Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church
August 16, 2015
I grew up on the first generation of Star Trek, which seems a bit dated now. The special effects were somewhat cheesy, but back in the day, it was exciting to see the crew “transponded” down onto an unexplored planet or, when things got out of hand, back up to the safety of the Enterprise as it continued to go where no one had gone before. “Beam me up, Scotty,” was a well-used line. Scotty was the engineer who operated the transponder and was responsible for those who were being sent out on a mission. Those being sent seemed to “atomize” before our eyes as they disappeared and then reappeared somewhere else.
What does this have to do with our text for today, you’re probably wondering. Last week, as you may remember, Philip was preaching in Samaria. The gospel, Jesus told the disciples before his ascension, was to be shared in Jerusalem, then Samaria, then to the ends of the earth. Last week, it was Samaria. Today, as we continue our exploration of Acts, we see Philip being moved around by God’s Spirit, as Scotty might have deployed those off the Enterprise. First, he’s on the road south, heading toward the wilderness and on to Egypt and the not-yet-fully-discovered continent of Africa. After that mission, he’s up north, heading toward Caesarea… In all of this, the gospel is spreading to a far corner of the world. This passage is the first of a series of conversions that result in fulfilling what Jesus called them to do. Of course, that mandate to take the gospel to the ends of the world still applies to us. Read Acts 8:26-40
Jesus came to save sinners. We often hear these words of Paul from 1st Timothy echoed in our Assurance of Pardon after confessing our sins. Jesus came to save sinners. Our passage this morning emphasizes this role of our Savior. Here, the good news is experienced by someone first century Judaism would have considered beyond redemption. Worse even than a sinner, he was a foreigner to be avoided and a eunuch who, like a leper, was considered unclean.
Now we don’t know if this Ethiopian eunuch was a bad guy, and the evidence we have within the text suggests that he wasn’t for he was seeking God. He’d made a long trek up the Nile and across the wilderness to worship, to seek truth. Only those who have a desire for God would have gone on such a pilgrimage. Of course, being good and bad has nothing to do with our need for God in our lives. We all need God which is why Jesus came.
It is interesting that this Ethiopian eunuch would have gone to Jerusalem to worship. As a eunuch, he was in the service of a queen, and may have had some official business in Jerusalem, but we don’t know. Several of you have asked me if I had been watching the NBC TV program, “AD” which portrays the development of the early church with a lot of details filled in. I saw one episode, which happened to be the one in which the Ethiopian was driven out of Jerusalem, at the threat of death, because the Romans feared an Ethiopian/Zionist alliance. As he leaves Jerusalem, traveling through Gaza, the wheel comes off his chariot and Philip happens along the way and not only does he interpret Isaiah for the Ethiopian, he repairs his chariot. Of course, they’re trying to make a story that plays better on the big screen by providing a few additional details. According to the text, we’re just told that the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem to worship—all the rest of the story as told by NBC was made-up.
I find it interesting that the Ethiopian went to Jerusalem to worship. Was he a proselyte? Or, was he what at the time was known as a “God-fearer,” one who studied the Hebrew Scriptures but was not yet circumcised, a rite that would have been impossible for this man. Many of the commentators on this passage play down the man as a eunuch, stressing instead his official positions. He was an important man. After all, he had a chariot (Israel wasn’t filled with ‘two-chariot homes” in those days). He also had the ability to travel far away and as an African, he would have been seen as someone exotic. Finally, he held a responsible position, the Queen’s treasurer. That said, the fact he was a eunuch would have kept him from becoming a proselyte to the Jewish faith and would have barred from ever entering the temple. But in this encounter with Philip, he finds acceptance. Whatever happened during his time in Jerusalem, he now understands the gospel. Interestingly, he came to Jerusalem to worship, but didn’t discover God by himself. It’s on his way home that God finds him. Ultimately, our conversion into the faith is grounded not in our search for the truth, but God searching us out and using other believers to help us understand. Remember what I’ve said all along, “Acts of the Apostles” should really be titled “Acts of God through the Apostles.”
Even the Scriptures do not help this man to fully encounter God. It takes someone else, Philip the Evangelist (although maybe he should be called Philip the Runner as we can imagine him sprinting alongside the chariot, talking about what Isaiah meant). Philip, at the Spirit’s request, heads down the Gaza road. Philip, who’s preaching has been very effective in Samaria, leaves a place where good fruit is being harvested in order to go into a wilderness area with no one around. Often, God’s ways seems strange for us humans.
The New Revised Standard version says he was sent south to the Gaza, but a footnote suggests this can also be translated as “at noon” he goes to the Gaza…” Who, in their right mind, would set out on a journey in a barren waterless land at noon? It would be unbearably hot. Furthermore, he’s sent to run alongside the Ethiopian’s chariot. This isn’t Philip’s idea. God has called him to this task.
As Philip hears the man read Isaiah, he asks him about it and is invited up into the chariot, where an out-of-breath Philip lays out what God is doing through Jesus Christ. The next miraculous event is that they happen along a pool or water—something that isn’t common in the Gaza—and the Ethiopian asks to be baptized. Philip baptizes him and when the Ethiopian comes up from the water, Philip disappears just as Spock and Captain Kirk would disappear from a distant planet, leaving behind the inhabitants to wonder. But the Ethiopian isn’t worried, he’s happy. He understands and he goes on his way, praising God. Perhaps, but don’t know for sure, he was the one who took the gospel south of Egypt for we know that early in Christian history, the gospel flourished there and there is still a strong Coptic Church in Ethiopia to this day.
What can we take away from this text? You know, Christians are not made in a vacuum. One can’t just pick up this book we love (the Bible), and begin to read and experience the fullness of a Christian life. The Ethiopian was reading it, but couldn’t understand. Think about how you learned of the faith… There was someone or mostly likely “someones” who helped you grown in understanding that lead first to your acceptance of Jesus and later to deepen your walk of faith. It could have been a parent, a Sunday School teacher, youth leader, camp counselor, or friend. God uses people, believers, to help us understand, to help us interpret and apply the word to our lives.
Let me tell you a story. Back in the early 1980s, after a painful breakup, I went through a period where I stay away from church for a while. I was working for the Boy Scouts at the time and one day, I received a call from Bob Eplee (one of the district scout leaders). He said he and Junebug (another leader) wanted to talk to me. I assumed it was about scouting and met them for breakfast one morning with my notebook in hand. They told me to put it away and said, “We’re not here for that. We think it’s time for you to come back to church.” In a way, I believe, they were sent by God and pulled me back in.
We have all had people in our lives that have shown us how to live as a follower of Jesus. For such people, we should be thankful and we should remember that we, too, need to be attuned to what the Spirit is telling us. With that thought, let me give you an assignment: Who is it that we might be called to reach out to and to help them in their walk of faith? Consider those who may have strayed and need an encouraging word and an invitation to come back. Think about those who are struggling and need a hopeful word. Ponder those you know who are seeking meaning in their lives. Make a list of such people, write them down, pray about them, and see if God’s Spirit doesn’t open up a way for you to reach out, offering a helpful word or an encouraging comment.
God’s Spirit worked through Philip to bring the Gospel to the Ethiopian. God’s Spirit worked through Bob and Junebug to remind me what I was missing. God’s Spirit is still working in our world… Are we listening? Amen.
 1 Timothy 1:15.
 For a summary of this episode, see: http://www.nbc.com/ad-the-bible-continues/episode-guide/season-1/rise-up/111/2388571
 See Deuteronomy 23:1
 See Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 141-142; and William H. Willimon, Acts (1983: Lousiville: Westminister/JKP, 2010), 71-72.