Sermon by: Rev. Brian Combs, 4/25/2018
Philip was not one of the original disciples, nor even an apostle. Outside of the inner circle, he needed to put something down on his business card, so they gave him the title of evangelist and sent him out to the sticks of Samaria with little to no expectation.
Serving beyond the hallowed walls of the Holy City, far away from the old neighborhood, Philip began to share the Good News and, astonishingly, Gentiles started to convert. Prayer circles were formed, worship services were scheduled, mission trips were organized, and the followers of Jesus started to increase. This was such a shock that upper management, Peter and John, traveled over for a visit to witness what the Holy Spirit was doing through Phil.
But just as remarkable as starting a church in non-Jewish territory is what happens in today’s text. In this encounter on a wilderness road in the desert, what does Philip do that makes him so faithful?
Acts 8:26-40Then 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.) So 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.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. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now 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. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.” The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As 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?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When 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. But 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.
He follows the Spirit’s direction without hesitation.
Since running was a humiliating act for a man in public, he’s willing to look foolish for God’s cause.
He accepted the Eunuch as he was.
My first appointment was in Waynesville, NC at an aging church across the railroad tracks from the new Walmart. Like many small congregations, the members did most of the maintenance on the facility. The women would clean the bathrooms; the men would cut the grass; the trustees would fix this and that on Saturdays. Paul who lived in a trailer a few yards beyond the steeple’s shadow always showed up too. He wasn’t a member, but a handy neighbor who, regardless of the chore, would quietly assign himself to the task at hand. After seeing him every day of the week over and over again, expect on Sundays, I decided to extend an invitation. “Paul,” I said, “Please join us for worship. Your wife comes, all your retired friends from the factory occupy the back pew, and it is obvious how much you care about this place.” He responded, “Brian, my parents worked hard, but we didn’t have much. As a boy, my shirts were hand-me-downs, my shorts were frayed at the edges, and my feet were usually bare because shoes were too expensive. One Sunday morning as a kid I decided to go downtown for worship. At the sanctuary door, an usher blocked the entrance and told me that my clothes weren’t right, I wasn’t respectable enough and that my kind wasn’t allowed in. I’m closing in on 90 years old and I haven’t been back since. Pastor, I’ll fix anything that needs fixing at church, but I’m not ever coming to your service or anyone else’s ever again.”
When the Eunuch was a little boy, he was precluded from puberty. After being castrated, likely against his will, his body never developed an identity. Without hormones, he was left biologically ambiguous, stuck somewhere between gender and sexuality. When he arrived in Jerusalem for worship as an adult, the Old Testament was clear, “no one who has been emasculated shall enter the assembly…” (Deut. 23:1) and “no man with a physical defect… shall approach the altar” (Lev. 21:16). When he got to the synagogue door, the usher wouldn’t step aside. Sorry, you can’t be fruitful and multiply; sorry you can’t join the covenant through circumcision; sorry you’re a defiled foreigner who isn’t allowed in here either. On the way back to Ethiopia after being rejected, the Eunuch asks, “what is to prevent me from being baptized?” because he expects the answer to be… EVERYTHING.
And yet, when Philip stoops down in that shallow and sandy puddle beside the road, he doesn’t ask the Eunuch whether he’s a man or woman, doesn’t ask about his dating history, doesn’t stop to decide if the sacrament comes with preconditions. While Philip is a footnote figure in Christian history, what makes him so faithful is his willingness to disobeys God’s Word and God’s Religion in the name of God’s Welcome. Sometimes, regrettably, shutting our Bibles and trespassing our Tradition is the only way to fully include someone.
Luke, the author of Acts, intentionally doesn’t give the Ethiopian a name. That’s because there will always be a Eunuch, someone who’s been labeled with deficits and disabilities in our midst waiting outside on the Church steps. And when he or she knocks, may we abandon every attempt at being a guard, and instead, as greeters filled with the Holy Spirit, fling the doors wide open until all are finally let in.