St. John's, Centreville
April 29, 2018
5 Easter B
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and use us in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
"Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch. "How can I, unless someone guides me?" And he invited Philip to get into his chariot and sit beside him.
This story in the Book of Acts is one of my favorites. You can easily imagine the scene. The Ethiopian eunuch is returning from Jerusalem where he had come to worship. We don't know whether he was a Jew or a Gentile, but either way, he was probably not allowed to worship inside the temple in Jerusalem. If he was a Gentile, he would not have been allowed to enter. If he was Jewish, he still would not have been allowed inside because he was a eunuch, a castrated male.
The Ethiopian eunuch was in charge of the treasury of Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. So he was in a position of power and wealth, evidenced by the fact that he was riding in a chariot. As he is riding on this wilderness road, he is reading aloud from the Book of Isaiah. People of this time usually read aloud, even if they were by themselves. He is reading from the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, the Suffering Servant, about the sheep being led to slaughter, and justice being denied. But he doesn't understand what he is reading. He is clearly a learned man, reading the scriptures in Greek and being in charge of the queen's treasury.
Then this man, Philip, comes jogging up the road and comes along side the chariot. ""Do you understand what you are reading?" Philip asks. Now Philip did not just come out of nowhere. An angel of the Lord directed Philip to head south on this road from Jerusalem to Gaza. And Philip obeyed. Then the angel tells Philip to go to the chariot, which is when he hears the Ethiopian eunuch reading out loud. He invites Philip to join him in the chariot.
The Ethiopian eunuch wants to know who the prophet Isaiah was writing about in this passage about the Suffering Servant. Was it about the prophet or someone else? Is this passage just about Isaiah or is it about me as well, the Ethiopian was pondering. The passage has to do with him but also with Jesus - "like a sheep who was led to the slaughter; like a lamb who stands silent before its shearer (or accusers); justice was denied him; his life is taken away from the earth." Jesus is seen as the fulfilment of who the prophet Isaiah was writing about. Jesus knew what it felt like to be an outcast, to be on the margins of society, because he lived that life. Jesus understands what life is like for the Ethiopian eunuch.
This question by the Ethiopian eunuch gives Philip the perfect opening to tell him about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Philip opened his heart and mind to the scriptures just as Jesus had opened the hearts and minds of the two men on the road to Emmaus.
We can imagine that the Ethiopian eunuch easily identified with the suffering servant. He was not able to enter the temple and worship God as he wanted do, just because of a physical deformity. "In his humiliation, justice was denied him," Isaiah had said. He could identify with that. But was this scripture speaking to him? Could he find some faith and some hope in these words, in these scriptures? And then Philip comes along and tells him all about Jesus, and the love that God has for every single human being. No one is left out of God's love. No one! We heard that repeatedly in the Epistle lesson this morning. "God is love...and we love because God first loved us."
That is something that the Ethiopian eunuch could hold onto. It was something he could grasp. God loved him, no matter what society said about him, or how they treated him. So he asks Philip, "What is to prevent me from being baptized?" Fortunately, Philip did not say, "Well, you must take classes for a year, fill out the application, talk with your clergy, repent of all your sins, known and unknown, go on a mission trip and then get back with me later." Philip saw the heart of this man and he was ready to accept Jesus as Lord and Savior. So right there, they saw some water, got out of the chariot, and Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch right then. And he went on his way, back to Ethiopia, rejoicing, filled with the Holy Spirit. And Philip was "snatched away" by the Holy Spirit and continued to spread the gospel to all the towns he came to.
The gospel is spreading way beyond Jerusalem. It's spreading to Judea and Samaria, and now to Ethiopia. The Holy Spirit is at work through Philip, through the Ethiopian eunuch, through people who seem to be insignificant in the eyes of the world. As the gospel moves into the world, it speaks especially to those who are lost or marginalized, or forgotten. The story of the Ethiopian eunuch is a very personal story of one of these outcast people. But when his story is looked at through the lens of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, it becomes a story of hope and redemption and restoration.
So what does this story have to say to us today? We know that the bible is a living document, something that speaks to us today, not just something written a long time ago for people in another culture. So we are able to ask, what does this story have to say to us today. A few things I think:
It shows us how important it is to listen to the Holy Spirit. What if Philip had said to the angel, or the Holy Spirit, "No, I don't want to go south from Jerusalem on that road. I'd rather go north and meet up with some friends of mine." If Philip had responded in this way, he never would have met the Ethiopian eunuch and changed his life with the gospel message. What if Philip didn't want to approach the chariot, not knowing what reception he might receive? But he listened to the Holy Spirit and a life was changed.
It is also important for us to study scripture, to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest it. It's not a book just to sit on the coffee table or on the shelf. It can come alive, help us learn more about God's covenant with us, Jesus' sacrifice for us, how we are to live as followers of Jesus Christ. One of the best parts of my week is meeting on Monday evenings with my Education for Ministry group. Not only do we study scripture together but we reflect theologically on important parts of our faith.
We, too can change someone's life when we listen to the Holy Spirit. It may be a random act of kindness. It may be in a conversation with a co-worker or friend, not something that was planned but opportunities that "just happened." Being open to the Holy Spirit can lead us down paths we never would have imagined for ourselves. Help one person, reach out to the lost and forgotten, spread the gospel. That's what God calls us to do each and every day. Amen.