Saturday, July 4, 2020

“On the Wilderness Road” - June 28, 2020

Text: Acts 8:26-39


Did you know that this is National Deacon Week?  Well, it’s not really, I just kind of made that up, but both last Sunday and this Sunday, our scripture has focused on deacons, so it may not be national, but it has sort of been Deacon Week.  Philip is one of the first deacons appointed in the scripture we read last Sunday, along with Stephen and five others.  He is a trailblazer.  As we read a few minutes ago, an angel tells Philip to go down the wilderness road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. 

And Philip goes, no questions asked.  This was no small thing.  He was a deacon, and his calling was to care for physical needs of the people.  Getting up and leaving on a moment’s notice to travel to a faraway place at the behest of an angel was not exactly what he had signed on for.  But as is so often the case, 90% of the job was “other duties as needed,” and he went.

Philip was told to travel that wilderness road, and we do have some idea of what that is like.  In fact, it feels like we are in the wilderness just now.  I don’t know if any of you are counting, but this is our 13th Sunday of worshiping via Zoom.  We know what it is to be facing the unknown.  We know what it is to be in a new place that feels insecure and uncertain and frightening.

Stephen had been martyred for his faith.  Many of the believers had scattered.  Philip had been preaching and ministering in Samaria. And then an angel tells Philip to take the wilderness road from Jerusalem to Gaza.  Nothing like this had ever happened before.  But Philip went immediately.  He has no question that this is what he was supposed to do.

On this road, this wilderness road, he comes along an Ethiopian eunuch who had been to Jerusalem to worship.  This man works for the Candace of Ethiopia as the treasurer.

There is a lot packed into that description.  This man from Ethiopia had traveled to Jerusalem to worship.  If that sounds odd, there was in fact a Jewish community in Ethiopia, as there is to this day.  It dates from pre-exilic times, before the Jews in Jerusalem were taken to captivity in Babylon, so it is a very ancient community.  This man is reading the scroll of the book of Isaiah, but he seems unfamiliar with it.  So perhaps he was a convert to Judaism or someone known as a God-fearer, a person interested in and taking instruction in the Jewish faith.

So, he is either a Jew or at least he is Jew-ish – interested in Judaism.  We know that he is a high government official in Ethiopia.  He is the treasurer for the Candace.  Candace was a title for the queen of Ethiopia, but don’t you prefer Candace?  It sounds more exotic than a garden-variety queen.

We know that this man is very wealthy.  He is traveling in a chariot.  And he has a scroll of Isaiah, which few individuals would possess personally.  He was certainly well-educated.   His skin tone was darker than that of most people in Jerusalem.  And, he was a eunuch.
People were made eunuchs for a reason.  Eunuchs were entrusted with things – like money, like a harem, like an important position.  It wasn’t unheard of for a royal family member to be castrated – so that they could not be king, so they could be trusted not to lead a coup.  This was someone the empire had done violence to.

According to Leviticus, eunuchs were not to be allowed in the temple.  They were thought of as less than whole, almost less than fully human.  But in a big reversal, Isaiah 56 welcomes eunuchs into the temple.  And guess what this man was reading?  He was reading from Isaiah and asks specifically about a passage from Isaiah chapter 53.

In wealth, in race, in class, in sexuality, in family life, in their relation to government and power, in what many would have seen as fitness for worship in the temple, Philip and this man could not be any more different.

I love the way the Bible describes the encounter: “Then the Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to this chariot and join it.’  So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.”  Either this chariot was in very slow gear, or Philip was one heck of a runner.  He runs alongside the chariot, carrying on a conversation.  And he asks this man, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

The Ethiopian invited Philip to join him in the chariot.  In the course of their conversation, the eunuch asks three questions which we might all do well to consider.  First, “How can I understand, unless someone guides me?”

We all need an interpreter, a guide, a mentor. This Ethiopian man had the wisdom to ask for help.  Some of us are not so good at that. 

This man was motivated to acquire an Isaiah scroll at what must have been great expense.  He was seeking faith and understanding, and Philip was privileged to be his guide.  It is interesting that the man did not ask for a teacher, he asked for a guide.  A guide takes part in showing the way.  A guide says, "I will walk alongside you."

