Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian teaches us that 1) God is always moving toward the world in love; 2) love gets fleshed out through reconciliation; 3) the Holy Spirit plays an important role, and 4) in the midst of obstacles, God provides opportunities. Let’s be open to the opportunities that God provides us as we go through our daily lives and interactions with people.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Bible Passage: Acts 8:26-40
How many of you have ever taken an Uber, or a Lyft or any one of those ride-sharing services? I really enjoy taking them, mainly because I get to meet drivers who come from all over the world.
If they have an accent, I like to ask them where they’re from. The last four Uber or Lyft drivers I’ve had are from Cameroon, Syria, England, and Venezuela, each with a very different accent. And then sometimes we get into some really interesting conversations.
This past week we were in Chicago to meet our new granddaughter Norah Irene—she is so precious and it was so special to be able to meet her and spend time with our daughter Emily and her husband Ryan.
We took an Uber from the airport to their house, and our driver was the guy from Syria. He said that he was actually Assyrian and his native language is Aramaic,
And we got into this conversation about the Bible and how certain verses were translated. He believes that although most people are taught that the New Testament was originally written in Greek, that there were early and more reliable manuscripts written in his language, Aramaic, which was the common language of Jesus’ day. We had a fascinating conversation that lasted about the entire half hour ride from the airport to our daughter’s house!
I’ve contemplated taking Ubers just to drive me in a circle and back home, just for the opportunity to meet and chat with people from all over the world. But it would probably be a pretty expensive habit, so I better just use them when I need to get somewhere.
Our story that we heard from the book of Acts is in some ways a first century version of my experiences riding with Uber. It’s a story of a ride-sharing experience, though not in a car but in a chariot.
And like my rides, it involves people of different backgrounds, who, like me and my Assyrian Uber driver, had a very interesting conversation about the Bible.
Let’s get a little background to this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch, who I’ll just refer to as the Ethiopian to save time (and embarrassment?).
Philip was one of Jesus’ earliest disciples, though he wasn’t one of the 12 apostles. Philip was a Hebrew from Palestine, and we learn from earlier in the book of Acts that he was chosen along with Stephen and 5 other people to help ensure a fair distribution of food to widows, after some widows of Greek background felt they were getting overlooked in favor of Jewish widows.
Philip had been part of the first church in Jerusalem, which experienced the persecution that hit the church as a result of Saul, who we know later had a miraculous conversion experience in the Road to Damascus and became Paul, the most significant church planter in the early church.
But for now Saul spent his days arresting Christ-followers and throwing them into jail. Some Christians, like Stephen, were martyred for their faith.
And so because of the persecution, many of those in the early Church fled from Jerusalem and scattered to different places. It ended up being a blessing in disguise, as God used these scattered Christians to spread the message of Jesus to new places and new cultures.
Philip was one of the key players in the beginning of the spreading of the good news of Jesus. After scattering from Jerusalem, he first shared the gospel in Samaria, and then the story says that an angel of the Lord told him to go on the desert road toward Gaza.
So Philip listened to the nudging of that angel, and headed down that road, and that’s where he came across this Ethiopian in a chariot. The Ethiopian was a convert to Judaism, and was returning home after making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to worship God.
Home to him was in Africa, probably in what’s now southern Egypt or northern Sudan. The term “Ethiopian” in those days meant not a country, but simply people who had dark skin.
Now the story tells us that this Ethiopian was an important official in charge of the treasury of the queen of the Ethiopian people. So he was riding in a chariot and had his own chariot Uber driver.
And while he’s riding, he’s got a biblical scroll in his hands and he’s reading from the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament. Now it’s one thing to read in a car that’s climate controlled and going along a smooth highway,
But for this guy to be reading in an open air chariot in the hot desert sun, and the road is probably bumpy, he must really be into the word of God on that scroll!
I get the impression that this is someone who’s thirsty, not only for water, but also thirsting to know more of what the scriptures are about. And he could maybe use some help.
And then God nudges Philip again, through the Holy Spirit, and says “go over to that chariot and see what’s going on.”
So Philip goes, and when he gets there, he sees the Ethiopian reading from the scroll, and Philip feels this urge to ask him, “Excuse me, sir, but can you understand what you’re reading?”
And to that the Ethiopian basically says, “Yes, I could, in fact. Could you help explain what I’m reading to me? Come on up here and help me out.”
