Texts: Acts 8:26-40
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
For many people, the Book of the Acts of the Apostles is one of their favourites in the Bible. For it is the story the beginnings of the amazing movement which in a few short years swept across the Mediterranean world just after the crucifixion of Christ. For, of course, at Easter, some friends of Jesus had become convinced that he was not dead after all. He had been dead, and he had risen from the grave- a work of God, an event which, they understood, changed history. These disciples had been in mourning- now they were filled with joy. They had been frightened, meeting, if at all, behind closed doors- now they were in the streets, the marketplaces, the synagogues, openly telling the good news- the Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah, the one who made it possible for men and women to come to God.
Acts tells their story, and the stories of those whose lives were transformed as the story- the Good News, the Gospel- was passed on from person to person, town to town, city to city, province to province. But it is no fairy tale; the problems of the early Christian movement are described as well. In the chapters just before our reading, we hear of arguments in the Church over money and leadership roles. Two of those appointed to leadership roles in the midst of this controversy are Stephen and Philip. But shortly afterwards, Stephen was stoned to death for preaching his faith in Christ, as Saul of Tarsus (soon to be a convert himself) looked on. Soon Saul is dragging Christians out of their homes and throwing them in prison. Philip, however, seems undaunted. Perhaps to avoid the violence, he travels north from Jerusalem to the region of Samaria. The Samaritans, of course, were old enemies of the orthodox Jews (although we know from the Gospels that Jesus visited the region). Philip had much success with this first Christian mission in non-Jewish territory. His success, though, led to another controversy, when a magician called Simon offered money so that he, too receive the Holy Spirit.
Soon after the incident with Simon the Samaritan magician, Philip finds himself prompted by, as are told, an angel of the Lord, to go somewhere else. God’s promptings come in different ways; and all kinds of people, I think, can become messengers of God, prompting us to do things we might otherwise not have thought about. So Philip is prompted to leave Samaria, away to the north of Jerusalem, and head away to the south, to travel along the road that existed then across Gaza. Gaza, of course, is the gateway to Sinai, the peninsula which links Israel to Egypt, Asia to Africa. This was a busy road in ancient times, and all kinds of people, from many different nations, would travel along it. Along this ancient M1 travelled traders and soldiers, princes and diplomats,. And it is here that Luke, the author of Acts, indicates to his readers just how far the Gospel would spread, just how universal the Christian message was to become, as he tells the story of an encounter Philip had on that cosmopolitan highway.
Christianity arose at a time of religious and moral ferment. The old Roman religion had become formalised and devoid of much spiritual content. There was actually a school of philosophy calling themselves the ‘cynics’. But others were looking for new faiths to replace the old worn-out creeds. And since Israel was part of the Roman Empire, people across the Empire were becoming acquainted with the Jewish faith. This strange, austere faith, with its strict morality, its refusal to acknowledge even the existence of any god alongside its God, even to the extent of refusing to have a statue of this or any other god… for some, thoughtful people, Judaism was attractive. These were the so-called ‘God-fearers’ whom we sometimes meet in the New Testament- Gentiles, from nations outside of Israel, who admired the Jewish faith and tried to live by its teachings, without being Jewish themselves. They were to enable the God of Israel to become the God of people of many nations.
Ethiopia, far to the south of Egypt, was an almost legendary place, so remote was it from Israel. It lay further the south down the Nile from Egypt, beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire. Following the promptings of God’s Spirit, Philip finds himself in an encounter with an important Ethiopian official who has made the difficult, dangerous and no doubt expensive pilgrimage to Jerusalem, to visit the Temple of the Jewish God, about whom he had heard and admired.
For a Jew like Philip, this Ethiopian would seem very exotic. He’s a black African, from a distant part of the world. He is also a eunuch, as castrated male. In ancient times, such people- who were often castrated at an early age- often had important jobs at royal courts. Famously, they were used as guardians of the harem. Their seeming sexlessness, and their inability to have families, meant that they didn’t seem to threaten royal families, so they were thought to be a safe pair of hands. And, indeed, Luke tells us that this Ethiopian eunuch was in the service of a woman- he was in charge of the treasury of the queen of Ethiopia. Yet prompted by the Spirit of God, Philip overcomes whatever barriers he might place in his own mind between himself and someone so exotic. Perhaps Philip, with his Greek name in a Jewish culture- felt himself to be a bit of an outsider, and that helped him to make the connection with the Ethiopian eunuch.
