Trinity Episcopal Church
Year B - Easter 5 - May 3, 2015
Philip the apostle and Philip the deacon are two characters in the apostolic community that have been confused over the years. While some say that they were the same, others separate the two. This account in Acts involves Philip the deacon, therefore the character study in this sermon is incorrect and would have been more interesting if it were Philip the deacon.
1 John 4:7-21
In order to understand and be able to unpack the story, especially in Holy Scripture, we need to place ourselves within the action… Within the context of the story… We can do this several ways. We can be an outsider looking in on the action or we can try to place ourselves as one of the characters.
On the surface, our lesson from the Acts of the Apostles looks simple. Almost too simple. Philip is one of 12 apostles… It was this time after the resurrection that the apostle witnesses were sent out by Jesus to proclaim the risen Christ to the whole world.
And we have an unnamed Eunuch from Ethiopia that is an official in the court of Queen Candace. They both are traveling the road from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip sees the Eunuch reading a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Philip helps him understand the scripture he is reading and proclaims the Lord Jesus, the Eunuch is moved and has a desire to be baptized and Philip baptizes him.
The story seems simple from the outside, the characters on the surface are simple enough. However, if we peeled the onion and let ourselves learn a bit and try to understand the characters in the story, we may get a totally different understanding.
Let’s look a little closer at Philip first. Philip is one of the 12 called by Jesus to be a disciple. He is a witness to the resurrection and therefore an known now as an apostle. We know that Philip was from Bethsaida (the same city as Andrew & Peter) which is city of Northern shore of the sea of Galilee in Northern Israel. The name literally means “House of Fishing,” so we can assume, like some of the other disciples, that Philip was a fisherman like Andrew and Peter.
After Philip was called by Jesus he went around with Jesus everywhere. We know that Philip was a Jew and sources say that he was older than Jesus. We know from scriptures that Philip was inquisitive and asked Jesus questions like how he might find enough bread to feed 5000 people. Up to this point in the story, that’s about all we know about Philip.
Let’s take a closer look at the Eunuch. We are told that the Eunuch is Ethiopian, so we can assume he is of a much darker complexion than Philip. He is a Eunuch, therefore he has been castrated, forever damaged physically, never able to have a family and descendants of his own. We can assume that he didn’t volunteer for this condition.
Most Eunuchs were slaves that were made that way for a purpose. His particular purpose was to serve in the court of the Queen of the Ethiopians. We know that regardless of his enslavement, he is put in charge of the Kandakē – the Ethiopian queen’s entire Gaza treasury.
Because the unnamed Eunuch was traveling back home from Jerusalem (after going there to worship) we can assume he is Jewish. What’s interesting is that he took a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to the temple to worship, but wasn’t even allowed to go into the temple. He was “damaged” physically and therefore impure. Therefore, he was not allowed to enter but only be on the outskirt portico or the “hall of the gentiles.” According to Jewish practice, there was no amount of sacrifice or action that would restore him to ritual purity.
None the less, the Eunuch was studying the prophet Isaiah on his return trip from Jerusalem. But he wasn’t just studying Isaiah, he was reading the portion we know as Isaiah 53, that we know as the description of the suffering servant.
"Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter,
and like a lamb silent before its shearer,
so he does not open his mouth.
In his humiliation justice was denied him.
Who can describe his generation?
For his life is taken away from the earth."
In his discussion with Philip, the Eunuch asks about whom is this passage written? Obviously, the Eunuch, in his condition identifies with the prophet’s writing, because he has gone through the same thing… Led to the slaughter in his castration, humiliated and denied a choice in the matter… Literally having his ability to have a family taken from him. Therefore his life taken from the earth… Once Philip described the recent events that happened in Jerusalem concerning Jesus of Nazareth, and the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection, it was very easy for the Eunuch to identify with a God who suffered in the same way that he had.
We can understand, after thoughtful examination, that this Eunuch had a thirst to belong and understand, but because of his condition was not able to be fully part of the community… Not able, of course until he met Philip and heard the Good News…
The Eunuch’s question about what is to prevent him from being baptized is honest… He had been denied full inclusion into the Jewish faith because of his brokenness. Yet with baptism, the Eunuch is fully included into the life, death, and resurrection of Christ.
The Eunuch received baptism and was fully restored into full and right relationship with God. Fully restored and made complete… so complete, that when he returned to Ethiopia, he became a witness to others and ended up being a spiritual father to many.
Regardless of his condition of brokenness, regardless of his nation of origin, and regardless of the color of his skin… God restored him.
That’s what God does. God takes us as we are, whoever we are, and whatever we are, and restores us into full right relationship by baptism… It doesn’t matter who we are or what we look like, by faith in Jesus Christ and Baptism we are ALL the same. We are ALL equal!
However, some people think that social class, color, or condition prevents us from sharing that equality. The equality that God points out so clearly throughout scripture. By thoroughly examining the characters in the story of Philip and the Eunuch from Ethiopia, it’s hard not to think about the recent events in Baltimore this week.
It’s not hard to think about a neighborhood community that is in pain, longing to be healed. A community that is viewed by some as incomplete or not worthy of time and effort. A community striving to be accepted for who they are.
Many folks have come together (clergy and lay) to civilly bring attention to the lack of equity by marching in protest, by vying for time with the city council, by publically advocating for them and stating the case for those who lack a voice... for those who lack justice.
Regardless of what you think of what happened this past week, it was the right thing to do… It was the gospel thing to do… It is the way we show others the God we believe in... The God that shows no partiality…
In Jesus the Christ, God accepts us and loves us… But God doesn’t just love us… God loves us enough to die for us. God loves you enough to die for you. Die so that you and I can be fully accepted and have full and complete accesses to the living God. Access, so that we could live in the vine of relationship as branches and vine intertwined together. Us together with the savior, baring the good fruit of relationship with others, lest we risk being cut-off and cast out…
We, as a world, need to emulate that action… We need to bare good fruit. We need to live out the Gospel of restoration in our lives because that is indeed the mission of the Church.
The mission of the Church, the gathered body of the living Christ, is to restore the world to God through Jesus Christ our Lord… May we bear the fruit of relationship in this mission, and seek to serve those who may be different from us, those whom society has put into a hole and forgotten, those whom we may or may not understand…
We are called to listen and provide a path to restoration… and be the prophetic voice of restoration like Philip to the Eunuch, who, regardless of class or condition… and regardless of race or ability, gave the Eunuch complete access and showed him unconditional love.
May we be so bold.