So Philip accepts the invitation and hops up into the chariot. And then what ensued was a conversation between the two, back and forth, with Philip trying to answer the Ethiopian’s questions as best as he can,
Showing that Isaiah’s words are foretelling the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, the Savior of the Jewish people, and how Philip believed that this Messiah had come in the person of Jesus.
It all ended up making sense to the Ethiopian, and he was moved to the point of wanting to join this movement of Jesus followers,
And when the chariot passed by a body of water, the Ethiopian’s like “Hey, here’s some water. What’s preventing me from being baptized right here and now?” So they jumped off of the chariot and Philip baptized him on the spot.
This Ethiopian is the first recorded person who did not have Jewish blood to become a Christian. And I would guess that God used him in some way to help the Church to take root in the African continent.
So what can we learn from this story of Philip and the Ethiopian? What can we learn about God, about God’s mission in the world, and the role those of us who claim to be Christians have in being part of God’s mission to spread the good news of Jesus?
I’d like to offer four ways that this story can speak to us today. The first way comes out of Rich Villodas’ book, The Deeply Formed Life, in his final chapter on the calling to be a missional presence in the world.
It’s good timing, because that was the chapter our group read and discussed this past week, so it’s fresh in my mind!
By the way, I really enjoyed going through this book for the past 10 weeks with people from our church, Table Covenant Fellowship, and some former students I knew from Bluffton University.
We started out with a little over 20 people, and there were about a dozen who made it through to the very end.
Anyway, the first thing this story shows is that it reminds us that God is missional God, who’s always moving toward the world in love.
Villodas says that “there is never a moment when God isn’t moving toward the world in love.” To illustrate this he uses the example of the Electric Slide, you know that dance that seems to break out at every wedding.
The Electric Slide usually starts small, with a few brave souls, then it keeps growing and growing until everyone except a couple of grumpy party poopers are joining in.
We see this progression of God’s movement in the growth of the early Church. Jesus laid it out right before he ascended into heaven. He said in Acts 1:8
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
So it’s God’s mission, but we who are followers of Jesus have a part to play in carrying it out.
Like the Electric Slide, it’s like joining in this dance, joining with God in the work that he’s already doing in the world around us.
That’s what Philip did. He saw that the God was already moving in the Ethiopian’s life, and he literally jumped in to partner with God in helping the Ethiopian gain a greater understanding of who Jesus was.
Villodas believes that every person on the face of this planet is already, on some level, being encountered by God.
Now in the Ethiopian’s case, it was pretty easy to spot, but sometimes people might not be able to cognitively perceive God’s presence, and maybe there are some things that we can do to help point it out to them.
So first, God is already there and at work before we arrive on the scene, and we’re invited to look for what he’s up to and join in with it.
The second thing I want to point out from this story is about the nature of the message of the good news of Jesus. God is moving toward the world in love, so the overall message is about love, not hate, not fear, not judgment.
And I believe that a primary way that God’s love gets fleshed out is through reconciliation—reconciliation of people to God, and reconciliation of people to each other.
The Apostle Paul spells this out clearly to the church in Corinth, in 2 Corinthians chapter 5, starting at vs. 17:
If anyone is in Christ, they are a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! All this is from God who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: that God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us.
In this story, we see the Ethiopian being reconciled to God as he comes to understand the identity of Jesus and commits his life to him as evidenced by his baptism.
And we also see all kinds of barriers that divide people being broken down between Philip and the Ethiopian, leading to them being reconciled to each other.
There are racial barriers, and barriers of social class, and cultural barriers that all are crossed over in order for the Ethiopian to understand the message of the gospel and experience the unity of being brothers in the faith with Philip.
In our country today, there is so much division and so much need for the good news of the gospel of reconciliation. We have all the barriers that Philip and the Ethiopian had, plus we have political polarization that is dividing people like I’ve never seen before.
I’m grateful that we have such a diverse group of people here at DRPC, which to me is a sign that God’s power has worked in our midst over the years, reconciling people from different backgrounds and different perspectives to God and to one another.
And now more than ever, our congregation along with the entire Church needs to be at the forefront of joining God in working towards racial reconciliation and so many other things that divide people and cause hostility and prejudice.
The third thing that I’d like to point out has to do with the first part of that verse from Acts 1:8 that I read a bit ago. And it’s that the Holy Spirit plays a big role in carrying out God’s mission in the world.
I know that we Mennonites squirm a little when we hear the phrase “Holy Spirit”. As I think I’ve mentioned before, we’re a lot more comfortable with the other two members of the Trinity, especially Jesus.
