29 April 2018
Fifth Sunday of Easter
John15: 1-8, Acts 8:26-40
Heavenly Father, as we come into the presence of your Word this morning open our hearts and minds to hear your message for us and send us on our way rejoicing. Amen.
This morning I want to think not about our gospel reading but about the story of Philip and the Ethiopian, from Acts chapter 8, verses 26-40.
To put those verses in some context, in the first half of chapter 8, which we didn’t hear this morning, there was violent and widespread persecution against the church. Stephen, whose death we remember on Boxing Day, had been killed and the believers scattered – but unlike the scattering which took place following Jesus’ arrest, they did not scatter and keep quiet. Philip, and this is Philip who was ordained as a deacon with Stephen in Acts 6 not one of the 12 disciples, went north from Jerusalem into Samaria, he preached the gospel and did miraculous signs bringing great joy to the city of Samaria.
And then, at the start of today’s reading, an Angel of the Lord told Philip he must now go South again – but not back to Jerusalem – he is to go past Jerusalem to the desert road, the wilderness road, which lead from Jerusalem to Gaza and from there the road went onto Egypt and thence down the Nile to Ethiopia.
Philip did not question the Angel as to why his successful ministry in Samaria was being cut short in this way, we are told simply that “…he got up and went.” Which reminds me of Abrahms’ response in Genesis 12 to being told to go where the Lord wanted him. So, Philip went where he was told, to the road running south of Jerusalem, and there he encountered the Ethiopian eunuch whose name, unfortunately, we do not know.
Now, what do you first think of when you think of Ethiopia? I am sorry to say that the first thing I usually think of is the images of famine from 1984, which led onto Band Aid and Live Aid – the images with which we have become so familiar over the years of stick-thin African children who are dead or dying in a landscape which looks like a wasteland.
The problem with that being the first, and perhaps the only, image we have of a place is that it can blind us to the depths of culture and history of a place which sits in the centre of the cradle of humanity and which features more in the bible than you may realise.
So, let me give you three, perhaps counterintuitive, facts about Ethiopia at the time of today’s story: Firstly, it was a very wealthy kingdom that traded its natural resources extensively with its neighbours in Africa, the Mediterranean and Arabia. Secondly, unlike Israel at this time which was under Roman Occupation, Ethiopia was a free and proud nation. Finally, although Ethiopia was a long journey down the Nile through Egypt, many Ethiopians were actually practising Jews and had been for centuries. From today’s reading you may have noticed that the reason the Ethiopian was in Jerusalem was that he had come there “to worship” and, as he was travelling home, he was reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah, which of course is part of the Jewish scripture. It is believed that Ethiopia had been heavily influenced by Judaism since the Queen of Sheba had visited King Solomon, which you can see in 1 Kings 10. Many Ethiopians still consider themselves descendants of Israel and many have even emigrated to modern Israel on the basis of their Judaism. Some of you may have seen a story on the BBC website about Israel’s secret service, Mossad, secretly running a dive resort on the coast of Sudan in the 1970s which operated as a front in order to smuggle Ethiopian Jews back to Israel – I believe it is going to be released as a film shortly, which should be fascinating.
So, although this man may have been missing some personal vital assets, and although he came from a far away land, this reading tells us loud and clear that this was a very important and very wealthy Jewish believer, traveling in a chariot in the service of his Queen. Philip the evangelist was the opposite of wealthy or important, travelling on foot, yes, in the service of Jesus his king, but possibly even a wanted man in the eyes of the authorities. It is a meeting of opposite worlds, in some ways, but perhaps in a reversal of our cultural expectation here the Ethiopian is wealthy and our protagonist is poor.
So Philip hears the rich Ethiopian in his chariot reading from the book of Isaiah and Philip is again prompted to take action – this time the Holy Spirit prompts him to be bold and to go up to the chariot. Hearing the words of Isaiah, Philip asks:
“Do you understand what you are reading?”
This question is quite bold in itself and works on more than level – the scripture would have been written in Hebrew, which would not have been the Ethiopian’s native language – so it could simply mean, do you understand what this means? but it can also mean, do you understand the import of what you are reading?
Fortunately the Ethiopian is not a proud man and he is not offended at Philip’s question – rather he proves that he is willing to be taught:
“How can I know, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to stop walking on the dusty road and to come up and join him in his presumably opulent carriage.
The Ethiopian repeats the passage he was reading:
“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.”
This actually comes from Isaiah chapter 53:7-8. In Judaism at the time there were at least three different interpretations of the identity of the sheep being taken to slaughter: 1. That it referred to the nation of Israel itself, 2. That it referred to the prophet Isaiah and 3. That it referred to the coming messiah.
We can infer that Philip told the Ethiopian that the passage he was reading was about the coming messiah and that Israel’s messianic hope had been fulfilled in the person of Jesus who had so recently been taken up to heaven and had sent the Holy Spirit on the church and we can only presume that he also then went on to speak about the importance of being baptised as a follower of the messiah because as soon as they come to a bit of water the Ethiopian cannot contain his enthusiasm:
“Look, here is some water. What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
And the answer was apparently nothing because, without an order of service, or an appointment and even without a rota, they simply went down to the water and Philip baptised the Ethiopian and, when they came out of the water, the spirit snatched Philip away to carry on his evangelism elsewhere and the Ethiopian, went on his way rejoicing!
Now we don’t know what happened to this Ethiopian, as he doesn’t appear in the bible again, but we do know this – I have another fact about Ethiopia for you – not only does it have an ancient Jewish population but it is also home to one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which claims its heritage at least in part from that man who returned from Israel as a baptised believer.
As someone charged with carrying out baptisms, this story tells me that both the call to baptism and the results of baptism are not within our control – but that the grace of God is quite sufficient – like Phillip we merely play our part in the drama of God’s relationship with his people, but it is God who sows the seeds, it is God who prunes in due season and the harvest of our fruitfulness comes from him and belongs to him. Had the Queen of Sheeba not visited Solomon then Judaism may never have come to Ethiopia, had Philip not listened to the Holy Spirit and engaged with the Ethiopian then Christianity may not have been planted there, long before it came to these shores. In order to be used by God we need to learn to trust in the grace of God and the promptings of the Holy Spirit so that God’s will may be done on Earth as it is in heaven.