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April 29, 2018

Philip and the Ethiopian –

Scripture Reading: Acts 8:26-40

26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 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, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”

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

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

32 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.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
    Who can speak of his descendants?
    For his life was taken from the earth.”[b]

34 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.

36 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?” [37] [c]38 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. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.

Footnotes:

  1. Acts 8:27 That is, from the southern Nile region
  2. Acts 8:33 Isaiah 53:7,8 (see Septuagint)
  3. Acts 8:37 Some manuscripts include here Philip said, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” The eunuch answered, “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”

Sermon: “What’s Stopping Us?”

I’d like to start with a pair of videos. In the first, Katie Kelzenberger of Stillwater, Minnesota invites Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson to her high school’s prom. We’ll then see what happened next.

Videos

Katie left her comfort zone—big time—when she asked Johnson to the prom. It takes a lot of courage to do that because, well, our comfort zone is just so doggone comfortable.

When we’re in it, things are safe, familiar, and certain. If we step outside, we can never be sure what might happen or how we’ll react.

Sometimes, though, we take giant leaps that leave everything familiar behind. Sometimes, those leaps are more like shoves, and they come from God. Philip could tell us all about it.

The first seven chapters of Acts show how the young Christian movement grew in Jerusalem. They also talk about an early struggle between “Hellenists,” Jews who spoke Greek, and “Hebrews,” Jews who spoke Hebrew or Aramaic. The differences went beyond just language to culture and lifestyle.

The church picked new deacons, Stephen and Philip among them, to minister to Greek-speaking Jewish widows. It didn’t take long for things to get ugly.

Jewish religious leaders took Stephen into custody. They tried him in religious court and then sentenced him to death. So began a wave of persecution that drove Jesus’ followers out of Jerusalem and into Judea and Samaria.

Philip preached in Samaria with considerable success. After Peter and John went back to Jerusalem, the Spirit sent Philip even further into the Samaritan backwoods, to a wilderness highway.

There he met someone who was as much an outsider to Jewish culture as anyone could be.

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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. (Acts 8:27-28)

The Ethiopian, a man of power and influence, came from a different race than Philip did. Most tellingly, he was a eunuch, castrated at an early age.

Jewish law didn’t consider his sexuality “normal,” and forbade the Ethiopian from worshipping in the Temple.

The Spirit told Philip to run up to the Ethiopian’s chariot. In answer to Phillip’s question about whether he understood what he was reading, the Ethiopian said, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”

It’s great to have a guide. That doesn’t mean we still can’t get lost, though. We sometimes confuse guidance with direction.

Scientists have proven that following a GPS distracts us from the road in front of us. For example, limo driver Kurt Braun decided he’d trust his GPS as he made his way through Salzburg, Austria.

The GPS said he could drive straight to the entrance of a busy shop. He could, all right, but only by taking himself, the limo, and his boss down a steep flight of concrete steps. Thankfully, there were no injuries.

Not surprisingly, Braun lost his job. Don’t worry about him, though. He has a new career—in air traffic control. I kid you not.

A GPS offers several routes that can guide us from point A to point B. We still have to decide which direction is right for us.

There were at least three routes open to Philip as he answered the Ethiopian’s question. The most travelled saw faithful Israel in Isaiah’s words. That left the Ethiopian, an outcast and a foreigner, outside God’s salvation.

A less popular but still travelled road said Isaiah was predicting an end of days prophet from God. That left the Ethiopian outside the circle of God’s love, too. Surely there was another route, another way.

Indeed there was. “Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to [the Ethiopian] the good news about Jesus.” (Acts 8:35)

Soon, the Ethiopian said, “Look, here’s water! What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”

There were any number of things, actually. They were in the middle of nowhere, for one. The Ethiopian wasn’t welcome in the Temple, for another. He had just heard about Jesus. He was from another country. He obviously needed help understanding Scripture.

And, oh yeah, he was a eunuch, one of “those people” whose sexuality didn’t fit the norm. That left him outside the circle of polite society and, some said, outside the circle of God’s salvation, too.

Let’s not forget the debate splitting the then young church. Did conversion mean conformity? For some, it did. Those from a Jewish background said new Christians should follow Jewish dietary and religious laws, for example.

Does bringing someone to the faith mean beating them with a Scripture stick until they’re just like us? How we treat “those people” shows who we are ourselves.

A new memorial recently opened in Montgomery, Alabama. Here’s a preview of a much longer Sixty Minutes piece about it.

Clip

That’s what happens when we expect people to look like us, think like us, or believe like us—and hate them if they don’t. That’s what happens when we say, “There’s no love for you here unless you let us change you into who we’re comfortable with you being.” That’s not God’s way, nor should it be ours.

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. (Acts 8:39)

Philip’s guidance given, it was now up to the Ethiopian to find his own God-given direction. He did just that.

Church historian Eusebius writes that the Ethiopian became an evangelist when he got back home. The Ethiopian church looks upon him as its founder to this very day.

Nadia Boltz Weber, the ELCA pastor of All Saints and Sinners Church in Denver, Colorado, challenges us to answer for ourselves the Ethiopian’s question to Philip, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?”

Until we face the difficulty of that question and come up as Philip did with no answer… Until then we just look at the seemingly limited space under the tent and either think it’s our job to change people so they fit or it’s our job to extend the roof so that they fit.

Either way, it’s misguided because… It’s not our tent. It’s God’s tent.

The wideness of the tent of the Lord should concern us only insofar as it points to the gracious nature of a loving God who became flesh and entered into our humanity. The wideness of the tent should only concern us insofar as it points to the great mercy and love of a God who welcomes us all as friends.


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