29 March 2015
On the road to Gaza - May 18 2003
The Book of Acts throws up many delightful stories of the formation of the Christian church, there are twists and turns and connections made as the gospel spread in unlikely places.
Today is Philip's story, not the Philip who was the disciple of Jesus, but Philip the joy-giver and Evangelist. One of the first seven people appointed to run the affairs of the church. This story today happens after the stoning of Stephen, when Saul [who later became Paul the Apostle] was ravaging the church, entering the houses of Christians and dragging men and women off to prison Christians be persecution. They scattered away from Jerusalem and Philip went to Samaria preaching, healing and freeing people from being possessed. There was great joy, we are told. even Simon the magician was baptised by Philip, with Peter and John doing the follow up.
Then Philip got a divine message and was directed to head into the wilderness road to the probably deserted City of Gaza. Not the place to go looking for converts, no people there. But he went.
You can hear the story, - remember this book follows from Luke.
"A man, a very important man, the minister of the treasury of the Queen of Nubia was riding in his chariot, along the road in this deserted place, he'd just been in Jerusalem to worship. and now he was puzzling over a passage in Isaiah.
He read aloud as was the custom, " like a sheep he was led to the slaughter and like and lamb silent before its shearer? " what did it mean?
A stranger, who was Philip, came up beside him and said "do you understand what you are reading" He said he did not understand and Philip opened the scriptures to him, he told him about Jesus . As they were going along the road they came to some water and the man said "Is there anything to stop me being baptised?" Philip baptised him and when the man looked up Philip had gone about his business in other places.
Another journey along a road, a meeting which gave understanding of the scriptures about Jesus and a sacrament - this time of Baptism. Later stories have it that this was the beginning of the church in Ethiopia, a church which goes down to this present time.
Jesus' followers were walking in his footsteps and had the power to do as Jesus had done. The risen Christ was being proclaimed.
But there's more to this story. The work of Jesus was not going to be done to a neat formula. The book of Acts is about the wild all-embracing, unsettling acts of the Spirit. Here was a man who had just been to Jerusalem, to worship the God of Israel at the Temple. And yet he was not saved in Jerusalem, but in the desert. And rather than being "led to the Lord" by one of the apostles there in Jerusalem, or even by Peter or John in a Samaritan city, he was baptised by Philip, in that remote desert place. One would think that the first Gentile convert (specifically mentioned in Acts) would have been by an apostle.
Maybe we are being told that that no matter who we are , or where we are we need to be ready to speak of Jesus starting where the person is at. Philip walked alongside him on his journey and answered the man's questions. Maybe we are be told that whenever we think we call the shots about the church we are gently reminded that it is God through the Holy Spirit who guides us.
The man is a eunuch,
he is from the edge of the known world
and Ethiopians were very black - [studies done by JD Snowden tell us that Ethiopians were the yardstick by which antiquity measured colour.. The skin of the Ethiopian was blacker than that of any other people].
All those details are significant for this story of the first recorded baptism of a Gentile. Being a eunuch means that he probably had been castrated, either as a boy or a man, a common practice for officials in Eastern courts. He would not have been acceptable in the Temple except around the outer courts, he could not make an acceptable offering. He came under the category of being blemished. If he was, a eunuch, [ I'll leave you to read Deuteronomy 23:1]. he would have been forbidden to enter the "assembly of the Lord"
His country, Nubia,was at the edge of the known world of those days as far as the thinking of people went
Yet he was baptised. Rich, Powerful, yet unacceptable in Jewish Law to go before God, the newness of the gospel reached out to fulfill the prophecies of the first testament and embrace him into the family of Jesus' followers and a Church was born.
I wonder how far into Isaiah Philip led him. A few more rolls of the Isaiah scroll and we read
"56:3 Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say, "The Lord will surely separate me from his people"; and do not let the eunuch say, "I am just a dry tree." 56:4 For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant,
56:5 I will give, in my house and within my walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.
And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, these I will bring to my holy mountain and make them joyful in my house of prayer, their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Thus says the Lord God who gathers the outcasts of Israel. I will gather others to them besides those already gathered."
Philip the joy - giver brings the eunuch of Ethiopia assurance of God's total acceptance, on the way, in the wilderness, in the waters of Baptism. We are shown that Jesus indeed is the light for the Gentiles.
There is a postscript about Philip, a glimpse into the nature of forgiveness in the early church. Later in the story which starts with Saul's persecutions we find Philip mentioned again.
Saul the man who killed Philip?s friends is now Paul the Apostle for Christ and Paul is staying at Philip's house in Caesarea for several days Paul tells us that Philip has four unmarried daughters, all of whom have the gift of Prophecy. A domestic picture of Philip the evangelist, with a houseful of prophet daughters.
Philip, who was chosen to look after the outsiders, the Greek widows in the Jerusalem congregation, who evangelised the outsider Samaritans and who baptised the eunuch from the end of the world. Ready at all times to tell of his faith, practical and energetic, always on the move, going wherever God guided him. Not a bad Saint to have in the name of our church. He brought God's joy to the outsiders, the ones who were not thought to be important to God. and he brought the outsiders to God. He was open to the Spirit's leading
We thank you that no one can be rejected or pushed away from you. That when we seek we will find and be found by you.
May we like Philip be ready to listen to where others are coming from and tell of Jesus. as we travel. May this parish be ready to join others in the journey as Philip did and be able to recognise those who are sent to us in your name and bring them the joy of knowing Jesus..
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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