by the Rev. Dr. Helen Svoboda-Barber
This morning I want to talk about the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch from Acts 8:26-40.
The book of the Acts of the Apostles is the story of the very first Christians. What did the followers of Jesus DO after he died? Acts tells the stories of the ministry and witness of followers like Philip in today’s passage.
Time and time again in the book of Acts, the followers of Jesus find out that the Good News of Jesus was meant for even more people, even more people, even more people…until they finally begin to understand that the Good News of Jesus was meant for ALL people. Until they realize that Jesus lived and died not just for a certain group or segment of the world, but for the whole world. That EVERYONE falls within the saving embrace of Jesus.
When the angel of the Lord came to Philip and told him to go to the wilderness road and join the Ethiopian’s chariot, surely Philip remembered the words Jesus spoke in Acts chapter 1 verse 8, Jesus tells his disciples, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The court official Philip encountered on that wilderness road was from Ethiopia. Ethiopia was well over 1,000 miles away. Imagine how long this person’s journey must have been. Surely over a month each way!
But this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian is about more than just taking the message of Jesus to those who live far, far away. Today’s story is also about a human, who in the old way of thinking was too broken to be allowed into the place of worship, but who ends up being claimed as a whole and beloved child of God.
This Ethiopian was a eunuch. He had been castrated. And there are verses in both Leviticus and Deuteronomy which say someone like that can not enter into the place of worship (although Isaiah counters that message).
In today’s passage, God is teaching Philip that God’s loving embrace stretches even wider than Philip first imagined. God’s love stretches to all places on earth. God’s love stretches to all people in all times and in all places — including those we consider “less than” or broken. God’s love is for all. And all means all.
The Ethiopian’s encounter with Philip provided the catalyst for the Ethiopian to understand what he was reading in a new way, to hear the message of Jesus, and to commit to a life following that Way of Love.
The Ethiopian eunuch asked Philip, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Nothing. Nothing prevents this stranger with an atypical body from being welcomed into the community of God’s family here on earth.
This story is in the book we call, “The Acts of the Apostles.” Years ago, Bishop Laura Ahrens taught me the difference between a disciple and an apostle. A disciple is one who learns. We are being disciples when we read and study the bible, when we are in prayer and conversation with Jesus, when we are shaping our lives to be more and more like Jesus.
An apostle is one who goes out to share the Good News with others. We are apostles when we take the truth of our Loving, Liberating, Life-giving God and share it. We do this in so many ways. We do it when we, like Philip in today’s passage, help someone else understand the Bible. We also do it when we help distribute free food at El Buen Pastor like some did yesterday, or when we meet with our Faith Teams as some are doing, or when we write to our congresspeople to share how our faith compels us to fight against discrimination and othering.
We are called to be both disciples and apostles.
These days, we have the work of Philip to do in our own lives. So many people today understand Christianity as something different than following the Loving, Liberating, Life-giving God we know.
So many people today believe Christianity is not for them because the only type of Christians they see are the ones in the midst of storming the capital on January 6th, and those who are proposing anti-trans bills all over the country, and those who breed hate and contempt.
We are called to be like Philip: to help others understand God’s word anew. Where, in your life, could you take a page from Philip’s book and have a conversation about the God you believe in, about the goodness and love of God? Where can you help someone understand that following Jesus may not mean what they think it means?
We are also called to be like Philip in listening for someone asking, “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” Now, I occasionally get this actual question but it’s likely you will not. We all are called to watch for and listen for that metaphorical question in our interactions with others. In your conversations with others, listen for those things that are keeping someone from a deeper connection with Jesus. What is preventing them from finding a community of believers like St. Luke’s, where they are accepted and loved for who they are, and where they can grow into deeper connection and love, and where they can work for the healing of the world?
Who isn’t yet a part of St. Luke’s? Who in this world has been brutalized or damaged by the world or by a narrow, skewed version of “Christianity”, who needs to know the Loving, Liberating, Lifegiving God we follow?
Pray that God might help you find moments to act like Philip. Pray for courage to speak up and say, “Here is how I understand scripture,” or “I am a Christian, and I believe God’s love is for everyone.” Pray that you may be part of a healing for those who have been broken by this world or by a skewed sense of Christianity. Pray that the Good News might be seen more and more through the way you live your life. Pray for God to support your life as a disciple and as an apostle. Pray for the healing of the world. Pray for your part in that healing.
I speak in the name of the One Holy Triune God. Amen.
Leviticus 21:20; Deuteronomy 23:1, Isaiah 56:3-8