He is important enough to be driven in a carriage, and as he travels he is reading. In ancient times, people did not read silently- they read aloud. So, prompted by God’s Spirit, Philip runs alongside the carriage, and hears- probably to his surprise- the Ethiopian reading from the Jewish scriptures. Philip ventures a question of the stranger, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ And he receives an invitation to climb into the carriage, and explain the passage.
The Ethiopian has been reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah, about the strange figure, the servant of God, who suffers:
He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered,
like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off.
He did not say a word.
He was humiliated, and justice was denied him.
No one will be able to tell about his descendants,
because his life on earth has come to an end.
The African can make little sense of this, so he asks Philip to explain: ‘Tell me, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else?’ Philip understands this passage as a prophecy of Christ- for was not Christ taken to be slaughtered, was not Christ silent before his accusers, was not Christ humiliated and denied justice, and did not Christ finally end up being put to death? Philip has no hesitation in sharing with the Ethiopian his faith: ‘starting from this passage of scripture, he told him the Good News about Jesus’. He tells the story of how, as the Letter of John puts it, ‘God showed his love for us by sending his only Son into the world, so that we might have life through him’ .
This is, indeed, Good News to this foreigner, stranger, outsider who has been seeking Israel’s God. And as they travel along, the Ethiopian asks to be fully included in God’s people: ‘”Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptised?” The official ordered the carriage to stop, and both Philip and the official went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. The official did not see him again, but continued on his way, full of joy’.
The baptism of the Ethiopian official shows how Christianity can really break the boundaries. Here is someone who is far from being part of the Jewish nation. Yet now all Gentiles, non-Jews, even from the ends of the earth, can become part of God’s people. And even a eunuch, it seems, can be part of God’s people. Once, the Old Testament law had been firm: ‘No man who has been castrated or whose penis has been cut off may be included among the Lord’s people’, says the law of Deuteronomy. But Luke tells us that this eunuch was baptised by Philip. The Ethiopian had come to believe what Philip said about Jesus- that was enough. He could be part of God’s people, he could be baptised.
Baptism represents the fact that Christians are people who have become, as it were, connected to Christ. Jesus uses a powerful metaphor to describe all that in the Gospel passage we read today. He make us think about a vine (such as the grape vine on the cover of our Sunday Bulletin): ‘I am the real vine, and my Father is the gardener’ he says. Now, a gardener or a wine grower will take care of his vine branches, pruning so that the branches bearing fruit will flourish. But the fruit will only flourish if it is connected to the vine: ‘Remain united to me, and I will remain united to you’, says Jesus. ‘A branch cannot bear fruit by itself; it can do so only if it remains in the vine. In the same way you cannot bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will bear much fruit; for you can do nothing without me’.
So we are to ‘remain’ in Christ- to stay connected to him, as a fruit must remain connected to the vine which bore it. What does that mean? It means that we remember we are loved by God in Christ. And so we, in turn, are able to share God’s love. ‘God is love’, says the letter of John (perhaps the three most important words in the Bible!) ‘and those who live in love live in union with God and God lives in union with them’.
By keeping himself open to God’s love, Philip was enabled to share that love with others. He could meet an angel, and know that it meant he had to be elsewhere. He could hear God’s Spirit, prompting him into speaking with the Ethiopian. There is nothing particularly supernatural or miraculous about this. It is simply an attitude of mind which is open to God’s prompting. For the angels who speak to us might be other people, who dare us to imagine things we could not imagine for ourselves. It could be a situation where you realise that, yes, I need to do something different now. It is an attitude of openness- and especially an openness to other people. Even those, who seem quite different, exotic, strange, puzzling- can be the ones whom God prompts us to share our experience of God’s love with, just as Philip did. And when we have that Christlike openness to God and to others, then we find that we bear fruit for God.
The Ethiopian had been searching for God- he’d even travelled all the way to Jerusalem, to God’s temple. Philip told him the story of Jesus- which is really the story of how God comes and searches for us. When he was sure this was true, the Ethiopian immediately wished to be baptised- representing that he was now connected to Christ. For unless we keep up the connection to Christ, we can shrivel up, like grapes that have fallen from the branch. For it is a wonderful thing to be connected to Christ- as the Ethiopian realised, as he travelled on with joy after his roadside baptism.
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible
© 2012 Peter W Nimmo