April 28, 2024

A Wonderous Encounter

Acts 8:26-40

Our second reading comes from the book of Acts. Acts is the story of how a group of frightened disciples became a band of bold Apostles. It’s the story of the expansion of the church from an upper room in Jerusalem, out to Samaria and then eventually to the ends of the known world as they knew it. I don’t know of any story in Acts that brings home this dramatic expansion like the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Listen now for the word of the Lord:

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south[g] 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, the 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?”[h] 38 He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip[i] 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 the word of the Lord.

Thanks be to God.

A couple of weeks ago, I told you that I had been to Utah as part of a study group of pastors, thanks to the generosity of a donor in Charlotte who believes in bringing Presbyterian pastors together for learning and support.

So, I found myself, in the week or two after Easter, driving along a rural road on the way to Moab, Utah. I saw as I was driving a sign that said, “This highway has been adopted by Not-So-Churchy in Moab.” I took that as maybe a little dig at the religious culture of churchy folks, but I let it go and went on my way. I went to the lodge and we started our conference, and on the second day in the morning, our leader Bob said, “I have someone I want you to meet this afternoon. Betty Anne at the front desk is a Presbyterian elder, and she would like to meet a group of Presbyterian pastors, and I think we would like to meet her.”

So, about four o’clock that afternoon, a knock on the door, and Betty Anne is there. She comes in and Bob says, “Betty Anne, tell us about yourself.” Well, Betty Anne had moved from Wisconsin. She raised two children there as a single mom, and after they were gone and off to college, she said, “I want to retire to the Arches area of Utah.” So, she went and put down a contract to build a house. She told us that, “Unfortunately, the builder went bankrupt.” She lost everything she had. She had to start from scratch in this community of Moab.

She said, “But my church has just been central to my life here, and I am so blessed and I’m glad to be with all of you.” Well, Bob said, “Betty Anne, tell us about your church.” She said, “I’m part of a New Worshiping Community of the PCUSA.” (Now, this is an initiative of our denomination to start congregations that are a little bit different. They don’t look and feel like a church. They’re a different vibe.) She said, “We meet twice a month in a park. We center our lives around three things: the goodness of God in creation because that’s why we’re all here, the forgiveness of Jesus Christ that we have to be reminded of all the time, and serving our community in any way that we can. That’s our life, and we just gather and try to do our best. This church has been central to my experience here.” And Bob said, “Well, what’s the name of your church?” She said, “We call ourselves Not-So-Churchy in Moab.”

You might have seen that coming. I didn’t see it coming. I almost fell off of my seat because I never imagined that I would meet, at a lodge in rural Utah, a Presbyterian elder who was serving a new worshipping community as part of an outpost of the people of God in Moab. My imagination was expanded!

Now, that was in a small way, but I tell you, my imagination wasn’t expanded nearly as much as the early church’s imagination must have been by this story in Acts. The good news began to spread in Jerusalem and then it moved out to Samaria, which is kind of the neighboring region of people who are cousins to the Jews. But then, we read that the Spirit led Philip to go to the Gaza Road, which was a road on the way to the desert. And when he got there, he saw a man in a chariot who was reading out loud. That’s how they read in the ancient world; they read out loud.

Phillip heard the man reading, and he ran up to the chariot, and said, “Do you understand what you’re reading?” The man said, “How can I without someone to help me?” And he invited him into the chariot.

Now, who is the Ethiopian eunuch? We have to pay close attention to what Luke wants us to know about this person if we’re going to understand the expansion and the shock that must have happened for the original hearers. What can we know about this Ethiopian eunuch?

First of all, he was fascinating. He was from Ethiopia, and in that time, Ethiopia was a faraway kingdom that sort of lived in the imagination. It had a beautiful language, a beautiful culture, beautiful art, great wealth. It’s unlikely that anyone in Jesus’ original circle would have ever encountered a person from Ethiopia, but they had heard about them, a wonderful people with beautiful, dark bronze skin. When Jesus said, “You’ll be my witnesses in Jerusalem and Judea and to the ends of the earth,” he was talking about Ethiopia. So, the man was fascinating. He was also elite.

He’s called the Ethiopian eunuch, and we’re honestly not really sure what that word “eunuch” means. He may have been a physical eunuch, because that barbaric practice was done to children as they were brought into the royal household as servants. But the term could also refer not at all to a physical characteristic, but simply to a life-long servant of the royal household. If you’ve seen the Netflix series “The Crown,” you can imagine those servants of the royal household who give their whole lives to the royal family. That’s what this Ethiopian eunuch was doing. He was the chief of the treasury for the Queen of Ethiopia, known as the Kandake, which means he was a man of influence and connection. Virtually no one else in the circles of the early church would have had that kind of pull, to be that close to a royal person of a great kingdom.

He was fascinating, he was elite, he was wealthy. Did you hear how he was traveling? He was traveling in a chariot, and it says he was sitting. Now, you and I travel sitting all the time; that’s how we go. But in the ancient world, to travel sitting down was a luxury. One mostly walked, and if you didn’t walk, you rode an animal. Sitting while traveling was reserved for the top 1% of the 1%. He was sitting in his chariot, and he was reading a scroll of Isaiah, which meant he owned the scroll.

Do you know that very few people owned scrolls like that? Communities owned scrolls, synagogues read them and learned them, but to own your own scroll, you had to be very wealthy indeed. He was fascinating, he was elite, he was wealthy, and he was educated because he was able to read.

You may have never thought about this, but most of the people that Jesus called around himself had no formal education. They knew the scriptures, but that’s because they had heard them. They had never been to school to learn how to read; that was a luxury reserved for very few. This Ethiopian man knew how to read because he was educated.

