A Wilderness Road
May 2, 2021
Who doesn’t like a good story? I mean one that grips you so that you can’t put the book down, or in today’s technology-driven world, one that you binge watch on Netflix…maybe more than once.
The Book of the Acts of the Apostles—actually Part 2 of Luke’s Gospel, is such a story. Like any good story, in addition to a plot with lots of twists and turns, and a panorama of vivid settings, it has complex characters who pop in and out of the storyline as they go about living their surprisingly intertwined lives, guided by the Holy Spirit, after Jesus’ death and resurrection. And like the best stories, these are about real people who change and grow before our eyes. We easily relate to them across time and space.
Today’s vignette features Phillip, one of the original seven deacons of the early Church, commissioned by the Apostles to oversee the distribution of food to the complaining widows of Jerusalem who were in their care. (Acts 6:1-6) We meet Phillip in today’s scripture after the stoning of Stephen (another deacon) and horrible persecution of the followers of Jesus by none other than Saul (who later became Paul.) Acts 8:3 tells us that “Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” whom he imprisoned. The Apostles remained in Jerusalem, but everyone else who was able to, got out of town, some to the Judean countryside, some to Samaria. Philip went to Samaria, where he preached the Gospel, and had some amazing adventures—you can read all about in in Acts 8:4-25. That’s where todays’ scripture picks up the storyline.
But first, a little background. Recall that the Samaritans were arch-enemies of the Jews. They were in fact a break-off sect from Judaism; both Jews and Samaritans were descended from the Hebrew slaves that Moses led out of Egypt, but as we learn from Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan “Woman at the Well” (John 4,) they each had very different ideas on how and where to worship God. Philip’s preaching in Samaria is the first time any of Jesus’ followers intentionally brought the good news of Jesus’ resurrection to anyone other than a Jew, or outside of Jerusalem. And, mind you, Philip was commissioned –one could say ordained–a Deacon—not an Apostle, or an Evangelist, or a teacher or preacher!
Enter an angel—God’s own messenger. We all know what that means—something big is about to happen. Scripture simply says the angel said ”get up and go” and Phillip “got up and went.”
The first hearers of this story would by now be on the edge of their seats. And when they heard the angel tell Phillip where to go—the road from Jerusalem to Gaza—wow! Gaza is that little strip, much fought over for millennia, that separates Palestine from Egypt…a place that conjured up ancient memories of captivity…and it was a wilderness road, to boot! For the Jews, the wilderness was always a scary place. Only a person of great faith would venture such a trip, even when told to by an angel from the Lord. But remember, Jesus spent a lot of time in the wilderness…praying, being tempted, just trying to get away from the persistent crowd and on some occasions, his disciples.
Meanwhile, already on that road was an Ethiopian, a eunuch who worked for the Queen of Ethiopia, heading home from worshipping in Jerusalem, and reading from Hebrew Scripture—the prophet Isaiah. (No easy task!) Let’s break that down, so we can understand it as the first hearers did. Ethiopians were not just foreigners, but Black. And this person was a eunuch—that is, a person who appeared male, but who was either born without male genitalia, or had their anatomy mutilated by force, most likely as a slave. We might say, a transgendered or Queer person. As a high official in the Queen’s Court, it is no surprise that this person read Hebrew, but in ancient Hebrew Law, a eunuch was an abomination, forever unclean. No way could this person have been a proselyte, that is, a convert to Judaism. Yet, this was the first person of completely non-Jewish origin—the first gentile—who became a Christian, and asked to be baptized—which Phillip did. Jaw-dropping to the new Christians of Jewish origin, profoundly reassuring to those of gentile descent.
Let’s let that sink in. The first person to become a Christian, who was not of God’s original “Chosen People,” was Black, non-binary gendered, and a slave. And just as surprisingly, the one who explained scripture, and opened the door to eternal life with the Living Word, Jesus Christ, was a deacon-turned-evangelist. I can just hear the murmurings of the first hearers…Phillip the Deacon? Not Phillip the Apostle?
Both Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch were people of great faith, risk takers who relied on God’s Word…and the Spirit of the Lord. Each in their own way models “Resurrection Living.” As we discovered 3 weeks ago, one aspect of this is giving “powerful testimony” about the Good News of Jesus Christ, something Deacon Phillip clearly was gifted by the Spirit to do. A second aspect is “understanding scripture,” as we discerned 2 weeks ago…and that we realize from today’s lesson includes asking for help when the text is beyond one’s own understanding. And then, last week, we focused on Love, God’s love, hesed in Hebrew, agape in Greek. Today’s wonderful story may not mention love, but it is foundational. Both Philip and the Eunuch, total strangers in dangerous surroundings, trusted each other, unconditionally, because of their faith in God. They did not see race or nationality or gender or social status as barriers. They saw as Jesus saw when he walked this earth, reaching out to everyone — lepers and women and foreigners and others despised and marginalized by society. Their brief interaction in this wilderness encounter displayed love, fearless and joyful, Jesus’ love, God’s love; it sets the standard for us today as we venture out into our own wildernesses in a world changed by more than a year of pandemic fear and cultural upheaval.
What happened next? We are told that the Spirit of the Lord “snatched Phillip away” and put him back in the area where he had been preaching, and that the Eunuch “went on his way rejoicing,” presumably back to Ethiopia. Like all good stories, this one ends with us wanting to know more…and as it often happens with God, we do get more, but not as we had anticipated, for the focus of Acts now turns to Paul.
So the story of Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch is the prequel to the conversion of Saul, who as Paul, takes the Gospel to the corners of the Gentile world. We may not meet them again in scripture, but I am confident that as we come to the Lord’s table, Deacon Phillip and the Ethiopian Eunuch will be there with us, along with all the delightfully diverse company of the saints. Amen.
Claire Jones, Minister