But I think it wouldn’t hurt if we opened ourselves up a little more to the possibility of the movement of the Holy Spirit in our midst. I mean, the Holy Spirit is really just the ongoing presence of Jesus that Jesus promised to leave us before he left this earth.
If we read through the book of Acts, we see that there are some incredible things that God does to break down barriers, to soften people’s hearts, to show the power of love at work.
In fact, some people think that the book of Acts should be called “The Acts of the Holy Spirit” instead of “The Acts of the Apostles”. Maybe we should just combine the two.
I mean, this story of Philip and the Ethiopian is a great example of how the Spirit of God nudged and guided Philip. It was an angel of God who first directed Philip to go down the road where he ended up meeting the Ethiopian.
It was the Spirit of God who told Philip to go over to the chariot. And even though it’s not mentioned, I believe the Holy Spirit helped give Philip the words he needed to explain who Jesus was to the Ethiopian.
And right after the baptism, the story says that the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away and took him to another place to continue preaching the gospel.
It was one of those “beam me up, Scotty!” moments that probably don’t occur too often, but you never know what God can and will do.
And then there are those nudgings. Do you ever get a nudging, like something inside of you that brings a certain person to mind? Maybe it’s a “God thing”, the Holy Spirit at work inside you. Dr. Henry Cloud, relationship counselor and co-author of the Boundaries books, said this:
If you are thinking of someone strongly for “no reason”, there may be a reason. They may need your prayers, or a call to see how they are. WE “sense” what is going on with the people we are connected to. Act on it.
I wonder if these nudgings might be connected to this whole idea of “abiding” in God that we recited in our call to worship this morning. Maybe the more that we abide, the more closely connected we become to God,
The more clearly we will be able to hear God’s still small voice through the Holy Spirit, the more sensitivity we will have to being “nudged” by God,
Maybe the more that we nurture our relationship with God, the more time we spend in prayer listening to God, the more aligned that our thoughts, our hearts, our wills will become with God’s thoughts, heart and will.
Jesus said I am the vine, you are the branches. In a vineyard, the best grapes are those that are closest to the main vine. And staying close to the vine, Jesus says, leads to fruitfulness in our lives. Something to ponder…
The fourth and last thing I want to point out from our story today is this: in the midst of obstacles, God provides opportunities.
It was the because of the obstacle of the persecution of the early Church that the opportunity for the spreading of the gospel presented itself as Christians scattered to avoid being persecuted.
If Philip would have stayed put in Jerusalem, he never would have had the opportunities that he did to share the good news of Jesus in so many different places.
In our own Anabaptist history, we see how persecution actually led to the Church growing and become stronger. Like it was for the early Church, the blood of the martyrs became the seed of the Church growing among Anabaptists.
Since we’re talking about an Ethiopian, I want to give a more recent example from the Meserete Kristos Church in Ethiopia,or MKC, a group that’s part of Mennonite World Conference, which began through the efforts of mission workers through Eastern Mennonite Missions in the 1940’s.
By the 1970’s the MKC had about 5000 members. And then a violent military coup took place in 1974 and the country became officially atheist, and all churches were outlawed.
So the MKC Church in Ethiopia went underground, meeting in secret in homes. And when the atheistic government was disbanded twenty years later, the Meserete Kristos Church had grown to 50,000 members!
Even in the midst of hardship and persecution, God provided an opportunity for the church to thrive and grow. Now that church has grown to about 400,000 members, and they are sending missionaries to the United States to carry on the ministry of reconciliation.
In fact, a couple of weeks ago, I had lunch with an Ethiopian pastor from MKC who is planting a church among the Ethiopian community in Fairfax County.
He is actually looking for a place to meet, and it was hard for me to tell him that we don’t have space right now for another church in our building. I guess that’s a good problem.
OK time to wrap up. To recap, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian remind us that:
- God is constantly moving toward the world with love,
- God’s love for the world is carried out through the ministry of reconciliation, to God and to each other
- The Holy Spirit is at work, empowering God’s people and nudging us to be sensitive to the movement of God in those around us. And the deeper that we grow in our relationship with God, the more we abide in Him, the more we will be able to discern his leading.
- God can turn what seem to be obstacles into opportunities for the Church to thrive and grow.
May God open us up to see what He’s up to and give us courage to join him in his mission of love and ministry of reconciliation, may we share the story of Jesus and our own stories of how Jesus has made a difference in our life,
While we’re sharing rides or in all the other ways that we encounter people as we go through our daily lives. AMEN.