a sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter on Acts 8:26-40
preached on May 6, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
I hope it had been a quiet day for Philip, because the interruption was a pretty big deal. In the midst of his prayers and study in the early days of the apostles’ work in Jerusalem, Philip heard the Holy Spirit calling him to take a little trip on the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. He set out on the journey, not quite sure what he would find, but pretty quickly he came upon a very fancy chariot, clearly belonging to someone who had money and status, and surprisingly he heard what sounded like the words of scripture coming from inside. When he listened more closely, he could hear a man reading familiar words from the prophet Isaiah, and so he gently asked him what was going on. “Do you understand what you are reading?” The occupant of the chariot quickly invited him aboard to talk about the scripture with him.
Along the way, Philip learned a bit more about this man. He served in the court of the queen of Ethiopia and was returning home after worshiping in Jerusalem. More importantly, this man was a eunuch, a servant of the royal court who had been castrated before puberty so that he would be able to serve the royal family without getting into trouble or bed with any of them. He was entrusted by the queen with the entire treasury, and his fine chariot and beautiful clothes made it clear that he was quite well-off.
Philip and the Ethiopian man had more on their minds than their history and status in life. The conversation turned to that scripture that Philip had heard the man reading along the way. The Ethiopian man was clearly no stranger to these texts – he started asking Philip questions, and Philip began offering an interpretation of these ancient texts. Soon the conversation turned to Jesus, and Philip explained the life, death, and resurrection of his friend in light of these older words from the prophet. The Ethiopian man was amazed at what he heard, and his next question for Philip was a little more practical: “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
Philip had to be stunned by all this. While the Spirit had led him to this place, to this man, to this conversation, I doubt that he expected anything like this to come of this chance encounter on the road. But once he started thinking about it, there had to be some doubt in Philip’s mind – there was plenty to keep this man from being baptized! First off, the church was centered in Jerusalem. The apostles had made no decisions by this time about how they would expand their message or if it was open in any way to people beyond their new home. And it had to be a concern that this man would be so far away from the rest of the community as he tried to follow Jesus, too. And what about his service to the queen of Ethiopia? How could he be such an important official in her court and also fulfill his responsibilities as a Christian? These were certainly good reasons for Philip not to baptize the Ethiopian man, but I doubt that either of them were really all that compelling in the end.
But then there was the matter of his sexuality. This Ethiopian man was a eunuch, and eunuchs were specifically and explicitly excluded from the life of the covenant people of Israel because something had quite literally been cut off. He was viewed as sexually immoral not because of any action of his own but because someone else thought he would be a valuable servant. This very part of Isaiah that Philip and the man had been reading suggests that eunuchs might be restored to the community of faith, but not everyone in the Jewish community had embraced this change, and some people of the day would still have rejected him because of his castration.
Somehow, though, Philip quickly sorted through all these issues in his head and heard the Spirit speaking: there was nothing to keep him from baptizing this man. So they stopped the chariot and found some water, and Philip baptized the Ethiopian man right then and there. Even though Philip somehow disappeared right away after all this, the Ethiopian man “went on his way rejoicing,” keeping up this new way of life and telling others the story of what he had experienced when the Spirit moved and something new happened to even him.
Now we Christians don’t get invited into many chariots these days to talk about the Bible, and those who take up such an invitation don’t always demonstrate the level of grace and mercy that we see from Philip here. One commentator suggested that a modern-day parallel for this story might be a diplomat “inviting a street preacher to join him in his late model Lexus for a little Bible study,” and even this seems a bit improbable! Philip’s move, though, is a masterpiece of evangelism, if you ask me. Somehow Philip doesn’t keep his faith to himself, but he doesn’t go too far, either. He’s not out randomly knocking on doors or keeping his confidence in God to himself. Instead, he’s listening for the Spirit to call him into the right moment to say the right thing and responding when he hears someone who seems to be interested and receptive to what he might say. And what he says is filled with incredible openness and grace. He welcomes the Ethiopian eunuch into the family of the baptized. He puts no restrictions on God’s love, and he trusts that the Ethiopian man will find a way to live out this newfound path on his own.
Far too many Christians these days would have found a good reason to say no to the Ethiopian man – or at the very least demanded that he somehow change what he could not change before or immediately after welcoming him into the family of faith. All too often we talk a good game that we are open to all people, but then our intentions become clear that we only want people who look like us, act like us, or live like us. Sure, sometimes we’ve been burned along the way by people who didn’t have the best of intentions, so there is a reasonable place for asking good questions of those who seek to join us on our journey, but this story reminds us that the Spirit’s call overpowers all our human boundaries and uncertainties. When the Spirit speaks, we can do nothing but respond in faith, hope, and love, trusting that God’s power to link us to the true vine of Jesus Christ is far greater than anything that we might try to put in the way.
With Philip, we are called to embody this radical, amazing welcome of the Spirit in our life together. We are called to set aside all our practices that separate and exclude so that all might be free to respond to the call of the Spirit. We are called to be the new and resurrected people of God, emerging from the newness that we see first on Easter morn to be marks of the resurrection in our world that needs to know it so very much.
So may our hearts and minds be open to the movement of the Spirit in our midst, so that all might be fully and wholly and completely welcome in the life of faith through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.