August 21, 2016 “Seeker” – Acts 8:26-40
August 21, 2016 – Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
I guess I’m a typical male. I hate to ask for directions. Whether I’m wandering up and down grocery store aisles or driving around an unfamiliar city, I often just keep searching rather than pausing to seek help from someone who might be able to guide me. Just ask my wife. If she’s with me, she will say, “Look, there’s a clerk over there. Ask him where to find salad dressing,” or “Let’s stop and ask this person at the bus stop if she knows where the post office is.” Beth is often right. I’ll just keep looking at the signs over the aisles or tapping on our GPS instead of asking for the guidance I need.
We also need guidance on our spiritual journeys. Like the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza, we may just keep trying to figure it out for ourselves. Fortunately, just like God gave me a wife to remind me to ask for help, God sends spiritual guides to us, just like he sent deacon Philip to a seeker along the road.
Last week at the beginning of chapter 8, we saw Philip to the north of Jerusalem, in Samaritan territory. Now in verse 26 God sends him south and west of Jerusalem, down toward the ancient coastal city of Gaza. Yes, that’s the area of what we now call the Gaza Strip, a region controlled by Palestinians and Hamas, isolated from the rest of the world by Israel’s enforcement of a “buffer zone” patrolled with military force and live fire.
Like today, that route to Gaza was not much travelled in Philip’s time. That’s what Luke means by calling it “desert” or “wilderness.” It’s not that it was dry—we see in our text there was water along it—but that few people took that road.
In verse 27 we meet the man to whom Philip was sent, an unlikely seeker for that time, an Ethiopian eunuch. He was not from what’s now Ethiopia, but from what is present-day Sudan. In the Old Testament it was Cush. Today it’s a place full of poverty and violence. Yet people there are still unlikely seekers there. In 1994 some Sudanese refugees started attending a Covenant church in Sioux Falls South Dakota. They sent word back home and now The Evangelical Covenant Church of South Sudan has over three hundred churches and a total of 17,000 members in South Sudan and Ethiopia.
Faith in God started small in Sudan back then, too. This one black man had heard about the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, probably from some of those Jews who never came home from Babylon but scattered around the middle east and northern Africa. God captured his heart and Luke tells us he had come to worship in Jerusalem.
It was not unusual for a non-Jew to come worship God at His temple in the holy city, but it was a real stretch for this one. An Ethiopian was an exotic figure to Jews. Even Greeks and Romans called his country “the ends of the earth.” People there were strange, different colored, exotic. He was truly seeking God in order to have made it all the way to Jerusalem.
He was not only a black man from Africa. He was a eunuch, a person castrated in order to make him a better servant. Without the distractions of a sex life, without any possibility of leaving a fortune to descendants, such people were considered more loyal to the rich and powerful people who employed them. Eunuchs were often exceptionally trustworthy managers of money. That was this man’s position, treasurer of his country in service to the queen. An Ethiopian king was just a figurehead. The actual governing was done by the king’s mother, called the Candace. It was a title rather than a name.
It’s totally astounding that the Ethiopian eunuch had any interest in Jewish faith. Deuteronomy 23:1 excludes those who have been castrated from the assembly of God’s people. He may have come to the Temple, but he was not allowed inside. For Jews a lack of genitals was not just a handicap but a severe deformity which touched the soul. That physical condition made it impossible for him to be accepted as a true Jewish convert no matter how strong his faith.
He wasn’t just a black man, not just a eunuch. The man in the chariot was wealthy and powerful. He came from a different class than most Jews, especially those Jews who had become Christians. Just riding in a chariot set him apart from the ordinary folk of Palestine who traveled everywhere on foot, like Philip did. There were a few rich people of influence in Jerusalem, like Herod the king, but in general the faith he was exploring was the spiritual life of poor, oppressed people, not of privileged classes like his own.
With all those differences, all that distance between himself and the people and culture that produced it, that man from Africa sat reading a scroll about a God he did not know as he sought something he did not yet understand. He was reading from Isaiah. You and I know he was reading a prophesy about Jesus. But he didn’t know that.
