired to sentence him to death. He refused to put himself above others and above God’s plan as it had been revealed to him. Philip starts from that position, one of humble silence, and only speaks at the Spirit’s prompting. He waits for direction. He asks questions. Only when he truly has something to contribute, something important to say, does he open his mouth.
With that in mind, I’m going to wrap it up. This week, may we embrace opportunities to listen and learn and share our stories of what God is doing and has done with one another. May we keep quiet and listen for the Holy Spirit and be bold enough to go and say and do that to which we are called.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.