Sermon for April 19th, 2020
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.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33 In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Jesus on the Road to Gaza
We're right in the middle of a three-part sermon series about encounters with Jesus on the road. Having just listened to the scripture passage, you might be thinking, wait a minute--Jesus isn't even in this story! It's about the encounter between Philip (a leader in the early church), and an Ethiopian eunuch. How is this an encounter with Jesus? In each of the three stories we're considering, the characters in question encounter Jesus in a different form. In last week's story, two disciples walk, talk, and share a meal with a very "embodied" Jesus on the road to Emmaus. In next week's story, Jesus appears in a vision from the heavens to the Apostle Paul. But in this week's story, it's a little more subtle: Jesus, who is described by the Bible as the "Word of God made flesh" appears in written form, through the ancient scriptures of Isaiah, and also in spoken or shared form through the words of Philip.
My friend, Helen Edwards, who is also one of our church leaders, has shared the story of how one day, as a young girl, Jesus appeared to her in visible form a forest path in her native Switzerland. My mother has often shared stories of God speaking to her in a dream or a vision. I've never been fortunate enough to have had an encounter like either of those, but I can count many times when I have felt the real and tangible presence of Christ when studying the Bible, or in conversation with another person. I think it's good to remember (and see in the scriptures) that all of these are legitimate, life transforming ways that we can encounter Jesus on our own roads, on our own spiritual journeys. I think it's also good to remember that sometimes we are called to actually BE the representation of God's word in the life of another person, often even a complete stranger.
That stranger, in today's story is the Ethiopian eunuch. What do we know about him? Well, just from verses 27 and 28 alone, quite a bit. First, he's an Ethiopian. In the Bible, that's not so much a nationality as it is a broad term to refer to any of the dark-skinned people who lived south of Egypt. In the Jewish and Greek-speaking world, he is a minority. Second, in his home country, he's a pretty big deal. He's a high-ranking official in the court of the Ethiopian queen. He travels by chariot, AND he has in his possession a scroll from the book of Isaiah, two valuable things that would only be available to a person of considerable wealth and power. Third, he's a eunuch. In the ancient world (and more recently, in Game of Thrones) a eunuch is someone who lacks reproductive genitalia. This can happen in a number of different ways, as Jesus mentions to his disciples in Matthew 19, when he says that "there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven." Several ancient texts outside the Bible refer to "men, women, and eunuchs," using the term as a catch-all for individuals who didn't fit neatly into the primary gender boxes of the day.
The Ethiopian eunuch in our story today is referred to five times simply as "the eunuch" and never by name. Clearly, the writer of Acts wants to emphasize that aspect of his story, and for good reason. We learn in verses 27-28 that "he had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah." Clearly he is interested in the God of Israel, open to studying the scriptures, and desires to worship God. But notice also the verses say he had *come* to Jerusalem to worship, not that he was successful in doing so. There's a reason for that. In the book of Deuteronomy, the law of Moses, there are instructions (chapter 23) for who is allowed to worship in the temple. And the very first verse of those instructions states clearly that "No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord." Note that it doesn't matter whether it was intentional, accidental, out of medical necessity, or that happened against a person's will. If you were a eunuch, you were excluded from worshiping at the temple. I suspect that the Ethiopian eunuch, despite all his wealth, his power, prestige, and intense desire to enter God's house...had a pretty disappointing experience at the end of his journey. Thankfully, what he thought was the end of his spiritual journey, turned out to be just the beginning.
When Amy and I got married, we looked for a church we could be part of. She was raised Baptist, and I was raised Methodist, so for awhile we settled on a large, non-denominational church North of Dallas where we lived at the time. The community wasn't very deep, but the worship and the sermons were great, so for awhile we were happy enough. And then, came September 11th of 2001, and the terrorist attacks on the twin towers. Like a lot of people, we felt a deep need to be in church the following Sunday. When we arrived at the church that morning, the parking lot was full, and an usher told us that the church had reached capacity, so he couldn't let us in. We asked if there might be another service later in the morning, or an overflow room somewhere so we could at least watch the service with other church members. The answer was no, with the implication that we should simply come early next time. But of course, there wasn't a next time. We were crushed. It's a painful thing to be turned away from your church for reasons outside your ability to control. We never went back to that church, and the very next Sunday we wandered into a small Presbyterian church that became our spiritual home for the next eight years, where our two oldest children were baptized, where Amy and I sang in the praise band, and where I eventually joined the staff as director of music and youth ministry. Oh, and the Pastor of that church? His name was Philip. He became a mentor and friend, and shared a new way (a very Presbyterian way) of understanding the Bible and God's love. And one day he said to me, "have you ever thought of going to seminary and becoming a pastor?" By now, you know the rest of that story.
Thank God for the Philips of this world, for the doors closed in our face, and for the roads that leads us somewhere different than where we thought we were supposed to be. Thank God for churches like this one, that welcome all people who wander into our midst--physically and virtually--regardless of our race, our politics, our country of origin, our socio-economic status, our gender identity, our religious heritage (or lack thereof). Most of all, thank God for Jesus, who meets us where we are, on whatever road we're headed, and sends just the right people in just the right moment to accompany us on our journeys and share God's love and God's word with us in new and refreshing ways.
At the end of our story today, Philip is mysteriously whisked away after sharing the gospel with the Ethiopian eunuch and baptizing him. But the eunuch goes on his way, rejoicing. Later church tradition identifies him and gives him a name--Simeon Bachos--and teaches that he went on to become the father of the Christian church in sub-Saharan Africa, which today numbers over 36 million members.
May the same God who meets us on the road also meet our broken, rejected dreams with his open, unqualified embrace, and may we too, be sent on our way rejoicing, and sharing that love with everyone we meet. Thanks be to God! And now, with the confidence of God's children, let us pray together the prayer which our Lord taught us...