That’s why the Holy Spirit sent Philip. As I said a few weeks ago, the books of Acts looks like it’s about what the apostles did or what other Christians like Philip did, but it’s really about what the Holy Spirit did. The Holy Spirit sent Philip down this lonely road where he normally would meet no one. But he did. There was the chariot and in verse 29 the Spirit spoke again, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”
Picture it with me. There is the handsome chariot, a couple of fine horses, and an ebony colored man in African dress sitting in comfort as he reads aloud. And here is poor Philip with his robe tucked up in his belt, covered in dust raised by the wheels, jogging along to keep up. It was an unlikely scene in an unlikely place with unlikely people.
To his amazement, Philip heard familiar words being read. Everyone read aloud in those days. Reading silently as we all do and insist children learn was an innovation which would not come into the world for three or four centuries. It’s only for the first time in Augustine’s Confessions that we read how he remarked that the bishop Ambrose read silently to himself, never aloud. But before then people read out loud, even when they were alone. That’s how it was possible for Philip to hear and recognize the words.
Philip did not miss his opportunity. Half out of breath from running, in verse 30 he gasps out the simple question, “Do you understand what you are reading?” Who knows what the proud African official must have thought as he looked down at this ragtag jogger? But like me looking for the post office in Yachats, he could not find the answer by himself. The Spirit was at work.
Fortunately, the Ethiopian was wiser than I and he was willing to accept the direction he needed. He said, “How can I [understand] unless someone guides me?” Then he stopped the chariot stopped and invited Philip aboard to sit beside him and read together with him. That’s exactly the kind of thing we hope to be doing together this fall in our Community Bible Experience, sitting beside each other helping each other understand what God is saying.
Verses 32 and 33 give us the exact words from Isaiah. It was chapter 53 verses 7 and 8. He was reading the Greek translation called the Septuagint. “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.”
Early Christians like Philip realized those prophetic words fit Jesus’ story perfectly, His crucifixion and death. But as it says in verse 34, the Ethiopian did not know if he was reading about Isaiah or someone else. But Philip knew. So he started from there, says verse 35, explaining the good news of Jesus Christ, not just that He died but that He rose again.
Philip’s witness to the Ethiopian began the next stage of Christian mission. In Acts 1:8 Jesus told His disciples to be witnesses in Jerusalem and then in Samaria and then in the uttermost parts of the earth. Philip was out in front in both the second and third stages. First the Spirit led him to despised Samaritans. Then the Spirit sent him to a black man from another continent, from the ends of the earth.
Philip’s witness reminds us that God has the world in mind even when it seems remote to us. There are Covenant people like us worshiping today in Sudan. In just a couple weeks our friend Rene Mbongo will visit from just a little further south and west in Africa, from Senegal. God reaches seekers at the ends of the earth through people like you and me.
God also reaches seekers closer to home through us. Ten years ago a book called Religion and Life in the Northwest described our part of the country as the home of the “Nones.” That’s not religious women in habits. It’s those people who when surveyed asking about religious affiliation check “None.” They belong to no church or religious group of any sort. It was 62 percent of people in the Northwest in 2004. I would guess the percentage is higher now.
Yet many of those who say they have “no religion” are actively seeking for the divine in New Age thought, Native American spirituality, pagan ritual, ultra-conservative militias or spiritualized environmentalism. Just like the Ethiopian eunuch, some of our neighbors and co-workers, fellow students and friends are reading and talking about God without understanding who it is they are seeking. Just like the eunuch, they desperately need Christians willing to follow the Spirit’s leading to meet seekers on whatever road they’re found and guide them to Jesus.
Helping seekers understand the Scriptures and meet Jesus Christ has been the business and work of the church throughout its history. Language and worship styles and church buildings have changed through Christian history as the Spirit led people like Philip to bring Christ to new places and new generations.
