An Unexpected Chariot Ride

03
May

The sermon preached on May 2nd, 2021 based upon Acts 8:26-40, entitled “An Unexpected Chariot Ride”.

 Our scripture lesson tells an incredible story that many of you may never have heard before.  It  comes from the Book of Acts – as in “Acts o the Apostles”, but might better be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit, because the primary actor throughout is the Holy Spirit.  Acts was written by the Gospel writer Luke and continues the story that followed Jesus’ death and resurrection – the story of the early church.

At the outset, immediately before Jesus departs from the Apostles — ascending to heaven — he tells them that they will receive the “power from on high” after which they will be his witnesses — first in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and then to the ends of the earth.

Shortly thereafter we hear the story of the day of Pentecost, when the very first Christians gathered together in Jerusalem received the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.  That very day three thousand people believed the Good News and were baptized into the body of Christ.

Not long after that though we hear of the stoning of the Apostle Steven, and of a persecution that breaks out in Jerusalem towards the Christians living there which leads some of the apostles to leave Jerusalem, and as they do they share the Gospel wherever they went in fulfillment of Jesus’ last words to them.

The focus of the story Luke tells turns for a time to the Apostle Philip who initially goes north from Jerusalem and Judea into Samaria where he finds many people who respond enthusiastically to the Good News of Jesus.

If it hasn’t been evident up until this point, the story we hear this morning makes it clear that Philip isn’t running the show – that he simply following the instructions given to him by God – the Holy Spirit.

As I read the passage now in sections, pausing to make comments, listen now for the word of the Lord.

Then 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.

This is a peculiar change of course.  Initially Philip has headed north from Judea into Samaria — now suddenly an angel tells him to turn around and head south in order to travel a specific “wilderness road” through the desert – a road on which it would seem Philip was less likely to meet people.   But out there in the middle of seemingly nowhere Philip has an extraordinary encounter with a man who couldn’t have been more different from himself.

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.

This so-called “Ethiopian eunuch” is a very complex figure. In the eyes of the Roman Empire, Ethiopia was “the ends of the earth” – so this man comes from what is symbolically the very outer border of the world.  His skin is much darker than that of Phillip — he comes from what we would call another race than that of Phillip.

Whereas Phillip would have been relatively poor, holding no standing in the political order, this man is rich and powerful, a senior official in the Queen’s court, overseeing her money.  He is riding in a chariot.  Poor man that Philip was, we can be certain he had never ridden in a chariot.

And then there is the peculiarity of the man being a “eunuch”.  As a young boy he would have been castrated — he wouldn’t have had a choice in the matter.  From the point of view of the adults who carried out this brutal act, it was an honor for the boy to be chosen to undergo castration, because it meant he had been selected to grow up to hold a position of great power and authority and comfort.  He would have received an education the quality of which few boys had the opportunity from which to benefit.  This was all by way of preparing him to spend his adult life working in close proximity to the Queen.  The castration was considered necessary because it would have rendered him incapable of being a threat to the Queen, sexually speaking.

And so the paradox of this man:  in one sense he possessed great power and authority, in another, he was literally impotent, traumatized from childhood.

In the eyes of the Roman World, he would have been viewed as the object of some scorn – less than fully a man — living in a kind of in between state between a man and woman.

All of us are in some sense broken, wounded. The wound this man carried was simply more obvious than the wounds most of us carry.

Though powerful, he lived as a kind of perpetual outsider.  He longed for a sense of belonging.

Philip encounters this man out in this wilderness road as he is returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where he has gone to worship – hoping for some kind of encounter with God in the Holy City to make him feel whole.

He is a spiritual seeker. It is unclear whether he was Jew – Jews at this point were spread throughout the world.  He could have been a Jew, or he could have simply been drawn to Judaism in his spiritual search.

With its ancient roots and Holy Scriptures Judaism often attracted attention throughout the Empire from people conscious of their spiritual longings.

So we don’t know for sure whether he was a formally a Jew or not, but what we do know is that in the book of Deuteronomy there are laws that specifically limited how far a eunuch could participate in the faith community — how far he could actually go inside the holy Temple – for his castration marked him as deformed, impure.

And so it is safe to say the man hadn’t found what he was looking for in Jerusalem.

Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”

Again, the Spirit is in charge here – not Philip – and the Spirit directs Phillip to this man who prior to being filled with the Holy Spirit Philip would have avoided for all the ways he seemed so different from himself.

So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah.

Another indication of the man’s spiritual longings.  He has purchased a scroll of the sacred scriptures of the prophet Isaiah, and as was the norm in those days, he was reading aloud.

So we get this somewhat humorous image of Phillip jogging alongside of the chariot, striking up a conversation.

(Phillip) 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.

Wow.  What a beautiful thing the Holy Spirit has orchestrated.  Two people from completely different backgrounds – outwardly as different from one another as possibly could be — riding side by side in Philip’s first ride in a chariot.

As the reading proceeds, it’s striking to take note of the particular verses that Eunuch is struggling to understand.

They come from one of the “suffering servant” passages in Isaiah that the church has always interpreted as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus.

