31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
May 7, 2017
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
Last week, I shared about different ways that Jesus is made known to us. For the disciples walking the road to Emmaus, Jesus was finally made known to them through the breaking of the bread. In the passage I just read from Luke, Jesus makes himself known to the disciples by opening ‘their minds to understand the scriptures” about him. (Luke 24:45)
This morning, I invite you to open a Bible and come to know Jesus better through a thoughtful engagement with scripture. If you did not see my note on Twitter or Facebook, there are plenty of Bibles around in the pews. You can even share with your neighbor- that’s very Christian.
This morning, we are going to thoughtfully and prayerfully walk through Acts. Chapter 8, verse 26.
“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.’” (Acts 8:26)
There was a lot of information in that one verse. First, who is Philip?
Philip is a deacon of the church. The early church shared everything in common. Sometimes, we are given the impression that the early church was a place of harmony and love, however that’s not quite right. The early church had growing pains and the Greek Christians complained that the Hebrew Christians were neglecting their widows in the daily distribution of food.
They have all been baptized and born anew, joined into one body to emulate and work for the kingdom of God on earth, and yet there are divisions – us/them, Greek Christians/Hebrew Christians. And there are accusations. You are not taking care of us. You are excluding our widows.
So the twelve disciples call together the whole community and propose that they select seven men “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, who [they] may appoint to the task” of waiting on tables. (Acts 6:3)
Waiters. Deacons are waiters, called to wait on the tables and make sure everyone has their fair share of food. Philip is one of those deacons, a waiter, so what is he doing on this wilderness, deserted road in the middle of nowhere?
Philip is stepping beyond his job description. Stepping beyond what the church has asked him to do. And why is he stepping beyond his box? Because God has called him to.
Let’s go back to verse 37. “Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury.” As we read farther, we learn more about this man. He not only holds a powerful position in the Ethiopian court; he is quite wealthy being able to afford a chariot, a servant to drive that chariot, and a book – a scroll recording the words of the prophet Isaiah; and he is educated, able to read that very expensive scroll.
We learn a lot about this man, but we never learn his name. Is that an intentional choice by the recorder of scripture? A reminder that despite his power, his riches, his education, that he too knows hardship, knows injustice, knows what it feels like to be an outsider.
We also read that despite the outward trappings of success, the eunuch is searching for something. Did the mutilation of his body, that permitted him to rise to power in the Queen’s court, leave him feeling less than whole? Or was it a spiritual hunger, a sense that there was something more to life?
Whatever the Ethiopian eunuch was searching for, his desire must have been very strong for him to travel to Jerusalem, for him to step beyond his country, people, and race, for him to travel to Jerusalem seeking to know better the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
He steps beyond his comfort zone because God calls him to.
Unfortunately, his devotion is not rewarded. According to Deuteronomy 23:1, the eunuch is not welcome in the assembly of the Lord. I’ll let you read the verse on your own. It’s one of those Biblical passages that may make people uncomfortable if I read it out loud.
I imagine the Ethiopian was feeling disappointed as he traveled the long and dangerous road home. As a recent convert, perhaps he was struggling with how he fit into the house of Israel. Maybe he was reading the 56th chapter of Isaiah for hope, reading God’s promise to foreigners and eunuchs that God will “bring them to [God’s] holy mountain and make them joyful in [God’s] house of prayer” (Isaiah 56:7).
And that is where we find him when in verse 29, the Spirit tells Philip to “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:29)
Listen again to verse 30 “So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. [Philip] asked, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’” Think about how that would play out in our world. I’m walking by someone in the park, and I see that they are reading the Bible, and I walk up to them and say, “Do you need any help understanding that?”
How many people’s social discomfort level just went up a few notches at the thought?
I’m not an expert on social customs in Biblical times, but this seems really forward. This seems to step beyond social boundaries – and I say that even as I am all too aware that we live in a culture that does not seem to have any social boundaries anymore. Where the town of Terryville has needed to adopt the slogan to “Be Kind” to one another and we understand why.
So I am very aware of the thoughtless and often hurtful things people say to one another and about each other, but this is not Philip’s intention. Philip is not trying to insult the Ethiopian, to call his reading or comprehension abilities into question. Philip steps beyond social boundaries because God calls him to. Because God calls Philip to proclaim and share the good news about God’s unconditional love made known to us through Jesus the Christ.
Philip has stepped beyond the role the church has assigned him. The Ethiopian has stepped beyond his country, race, and people. They have both stepped beyond social conventions: Philip for running up to a stranger, an outsider to the Jewish faith, the Ethiopian for stepping beyond the pride and power of his position, and in humble openness, asking Philip to guide him in learning more about God.
And now they take the biggest step together. They get out of the chariot and Philip baptizes the Ethiopian.
Later church leaders have a problem with this baptism though. One they try to correct by adding a verse. Look at your Bibles and notice how it goes verse 36 to 38. Verse 37 is in your footnote, “And Philip said, ‘If you believe with all your heart, you may.’ And he replied, ‘I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’” (Acts 8:37) Some later church leaders think that to be baptized and become a part of the body of Christ, you need to say the right words.
Philip doesn’t worry about that though. Philip doesn’t worry about all of the ways he might be stepping beyond the rules, the boundaries, the box of what is acceptable. Philip shares the good news with the Ethiopian and baptizes the Ethiopian because Philip and the Ethiopian have been called by God to do so.
How is Jesus being made known to you through this scripture passage?
How is God still speaking to you?
In what ways are you being called to step beyond your comfort zone and share the love and joy of Jesus Christ, in word or in action?
I invite you into this time of discernment, to listen for God’s answers to those questions.