This sermon is somewhat different than what I would normally have done, as on this Sunday I was on a pulpit exchange where I preached at Our Saviour’s Lutheran Church, Rocky Boy’s Indian Reservation, Montana.
The Holy Spirit moves in mysterious ways. And this story from the book of Acts about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch is one of the more mysterious accounts of the Holy Spirit’s activity that we have from the early church. It is the story of two people who are both on the margins of their society, neither one quite certain of the other at the first, but in the end, both of them being changed by their encounter that the Holy Spirit brought about.
On the one hand we have Philip. We know from Acts 6 that Philip was chosen as one of seven deacons who were to advocate for the Greek-speaking widows in the company of those who were followers of the Way, the first name of the movement that followed Jesus as Messiah. These Greek-speaking widows had been neglected in the distribution of food to the poor among them, in favor of those who spoke Aramaic. So the fact that Philip was one of the seven chosen to make sure that food got distributed to these widows says to me that he could empathize with these women, that he understood what it felt like to be neglected and pushed to the side, and that he would do his best to make sure this group of women did not go hungry. And all seemed to be well until Stephen, another one of the seven deacons, was killed for his witness about Jesus to the Jewish ruling council. In the wake of his martyrdom, a fierce persecution of Christians arose, and many Christians, including Philip, fled from Jerusalem.
Philip, however, was not one to hide in fear and sit around doing nothing. Instead, he went to the city of Samaria and began to preach the gospel. Like the Greek-speaking widows in Jerusalem, Samaritans also found themselves on the margins of “good” society: they were regarded as not quite Jewish and not quite foreign. They had some trappings of the Jewish faith: they read from the first five books of the Old Testament, but did not include the prophets, as Jewish people to the south did. The Samaritans believed that the proper place to worship was Mount Gerizim, while their Jewish cousins to the south worshiped at the Temple in Jerusalem. So, again, these were marginal people. Philip, fresh off his experience advocating for the Greek-speaking widows, spoke the gospel to the Samaritans, and they believed. Peter and John came from the Jerusalem headquarters to verify what had happened, prayed over the Samaritans, and saw the Holy Spirit come upon them. Philip had done the work that God had called him to do very well.
This brings us to today’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch. An angel of the Lord prompts Philip to go to the wilderness road—we can tell just from this command that Philip is going to be asked to talk to someone who is on the margins of society again. But at first glance, the Ethiopian eunuch doesn’t appear to be someone on the margins. Other literature from this time period tells us that Ethiopians were widely regarded as the most beautiful people in the known world. So I’d like for us to picture a very elegant, supermodel type gentleman. The man was very well-off: he was a court official of the Candace, the queen of Ethiopia, and was in charge of her entire treasury. So, he was probably traveling with an entourage of servants: a high-ranking court official didn’t travel on a wilderness road by himself. There was nothing about this man’s appearance to suggest that he was not accepted by society. Being a castrated male was simply the price that one paid for power; eunuchs were common in many courts of rulers in the Middle East, and they had great power and great influence. Philip, someone without power and influence except for what the Holy Spirit gave to him when he preached, was probably pretty fearful of going up and introducing himself to this rich and powerful man. Can you picture it? “Hi, I’m Philip. Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord Jesus Christ?”
But then, again at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, Philip walked up to this elegant, rich man in his chariot, and heard him reading from the prophet Isaiah. Now he knew something about this man: he was either a Gentile God-fearer, that is, a non-Jewish person who was curious about the Jewish faith, or a Jewish proselyte, that is, a convert to Judaism. Acts tells us that this man had come to Jerusalem to worship, so this gives us a clue that he was not as he had seemed at first. Because he was ethnically non-Jewish, he would only have been allowed into the outermost court, the court of the Gentiles, in the temple. But because he was a eunuch, he may not have been allowed into the temple at all. There are two places in the law, Leviticus and Deuteronomy, that say that a man who is not whole in his body would not be admitted before the Lord. This rich and powerful Ethiopian eunuch who seemed to have everything going for him yearned to know more about the Lord, but was outcast, on the margins of society, when it came to worshiping God. Who better for the Holy Spirit to send than Philip, the man who ministered to Greek-speaking widows and to Samaritans, bringing them the good news?
So Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch if he understands what he is reading. The eunuch looks at Philip, perhaps a little condescendingly—after all, who is this person to address him, a high-ranking court official, assuming that he doesn’t understand—and he answers, perhaps a bit sarcastically, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” But, he invites Philip into the chariot with him, and Philip begins with the Isaiah passage the eunuch is reading and proclaims to the eunuch the good news of Jesus Christ. I wish I’d been a fly buzzing around the heads of these two men, because I really would like to know what Philip said. What did he say that so convinced the Ethiopian eunuch to become a follower of Jesus, right there? My guess would be that Philip, an observant guy, probably saw that the eunuch felt like God could never love him because of who he was, and that Philip told him that Jesus loved him and came to earth to die for him, too, and that as a follower of Jesus, he could belong, and he could know that God loved him. And that such joy overcame him at hearing this good news, that he could hardly believe it.
“Look, here is water!” the eunuch said. “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Not even the leaders of the Jerusalem headquarters, who had to come and verify the conversion of the Samaritans, could stop Philip from baptizing this eunuch into God’s family. This man who seemed to have it all but who could not worship in the temple because of who he was, was welcomed into God’s family and knew that he could worship God as he was, for God loved him. No wonder he went away rejoicing, even when the Holy Spirit snatched Philip away from him. And Philip? The Holy Spirit placed him in a town called Azotus, which we think is located on the coast of Israel, in what used to be the territory of the Philistines. So once again, Philip is on the margins of society, proclaiming the good news and allowing the Holy Spirit to use him to bring people to follow Jesus and become part of God’s family.
Through this encounter, the Holy Spirit transformed the thinking of both of these men. One rich, one poor, one man whole in body, the other not, they couldn’t have been more different from one another. And yet, at the end of the encounter, they knew that they were brothers in the Lord. God is still doing this today. God is still bringing in people who think that they cannot be loved by God, bringing them into God’s family. The Holy Spirit whispers that nothing can prevent you from being baptized, for we are all one in Christ Jesus. Maybe there are some here today who feel that God could never love them because of who they are or because of something they’ve done. I’m here to say that this is not true. God loves you. There is nothing to prevent you from being baptized. Or, if you are already baptized, there is nothing to prevent God from loving you. And in God’s family, we show God’s love to one another and reassure one another that God loves each and every one of us. Let us go forth from here this day to proclaim God’s love to all whom we meet: rich, poor, powerful, weak, Chippewa, Cree, white, black, male, female, and so on. For we are all one in Christ Jesus. Amen.