I want to look today at the story of Philip, from the first reading we had, from the book of Acts. This comes early in the life of the early church – I don’t know exactly, but maybe 5 years since the crucifixion and resurrection.
Philip was a deacon. He had been appointed with 6 other men when it became clear that the disciples needed to delegate some of the work. The role of the deacon was to manage the social and welfare programme of the early church. But the Holy Spirit had other plans. The Holy Spirit wanted Philip for an evangelist.
Somebody was asking me about evangelism earlier this week, so this might be a particularly good sermon to listen to.
Philip is supernaturally prompted to go out to the wilderness road that goes south west from Jerusalem to Gaza. So he gets there and awaits further instructions. Then along comes a foreign chariot, and the Holy Spirit tells Philip to join the chariot. So he runs alongside. Inside, the occupant is said to be a high-ranking Ethiopian civil servant. Scholars think that this man was a god-fearer, a non-Jew who was attracted by the Jewish faith. He was probably not even an Ethiopian, but from south Sudan. Wherever he came from, he had been to Jerusalem on pilgrimage, and he was now setting off on the long journey home.
In a chariot going at the speed of a running man, it was going to take a long time. He is described as a Eunuch, which meant one of two things: either that he was physically a eunuch or that he was homosexual. He was also a foreigner, and I wonder he always got a warm welcome?
The Ethiopian gentleman in the chariot is reading out loud from the book of the prophet Isaiah. That was the normal way of reading scripture at that time, so that the word is proclaimed. Philip is running alongside the chariot, and hears the Ethiopian guy reading. He asks him if he understands the scripture he is reading, and the Ethiopian says not really, he could do with some help. So Philip gets into the chariot with him, and explains the passage to him.
A pause to pick up some important points:
- The Ethiopian guy is exploring matters of faith, and it is important to him to read scripture. That tells us something too – about how important it is for our faith
- He quickly realises that merely reading scripture isn’t enough, he needs to understand it, and he needs help with that. Some people really do believe that when it comes to scripture, what you see on the page is what it means, that the Holy Spirit has dictated the Scripture, and you had better accept it. No! Reading scripture is a conversation. If you take a line out of context, you can be led badly astray. You do need to understand the situation in which the scripture was written, what it meant then, and what it might mean when applied to our own lives. Though that sounds complicated, it isn’t really. But you do need to be open to other ways of understanding what you read.
Sometimes, you’ve read the bible so often that you think you automatically know what it means – that’s a real danger point. There is also something new to notice and hear from the bible. There are many layers of meaning.
I also find that I can read a passage from the bible and it has something directly to say about a situation I am going through in my work. Setting my own life and the bible alongside each other can provide some profound insights.
Philip explains the passage that the Ethiopian is reading as a prophecy about Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. This reflects a couple of stories we have heard recently, where Jesus spent time with the disciples explaining to them how the scriptures pointed to him. This gives Philip an opening to tell the Ethiopian about Jesus. The Ethiopian recognises the truth when he hears it. His heart lifts and he wants to make a commitment. It makes sense, and he wants to live by it. He asks for baptism, and they pull into a layby beside a pond, and Philip baptises him there and then, after one bible class, with no godparents or sponsors and the only witnesses being whatever staff the Ethiopian had with him.
It is a story that has influenced what the church does with baptism:
- Deacons are allowed to baptise – not just priests. In fact, anyone can perform a baptism in an emergency, but in regular practice, deacons and priests do the baptism. But I suspect that if Philip hadn’t baptised the Ethiopian, the rite would be limited to priests.
- All you need for baptism is an honest and true commitment to following Jesus. But that leads to interesting questions about how you measure that. Is every family who brings their baby to church to be baptise sincerely and honestly going to help that child to follow Jesus?
I mentioned evangelism. This is a story of evangelism – Philip tells the Ethiopian about Jesus and what he did for us. There are some key points here too:
- The Holy Spirit makes it happen. The Holy Spirit tells Philip what to do and where to go. And then at the end, the Holy Spirit whips Philip away to his next gig, which is proclaiming the good news in all the towns and villages along the west bank.
- Philip gets alongside the Ethiopian. He gets into conversation with him. He finds out what interests him. And then he offers assistance. And then takes the opportunity to tell the guy about Jesus. That is evangelism.
- Philip has enough confidence in his own faith to be able to talk to a stranger about it. He’s no bible scholar. He’s an ordinary dude who loves Jesus and loves what the scriptures have to say about him, and is happy to share that, even if he doesn’t get it right all the time.
- The Ethiopian responds with enthusiasm. In some versions of the story, the Ethiopian declares his faith in Jesus Christ the Son of God, but this was probably a later addition to the original story. The point is, he was spiritually ready to hear the good news. In most cases, the journey to conversion is longer and tougher.
It is a charming and heart-warming story. It is an encouraging story, because it tells us about someone who responded positively to the good news about Christ. It reminds us about the place of the bible in our lives and how we make reading the bible part of our regular practice. It raises questions about the practice of baptism in the Christian church. And it helps us to think about the importance of evangelism in the way we follow Jesus.
One story with layers of meaning, and I have hardly even started!