Philip and the Ethiopian

Acts 8:26-40 NIV

 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian[a] eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet.

The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.

“How can I,” he said, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.

This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:

“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,

    and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,

    so he did not open his mouth.

In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.

    Who can speak of his descendants?

    For his life was taken from the earth.”

The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both 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 suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing.  Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

Last week Mark mentioned in his sermon, getting into good trouble. Todays’ text is such a good illustration of that. The phrase good trouble was part of a quote we heard often repeated on the news when Representative John Lewis passed away.

“Get into good trouble, necessary trouble.” I have another favorite John Lewis quote I want to share this morning.

“Nothing can stop the power of a committed and determined people to make a difference in our society. Why? Because human beings are the most dynamic link to the divine on this planet.”

We are linked to the divine. What a comfort that is when our world gets crazy, to remember that we are linked to the divine.

Acts 1:8 gives us a clue to the main focus of the book of Acts. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”

We know that the book of Acts is sort of a sequel to the gospel of Luke. In Acts we see the early church spreading first among the Jews, then to the Gentiles, and then Paul spreads the gospel and plants churches in Asia and Greece.

Jesus told His followers to remain in Jerusalem until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit. I have been on a journey this year, discovering new details in old texts so I invite you to go along with me. 

In Acts 2:2 speaking about that baptism, the bible says “Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting.”

If we move forward to Acts 17:6 we read “While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason’s house.  When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, “These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also,”

In just a few chapters we go from a houseful of Jesus’ followers to turning the world upside down. This happened in a time when there was no mass communication, travel was on foot, by donkey, by chariot. This is the beginning of the story of the church, a story that continues today. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we are a part of that story.

The only way the church could have grown so fast and reached so far is through the Holy Spirit, through people being linked to the divine. We speak of the Holy Spirit as being our advocate. Jesus, himself was our first advocate and when He ascended He left us a second advocate. Jesus speaks to God for us. The Holy Spirit speaks to us for God. The Holy Spirit consistently points us back to Jesus – to what He did for us, how much He loves us. The Holy Spirit most often seems to speak us into doing things that are at odds with our culture. That Spirit is our link to the divine! That is what happened in the text we read today.

So lets look at the main characters. There are three.

The angel of the Lord who directed the steps of the other two people in this story. While this spirit is hardly mentioned, without the Spirit, nothing else would have happened.

The second character we see is Philip, who was part of a group of 7 men chosen by the disciples to serve, and to be a part of this group The apostles must have seen something special in Philip. The gospel was spreading and it was causing good trouble. This is where Paul became involved with the persecution of the early church. This group of people chosen with Philip, included Stephen who was stoned to death and who to the very end, preached Jesus and interceded for the very people who were killing him. All but the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Philip was one of these men and here is where today’s text happens. Remember that Philip was a Jew and in his culture, you didn’t associate with people who were of different cultures because it could defile you.

The third character is an Ethiopian eunuch. Castration was a common practice and the price you paid for a cushy job that kept you around the royal family. We know that he is educated because he is in charge of the treasury and he is reading. We know that he is a person with money because he has traveled a thousand miles in a chariot from Ethiopia to Jerusalem and back. That journey would have taken about a year.

So we have all of the characters on stage. The Spirit, Philip, and the Ethiopian eunuch.

What is not in the text is why this man traveled all that way to worship – what motivated him, and what happened when he got to Jerusalem.

We can assume some things because of the history of the time and because of what we know of the Jewish faith and the rules for worshiping in the temple.

The culture of the day meant that having offspring was so important. More than once, the bible gives a list – a genealogy to show the lineage of a person. Having many sons was a mark of honor. This black African man will have no sons. He has reached the top. He is in charge of the treasury of the queen so he has money and power but no one to pass it on to. We don’t know from the text, but maybe we can speculate that whatever motivated him to make this long and dangerous and difficult journey was a hunger for something that money and power could not give him.

There were rules for worshiping in the temple and the rules had a purpose. You couldn’t just show up and talk to God because of sin. Some kind of cleansing had to happen. For example, Mozaic law said that if you touched a dead body, you had to stay away from the temple for a certain amount of time. 

But some of these rules permanently excluded people. One of these was castration. A Eunuch could not ever go in to the temple.

