“Guides in our Midst” Rev. Susan Brecht
Acts 8:26-40 from “The Message” by Eugene Peterson
Today Andrew and Brenden have joined almost a third of the world’s population who call themselves Christians - by some accounts 2.1 billion people. They are also in a long line of Gentiles who were baptized into the faith, starting with a very unlikely candidate in today’s scripture reading - an Ethiopian eunuch, who remains nameless, but is the first Gentile to be baptized in the scriptures. But before we get to him, we are introduced to Philip, one of early Christianity’s most energetic and enthusiastic evangelists.
Earlier in this chapter we find him in Samaria preaching the gospel and converting multitudes. Apparently he had no qualms about hanging out in a land with people despised by Jews as heretics and half-breeds. When the apostles in Jerusalem heard how successful he was though, they sent Peter and John down to pray for the Samaritans to receive the Holy Spirit. Soon the apostles were
“preaching in every Samaritan town they passed through on their return to Jerusalem.
And this is where our story today begins in Acts 8:26-40
Later God’s angel spoke to Philip: ‘At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza.’ “
There were two roads at the time between Jerusalem and Gaza. The one he was instructed to travel on took him into the wilderness. What transpired next seems to be divinely orchestrated. Unattached and on his own, Philip
“got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Cadace, queen of the Ethiopians. He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.”
You couldn’t have a more unlikely meeting of two more unlikely people. Ethiopia was considered by the first century world to be located at the ends of the earth - the last outpost of human civilization. This Ethiopian eunuch was a high court official, serving the queen - head of the treasury - controlling vast sums of wealth - about as far removed from the life of Philip and the struggling Christian community as you can get.
What adds to the strangeness of this story is the fact that the Ethiopian was returning from Jerusalem, where he had gone to worship. We’re not talking about a Jew by birth, or someone, because of his status as a eunuch, even capable of becoming one by conversion. And yet, there he sat in his chariot reading Isaiah.
He embodies the classic model of a spiritual seeker, and he is about to encounter a man of purpose with a certain amount of hutzpah.
“The Spirit told Philip, ‘Climb into the chariot.’” (You see who’s pulling the strings here?) Running up alongside (which had to be no easy feat.) Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, “Do you understand what you’re reading?”
He answered, “How can I without some help?” and invited Philip into the chariot with him.
It’s becoming obvious what Philip is being called to do in this strange place with this strange man. No matter how spiritually hungry seekers are, they are not going to come to their faith all by themselves. They need a guide - a messenger - a mentor. Philip was guided into the desert to offer words of guidance and understanding to a total stranger.
We all need guides to help us along life’s journey; be it a parent, teacher, godparent, friend, pastor - sometimes even a total stranger. More often in Christianity it’s a community of faith who are called to look after us.
Look around this sanctuary. Are there people here who are your guides? Are there people you have mentored? So often it becomes a mutual process. We learn from each other. This morning you promised to be Andrew and Brenden’s mentors, their guides. Over the coming years, you will learn from them. And they will learn from you.
In an anonymous sermon I was reading recently, the writer suggested we look to children for special guidance. They experience the Spirit of God in fresh new ways. “With attitudes that haven’t yet hardened, eyes that haven’t yet grown glazed and dull, ears that discern the slightest change in nuance -- children are our ‘young sages.’ Or perhaps sages are simply those who somehow manage to avoid growing-up completely. Children see through false love and fake commitment with piercing accuracy. Some of the best words to guide and guard us come ‘out of the mouths of babes.’”
There are so many seekers out there, ones we’re not even aware of - who don’t know where to look - who may not even be aware of what they’re looking for. I do believe there is a hunger for spirituality in our lives today. In a culture where many describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, it takes lone rangers like Philip, with lots of hutzpah to reach out to meet these seekers where they’re at. Philip ran after the chariot. He didn’t wait for it to stop. He initiated the conversation - fearlessly stepping into the Eunuch’s world, first to answer his questions, then to open up a new world to him.
The passage he was reading was this:
As a sheep led to slaughter,
and quiet as a lamb being sheared,
He was silent, saying nothing.
He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial.
But who now can count his kin
since he’s been taken from the earth?
Sound familiar? It’s from the song of Isaiah - the suffering servant - a perfect springboard for Philip to introduce the eunuch to Christ.
The eunuch said, “Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other? Philip grabbed his chance, Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.
For those of us brought up in Christianity, the words of Isaiah speak to us of Jesus and what he endured. What we might not be aware of is the poignant message it held for the eunuch. Despite his ranking, education and wealth, the most defining element of his identity was his physical nature, which was defined in Hebrew scriptures as being ritually impure. He certainly could relate to the suffering and humiliation described in this passage.
We aren’t given the details of the conversation that ensued in that chariot, but it becomes clear by what happened next that he was looking for a resurrection for himself - a rebirth into a new reality that will empower him to live in a totally new value system that Philip was guiding him to.
As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water. The eunuch said, ‘Here’s water. Why can’t I be baptized?” He ordered the chariot to stop. They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him. But he didn’t mind. He had what he’d come for and went on down the road as happy as he could be.
Other translations say “and went on his way rejoicing.” We don’t know what he did when he arrived home, but we can be pretty sure he didn’t look at the world in the same way. Conversion does that to people. Philip I’m sure was also energized and changed by his encounter with this strange man in this strange place. Mentoring changes those of us who guide others too.
Philip showed up in Azotus and continued north, preaching the Message in all the villages along that route until he arrived at Caesarea.
In chapter 12 of Luke, Jesus says; “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight.” St. Augustine said that God is able to love each person as if he or she were the only person in the world. Baptism is a reminder of that. We humans are limited in our capacities to love, but each time we love in a special way, like a parent or a spouse or mentor, we catch a glimpse of how much God cares for each one of us.
Today we were all witnesses to the baptism of Andrew and Brenden as they begin a new journey in a life as Christians. Over the years many of us will be here to guide and witness that journey in covenant with them, to recognize their spirituality as it unfolds, and help nurture and cultivate it. There are many others who you will be called to mentor and guide. Keep yourself open to those invitations. Watch for where the Spirit is guiding you. The rewards are plentiful.