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Together in Baptism

philipbaptismActs 8: 26-40
Introduction to the reading
Today’s reading from the book of Acts is a strange and unusual story, marked by a peculiar setting, multiple directives from divine agents and an exotic central character.
A few pointers:

  • Philip – not the Philip whom Jesus called as one of the original disciples.  This Philip is one of seven Greek-speaking Jewish Christians appointed by the Twelve to care for the needs of others.  He has become an energetic and effective evangelist apostle, having just completed a great work of preaching to crowds of people in Samaria.
  • the setting – a wilderness road in deserted place in the middle of the day.  The midday heat makes traveling here difficult and even dangerous and so the story takes on an air of absurdity.
  • The Ethiopian eunuch – quite a dramatic figure.  An Ethiopian referred to anyone with dark skin from the largely unknown lands below Egypt, and a eunuch is a castrated male.   This Ethiopian eunuch, we are told, is in charge of the treasury of Candace, the official title of the queen, head of the government in Ethiopia.  His non-Jewishness and sexual status make him an outcast unacceptable in the temple. His connection to Judaism tenuous but he is clearly an avid student of the religion.  He is a wealthy, educated and devout foreigner out in the middle of nowhere come face to face with the power of the Holy Spirit.

Many of you may have noted that I was away most of last week, staying in Downingtown with my oldest three grandchildren while my daughter Beth and her husband Jim attended an engineering convention in California.  I’ve done this before; an easy task, since they leave at 7 in the morning, are all in school all day and pretty self-sufficient at home.

But it was not a good three and a half days … because I was also tending to Mabel, their 3-month old puppy.  Beth described it as having to constantly watch an un-diapered toddler, sometimes outside in the dark and rain.  As my granddaughter Claire texted her mother:  “I don’t think Gramma is very puppy savvy.”  To say the least… I won’t go into details.

Mabel, however, was just the running frustration under other events of those days.  Beth and Jim flew into Palm Springs on Monday and that evening there was a 3.1 magnitude earthquake.  Late Sunday we heard – and it was confirmed on Monday morning at about 5 a.m. – that there was a fire in the chem lab at STEM, the high school Claire and Owen attend.  No school for them on Monday while they cleaned up and repaired water damage.  And then, tragically, all of us learned of a suicide, a freshman at West Chester University, the older brother of a boy Owen had played baseball with and Jim had coached.  They knew the family well.

No matter how well we plan or prepare, we never know what will come next, what unexpected event will shock or elate or depress, will call us to react, to respond or to hide.

What was Philip expecting that day that the Holy Spirit pushed him onto that wilderness road?  Odd, perhaps he thought, but maybe another call to preach as he had so successfully just done in Samaria.

My thoughts turn to other calls upon God’s chosen ones:

  • Abraham: Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” [Gen. 12:1].
  • Jesus:  And the Spirit immediately drove him into the wilderness.  He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. [Mark 1:12-13].
  • Just as the Holy Spirit is active throughout Scripture, the Holy Spirit is actively involved here in this strange story about Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch.  Verse 29:  Then the Spirit said to [Philip]. “Go over to this chariot and join it.”  Verse 39:  When they came up out of the water, the Spirit snatched Philip away.

No matter how well we plan or prepare, we never know what will come next.  But we should remember - perhaps less dramatically, less directly than with Abram, Jesus or Philip - that no matter what, our lives are Holy Spirit driven.  

This is point number 1.

Point number 2 is that we need the good news of Jesus to guide our living and to sustain us through whatever.  And the good news comes alive for us through attention to Scripture, through study and sharing, conversation and mutual consideration.  So Philip ran up to [the chariot] and heard [the eunuch] reading the prophet Isaiah.  He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”  …  Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

Here in Acts we encounter an important function of an apostle – to be not only a proclaimer of the Gospel but also to be an interpreter.  The eunuch already has the scroll of Isaiah and he can read the words for himself.  What he is missing is someone who will guide him in his reading, to explain confusing passages, to answer his questions with inspired conviction.

And then, of course, the meaning, the point of it all:  Jesus, the good news about Jesus, the saving grace of God in the person of Jesus, essential to our living fully, not only as individuals but also as the community of the faithful.

And so to point 3, the community of the faithful. The Ethiopian eunuch represents the inclusivity and universality of the Christian message:

  • well beyond the geographic boundaries of Jerusalem.  The apostles had already moved outward with the Gospel message through Judea, into Samaria and toward the Mediterranean; Paul was headed into the cities north – Ephesus, Corinth, Rome; and now Philip is sent south to Gaza and along the way, meets the African;
  • well beyond the religious strictures of traditional Judaism.  Because he is a Gentile and because of his sexuality, the Ethiopian eunuch was not pure and so could not enter the inner courts of the temple for worship.  And yet here he is, an earnest inquirer, an unlikely but eager recipient of the good news about Jesus, graciously included in God’s plan.

Earlier, in the Gospel reading, we heard Jesus say, “I am the true vine, and [God the Father] is the vinegrower.  Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.”  I think of the first apostles as God’s new growth off the old vine of traditional Judaism and individuals like the Ethiopian eunuch as more new growth that will thrive and spread to increase the vineyard.

And finally, point 4.  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?”

Did the Holy Spirit whisper in Philip’s ear?  Did Philip hear, “Nothing, absolutely nothing can prevent …” Let’s do it!

Here was a man who, if religious rules and propriety were to be adhered to, was all wrong: wrong sexuality, wrong race, wrong homeland.  No formal statement of faith.  No required confession of sin.  No course of study in preparation.   And yet, he was included and welcomed into the wideness of God’s forgiving grace and love through baptism.  Afterward, he went on his way rejoicing.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.  

In baptism, we are named children of God, washed by the Holy Spirit, marked as Christ’s own forever.  It is the Sacrament of Baptism and the open table of the Eucharist - the Sacrament of Holy Communion - that bind us together with Jesus and with one another from all over the world, throughout all time.  This is what we are called to remember, no matter what comes our way – earthquake, fire, flood, even death.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Rev. Kathryn Henry
Peapack Reformed Church
Gladstone, NJ
April 29, 2018

khenryRev. Kathryn Henry
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