Sisters and brothers in Christ, I offer you grace and peace in the name of God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
You may have noticed that on most Sundays during this season of Easter, both of our weekly Scripture readings have come from the New Testament. Our focus in this season, quite naturally, is on Jesus: his resurrection, his appearance to the disciples, and his empowerment of others to go forth and spread the good news of salvation. And so, in this season, instead of the Old Testament, our first lessons have come from the Acts of the Apostles.
As its name describes, this book retells the actions taken by those early apostles and evangelists to share the good news of Jesus. It is in Acts that we witness Peter atone for his betrayal of Jesus, and become the cornerstone of this new faith movement, the rock upon which the early church shall stand. It is in this book that we read of the martyrdom of Stephen, stoned to death for preaching redemption and salvation through faith in Jesus. And the book of Acts recounts the journeys taken by Paul across stormy seas and harsh terrains to establish new churches far from Jerusalem.
Today’s reading from Acts retells the encounter between Philip, one of the evangelists of the emerging Church, and an unnamed man from Ethiopia, a eunuch.
The life of this Ethiopian is complicated. On the one hand, he is an official of the Ethiopian empire, responsible for the treasury of the queen. He is a man of honor and some privilege; when most men travel long distances by foot, he rides in the comfort in a carriage. He is a man of education, who reads the ancient Scriptures in search of wisdom and understanding.
On the other hand, this man is an outsider, one who lives on the margins of society. He is a eunuch; because of his presumed castration, he is without a family, and such men, in the Jewish tradition, are considered unclean. He has come to the Jewish faith not by birth, however, but by conversion. And so as a foreigner and a convert, even in his own religion he dwells on the fringes. He is returning to Ethiopia from Jerusalem, where he has just worshiped at the temple. However, because of his unclean status, he would not have been allowed inside the temple, but relegated to its courtyards. So in spite of his privileged status, this man knows the humiliation of being an outsider, considered unclean and inferior.
It so happens that on his journey from Jerusalem back home, the man is reading from the prophesy of Isaiah, about the humiliation and suffering of another, the lamb who would give his life for others. The Ethiopian is intrigued; he wants to know more about this prophesy, and it is in this moment that Philip appears. Hearing the eunuch’s desire to understand, seeing his thirst for salvation, Philip tells the eunuch the good news about Jesus.
We are not told in this passage exactly what Philip says to the man, but we can imagine the good news the eunuch hears:
- that Jesus is the Messiah about whom Isaiah prophesied
- that it is Jesus who suffered and died for the forgiveness of sins
- that Jesus died not just for the Jews, but for all people
- that Jesus offers salvation not just to people of one land, but of every land, even as far away as Ethiopia
- that God welcomes into God’s Kingdom those on the edges of society, even those as unclean as a eunuch
What we do know is that the eunuch receives Philip’s revelation with a joyful and thankful heart. He accepts the good news of Jesus’ salvation, and confirms his faith by being baptized by Philip. And then, just as suddenly, the two part ways, with the Ethiopian returning home to share the good news with others.
From what we read in Acts, the catalyst in this conversion story is the eunuch's desire to know the truth of Scripture, and to find his place in the Kingdom of God.
And of course we witness that Philip is a powerful and effective evangelist; his revelation of the Scriptures opens the heart of the Ethiopian and leads him to salvation.
But at the heart of this conversion story is the Spirit of God. Three different times, we see God’s Spirit guiding and leading Philip. First, an angel of the Lord tells Philip to take the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, where he encounters the royal carriage. Then, the Spirit tells Philip to approach the carriage and speak with the Ethiopian, which he does. Finally, after Philip reveals the Scriptures and baptizes the eunuch, the Spirit snatches Philip away and takes him to another region, where he continues his evangelism.
After our long year of pandemic and lockdowns and restrictions, we are thankful to God for the gradual reopening of society over these coming weeks. I know that we are all looking forward to going back to a favorite restaurant, or attending a concert, or taking our kids to the zoo, after these many months of isolation. And it will be a particular joy and blessing to open the doors of our church even wider, to welcome more members back into our chairs, to receive our children in Sunday School, to hear again the angelic voices of our choirs, and to gather for fellowship in our garden.
And with our resumption of “normal” congregational life will also come new opportunities for evangelism and, as Philip did, sharing the good news of Jesus. We will find ourselves having fresh encounters with those like the Ethiopian eunuch, travelers crossing our paths in search of a church home, a place to belong, a family of faith where they may dwell not on the margins but in the heart of our community.
I am sure that in these coming months, the Holy Spirit will be with us. Indeed, the Spirit will be leading us to engage those around us who want to know if Jesus really died for them, if they too, in spite of their uncleanliness or foreignness, are really welcome in the Kingdom of God. The question is, Will we, will you, will I, have the courage to follow the Holy Spirit faithfully, and fully embrace those who seek God’s love and mercy?
In my ministry with international churches over the years, a number of my church members were originally from Ethiopia. Those whom I came to know well were a diverse group, representing differing ethnicities and languages and political beliefs. However, in spite their differences, they were immensely proud of the long history of Christianity in Ethiopia. And they were especially eager to trace their spiritual lineage back to this eunuch, no longer unclean and on the margins, but rather transformed into the spiritual father of a nation.
I’m sure Philip had no idea that 2,000 years after baptizing this one man, millions in a distant land would remember with gratitude his discipleship. It is a good reminder to us, that if we follow the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, our sharing of the gospel might bless not just another, but perhaps even an entire nation.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.