St. Mark's Episcopal Church

124 North Sylvia Street - Montesano, WA, 98563

Easter 5, April 28

The Lectionary Calendar is taking us on a tour of Acts. Acts is the second volume of Luke’s two volume work that begins with his gospel. Acts picks up the story with the disciples still in Jerusalem, gathering in the same upper room where the Last Supper had taken place, where they had encountered the risen Christ, and where they would receive the Holy Spirit on what we call Pentecost.

The book of Acts is about the spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. It really should be regarded as the Acts of the Spirit instead of the Acts of the Apostles, as it is really about the creative and often chaotic movement of the spirit following Jesus’ ascension.

Immediately before his ascension, Jesus had commanded his disciples: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witness in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ The first stopping place for the Holy Spirit was in Jerusalem, and scripture relates that all of those gathered there were filled with the Holy Spirit.

Today’s story is about Philip the Evangelist. He likely is called that to differentiate him from Philip the Apostle. Philip is first mentioned in Acts 6:5 as one of the seven deacons who were chosen to attend to certain temporal affairs of the church in Jerusalem. And it was a dangerous time for Philip: religious leaders seized Stephen, tried him in a religious court and sentenced him to death. After the martyrdom of Stephen, Philip went to Samaria where he preached and converted many. That would be a difficult thing, given the historic tensions between Jews and Samaritans that even Jesus himself encountered.

Now, the spirit sent him even further away from Jerusalem, chasing him along the road to Gaza. If where Philip was heading wasn’t the ends of the earth, you could certainly see it from there.

Along his way, Philip sees an Ethiopian man riding in a chariot. The spirit keeps Philip moving, telling him to run after the chariot. Then our story unfolds.

We don’t know much about the man Philip encounters. We do know he came from Ethiopia, and thus was likely dark skinned. We know he was a eunuch. Perhaps he was actually castrated. Perhaps he was not. Perhaps he voluntarily became a eunuch in an exchange to access political power. Perhaps it was done to him against his will. Perhaps it was a birth anomaly. We don’t know, and it really doesn’t matter. Regardless of the circumstances of his condition, what is clear is that when he arrived at the Temple of Jerusalem, he would not even be allowed to enter the outer courts because of something unchanging and unchangeable in his physical condition. No matter how deep his faith, or how sincerely he may have wanted to, he would not be allowed to convert to Judaism.

And we know that the Spirit tells Philip to chase the chariot. When he gets there, Philip sees that the eunuch is reading the book of Isaiah. Now, forgive me for asking this, but… how does the man have a copy of Isaiah? Centuries before the printing press, he couldn’t exactly run to the local bookstore and pick one up. He certainly couldn’t download it to his cellular phone. The printed word was very hard to come by, which is why rabbis would read the scrolls to the people at temple. I mean, weren’t the scrolls literally created by hand, like the way monks created things in those old IBM commercials? (“It’s a miracle!”) The rabbis were the ones that had access to them, to educate the people. How this person had a personal copy is a great mystery … perhaps it is as simple as it was his job was to take it to the Queen of Ethiopia, and he became curious about it while reading it on his journey. That makes a lot of sense, but we don’t know for sure.

The interaction between Philip and the Eunuch begins with a series of questions. First, Philip asks the eunuch if he understands what he is reading? The eunuch says something quite profound: how can I know unless someone guides me? A conversation begins, centered on the text of scripture. The eunuch reads from Isaiah 53 and asks for clarification. Philip essentially says; “wait until you get to Isaiah 56!” and tells the eunuch the story of Jesus. As they continue down the road, they come to some water. The eunuch asked why he cannot be baptized. Of course, the eunuch wanted to be baptized: he had heard a story of amazing love, that includes people of Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, Ethiopia, the ends of the earth. It includes people like him. Of course he’d want to be a part of it.

Philip ponders the question, finds no reason not to, and baptizes the Eunuch. This interaction between Philip and the eunuch is the first time in Acts that Jesus’s followers had to confront one of the central questions for early Christianity – what would be the relationship between Jews and Gentiles in this new community created by Jesus? The eunuch was barred by Mosaic law from serving at the altar. Philip doesn’t hesitate and moves forward to welcome the eunuch into this new community.

The spirit then whisks Philip away, and the eunuch went away rejoicing. Does the eunuch become an evangelist or otherwise share the story? We don’t know, but we hope so. As for Philip, he ends up in Azotus, and then continues on to Caesarea, where he established his ministry. In the fourth century, Caesarea would become the home of Basil the Great, Bishop of Caesarea, whose treatise on the Holy Spirit urged the church to give the same honor, glory, and worship to the Holy Spirit as to the Father and the Son. Basil is credited with assembling Eucharistic Prayer D, the oldest eucharistic prayer in the prayer book That prayer contains the most succinct description of why Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit:

And that we might live no longer for ourselves, but for him who died and rose for us, he sent the Holy Spirit, his own first gift for those who believe, to complete his work in the world, and to bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all.

Today we are going to use Eucharistic Prayer D in our service to remember that gift to us.

Today’s lesson is a story about evangelism. It is a story about difficult, transformative conversations taking place in difficult places. It is a story about the spirit leading us, a story about faith, and reading, and baptism.

What does it mean for us? The Spirit is chasing us down a new road into the future. Where is the spirit chasing us? Who will we meet along the way? These are burning questions for us as we seek to follow Jesus along our own wilderness roads. Our lives are full of these chance encounters in which the Spirit will push us to interact with others. Will we have the courage to step out into the unknown to meet people and make relationships? Can we gather around scripture to read it together and discern God’s call to us? Can we envision the joy that we might feel, the rejoicing we do, at the end?

May our new road into the future be one in which we encounter the holy spirit, and invite those we meet to join us.