Reading: Acts 8:26-40
Philip knew that he needed to be somewhere else, and he went; I know that this is something that leads to memorable adventures, good stories, and sometimes more. When Philip felt the need to get on the road to Gaza, he didn’t know what would happen — but walked. Gaza was at the extreme southern limit of Judea at the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. This is about a 90 mile walk from where he started, so following this road to the end would take two days of walking from sunrise to sunset. Likely one would plan to take 4 days on this journey.
I love these kinds of adventures. I don’t know how far Philip walked, but I do know what he found on the way; on the way, he saw an Ethiopian court official in a chariot on his way home from Jerusalem, reading from Isaiah. When Philip saw the man in the chariot, he knew why he was moved to walk this road; the reason he started on this path was to talk to this man. Now, the Ethiopian was, just then, looking for somebody to explain the passage to him — this court official was impressed with the truth, and he was straight away baptized into the Christian faith.
Acts does tell us this African’s name, only where he comes from and what he was doing. Tradition tells us that his name was Simeon Bachos, that he was an Ethiopian Jew, and that he brought Christianity back to Ethiopia. Of course, other than the name, these little details can be guessed from the text. Who, other than a Jew, would travel to Jerusalem to worship? Who other than a Jew would be reading from the prophets as he returns home — and if he makes it back, how could he not take his new-found faith in Jesus with him?
This passage stands out to me, in context, because I notice a pattern in Philip’s mission. If you read the whole of Acts 8, you find that Philip is in the city of Samaria, preaching the gospel. We all know that the people of Judea hated Samaritans, and they were not welcome in Jewish society; but, in spite of this, there was already an apostle preaching there. Philip was reaching out to people who were considered outsiders to the Jewish community — and he was doing this before Peter was given a vision telling him to accept Gentiles as brothers and sisters in Christ.
The Ethiopian Eunuch would have been an outsider in Jerusalem for several reasons. The first reason is that he was a Eunuch. What this means is that after his long journey to worship God, Deuteronomy 23 explicitly excluded him from the “assembly of the Lord”. I am not sure what this means, but, I do know that it means he could not enter the temple, and that he was excluded from much of Jewish society. The second reason he would have been an outsider is that he was by all definitions except one a foreigner — and, everything about his appearance would say that he wasn’t from around there. The third reason is, oddly enough, that he would have more in common with the Samaritans than the Jews. The Ethiopian “House of Israel” claim that their ancestors are of the tribe of Dan, which are part of the Northern Kingdom, one merely has to look at them to realize that they intermarried with the Gentile population — and the customs that formed there are different than the customs that formed by those who faced the Babylonian captivity. The Ethiopian Eunuch went to worship God, but everything about him said that he would leave disappointed.
But, something remarkable happened — God sent Philip to explain Isaiah 53 and tell the story of Jesus right when our Ethiopian friend was asking what it meant. Acts goes on to send Philip back to Samaria and Peter’s vision of the sheet. The message that I get reading this is that God welcomes those who are not always welcome. There is no exclusion based on race, national origin. At the same time, Acts tells us the story of Paul, how he was the enemy of the Christians, how he converted, and God’s call to the Christians to accept their enemy. The first half of Acts is the story of radical acceptance. Christians are called to accept those who have been excluded into their community.
The call that God gave to the early church isn’t an easy one, and it took divine intervention to teach the church to accept the unacceptable people. God led Philip to a man who was excluded from the assembly because of what had been done to his body, and he led Philip to baptize him, and invite him into the Christian community. God gave Peter a vision which commanded him not to call what God made clean unclean just before having Peter meet with the gentile Cornelius and shared the gospel with him. When God sent Paul to a Ananias of Damascus, again, God needed to send a vision to this Syrian Christian in order to tell him to accept Paul; because nothing is harder than forgiveness when there is something major to forgive.
We know that the church wasn’t persecuted because Jesus and the apostles taught them to pay their taxes, to do good to their neighbors, to work hard, and to obey the authorities in all things that did not stand opposed to God’s law. Some of the earliest literature of the church was arguing that Christians were good people to have around, because they worked hard, paid their taxes, and generally avoided trouble.
What did the church do that the state might want to suppress? What did the church do that countered the authoritarian culture that surrounded it? The church forgave, the church invited those who were excluded to join them, the church created community for those who were pushed away from community. When there is good news for the poor, the wealthy fear that it may be bad news for them. When we welcome those who are the culture’s scapegoats, the culture reacts in fear and anger. It is really no different today than it has always been; there still is a tendency to pass blame, and to stir up fear and hatred. The call of the church is also the same: We are the community of good news for the poor and the marginalized. We are a community of salvation made up of those who need saved. We are a community that offers hope to those who have given up on hope. We are a community built on the good news that God loves you, and your life matters.