11 December 2019
Acts 8:26-40; 1 John 4:7-21, John 10 May 14, 2006
THE FIRST CHURCH of St. John, seems a lot like the church around the corner when you read between the lines. Some of the faithful sound a little too sure of themselves. Others confuse talking with walking. Some members get mad and leave the church.
Above all they seemed to have a hard time getting along with each other. Again and again the author included a variation on "Those who say, `I love God' and hate their brothers or sisters are liars." Love must have been hard to come by in this beloved community; 29 times in the space of 15 verses the author uses one form or another of agape: Beloved, let us love one another, for crying out loud! If they had this much trouble mustering love within the church, how did they deal with outsiders?
Dealing with outsiders was not a problem for Philip. He was an outsider. Not to be confused with Philip of Bethsaida (one of the Twelve), this Philip was a Greek in Jerusalem, one of the Seven appointed to run the food pantry, clinic and hospice program there, so the Twelve did not need to tend to such petty concerns as food and drink. After Stephen was martyred, the Jerusalem community scattered.
Luke pursues only one story: Philip's. and it demonstrates the Easter church spreading out as the family widened. Philip moved from waiting on tables in Jerusalem to serving in Samaria as evangelistic front man for Peter and John, proclaiming the Messiah, performing signs, amazing the people and undercutting Simon the Magician's business. When the two apostles arrived, Philip's work was done. So the angel of the Lord sent him on the road to Gaza, as rough a road then as now, for an adventure in evangelism that is without precedent in the New Testament.
If Philip was an outsider, the one he was sent to meet was a foreigner , official to the ruler of a foreign power, CEO for the Queen of Ethiopia. And a eunuch. Sometimes all officials were called eunuchs as part of the title but there is really no reason to think he wasnít a eunuch. Men were castrated so they could be trusted with the wives of the rulers. , Queen Candace may well have had trusted officials she had known all her life and who better to trust with the treasury.
He had gone to Jerusalem to worship, and was reading the prophet Isaiah while riding home in his chariot. You can tell he was wealthy because scrolls were very very expensive and not many actually owned one.
As the chariot passed him, Philip called to the Ethiopian. (Did the Ethiopian have the slowest chariot in antiquity or was Philip training for a marathon?)
Do you understand what you are reading?" asked Philip.
No more than Cleopas and companion knew what they were talking about on the Emmaus road. No more than Saul understood what happened on the road to Damascus. No more than we understand the twists and turns on the roads on which we find ourselves. We all need an interpreter, a guide, a mentor. The Ethiopian had the wisdom to ask for help. "How can I, unless someone guides me?" he asked. How indeed.
Somewhere along the way, at least in our individualism" ("I'll figure it out for myself" and "I certainly don't need the likes of you to explain it to me"), we became convinced that the Bible should be as easy to understand as it is to buy. It has been translated, paraphrased, life-amplified, annotated and illustrated. That does not make it easily accessible. An ongoing challenge for the church is to sufficiently establish the significance of scripture in the hearts and minds of believers so that they will attempt the hard work, the life's work, of seeking to understand the Word made Book. The Ethiopian knew this, for he was motivated to acquire an Isaiah scroll. He was seeking faith and understanding, and Philip was privileged to be his guide--literally to show him the way.
There is something here for us--the use of the word "guide" in translation. The Ethiopian did not ask for a teacher, he asked for a guide. There is a big difference. Teachers point and say, "Go there, do that." Guides reach out and say, "This is the road I travelled. You might want to try it, but whatever road you choose, I'd like to walk it with you." Philip got in the chariot with the Ethiopian. Luke went out of his way to say that both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water for the baptism. And he was baptised Ė no strings attached.
But what has he been reading, what had gripped this man so much ?- Isaiah chapter 56, just a few
turns farther down the scroll.
Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say,
"The LORD will surely separate me from his people";and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just 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.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.
The good news is that when the people come home to God then those who were excluded are now included.
Note that this man has been to the centre of things Jerusalem and its not in Jerusalem he is baptised but on the way , out in the desert road . Acts is telling us that the church expanded by inclusion, this man heard he could be baptised. Philip didnít stop and wait because this was the work of the spirit a pivotal point in whether the good news was really good news for everyone.
We don't know whether the man was Jewish or not, but we do know he was a eunuch and that eunuchs were excluded from the old covenant. The chief reason is pretty obvious when one stands back and asks what the old covenant was about, namely, procreation. When the Israelites entered Canaan they had to compete with all sorts of fertility cults. Abraham, in the later edited version of the story, was promised numerous descendants; Deuteronomy promised fertility as a blessing for keeping the covenant. The difference between the other fertility cults was that fertility depended on the promise of God and/or the keeping of the Law. The sign of the covenant in which fertility was promised was a stone-age rite called circumcision in which bleeding from the genitals signaled the ability to procreate (a kind of parallel in many primitive cultures with monthly periods). Eunuchs could not receive the fertility blessings of the old covenant -obviously!
The admission of this man by baptism is a sign that procreation is not the goal of the NEW covenant, as John 1:12-13 makes abundantly clear. "Fruitfulness" is no longer about the body, but about the fruits of the Spirit.
Philip, following the movement of the spirit, had guided him to this point.. The church rejoices in new life, in parenthood and motherhood, but it must be clear that the way of Jesus embraces life and expands in all directions the meaning of new life. and of family. The both the gift and the fruit of Godís spirit is love.
And the writer of the little letter 1 John guides his people and writes to his cantankerous community as a guide, not a teacher. He reminds, cajoles, warns, exhorts and invites, and consistently says: "Let us love one another," not "You should love each other." "We deceive ourselves," not "You're fooling yourselves." More than that, the tone of the letter is of one whose heart aches for the apparent lack of love and for the struggles within his community, and who writes tenderly to his beloved ones, his little children.
The trouble with being a guide or mentor, of course, is the likelihood that the one being guided will look upon the mentor as an example and model. Forever. Who needs that kind of pressure? Chariot rides are notoriously bumpy as it is, and baptismal waters are wet and cold. After that the baptized ones are on their own. Let them look to God for their example. You know, WWJD and all that. Not so for the elder, or for Philip.
"Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us." That will take a while.
Some of this was taken from -
"Unless someone guides me" - Brief Article - Column Christian Century, May 10, 2000 by William Brosend
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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