Scripture: Acts 8:26-40
If you were in worship last week, you heard Kelvin tell the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Up to now the early church has been going along, picking up steam, driven forward by the power of the Holy Spirit – but not entirely without notes of trouble. The apostles, early on, are arrested and released. The scrutinizing eyes of the powers that be have never completely left them. It seems that, even post-resurrection, God’s love and grace and goodness will always be opposed by those who have the most to lose, and those who live in the way of this love and grace and goodness will always need to be prepared for that. So, Stephen is stoned to death for his faith in Jesus, and it’s an image of what the life of discipleship has in store for the rest of Jesus’ followers.
When Stephen dies, it’s like something is unleashed, and persecution of the early church begins in earnest. The believers leave Jerusalem and scatter throughout the rest of the province of Judea and Samaria.
But like in Jesus’ case, death and scattering in fear are not the end of the story here. After all, it is often the case that persecution strengthens rather than weakens faith. Faith dies when it gets too comfortable. But when people see how much we are willing to risk and sacrifice for something we believe in, they start to think maybe there’s something to that.
So instead of the end of a movement, Stephen’s death gives way to something new.
Do you remember how just before Jesus ascended back into heaven, he told the disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth? Well, now for the first time the church leaves Jerusalem. The Gospel for the first time reaches the rest of Judea and Samaria, because suddenly there are followers of Jesus spreading the word – not quite to the ends of the earth, yet, but we’re getting there.
One of those followers is Philip. Philip isn’t one of the Twelve, but if you have read the book of Acts up to this point, you’ve met Philip before, briefly: like Stephen, he was one of the people chosen to be in charge of distributing food to the poor members of the community so that the Twelve would be freed for prayer and proclaiming God’s word. When the church scatters, Philip finds himself in the region of Samaria, which had once been the Northern Kingdom of Israel. He preaches Christ there, to great success. As our story begins today, the Holy Spirit is about to send him on his next assignment.
I’ve heard that instead of Acts of the Apostles, this book could really be called Acts of the Holy Spirit. She’s really the one driving the action throughout the book – as it should be, right?
So one day soon after all this has taken place, an angel comes to Philip and says, at noon, take the road the goes from Jerusalem to Gaza. So Philip does. When the Holy Spirit says go, you go. And as he goes, he sees on this same road a man in a carriage. There are a couple things it is important to know about this man.
First, he is an Ethiopian. Ethiopia, at this time, called Cush or Nubia, was basically any of Africa south of Egypt. It was also, for Jews in Jerusalem, pretty much “the ends of the earth.” The church’s mission continues to look outward.
Second, he is a high-up person in the court of the Queen of Ethiopia. He’s like the Secretary of the Treasury. A few things here are indicative of his high social status, including his fancy carriage and the fact that he can read.
Third, he’s a eunuch, and this is related to his social status, because it was often eunuchs who served in the courts of powerful women – because they were castrated, they were seen as “safe.” But, despite his status as a rich and important person, being a eunuch does in one sense put him outside society’s mainstream. His sexual identity makes him “other.” He doesn’t quite fit into the boxes that most people expect other people to fit into.
And fourth, he is returning from worshiping in Jerusalem, which means he is either a Jewish convert or what was sometimes called a God-fearer, someone who hadn’t officially converted but practiced the Jewish faith to some degree. And this is also related to the previous item, because while he had come to Jerusalem to worship God at God’s Temple, there were some rules about eunuchs entering the Temple. Namely, according to Deuteronomy 23 and Leviticus 21, they could not. So if those rules were in effect during this time, and depending on how much the Ethiopian man knew about them beforehand, there’s a chance he was going home somewhat disappointed.
But Philip doesn’t know all this yet. What Philip knows is that there is a man in a carriage, until the Holy Spirit says to him, “Hey, you should go talk to that guy.” (Has the Holy Spirit ever nudged you into conversation with someone for a certain purpose?)
So Philip runs to catch up with the carriage, and he realizes as he gets closer that the man is doing a little personal Bible study, reading from Isaiah. So Philip, still running, calls out breathlessly, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
I imagine this guy being slightly taken aback – after all, if someone’s running to catch up to my carriage, I really figure either they’re in big trouble or I’ve left my coffee on the roof again – and possibly even offended, because who even is this guy to imply that he might not understand? The Ethiopian man, after all, is a rich and important guy. Philip is, presumably, a peasant. He certainly doesn’t have a carriage, although as we learn later, the Holy Spirit does once in a while provide some pretty sweet transportation.
But he doesn’t say, “Who are you, exactly?” and he doesn’t dryly say, “I’m fine, thanks;” he says, “You know, now that you mention it, I really don’t understand, no.”
And then he says, “How can I, without someone to guide me?”
And then he says, “Hop in.”
I want to pause the story there because I think I know the feeling. Do you? That when it comes to studying the Bible, when it comes to understanding our own faith, we’re doing all the right things but something isn’t clicking.
