Sunday, May 06, 2012

Fifth Sunday of Easter

26Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. 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 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” 34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When 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. 40But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea. (Acts 8)

Life can be confusing for a newly-minted minister.

We’ve entered the season of ordinations, and beginning in London Conference this weekend and following throughout the month, people will make vows and accept the blessing of the church.

Few will be as young as I was, although we have seen an increase in younger candidates. It seems the colleges discovered recruiting in the last few years, and as a result there are more new ministers of a tender age.

So imagine the confusion of begin told you have sudden, special tasks, even while becoming convinced that all are equal, clergy and lay, a priesthood of all believers. Baptism is one example, communion another. Some lay people are designated to do this, and they are a gift to the church. But generally, a couple of things are reserved for ministers.

So I’m a young man, it what now seems like some child-ordination program, and I wonder ‘if I splash someone in the pool, are they now baptized?’ Wouldn’t that be awesome! Swoosh, Christian! Splash, believer! What if I went swimming with some famous atheists, like Richard Dawkins? ‘Hey Richard, come here, okay, a little closer’ and splash! Gotcha!

Compounding my obvious delusion about swimming and baptism was a course or two in the practice of ministry where we were told that baptism required extensive training (for the parents, not the babies) and that ultimately it was up me to decide of the parents were worthy of having their kid baptized.

It was the 80’s, you see, and we still had it in our heads that so many people were trying to get into the church that we should be picky. Or, at least, we should make it challenging for people and not give away this special thing we have called baptism. Apparently we hadn’t been reading our bibles, but more on that in a moment.

The last thing in this journey of newly-minted discovery was the importance of something they did get right in ministers’ school, and that is the source of all that grace found at baptism. The grace is God’s, of course, but it is not transmitted through magic fingers or my super-skill at holding the most squirmy baby. The grace present at baptism is transmitted through you (and water) to the candidate before you, and I’m just the guy in stylish black at the front. And it has always been so.

It’s kind of like the scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George explains that the money is not actually in the bank, but it’s in Joe’s house, and Fred’s house next door. “Don’t you see, all that grace in baptism is not up here, it’s in you, and you, and even you!” And even in Mr. Potter, if he went to church.


Acts 8 has everything: angel voices, visitors from the court of a foreign queen, chariots, apostles, bible study, sudden baptism, and even teleportation. He starts on the wilderness road that runs south to Gaza and suddenly finds himself in Ashdod, a seaside town in the north. How cool is that? But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

We can begin by saying that Philip is profoundly open to the Holy Spirit. It’s a rare thing, then and now, to set aside whatever you are doing simply because that still, small voice says “travel south 50 metres on the wilderness road, and stand by for further instruction. Think of it as spiritual GPS, and Philip was willing to follow.

Maybe he did this often, or at least you might think so, based on the casual way Luke describes what happens next: Just then he happens upon an Ethiopian eunich, a high official in the service of Queen Candice, sitting alone in his chariot. At this point I’m wondering if Mrs. St. Philip will believe him when he gets home tonight. ‘Sure Philip, a eunich, in a chariot, from Ethiopia. Why don’t you just admit you were off playing the ponies?’

But the story gets better: A eunuch, in a chariot, from Ethiopia, reading aloud, from Isaiah. Just as an aside, at least one commentator said that at this point in history, silent reading hadn’t been invented yet. Imagine how noisy the library would be if no one knew how to read to themselves. Isn’t history fun?

And as a further aside, just because I know you like history, isn’t it interesting that a high court official from Ethiopia could take a holiday in the Holy Land and no one seems to suggest this is unusual? It seems the royal house of Ethiopia or Kush as it was then known was allied with Rome, and trade and travel followed. Tourism and foreign travel was nearly as safe in Roman times as it is now, and religious diversity was not only tolerated but encouraged, especially if the religion was old. Jews were even given a special allowance through most emperors to avoid types of homage they found troublesome, again, owing to the fact that the religion was ancient and Romans respected that.

Okay, back in the chariot. Philip is astounded to hear Isaiah read aloud on the wilderness road south to Gaza, and even more astounded to see this high court official doing the reading. The Spirit says ‘join him’ and Philip does. Again, open to the Spirit. Hearing familiar words (for Philip, at least), the apostle can’t help but ask ‘do you understand what you are reading, friend?’ And the reply: ‘How can I, unless someone helps me?’
Again, the Spirit speaks, this time through the eunuch reading aloud, and the study begins:

“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.
In his humiliation he was deprived of justice. Who can speak of his descendants? For his life was taken from the earth.”

And the obvious question, for the Ethiopian eunuch at least, is who is he? He, as in the prophet Isaiah, or someone else? And Philip begins. For Philip and the generations of readers that follow, the silent lamb, the lamb before the shearer found in Isaiah 53 is Jesus the Christ. Philip can then describe the life of his Lord, the events that led the lamb of God to the cross of Calvary, and new community that is baptized his name.

Now, we are not given the rest of the bible study. Surely there was more back and forth, more questions that tie and ancient faith to this emerging faith in Jesus Christ. But this is not recorded. Instead, we are given more action, since the Acts of the Apostles is all about action:

36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

The answer: nothing. There is nothing to prevent this new believer from being baptized because there is desire, and belief, and a willingness to extend the fellowship of the church without hesitation or reservation. Philip is not only profoundly open to the Spirit, but is profoundly open to the community around him. He (and the church he represents) have yet to become gatekeepers, yet to imagine that faith is Jesus Christ is something to be protected from those outside or something that has to be done right if it is going to be done at all.


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