Think about this: when he got up that morning, when he sat down for his oatmeal and toast and coffee, never in his wildest dreams did Philip imagine that before the day was over, he would be sitting in a chariot next to the treasurer of the Candace of Ethiopia, having a conversation about the book of Isaiah and about Jesus.

Laura Everett says that to really share the gospel, we need to sit down next to people who are wildly different than us.  We may not end up sitting in a chariot next to an Ethiopian eunuch before the day is over.  But in a world in which it is easy to exist in a bubble with people just like we are, we would do well to develop relationships with folks who are different than us.

The Baptist Joint Committee on Religious Liberty held its annual luncheon on Friday.  The BJC has a singular focus on protecting religious liberty and defending the separation of church and state, which are two sides of the same coin.  I had not attended this luncheon before, but since it was online this year, I was there, as I know a couple of you were.  The main part of the luncheon was very interesting, a helpful interview with Robert Jones about American religion and white supremacy.  But then afterwards, they made a financial appeal.  For me, the appeal was just gripping.

A young woman, Sofi Herscher, told her story.  She is a board member but she is not Baptist.  She is not even a Christian.  She is Jewish.  When she was nine years old, she watched her synagogue go up in flames in a fire set by right-wind Christian nationalists.  She thought that all Christians hated her.  But it was an interfaith group of Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and Sikhs that came to that community’s aid in that terrible summer and stood by them. 

Years later she became the first non-Christian BJC Fellow, a program for young professionals.  She was drawn by the organization’s dogged pursuit of religious liberty for all people.  She could see supporting that vision as a member of a minority faith but could not understand it from the majority perspective.  Why did they think freedom for all was so important?  She learned a lot.  She learned it was about faith, not power, and she learned, in her words, that Baptists were “super, super complicated.”

She had a moving testimony, and it was a reminder that it is important to walk alongside folks who are different than we are. 

Second question: “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?”  The Ethiopian had been reading from the Suffering Servant passages.  Who was this suffering servant?  Was it the writer himself, or someone else?  The basic question was, “Who is this all about?”

It’s another good question.  “What is the center of our faith?” Luke, the author of Acts, says that Philip began to speak, and starting with this Scripture, he shared with this man the good news about Jesus.

Who is this all about?  What we do here every week – who is this about?  In the end, it is not about us, it is not about our church, it is not about our denomination, it is not about great music or awesome programs.  It is clearly not about our leading edge technology.  There is a place for all of these things, but we are to point to Jesus, who is at the center of our faith.

We all need a guide, and Jesus is the best guide we have.  He guides us with a simple directive: love one another.  It’s that simple, and it’s that difficult.  His command to “love one another” means listen to one another, consider the needs of others, sacrifice for the sake of others.  Be servants and friends, not rulers and enemies.

And then the third question: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

Most of us probably don’t being inquiries by asking, “What would prevent me?”  But this man has a history of being prevented from all kinds of things.  He has been prevented from having children, from having a family.  He has been prevented from holding power in his own right.  And by tradition, he had been prevented from worship in the temple.

What was to prevent him from being baptized, from becoming a part of the community of faith?  Well, we could make a list:  he was a person of complicated sexuality.  He was a foreigner who served a foreign ruler.  Despite being Secretary of the Treasury, in that culture’s way of thinking, he was in the end a nobody, a man without family, without heirs, without descendants.  He had reason to think that he might be prevented.

But the answer to his question is obvious.  What was to prevent him?  Nothing.  Nothing at all. 

What is there to keep us from being baptized?  What is to keep us from living the new life in Christ?  What is to keep us from making Jesus the center of our lives?  Nothing.  Nothing at all.

This story is sometimes called the conversion of the Ethiopian eunuch.  By tradition he is credited with bringing the gospel to Ethiopia and beginning the church there.  But we might also think of this as a turning point, a point of conversion, for Philip.

Philip is not a first-generation disciple, not one of the original disciples.  He is kind of a second-round draft choice, not a star but more of a role player.  But he suits up, he does his job, he is faithful, and the next thing you know he is ministering to the treasurer of the Candace of Ethiopia.  Philip is the one the Spirit chooses for this barrier-breaking assignment.  The Spirit leads him to this place, and it becomes clear to Philip that the Good News of Jesus is for everybody.

Like Philip, like this man from Ethiopia, we are all welcome in God’s family.  There is nothing at all to prevent us from following Jesus.  Nothing at all.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.     

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