When I first started seriously studying the Bible in college – not just reading the words on the page, but taking classes that got into the history and the literary context of those words, and how they were different in Hebrew, and that sort of thing – I began to feel incapable of ever reading the Bible on my own again. I certainly don’t believe that you need a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies in order for God to speak to you through Scripture, but once I knew how much was there between the lines, I was well aware of how much I was missing. It’s a big reason I still mostly use a study Bible today, even in my own devotional reading, so I can read the notes that someone smarter than me has included to help guide me in my reading. How can I understand, otherwise?
Well, Philip hops in and discovers what the Ethiopian man is reading, and it’s from Isaiah 53. “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,” it goes, “and like a lamb before his shearer is silent, so he didn’t open his mouth. In his humiliation, justice was taken away from him.”
And the man asks, “Who is this about? Is it about Isaiah, or is it about someone else?”
His question is theological, of course, but it’s also personal; especially if we consider that he is perhaps on his way home from not being able to worship as expected because of his sexual status, his own experience of humiliation; especially if we know that a few chapters later, in Isaiah 56, the prophet has a vision of God inviting all people who live righteously to enter God’s house, yes, even eunuchs.
As one writer puts it, when he asks who Isaiah is writing about, he is really asking, “Is this passage about me as well?”
Sometimes my questions aren’t about historical context or translation issues, either. Sometimes my questions are more along the lines of “What does this mean for me, here, now?” “How does this apply to my life?” Does Jesus really need me to sell everything I own and give the money to the poor? If I act sometimes like a sheep and sometimes like a goat, which line do I get to stand in on Judgment Day? How do we extend God’s grace to others without encouraging wrong or unhelpful behavior or letting ourselves be a doormat?
Those more personal questions, to be honest, are the harder questions. Those aren’t questions that can simply be answered by notes in a study Bible. Probably nobody’s going to hop up into our carriage and give us the one right definitive answer to all of them.
But as it so happens, on that day, Philip answers both. “I’ll tell you who Isaiah is writing about,” he says, and then he goes on to tell the Ethiopian man about Jesus, the one who was led like a sheep to the slaughter, the one for whom there was no justice. And Jesus, the one who opens the doors wider for us, for whom neither race nor gender nor in this case even an outside-the-box sexual identity are barriers to a full relationship with God.
It’s a good thing Philip came along. Otherwise, he might have kept reading but never understood.
If you’ve ever felt like the Ethiopian man, unsure about what God wants or what faith means or what it all looks like in real life, have you sought guidance? Have you taken that step to understand better? The Holy Spirit might not just drop someone into your carriage, but God does give us people and resources to help us along the way in this life of faith. Pick up a study Bible, for instance. Maybe there’s a Philip you know, someone whose faith you admire, someone who through age or experience has a little more wisdom than you, who can help you get a little closer to what God might have to say to you.
It might be easier or take less energy to just keep not knowing, to keep feeling a little bit stuck, even to despair a bit – but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Of course in this story Philip is the one in the know, imparting his greater understanding to someone with less, but I have to wonder if the Ethiopian man taught him something too. Maybe Philip had never thought specifically about what the good news meant for someone who was a eunuch. Certainly he’d spent a lot of time thinking about what it meant for those who were poor – he had been, after all, in charge of feeding people. But what about this man who was clearly not materially poor, clearly not lacking in influence, and yet marginalized in his own way, too? Philip believes in the Jesus who breaks down barriers to our relationship with God – but might he have understood what that meant a little more fully that day?
The truth is, none of us understands perfectly, this side of heaven. The truth is, we all need a little guidance. The truth is that when it comes to figuring out this whole faith thing – what we believe, what it means, how to live it out – none of us are supposed to go it alone. We need each other. We’re supposed to do it together.
When we meet upstairs for Bible study after worship, that’s what we do. We’ve read the text for the week, but we’ve each read it in a vacuum – alone in our chariots, so to speak. Then we come together and we all have our different takes and our different experiences that shed some light on the story and some different ideas about what it might all mean – and of course, I bring my study Bible, for the notes of people smarter than me – and we talk, and we guide each other.
How else are we supporting and guiding each other in our life in community?
Are you seeking the guidance you need? Are you sharing your insight and experience and even doubts and questions for the benefit of others? Because that’s part of what it is to be the church. It’s part of how our mission grows and expands and welcomes other people in. It’s part of letting the Holy Spirit move and work among us.
When Philip has spoken, the Ethiopian man knows that he’s found an answer he’s been looking for. “Look,” he says, “there’s some water, is there any reason I shouldn’t be baptized right now?”
And Philip says, “Well, come to think of it, no,” and he baptizes him right then and there. I suspect neither the Ethiopian man nor Philip will find that all their questions will be answered for all time, even if something new has been revealed to each of them today.
But that’s OK. They don’t need to be. They are both part of the Body of Christ, and they aren’t doing this alone.
 Feasting on the Word, Year B, Vol. 2, p. 428 (Thomas C. Long, “Pastoral Perspective”)