Can Anything Prevent Him?
Easter V; April 29, 2018
Let's do something a little different from my usual approach: with this Scripture, let's talk through the story and I'll make some comments as we go.
The hero of this story is Philip; he was a Deacon. Just a little before this story, the Church people began complaining that some folks were being favored over others - whether they were is unclear, but some of them perceived that they were - and so the Apostles decided there was simply too much to do for them to do all of it. So the Church chose seven Deacons and Philip was one of them.
So Philip the Deacon got the message to head down the Gaza Road, which he did. The Gaza Road was a main north-south route; anyone coming from Africa to Jerusalem would use that road to head through Egypt. It isn't so easy to travel from Jerusalem to Gaza now, by the way.
On the road he met a high official of the Ethiopian government. Two things to note about this man: first, he was a eunuch, which was not uncommon in the ancient world. Frequently eunuchs would hold responsible positions working with women. And, as I said, he was an important government official. He was the equivalent of the Secretary of the Treasury, a trusted servant of the Candace, or Empress. The Candace at the time, I read, was Queen Gersamot Hendeke VII.
He was not a Jew, but he had come to Jerusalem to worship. The Temple at Jerusalem was a wonder, and people came from all over the known world to worship there. The first century was a creative time of spiritual ferment; people were experimenting with new ideas in religion. Among polytheistic peoples, the notion of a single God could be very appealing. This God would be lawful and moral, not given to the whims and rivalries of their many competing gods. And so people throughout the Roman Empire and elsewhere studied the Hebrew Prophets and read the Hebrew Scriptures and went to Jerusalem to worship. They were not allowed inside the inner part of the Temple, since they weren't Jews, but there was an outer courtyard where foreigners could go to pray. And that's what this Ethiopian official did.
It's worth noting that he went to a lot of trouble to go to Jerusalem to worship, especially given that he could not go within the main part of the Temple. He had traveled a great distance and that demonstrates that he was a true seeker after God. I always admire those whose thirst for God prompts them to make great sacrifices and go to great efforts.
There was, also, a connection between Ethiopia and Jerusalem. According to Ethiopian tradition, the Sheba referred to in the Bible was in what is now Ethiopia, and so the Queen of Sheba who visited King Solomon was Ethiopian. It is said that she and Solomon enjoyed her visit, quite a lot, and so when she returned home she was pregnant. Her son was King Menelik I, the founder of the Ethiopian monarchy. Rulers of Ethiopia were said to be descended from King Solomon,up to the abolition of the monarchy in 1975.
As he traveled, the official read the book of Isaiah. Philip heard him - in the ancient world, it was customary to read aloud - and asked a question: "Do you understand what you are reading?" It strikes me as awfully pushy. Maybe some of you are bold enough to interrupt someone's reading to ask if the reader understands; it would be hard for me. I admire Philip's boldness.
And I admire the Ethiopian official's willingness to be guided. This is a powerful man, in charge of the treasury of a powerful African empire, and he humbly invites Philip to guide him in his reading. His thirst for God is such that he welcomes help in understanding the Scriptures.
You heard what the official was reading:
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.
And then he asked a question, "About whom was the prophet speaking? Of himself or of someone else?" That's a question we still can't really answer. When the prophet said these words, who was he thinking of? Philip knew who the Holy Spirit had in mind - and so do we - but who did the prophet think he was talking about? Himself as a suffering servant? The entire people of Israel, struggling in exile at the time? Perhaps the poor former King of Judah, blinded and languishing in prison? Scholars love to argue over the question, but it still is not answered.
Those who know and love Jesus Christ see our Lord in those words, because of the sacrifice he made. He set aside his own dignity and was tortured; we see his death as the healing of our sins; certainly in his humiliation justice was denied him. Generations of followers of Jesus have read the words of Isaiah 53 and seen our Lord in those words, but the prophet could not have seen him. Who did he see? I imagine we will never really know.
But Philip saw his opportunity and he took it. He told the Ethiopian official about Jesus, about Jesus' unjust death, about his victorious resurrection. He must also have said something about baptism, because the official asked the right question: "Here is water; what is to prevent me from being baptized?"
Ah, now here is a question we can answer. I can think of at least three things to prevent him from being baptized; with a little more time and attention we can probably come up with more. First, the man wasn't Jewish. Jesus was Jewish, the apostles were Jewish, all the first Christians were Jewish. Jesus was the Messiah for the Jews. This man was not Jewish. He was a foreigner. Many would argue that Philip should not baptize a foreigner.
And he was, well, sexually different. I already told you about the law preventing non-Jews from coming to the altar in the Temple; there was also a law preventing eunuchs (Deuteronomy 23:1). The law specifically excluded eunuchs from the fellowship of God's people. If the Law excludes him from the full fellowship of God's people, then that should prevent him from being baptized.
We in the Church are still arguing about the participation of those who are sexually different. Well, in this congregation we may pretty well have made up our minds in favor of full inclusion, but we are a minority. Most Christians still think that only those who fit within strict categories of male and female, heterosexually, should be completely welcomed in the Church. In parts of the world Christians argue that homosexual persons, for example, should be put to death; I wonder what they would say about transgendered persons. Many would argue that Philip should not baptize someone who is sexually different.
And then there was Philip: he was a deacon, not an apostle. He could have doubted his own authority to baptize. You need to go to a Session meeting and have your baptism authorized and then we'll ask the Pastor to schedule it when it's convenient for the Church calendar. Many would argue that Philip the Deacon should not baptize him.
But... neither of the two men doubted that Philip should baptize him. The official ordered the carriage to be stopped - he was a man of authority, after all - and he and Philip went down to the water and Philip - a man of authority, after all - baptized him. And that was the last they saw of each other.
As the Ethiopian official climbed back into his chariot, Philip headed north. He went up the coast preaching his way to Caesarea. How many more did he baptize? How many more heard the good news? How many more heard the words of Isaiah fulfilled in this Jesus of Nazareth? From Azotus to Caesarea, up the coast he went, preaching all the way.
And the Secretary of the Treasury for Empress Gersamot Hendeke VII got back into his chariot and headed home, rejoicing that he had come to know a Savior. According to the Church Father Irenaeus and the legends of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, this official became an evangelist himself, telling others of his country about Jesus, marking the beginning of one of the oldest and most venerable Churches in the world. History tells of other evangelists to come later, but the seeds were surely sown early, because Ethiopia was one of the first nations in the world to become officially Christian. Less than three hundred years later, Emperor Azana became a Christian and made Christianity the official religion of the empire. My friend who has spent a lot of time in Africa - he teaches political economy and is an expert on Africa - speaks movingly of the presence and significance of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.
So there's the story. Give thanks for Philip, for his boldness, his willingness to talk about Jesus, and for never doubting his authority. Give thanks for the Ethiopian official, who was willing to be guided, who became a follower of Jesus, and who went on his way rejoicing. Give thanks for the Candace and for the Emperor Azana and for all who have created legacies of faith that have endured into the twenty-first century. And, above all, give thanks for the Holy Spirit, who nudged a high government official to ask for baptism, who nudged a Deacon to give it, and who set history in motion with the intuition to "go over to that chariot and join it."
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master