As we listen, you will notice that it isn’t hard to understand how this particular passage would catch the Eunuch’s attention, for he surely found himself identifying with the figure Isaiah describes, for the verses echo the trauma and mutilation he himself had suffered as a child.

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.

And so Philip shares with the Ethiopian Eunuch the good news about Jesus, the very son of God:  The story of his ministry channeling God’s love across the country side – the particular attention Jesus gave to people like himself who lived lives that left them out of the flow of life – the sick and lame, lepers, people condemned and rejected as sinners.

Perhaps he told him the story of the rich but outcaste tax collector Zacchaeus who climbed a Sycamore tree longing to catch a glimpse of the one he sensed could love him – Jesus the Good Shepherd seeking out the lost lambs.

Philip would have gone on to share how this same Jesus willingly embraced the most traumatic of suffering at the hands of the powerful – a suffering not unlike that which the Eunuch had known as a child – when Jesus lay down his life on the cross as one utterly humiliated in the eyes of the world.

And then when all hope had seemed lost, how this same Jesus had been raised from the dead by the life-giving power of God, coming to those who had loved him, calling them out of despair and into an eternal hope, and how Jesus had sent him others to the very ends of the earth (which is what the wilderness road represented) to share the good news of his life, death and resurrection.

How the Eunuch’s heart must have rejoiced to hear of such a savior, one who cared for — and understood — one such as himself, a perpetual outsider, never truly belonging, constantly aware of his brokenness, his sense of unworthiness — one who had freely chosen to fully enter the pain of the Eunuch’s life.

And how this Savior was not merely someone who had once upon a time lived but now was just an inspiring story locked in the past – but was yet alive, actively inviting people into the circle of God’s eternal love.

As they were going along the road, they came to some water;

Remember, this is a road through the arid desert.  To come upon a body of water in such a place, at such a moment in their conversation is remarkable, to say the least.

and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

This is a fascinating moment in our story.  The Eunuch has sensed the gracious invitation contained in the story Philip has just shared with him – an invitation to be a part of God’s people.

But at this point in the story of the early church, the first Christians haven’t had time to think through the implications of the Gospel regarding who they can invite into the circle.

The first Christians were all Jews who saw Jesus as the fulfillment of Judaism and as such they assumed that those who would come to Jesus would be – or become — Jewish as well – which in the case of men meant they would be circumcised.  But for the man who sits beside Philip in that chariot – well, to put it delicately – was this even possible anatomically?

So early as this is in the history of the church, there is no rule book to follow, not even a New Testament.  All that will come much later.  Without a guidebook to refer to, one might well imagine a moment of hesitation for Philip.

There is just Philip with the story of Jesus he has shared and this man who has responded with such joy to the story.

But there is something else present, and that is the Holy Spirit.  Philip gives himself over to where the Holy Spirit is clearly leading them.

He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him.

Philip dunks the man into the water and raises him back up again, through a symbolic death to eternal life, to an eternal belonging as a beloved child of God.  This is a resurrection story, which is why it shows up in the season of Easter.

The Holy Spirit had sent Philip down this lonesome road in order that resurrection could happen for this man who felt like one of the walking dead.  This seemingly “chance” encounter with this stranger, was orchestrated by the Holy Spirit that Philip might share with him the love of Christ.

As the story concludes, it is clear from the Holy Spirit’s point of view, Philip’s work is done here.

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.

Thus ends our reading

So, a couple of things to briefly note.

First, how large is the circle of God’s love revealed to us in Jesus!  There couldn’t have been two people more different from one another than Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch.  And yet they are, at the deepest level, brothers in God’s kingdom.

When we allow the Holy Spirit to have its way with us it makes it possible for us to love where the world tells us love is not a possibility.  For instance, those divisions that plague our nation?

The Holy Spirit intends to overcome them.

So I invite you to ponder:  Who is the stranger that the Holy Spirit wants you to recognize as part of God’s family, and wants to use you to bless?

And second, God is not just an abstract idea, the power that created the universe and then left us to muddle our way through life.  The Holy Spirit is real – that is, God’s living active presence moving through the muck of our lives to bring about the miracle of resurrection.

So pay attention to the strange coincidences in your life that might be “God instances” – signs of the leading of the Holy Spirit – of doors being opened up that God is calling you to step through.

The story we just heard contains one of the two sacraments we have traditionally believed Jesus gave to us as a means of grace.  The Holy Spirit uses ordinary water – something physical – to express God’s amazing grace.

It was the so-called Ethiopian Eunuch who noticed that their was water at hand, and with this water an opportunity for him to receive the grace of God and that would bring him into the Christ’s family.

“Look”, he says, “here is water!  What is to prevent me from being baptized?”

(Gesturing to the altar.)  Look, here is bread! And a cup!

What is to prevent you and me from receiving Holy Communion?

How ever you have struggled, whatever the nature of your woundedness, the deep longing you carry around inside you, the Holy Spirit is present that we too might have an encounter with the living presence of Jesus in the bread and the cup and experience resurrection.

In sharing this holy meal with his disciples, Jesus entering our suffering, embracing the path that led him like a sheep to the slaughter, trusting in the gracious power of God to lead him through the darkness of death on a cross towards the joy of resurrection, that he might be with us always.