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Philip and the Eunuch

Easter 5                                                                          Acts 8:26-40                                           John 15 1-8

 

It was the reading from Acts that caught my attention this week.  It is an exciting and intriguing story, told by that wonderful storyteller Luke. He starts by giving us some details. We need to know that the man in the chariot was a eunuch and that he was an Ethiopian, which to people of the Middle East at that time was just as about as exotic as could be. Both details are useful to Luke, who means to intrigue his hearers. That the occupant of this chariot is Ethiopian suggests how far-reaching Judaism had stretched in the first century, although we don’t know where or when he had been a convert.  

   

To have the job to oversee the handmaids of Candace, the Queen of the Ethiopians, he would have to be a eunuch.  He would have qualified by having been castrated, having been made something other than an ordinary man and most likely in the eyes of his male contemporaries, something less than a man. But he had so excelled as an overseer that the Queen had put him in charge of her entire treasury. What was biologically central to his manhood had been taken away from him surgically, but he was powerful, wealthy, and traveled in style, in his very own chariot. In those days, as it is now, your own set of wheels are a sign of prestige.

 

As intriguing as this fellow is, Luke’s central character is, actually, the deacon Philip. As a deacon, he wasn’t supposed to be jaunting around the countryside preaching and teaching—he was expected to be taking care of the orphans and widows. But, according to Luke, Philip listened to the angels for his marching orders, and they sent him into the desert, along a wilderness road. There he is, hiking along the road, when out of nowhere there comes this first-century fast car.

 

If it was the angels who sent him, it’s now the Spirit of God that directs him, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” We are then invited to let our imagination picture Deacon Philip, running alongside the chariot to catch up.

 

Do you remember what the Ethiopian eunuch is doing? Yes, he’s committing the first-century equivalent of texting/reading while driving. Not from a tablet or smart phone or even a book but an unwieldy scroll.  They were about three feet long and very heavy, we are told he was reading from the prophet Isaiah.

 

“Do you understand what you are reading?” asks Philip.

 

The eunuch, fresh from his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, tells Philip that he is trying to make sense of the scroll and that he would welcome some help understanding what it meant.  The eunuch was a convert to Judaism and he readily admitted that he was very much a learner and needed a guide.

 

To be a convert to Judaism he must have received instruction from the Chief Priests and Rabbi’s and I am pretty certain they would have drawn his attention to a verse in Deuteronomy 23:1. If the eunuch was looking for confirming messages about how welcome he was in the eyes of God, this would not have filled him with confidence.  This is certainly not a verse of scripture you learned in Sunday School. “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.”

 

I am sure that would have weighed heavily on his mind, but just ahead of where he was reading in the scroll of Isaiah, are the words the Ethiopian is longing to hear. At chapter 56:3-6 we read, “Do not let the foreigner joined to the LORD say, ‘The LORD will surely separate me from his people’; and do not let the eunuch say, ‘I am just a dry tree.’ For thus says the LORD: To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast to my covenant, I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.”

 

The Holiness Code in Deuteronomy states that: No eunuchs are allowed in the Assembly of God that is the Temple.  They were almost certainly man-made rules, seeking only things that were perfect for God. The prophet Isaiah on the other hand speaks of human choice: The eunuch who holds fast to God’s covenant love is precious to God. It isn’t by rules that we are accepted or distanced from God —it is as each one of us chooses how to respond to the grace and love of God.

 

After Philip had opened the scriptures for him the eunuch said “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” I cannot recall just how many times have I read this story  and not seen the obvious; this is a desert road, where we would not expect there to be any water, let alone enough to be baptized in.  Not just a sprinkle in those days but enough for full immersion was needed. Yet God has supplied everything needed.   It is the same today - for the one who seeks God with their whole heart, the scriptures will be opened , we will be received regardless of what might have gone on in our life.   There will be a new name, and a new cleansing and a new beginning.

 

Philip the Deacon has learned to listen to the Holy Spirit, that still small voice that we hear when we step aside from the busyness of the world.  The voice we have to learn to listen for. When we want to seek God, in church, in our quiet times with Him or on silent retreats, there are many conflicting voices in your head. Tempting voices, imaginary voices, sometimes-condemnatory voices, and you have to sift through them until you are sure it is God’s voice. I have to admit that most of the time I fail miserably. The good news is that our God is gracious and infinitely patient and if He really wants us to hear something will say it over and over until we get the message. Of course it is so much easier if we have a close relationship with Jesus. Just like when we are in a crowd and a friend calls to us; we are able to pick out the voice because we know the sound of it, and we have heard it often. It is all about our relationship with God.

 

In the gospel reading Jesus describes himself using picture language.  He says he is the True Vine. I can imagine Jesus and his friends walking through the dark streets of the city and then passing through the city gates, out beyond the walls into the surrounding countryside. During this time of year, the grape vines would be beginning to blossom with the promise of a fresh harvest. As Jesus walked with his Disciples, He used what was around as a visual aid.  Last week he used sheep and shepherds, this week He reaches out and taking a vine in His hands uses it to teach an object lesson to His friends. His desire is to teach them about the most vital relationship they must have in their lives, just like the one that Jesus and His Father have. So we are to be that close to God.

 

This morning, we are 2,000 years removed from these events, but God is still working through Christians to accomplish His work in the world today. We may sit here and wonder how we are supposed to do the work of the Lord, or how we can produce that kind of response that Philip did.  The answer is found in these two readings, as they are about becoming close and listening out for the prompting of the Holy Spirit and most of all being obedient, even to the point of the ridiculous like Philip did.   I guess not many of us will be called to speak to a Eunuch but you can be sure many of us will be called to go into the desert.  Of course it is a bit scary, but we know that if God can supply enough water in the desert – he will always provide for us.

Listen for the promptings of the Holy Spirit

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