So, he turned the chariot around and headed back home. But on the way, he is poring over the scroll of Isaiah. The words “Who can speak of his descendants? may have spoken to him. Has it ever happened to you, that you are reading the bible and it seems as though a particular passage is speaking directly to you? This is from Isaiah 53 and if we read a little further in Isaiah, in 56  he would have read “Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.”

For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.

How sweet those words must seemed to this lonely man.

We can picture this all happening. The Spirit told Philip to go to this place on this road and then the spirit speaks to Philip again. He tells him to go up to this chariot and stay near it. The wording is weird to me here and it seems like a possible explanation for the phrasing is that the chariot was moving! Philip had to run up to the chariot and keep running along side. It wasn’t until verse 31 that Philip was invited up into the chariot.

I have to stop for a moment and think about what a beautiful picture  this is – here we are riding our chariot through life, looking for answers and the Holy Spirit CHASES us down and finds us!

So Philip basically tells the Ethiopian the good news of Jesus Christ and his immediate response was to want to be baptized!

There is a theory that religion is an extension of culture. That everyone is on their way up the mountain – their culture just means they use different paths to get there. The Buddhists have the eightfold path. The Hindu way to God is the four pillars. Every other religion is based on a man who says – here is the way to God.

But Jesus says, “I am God and I have come to find you.”

You can research and find out that most Hindus live in southeast Asia. Most Buddhists live in east Asia. Most religions stay geographically where they started. No other religion looks like Christianity. Christianity is all over the world. Because the gospel stands above culture. The Holy Spirit can build Christianity within any culture. And in the book of Acts we see over and over how the Holy Spirit nudges people towards people of other races, other cultures, whether they are close by or like the Ethiopian, geographically far away, and without the Holy Spirit, people would have stayed in their own little corner of the world.

Religious rules that place requirements on who can come in, how they have to dress, what they look like, how they navigate their daily lives – those rules exclude people from worship. The Holy Spirit moves past and through all of that.

Think of it like this. If God came down and said here is a list. Do all of these things and you will have salvation, then salvation would be something we accomplished for ourselves. It would be about nothing but laws, lost of rules. To become a Christian, you would have no culture. Everyone would need to look alike, dress alike, speak alike. He gave us the ten commandments. We couldn’t even keep ten laws.

But that isn’t how it works. It is not based on how strong we are, what we look like, how well we obey rules. In 2nd Corinthians 12 Paul writes “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

The gospel is not for people who are strong; it is for the people who know they are not strong, so that we know we are saved by grace and valued by God’s love.

Now the Holy Spirit didn’t just send Philip to this specific person at this specific place. If the Ethiopian man had gone to the temple, he would have experienced church, Jewish style. But he would not have heard the message his heart was in dire need of. The Holy Spirit put this man on this road and had him reading this text at just the right time. He was reading from the heart of the bible. He was divinely placed in a geographical place and a spiritual place and an intellectual place to hear about the servant who became the sacrifice for all of us. The man from Ethiopia understood sacrifice.

Everything comes down to this. We, meaning ALL of humanity, every race, every culture, could not achieve salvation on our own and because God desires that NO one perish, we are given the great commission – to make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Not for the uniformity of the world, not to make us all look and sound alike, but to bring us back into relationship with God. No one group gets to claim what that should look like.  Through the Holy Spirit, the gospel transcends differences and levels the playing field. We are all, like the eunuch, excluded from the presence of God because of our sin.

The work of Jesus Christ on the cross, the substitutional sacrifice, makes us holy. We can’t do it ourselves any more than the eunuch could have changed his condition. If you KNOW someone has died to save you it changes you and it changes how you relate to that person. The Ethiopian man went home forever changed and because of what might look like a chance encounter on the road, the gospel spread to Africa. In fact, there are 11 churches carved into the rock in the town of Lalibela in Ethiopia. They date from the 7th to the 13th centuries. Because of this divine link, Ethiopia became one of the earliest nations to adopt Christianity.

If we continue to listen for and then obey the nudges of the Holy Spirit, who knows what the Holy Spirit might do through us. The sky, or Heaven…is the limit. Amen?

Father, we thank you that Your spirit wants all racial and cultural barriers removed and that through the power of the Holy Spirit that lives in each one of us, we can break those barriers. We pray that we will listen for the voice of the Holy Spirit and obey so that we, in response to all that Jesus did for us, will be able to live as a changed people, working for peace and healing and justice in this world as we follow the footsteps of Your son, who came not to be served but to serve and gave His life for all of us. In His name we pray. Amen.