Delivered at Ames UCC on May 7, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Somebody in our church—who shall remain nameless—told me that today’s reading sounds like the set up for a joke: An evangelist and a eunuch meet on a road…It’s not a funny story in that sense, but it is one both odd and joyous. Odd because of Philip’s whisking away by the Holy Spirit, joyous because, unlike with Stephen last week, no one dies because of witnessing for Jesus.
It begins with Philip. This is not the Philip you may be thinking of, one of Jesus’ disciples who had a particularly prominent role in John’s gospel. The Philip in this book, the Acts of the Apostles, is new. Biblical scholars refer to him as Philip the Evangelist to distinguish between the two. He is, as Stephen was last week, ordained to be a table servant, a caretaker of the widows and growing Jesus Way movement community.
But after Stephen’s lynching, there is a general assault to crack down on all movement followers. Some go to jail, some flee Jerusalem, including Philip the Evangelist. We find that, while he is on the road, Philip the Evangelist has the power to heal, just as Jesus did. He converts all of Samaria, we are told, to the new Jesus Way. You might remember from other references to the Samaritans that they and the Israelites were generally hostile to each other and practiced competing versions of Judaism.
So Philip the Evangelist seems to be a powerful and important figure in the early months after resurrection day.
As is the Ethiopian eunuch. As the keeper of the Egyptian queen’s treasury, he has great power. Presumably his castration served to literally neuter any aspirations of more power, but his abilities to both travel by chariot and read put him in rarer air than most.
It also makes the likelihood that he really worshipped in the temple at Jerusalem, as described here, almost impossible. Yes, he might have gone to do that, but the temple rules of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, if they were in practice, would have barred him at the door (Dtr. 23.1;, Lev. 21.20). That does not keep the Ethiopian, though, from trying to access God through the scripture of the temple. His drive to augment his native religious practice, or supplant it, with that of Judaism is more powerful than the laws of Judaism themselves.
MEETING OF NOBODIES
But in this moment, these two powerful men—one powerful because of what he helped to build and the other powerful because of what he was charged with maintaining—are just a couple of nobodies.
Philip is alone on a wilderness road. Despite that, he does not think to approach the Ethiopian, the only other human on the road, until holiness nudges him to do so. Whatever it was that allowed him to convert all of Samaria, the utter assurance of righteousness and the drive that must have been required, are now gone. So is his ability to live in his homeland.
The Ethiopian is 400 miles away from the source of his power—the Candance, or the queen—and is alone in his spiritual journey.
This is a meeting of nobodies, men unwelcome in the places they would call home, driven by God to nowhere lands. Which is what living for life in spite of death–living in the light of Easter–means. When we become followers of the Jesus Way, we become nobodies. We become unfulfilled by and unwelcome in our home culture.
As I wrote in my Ames Tribune article yesterday, it is true that Western Christianity as it has functioned for the last 1,700 years is losing its cultural and political dominance, worldwide, but we still live in a society steeped in Christian references and norms: “Good Samaritan” laws; the Golden Rule; proposed and enacted laws about bathrooms and bodies; and businesses closed on Sundays.
Try as some do, Christians in the United States have no grounds for claiming marginalization. We know nothing of the religious persecution endured by the disciples or other followers in the first 300 years after resurrection day. A minute loss of power and relevance after all of this time is not the same as being driven out of our homeland. And there is a difference between spreading the good news of life in spite of death, by feeding the hungry and healing the sick, and insisting that our Way be the only way in law and in practice.
So how do we allow ourselves to be nudged out onto a wilderness road that will lead away from Christian hegemony and toward resurrection living? How do we leave behind the comfortable dominance that we know in order to have the Holy Spirit baptismal encounter that we need?
First, I think we need to consciously identify the evangelistic forces of this world, religious or otherwise. Who is approaching us? In what state do they find us in? How do they convert us? Advertising is an initial easy answer. Market capitalism is constantly in front of our eyes and in our ears with solutions to what already ails us and manufacturing new desires for what will actually make us sicker.
Second, let’s look at how Christian evangelism actually works, at least in this story. By comparison, we get relatively few details on Philip’s grand Samaritan conversion. Maybe that’s because it is historically inaccurate. About 600 Samaritan Jews continue to practice their faith to this day. Or maybe because this story of the Evangelist and the Ethiopian is more faithful to the Way of Jesus Christ.
In their encounter, the two men find common ground in the form of a shared seat and a shared interest in scripture. The Evangelist’s work is in response to the Ethiopian’s already exhibited interest and his direct request to be baptized.
Philip does not storm up to the eunuch with a message and a command. He provides answers and sacrament for one who is already seeking both. On Jesus’ Way, sharing the good news is relational and non-hierarchical. It has room for everyone and anyone to be an emissary of the divine.
READ AND REJOICE
Last week as I was working on scheduling some devotionals-via-text I just discovered a perfect, albeit unintentional, description of what Christian evangelism might look like today. It is in Walt Whitman’s preface to “Leaves of Grass”:
This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people…
When the Ethiopian could not worship, he could still read. And in reading, he found relationship with God and a partner in God. I’d like to give each of you the same opportunity. These have the Whitman passage on one side and scripture on the other. Maybe your reading them will prompt a conversation with someone that will leave you transformed. Maybe they will comfort you when you have been barred.
This is not a world that likes the equality or welcome seen between the Evangelist and the Ethiopian. It is one that thrives on the centralization of human power, even though it cost so many of us so much. We are, apparently, easily evangelized by those who have only their own interests and pocketbooks at heart.
So it is a world in need of nobodies. Nobodies more interested in love than in shiny titles or grand successes. Nobodies willing to help holiness with the earth’s healing, person by person, on conversation at a time.
The Spirit’s nudge can feel quite odd compared to an ad for the latest iPhone. And Jesus’ Way is for more wild even than the social media we tap at on those phones. But if we listen and go, our souls will be transported and we will jump for joy.