[Transcript of S4E1: “Who Is This Story About?” on PreacHer Podcast]
Welcome to Season 4, Episode 1 of PreacHer. I’m your host, Jen, and today I’m sharing a message from Acts 8, verses 26 through 40. Remember that in our last episode, Stephen was stoned—or rather, lynched by an angry mob. There’s one other brief story about a magician named Simon and I’ll just make a quick mention of that during the sermon. Here’s the text.
Acts 8:26-40 (NIV)
26 Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Go south to the road—the desert road—that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” 27 So he started out, and on his way he met an Ethiopian eunuch, an important official in charge of all the treasury of the Kandake (which means “queen of the Ethiopians”). This man had gone to Jerusalem to worship, 28 and on his way home was sitting in his chariot reading the Book of Isaiah the prophet. 29 The Spirit told Philip, “Go to that chariot and stay near it.”
30 Then Philip ran up to the chariot and heard the man reading Isaiah the prophet. “Do you understand what you are reading?” Philip asked.
31 “How can I,” he s aid, “unless someone explains it to me?” So he invited Philip to come up and sit with him.
32 This is the passage of Scripture the eunuch was reading:
“He was led like a sheep to the slaughter,
and as a lamb before its shearer is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation he was deprived of justice.
Who can speak of his descendants?
For his life was taken from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “Tell me, please, who is the prophet talking about, himself or someone else?” 35 Then Philip began with that very passage of Scripture and told him the good news about Jesus.
36 As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?”  38 And he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him. 39 When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord suddenly took Philip away, and the eunuch did not see him again, but went on his way rejoicing. 40 Philip, however, appeared at Azotus and traveled about, preaching the gospel in all the towns until he reached Caesarea.
The word of the Lord.
So we’ve been staying in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit blows through powerfully at Pentecost and the numbers are multiplying faster than they can count. The apostles are preaching, healing, and defending themselves before the authorities. The believers are sharing everything in common, providing for the needs of others, and meeting daily for prayers and meals.
But then Stephen is stoned, and that ushers in a period of great persecution. And this is a turning point where the church moves outside of Jerusalem and into Samaria. To the ends of the earth… We’re told that wherever they scatter, they preach the word and perform miracles.
Philip, who we remember was not one of the 12, was one of those seven Greek men who’s supposed to be taking care of the widows. He has received the Spirit, and goes down to Samaria preaching and healing people. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, he’s restoring to wholeness those who have been possessed by evil spirits or unable to walk. Loads of people are believing in the good news of Jesus and being baptized by Philip.
Philip is visited by an Angel of the Lord, who gives pretty specific directions: “Dear Philip, go south on a certain road. The one that goes from Jerusalem to Gaza.” I mean, can you imagine hearing a word from God: Go south on the 101 from Portland to Redding. Um, okay…?
And what does Philip do? He just goes. We aren’t told that he takes any time to think about it, consult or tell anyone, or even pack. He just goes. The details missing from this story leave us with a lot of questions.
Did the angel tell Philip why he was going, who he would meet, what to look for? “There’s going to be a man in a chariot. Be sure to brush up on your Isaiah, that’s going to come in handy. Read through your notes from the evangelism class and the cross-cultural communication class. You’re finally going to use that stuff!” The text doesn’t tell us any of this. The angel just says “go;” and Philip goes.
That’s how it is sometimes, right? Sometimes the Spirit guides someone to do something and tells them why–“you’re going to get pregnant and give birth to the son of God.” “Go into all the world, and make disciples…you will be my witnesses, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
But other times, we don’t get to know the reason or the outcome. “Go to the land I will show you.” Philip doesn’t get to know anything about anything, the angel just says “go.” And we might imagine his eyes full of wonder, as he ponders in his heart what this could mean, and how God might use him. And we can almost hear him whispering under his breath: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
And this stands in stark contrast to what we hear about Simon in the previous story. Also in Samaria, we meet a man named Simon who believes, is baptized, and follows Philip. Peter and John hear good reports and come to Samaria, laying hands on these new believers to give them the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Being a famous magician, Simon sees this and tries to buy franchise rights to dispense the Holy Spirit. “Hey, that’s a neat trick. Teach me how to do that too. I’d like to add that to my repertoire.” But that’s not how this works. You can’t buy, manipulate, or control the Spirit of God. Instead, you listen and follow. With openness and faith. And that’s what Philip does.
So he goes. With eyes to see and ears attuned to what God is up to, he goes. He’s walking along on this dusty desert road, and we don’t know if he is a few yards or 15 miles into his journey when the angel says “Go to that chariot and stay near it.” Well that’s a little weird, right? “You want me to just go walk next to that guy in the chariot? That chariot that’s obviously royalty and obviously not from around here. That’s not my people… What do you want me to do with that?”
But again, Philip doesn’t ask questions. “…Here am I…” He just listens and follows. He is open to God’s Spirit, to what God wants to show him. He literally runs to catch up with the chariot that, turns out, an Ethiopian official is riding in. And this Ethiopian official is a eunuch who has just visited Jerusalem, and is reading from the prophet Isaiah. Um, okay…?
This eunuch is an official of the queen; so it’s not too surprising that he is in a chariot and knows how to read. But he has a copy of Isaiah, which may not have been that easy to come by – especially as a Gentile. And, he was presumably on personal business.
