An angel from the Lord said to Philip, “Get up, and take the desert road that goes south from Jerusalem to Gaza.” So Philip went.
An Ethiopian man who had come to Jerusalem to worship was on his way home. The man was a eunuch, a high-ranking official in charge of all the treasures of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. As the official rode along in his carriage, he was reading the prophet Isaiah out loud.
The Spirit said to Philip, “Go to that carriage, and stay close to it.”
Philip ran to the carriage and could hear the official reading the prophet Isaiah out loud. Philip asked him, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
The official answered, “How can I understand unless someone guides me?” So he invited Philip to sit with him in his carriage.
This was the part of the Scriptures that the official was reading:
“He was led like a lamb to the slaughter.
He was like a sheep that is silent
when its wool is cut off.
He didn’t open his mouth.
When he humbled himself,
he was not judged fairly.
Who from his generation
will talk about his life on earth being cut short?”
The official said to Philip, “I would like to know who the prophet is talking about. Is he talking about himself or someone else?” Then Philip spoke. Starting with that passage, Philip told the official the Good News about Jesus.
As they were going along the road, they came to some water. The official said to Philip, “Look, there’s some water. What can keep me from being baptized?” The official ordered the carriage to stop. He and Philip stepped into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they had stepped out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away. The official joyfully continued on his way and didn’t see Philip again.
Philip found himself in the city of Azotus. He traveled through all the cities and spread the Good News until he came to the city of Caesarea. (God’s Word Translation)
We are in the Christian season of Epiphany – a time of celebrating that the light of the Lord has been given not only to Jews but to Gentiles, as well. The good news of mercy, forgiveness, salvation, and peace in Jesus Christ is for everyone, and not just some.
So, we have a very appropriate story in today’s New Testament lesson illustrating God’s grace for those who have been typically the “outsiders” when it comes to the worship of God.
God’s grace is really a merciful divine intervention into another’s life, providing something a person or group needs, yet cannot obtain on their own.
Philip, one of the original twelve disciples of Jesus, received instructions from the angel of the Lord. Take a certain road. That’s it. No other explanation. The command is, however, full of grace. Most of us don’t do all that well with multiple instructions given at once. We do much better with a single imperative at a time.
And so, the next piece of guidance came as Philip was taking the road from Jerusalem south to Gaza. Go hang out around a certain carriage. Philip needed no more direction after that; he took to what was happening.
Maybe reading the story from our contemporary perspective hinders us from seeing just how scandalous and unthinkable the story was for people in the first century. Jews and Gentiles didn’t hang out with each other; and, if they did, there were all sorts of rules regulating how the interaction would go.
We really don’t have any of this with Philip. He simply emulates his Lord and ignores societal and cultural mores to meet the need of someone very different than himself.
An Ethiopian man was in Jerusalem and heading back home. He was an official in the Queen of Ethiopia’s court, and a eunuch (a castrated official). He was a person of color with a mutilated body and could have very well been of a different gender than Philip was used to. In other words, he was about as foreign from Philip as one can get.
Yet, what better way to communicate that the gospel is for everyone? Philip had learned from Jesus not to adopt the divisions of race, religion, and gender that others did. See, instead, with spiritual eyes to the heart of a person.
And this Ethiopian eunuch had a heart curious about God, a mind trying to understand God’s words, and a gut that told him this guy approaching me for whom I don’t know and isn’t from my country is perhaps God’s messenger to me.
That’s what I call a divine appointment.
Those divine encounters always result in changed lives. I believe both the Ethiopian and Philip were changed that day. The only way that any of us truly changes is through the interaction with others different from ourselves.
The good news of Jesus is for all. If, however, we remain in a closed system which is not open to others of differing cultures and communities, then we harden into believing the gospel is for us, and not them.
Christianity is not, therefore, an exclusive club made up of insiders who demonize outsiders as not looking, acting, or thinking like we do. We already have plenty of that insidious junk in the world. At its inception, Christianity was different. And, I believe, it needs to keep that edge of reaching out to all persons with a life-giving message of salvation and peace – not a death-dealing sermon of Christian cultural hegemony.
Good news for all people everywhere means that proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ needs to occur for all nations and ethnic peoples. It’s a message of grace, not judgment; of mercy, not threats; of open love, not closed hate.
Philip and the Ethiopian show us the way through their sensitivity to the divine, their open dialogue with one another, and their shared commitment to doing what is right and serving the Lord. Philip was a guide, not a conqueror. And the Ethiopian became a follower of Jesus, not Philip.
Let’s make sure to keep it straight; and to keep reaching out.
Lord God, thank you that in love and mercy, you reached out to us – and that when we were dead in our sins, you sent Jesus to make us alive. Thank you that you have a heart that seeks the lost. Thank you for saving us.
Give us hearts that care for the people who are in darkness and need the light of Christ. Teach us to care for them as you do. Grow us to care for the common good of all humanity.
Help your Church everywhere to know and love you; and to invite others into your divine dance. May our conversations with others be seasoned with salt and full of grace; may our relationships show people the love of Jesus. May our hearts reflect your own heart, through Jesus Christ our Lord, in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Amen.