In the middle ages when most people were unlike this educated Ethiopian and could not read, the Spirit guided Christians to reach across the barrier of education and build churches and cathedrals where painting, sculpture and stained class told the whole story of the Bible in pictures.
When Gutenberg invented the printing press and it became possible for many more people to own a Bible, the Spirit moved men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale to cross barriers of tradition and translate the story into the languages people spoke. Today, when fewer and fewer people read much, the Spirit gives us both the words of the text and audio and film to accompany them.
Seekers are all around us needing different kinds of guidance, need witnesses ready to start where they are and proclaim to them the good news about Jesus. Our friends in Manantial de Vida are helping us do that for people who need that good news in Spanish. Some of you who study at the university or teach at colleges do that for seekers who need to connect with Jesus through literature or film or poetry or science or philosophy.
A couple weeks ago a ten-year-old boy walked in after our worship service and talked with several of you and with me, asking his own seeking questions about what Christians believe, about whether a Christian can accept the theory of evolution, and several other very thoughtful inquiries for a young man.
I keep having to learn not to be skeptical or even critical of seekers. For the past couple of months my cousins and I have been trying to find a new renter for our little trailer near Sedona, Arizona. It seems like every other potential person I talk to is into something like “soul massage,” or is studying aromatherapy or sells healing crystals or just likes the energy emanating from the red rocks around the canyon. My tendency is to laugh at the silliness of all that “woo-woo” spirituality centered around a place where I grew up fishing and chasing lizards. But then I realize that these are seekers too, who don’t know what they are really looking for.
Philip helped that seeker with so much in his way find what he sought. In verse 36, when that Ethiopian’s chariot started to pass a bit of water, he asked for the same sacrament of blessing by which we still bring people into the faith. Verse 38 says Philip baptized him. Verse 37 is probably missing in your version, like it is in mine. You can find it at the bottom of the page in a footnote. In response to the eunuch’s request to be baptized, Philip says, “If you believe with all your heart, you may.” And the eunuch answered “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.”
Verse 37 is in a footnote because it’s not in the oldest manuscripts of Scripture. Philip’s question about belief and the eunuch’s confession of faith is from early baptismal liturgy. Christians made sure that, as seekers heard the good news, the truth about Jesus stayed the same. It doesn’t need to be in the same language or read the same way or sung with the same music. But everyone is seeking the same Savior, Jesus who is God’s only Son.
Our culture is vastly different from how it was in Philip’s day. Even reading silently to yourself should remind you this is a different world from that of the Bible. Yet across all those centuries the Holy Spirit has carried the same story, the same truth, the same Jesus Christ to those who are seeking Him. Whatever differences we encounter in those who are seeking, the Spirit wants to bring the good news to them too.
Verses 39 and 40 are a wonderfully mysterious closing to this story of crossing differences. As soon as they came up out of the water, we’re told, “the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away.” Maybe all that means is the Spirit sent him on to his next assignment. But I think it’s a miracle. As God used Philip to reach seekers, he found God carrying him miraculously to the next place. The eunuch saw him now more, and verse 40 says he “found himself” next at Azotus, 20 miles north along the coast. From there he traveled and preached until he settled down in Caesarea where we will meet him again in Acts 21, a family man who raised four daughters in the faith.
As for the eunuch, verse 39 says he “went on his way rejoicing.” In the second century, the church father Irenaeus would write that the eunuch went home to evangelize his whole country. There is no other historical record. But the Holy Spirit must have had a reason for sending Philip to this one particular seeker, the first truly gentile, first completely non-Semitic person to receive Jesus. And he found joy.
You may be here seeking yourself. I’d ask you like Philip asked then, “Do you understand what you are reading, what you are hearing today?” If not, we would love to explain it to you, to help you meet Jesus, to offer you baptism if you’ve not received it. We want you to go on your own way rejoicing because you’ve found what you were looking for.
For all the rest of us, let us open our hearts to seekers, ready to hear and answer their questions, ready to explain why Jesus is the best news we know. May all of us go from here rejoicing, ready to share that joy with our own friends and family.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj