Reading – Acts 8:26-40 (NRSV)
26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27 So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. 29 Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30 So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31 He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32 Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this:
“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
33 In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth.”
34 The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35 Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36 As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, 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 snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing. 40 But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
This is an extraordinary and magical story. Saint Philip the Evangelist, as he has come to be known, is whisked into the scene like a spiritual superhero, coming to baptize an exotic Ethiopian, and just as quickly as he appeared, he is gone to complete another mission.
But as fantastic as the scene is, there is much food for thought here about the nature of God, the church, its sacraments, and its mission. But the interest is not only to do with doctrine but also our relationship to the Spirit of God.
That Philip follows the initial call to him to arise and go, shows his willingness to listen to the Spirit and to act on its promptings. There is no debate or questioning – just an apparent simple obedience and willingness to do as the Spirit asks.
When Philip heads into a wilderness area we might recall to mind Isaiah 40:3:
“A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”
This story not only fulfills the prophecies of Isaiah regarding geographical data, but in doing shows that Isaiah is a reliable source of prophecy regarding the events of the Jesus and the early church. And, as we shall see, the relationship to Isaiah is throughout this passage and cannot be accidental.
It is no accident, then, that the Ethiopian Eunuch is reading from Isaiah as he trundles along in this chariot (an amazing feat of resistance to motion sickness).
Philip was invited abroad the chariot, probably because he knew what he was talking about. His study of scripture and theology had prepared him well for this mission. He was able to share his knowledge of the Gospel, making the necessary connections between the Hebrew Scripture and the Gospel of Jesus. His learning, as ours should be, was guided by this mission. Our teaching and learning here at PTC should have this end in mind, the ability to share the Gospel and to be the guide that the world needs to the truth.
The Eunuch responds to the Gospel message with a desire to be baptized. He asks:
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?”
They both get into the water and the Eunuch is baptized by Philip.
To the Eunuch’s question, there is no recorded answer from Philip. We might speculate about Philip’s response. His answer could only have taken one of two forms.
The first would have been: “There is no reason to prevent you from baptized – let’s do it now!” That would make sense as that is what appears to have happened. Such a simple response causes practical and theological problems for the churches’ practice of baptism (which is why verse 37 may have been inserted into the Western text)
That is why we must consider the other sort of answer. This alternative could have been – “Um, you cannot be baptized because ….”
Churches have several reasons why people cannot be baptized – including that the person has not completed catechism class, or that they have not made a confession of faith (which excludes infants).
When Philip baptized the Eunuch he created a new church member, and perhaps a new church. Philip did not stick around to make sure the Eunuch was educated in church policies and baptism regulations, and so on. He did not tell the Eunuch what time worship should be on a Sunday or whether women could be ordained or not.
The Eunuch went away rejoicing unencumbered by rules and regulations for this church. For him it appears having the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit was enough.
Regardless of what message he took home, he does leave us the legacy of his question to Philip: “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” This question shows that the Eunuch already had that freedom in his heart that only the Holy Spirit gives. The question itself shows a soul so ready for the spirit and the Spirit’s freedom it cannot entertain any obstacle to baptism and acceptance of the Spirit of freedom.
We must take this question to heart in our churches in our time.
What is to stop the Holy Spirit moving in our churches? When Jesus promised the gift of the Holy Spirit he did not indicate in detail what this Spirit would do. The early church was not disappointed. From Pentecost to the other events such as this, the Holy Spirit was busy making new disciples and converting people and uniting them into the church.
What have we done with the Holy Spirit? Have we let it move freely animating the church, or have we tried to restrict the spirit.
What is to prevent….? Asking this question in a church or even a faculty meeting can be awkward. There are any number of rules, regulations, policies, canons, decrees, cultural practices, and Bible verses that can be used to prevent you from doing any new and creative thing. Sadly today the Spirit is being kept out of the church. Nowadays churches would have a very quick answers to the Eunuch – he cannot be baptized because our rules disallow it. He cannot preach or teach or be a leader and so on and so on…
This passage is also a powerful message of inclusion for the church. Even today it has the power to upset things.
Consider who this man was. Was he even a man? A eunuch is not a complete man. In ancient times a eunuch might have been useful in the Harem or Official role, but they were often looked down upon. Lucian of Samosata wrote of eunuchs that they were “monstrous” and “alien to human nature”. Eunuchs were not considered whole men – and called names (much like homosexuals have been vilified in our own time).
Biblical law (such as Deuteronomy 23) barred eunuchs from worship in the assembly and Leviticus denies them from being priests (Lev 21:17-21). I am not concerned here with the possible contradiction in our text that the Eunuch in fact could not worship in the temple, as Luke describes in verse 27. What concerns me is that he could now find a complete home in the church despite his own incompleteness.
Once again that the Eunuch is reading Isaiah is significant here. For in this prophecy there is a place for the Eunuch and foreigner’s in the house of God.
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.”
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,
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.
Such radical inclusion shows that we must be careful of proof-texting in order to exclude people from the love of God.
Does this text mean that Hebrew practice had changed and become more liberal, or that a more inclusive community of God was being promised. Either one is good news for the Eunuch.
In the end Philip was snatched away to Azotus. This is reminiscent of the prophets of Elijah (1 Kings 18:12) and Elisha (2 Kings 2:16), who had reputations of being whisked away by the Spirit. Hence this dramatic exit is not simply a narrative trick of moving a character from one place to another, but provides further reasons why Christianity is both continuous with Judaism and goes beyond it.
Philip’s mission in this passage is about following the movement of the Spirit; as the church’s mission should be today.
The Eunuch was then without Philip, but was left with the Holy Spirit in his baptism.
This Spirit of God, as promised by Jesus which animated them both, remains with us and can be an agent of freedom today, if only we have an open heart and mind.