And the last thing about him is that he was a seeker after God. He was on his way back from Jerusalem; maybe he was a Jew, maybe he was a God-fearer, but his heart was open to God. And, because he was elite and wealthy and educated, he had the luxury of time to travel to Jerusalem on a spiritual pilgrimage.

That’s what Luke wants us to know about the Ethiopian eunuch. You might imagine you’re standing in Washington DC on a street corner and you see a big black SUV come whizzing by you with tinted windows and armor plating, and the license plate says “Diplomat.” And then the car screeches to a stop, and the door opens, and the Diplomat invites a Street Preacher to climb in and read the Bible with him. That’s what’s happening here; that’s what the earliest community around Jesus is encountering in this story.

It would have simply been mindboggling that someone of this status, power, wealth, and influence would have been drawn by the spirit into their little community of poor day-laborers, and small business owners, and ethnic minorities. It would have been mind-boggling to them that the Ethiopian Eunuch invited Philip to climb into the chariot and read this passage about the suffering servant from Isaiah, and then share with him the good news about Jesus.

The early Christians would have been surprised at how expansive God’s dream is for the church is… but we who have heard some of these stories should not be too surprised. This is how the ministry of Jesus went.

Jesus did not call around himself religious types; he called fishermen and business people. And you might say to yourself, “Well, I don’t consider myself a religious type.” Well, then you’re exactly the kind of person then that Jesus called.

Do you remember how Jesus saw the tax collector Zacchaeus up in the tree and called him down? Tax collectors at that time were not like our professional, well-respected IRS agents. No, no, they were contractors of the government whose job it was to extort great sums of money from their people and keep a large share for themselves and give the rest to Rome. They were considered to be individuals who had practically sold their soul and they had no friends. Jesus said, “Zacchaeus, come down, I’m going to your house today.”

You might be someone who says, “I don’t have any friends, I feel like an outsider, I don’t know what I did wrong or what’s wrong with me, but I don’t feel like I’m part of any group.” And Jesus says, “Come with me and find your community.”

You remember the woman caught in adultery; she made a big mistake, and people were around her ready to stone her to death for her crime. Jesus scribbled something in the sand, we don’t know what, and then he said, “Let the person without sin cast a first stone.” They all went away; he set her free to a new life with his forgiveness. You might be here today and say, “I’ve got this big mistake that I’m carrying, and I don’t know what to do with it. I don’t think that even God can forgive this.” God can forgive anything; Jesus calls those who need forgiveness.

You remember the story of the Roman Centurion who came to Jesus because his daughter was sick and dying? A Roman Centurion in that time represented the Imperial power of Rome; he was the oppressor. And he came to Jesus the Rabbi and said, “Teacher, my daughter is sick, come quickly.” And Jesus said, “Your daughter will be well.” With only the word he spoke, he healed the man’s daughter. You may be here and say, “I know I look like I have my life all together and everything is working for me, but I’ve got this need that only God can heal, and nobody else understands.” Jesus says, “Come with me. All will be well.”

Jesus gathers around himself the most unlikely crowd of characters, all built on his invitation and his grace. Everyone is invited by Jesus, so really it should be no surprise at all that the Ethiopian eunuch met Philip by the leading of the spirit, and that God expanded the church into Ethiopia. Because Jesus had been doing that kind of expansive ministry all along.

Today in our service, we have a few ways to imagine ourselves into this kind of expansive vision of the church. You’ve already met Erica Sandoval from the Eben-Ezer congregation in La Blanca, Guatemala. We’ve had this relationship for more than two decades; we have supported a number of students in Guatemala with scholarships and education, and our friends in Guatemala have prayed for us and communicated with us and welcomed us over the years into their community. It’s been a relationship of friendship that has expanded our vision of who is in the church and what the church looks like in different places in the world. As David said, expanded our vision of who our siblings are in Christ.

This week David and one of our lay leaders, Martha Sloan, on the mission committee, are going to Cuba to meet Presbyterians there and hear about what God is doing in Cuba. They’re inviting leaders from Presbyterian churches in the United States to come and learn about what God is doing there and about their need for more theological education. They have people coming up in their churches who want to go to seminary and lead congregations, but the historic seminary they have is hours away from where these students live. They have a dream of building a campus in Havana.

David and Martha are going with open hearts, open ears, and open minds to say, “What is God calling us into? Maybe a friendship with a congregation in Cuba, maybe the opportunity to be part of building this new seminary campus in Havana.” They’re going to come back with an expanded imagination of who our siblings in Christ are, what their lives are like, and what God is doing through them.

And today we have a baptism. We actually have more than one. Byron and Christian Trunnel are coming for baptism, brought by their parents after a somewhat winding journey on the way to the font. And the thing about baptism is, when we are sealed by the Spirit and promise to follow Jesus, only God knows where the road may lead. Byron and Christian, you never know what God is going to do through you and your baptism and the leading of the Spirit in your lives.

God’s dream of the church is more expansive and diverse than we can fathom because God loves every person and God calls each person to follow Jesus: people from every walk of life, from every corner of the earth. And, you know, thanks be to God that we can’t draw limits around the church. Thanks be to God that it doesn’t belong to us.

We’re in the position of Philip, following the leading of the Spirit, coming alongside those who are seeking God with hearts open. We’re in the position of the Ethiopian eunuch, searching the scriptures for understanding about what God is doing. We are like the two of them together in the chariot, centering our lives around the good news of Jesus Christ.

My hope for us and my prayer is that we will stand back in wonder at the expansive diversity of the Christian community.

And my hope and my prayer for us is that we will be grateful, humble, and joyful that we too are included in this not-so-churchy body of Christ.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Rev. Patrick W. T. Johnson, Ph.D.

First Presbyterian Church

Asheville, North Carolina



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