He was visiting Jerusalem as a God-fearer, where he wasn’t even allowed in the temple because his body was maimed. The message for him is “God might love you, but you can’t fully be part of us.” He believes in God, he wants to believe; but who is this story about anyway? Is there anything for me here?
He’s reading from Isaiah about the Suffering Servant. And just a few lines earlier in the book of Isaiah, the prophet had been talking about the servant whose appearance was so disfigured and marred, people looking at him were appalled. As a eunuch, he must have seen himself in this story. And perhaps that’s why he asked “who is this story about?” Is there anything for me here? The question is not whether God loves the eunuch; that part is settled. The question is whether Philip, as a representative of the church, will include and accept him.
We’re told that Philip shares with him the good news of Jesus. He starts right where the Ethiopian is: Isaiah 53. And we might want him to start with the Law, the Torah–learning about Israel’s history and rituals and regulations. Let’s start at the beginning. Let’s learn the rules first. Because if you want to be part of this thing, even if only marginally, you gotta know this stuff. But that’s not what the text says; it says specifically that Philip started right where the Ethiopian was, and went forward from there.
Did he worry about getting his exegesis and interpretation right, or did he just share about how we all search for and find ourselves in God’s story? Doesn’t sounds like he came in with his “how to come to Jesus” tract or a 5-finger “plan of salvation.” I wonder, did he connect this eunuch with the suffering servant and with Jesus, helping the eunuch to see himself as part of God’s story? Perhaps his rejection in Jerusalem–his inability to enter the Temple–is on the forefront of his mind as he’s traveling back home. And as Philip shares with him the good news, and shares how Jesus was also rejected in Jerusalem, he realizes that he is included in God’s great story. He is fully accepted by Jesus despite his physical alteration, non-Jewish status, and occupation. None of those things prevent him from identifying with the community of faith through Jesus.
And since nothing is preventing him anymore, when he sees water, he enthusiastically declares that he should be baptized. Now he knows who the story is about. Now, he sees himself fully accepted and welcomed into God’s story. Already he believed, but he was only partially included.
He couldn’t enter the temple and couldn’t fully participate in the community of God’s people. But Philip accepts him as he is, and welcomes him fully into God’s story and God’s people. And as a sign of that, he wants to be baptized, identifying fully with this emerging Jesus movement.
And I wonder, how often have we been Simon–believing and following, but trying to grab and control God’s Spirit. Distorting the message to make it say what we want it to say. Using God-language for our actions or beliefs as a trump card.
And I wonder, who is out there on the fringes…believing and questioning,…wanting to be invited in? Who is out there that God has accepted but we as a community of faith have not yet fully accepted or embraced?
To whom have we said: “Sure you can be part of us; but you’ve got to clean up your act first.” To whom have we said: “I’m not saying that God doesn’t accept you; it’s just that you can’t fully serve here. We have these rules, these practices.” Who among us is sitting on the back row, metaphorically or literally, gifted and called but waiting to be invited in?
Who would we see if only we had the eyes to see?
If we, too, could open ourselves so fully to God’s Spirit, displaying the wonder and faith of Philip, what would we see God doing in our neighborhoods and communities? In what ways would our minds and worlds be blown open by God? Because this–what happened with Philip and the Ethiopian–was radical. Ground-breaking. Philip is millenia ahead of his time, and we still struggle with exclusion.
*Peter* gets the credit for including Gentiles, but Philip had already gone there with this eunuch from Ethiopia, the edge of the known world–literally taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. In a world that was strictly ordered and segregated, they were blasting through walls of division. In a world of prescribed requirements of ethnicity and lineage and gender and health, they said “God accepts you and so do we.”
We don’t hear much else about Philip except that Paul stays at his house years later, and he’s referred to as an evangelist who has four prophesying daughters. They, too, know who this story is about. Philip’s legacy of faith is continuing through his daughters. And we see in the Ethiopian that if a foreigner who is ceremonially and permanently unclean can come to faith and be accepted, then anyone can. If he can find himself in God’s story, then anyone can.
So when we find ourselves struggling to understand God’s word, wondering if there’s something here for us, or doubting whether we can ever be fully accepted, we find assurance here.
We find the unlikeliest of candidates becoming a follower of Jesus. And when we find ourselves in Simon’s shoes, seeking to capture God’s Spirit, manipulating it for our purposes, may we instead look to the example of Philip, who had a posture of openness and listening, and who followed the Spirit’s leading. Philip knew that this story was about him. But he also knew it was about the Eunuch. He knew that God’s story was for everyone without distinction.
May we, too, be so bold as to proclaim our inclusion in God’s story. And may we be a blessing to others, witnessing to and embodying the truth that they, too, are part of God’s story.
May it be so.
S4E1: “Who Is This Story About?” with Dr. Jen Hale Christy
Wednesday, April 15, 2020
PreacHer: Dr. Jen Hale Christy
Summary: Sure, Jesus said that the Good News was going out to the ends of the earth–that this was a message for everyone. But did he really mean it? Did he *actually* mean everyone is included? Yes. Yes he did. In this episode we take a ride in a royal chariot to learn God’s unconditional acceptance and embrace of everyone.
Resources + Social Media Handles:
- All of Jen Hale Christy’s Links
What to do next:
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