Luke, like George Luc-as, tells great stories. But they are all great stories that take their place within a much bigger story. Now Lucas frames his stories in trilogies and Luke in a duology, but in both cases, the various stories they tell take their place within a core defining story—the story of a desperate struggle against empire, the resistance of the force of anger, despair, and power—the story of those in a bold alliance against oppression—a story made flesh a long time ago, in a Galilee far, far away!
There is, of course, a more esoteric way of putting all that in the language of biblical scholarship. One of my favorite Jedi masters, Walter Brueggemann, writes of the primal narratives of Scripture and then of derivative narratives (Walter Brueggemann, The Bible Makes Sense [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001] 23-33)—which allows us to say that because we have the gospel story we do, we have this story—this particular story.
And when we come to a particular story (within the bigger story), it has characters we’ve met before and will meet again—in this case, Philip, one of the seven Jedi padawan (apprentices—deacons) “of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) chosen by the early church to organize aid for the poor and to work for reconciliation between the Hellenists and the Hebrews. Philip, upon whom the twelve members of the Jedi Council—I mean the apostles—laid their hands and for whom they prayed (Acts 6:6).
So not only are there characters we already know, but there’s an ongoing story—a theme (a threat and a hope), and our particular story fits into a progression in which we’ve already invested ourselves. And we’ve seen all the prequels and read the books and played the Lego games, and so we know (from the immediately preceding story) that Philip was up in Samaria. And we know why that was important. Because at the time of his ascension, the promised one, destined to restore balance, Jesus, left the disciples with these words: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the galaxy” (Acts 1:8). We’ve seen the progression of the story from Jerusalem, through Judea, and now, in Philip, to Samaria.
As a story bigger than itself, our story is about a bigger story—a richer, deeper, more profound story—the story about a force—a movement in history—a presence. And our text today begins with the Spirit giving Philip very specific direction (literally direction) as in “Get up and go south, young man, go south.” And it’s quite specific direction: get up and go south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Spirit quest predates map quest!
Philip is both sensitive and responsive to the Spirit in his living, so he got up and went. And on that road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza, he just happened upon (you believe that? of course not)—on that road, he came upon—as he was meant to come upon—an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official, we read, of the Candace (not a name, but a title), mother of the king of Ethiopia. This eunuch was in charge of her entire treasury. He was a big deal in an ancient kingdom of great power. Ethiopia then is not Ethiopia now. Ethiopia then, also known as the kingdom of Cush or Nubia, was the power south of Egypt, extending from the first cataract to the sixth cataract of the Nile (Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary [Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1998] 295) where the Blue Nile and the White Nile converge in present day Sudan. Ethiopia was also considered, since the time of Homer, by both the Greeks and the Romans, the ends of the earth. (F.F. Bruce, The Book of Acts in The New International Commentary on the New Testament [Grand Rapids: Wm.B.Eerdmans, 1988] 179).
Now this Ethiopian eunuch was on his way home having gone to Jerusalem to worship. Here’s someone who had somehow heard the stories of God, been profoundly affected by the stories of God—who had, on his own personal initiative, made the long trip to Jerusalem. He was one of the so-called God-fearers—not a proselyte, a convert to Judaism. To convert to Judaism involved circumcision, Jewish baptism, certain sacrifices and “also involved the proposition that Judaism was a nation as well as a religion” (Frank Stagg, The Book of Acts: The Early Struggle for an Unhindered Gospel [Nashville: Broadman, 1955] 107). Whether that would have been a problem for an official of another nation, as a eunuch, he would have been “excluded by law [Deuteronomy 23:1; Leviticus 21:17-21] from full participation in the covenant community” (Robert W. Wall, The Acts of the Apostles: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, Volume X [Nashville: Abingdon, 2002] 142). He went all the way to Jerusalem to worship, only to be barred from entering into the Temple.
So, he was returning home, disappointed, we can safely assume—rejected, excluded. Seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. And I don’t think this was a souvenir scroll he had purchased while in Jerusalem. Nor do I think this reading had to do with the resiliency of his faith in the face of his exclusion and rejection. I think he was rereading a scroll he had read many times before—rereading a scroll with which he was oh so familiar, trying to figure out how he had read it so wrong. Because Isaiah, the larger story of Isaiah, is one of inclusion. And Isaiah writes not just of God gathering the remnant of God’s scattered people from a host of different nations including Ethiopia though that reference is there (Isaiah 11:11), writes not just of a specific word of invitation God speaks to the nation of Ethiopia though that is there (Isaiah 18), but most importantly and most specifically, Isaiah writes and this man had read: “For thus says the Lord: To the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, 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. And the foreigners who join themselves to the Lord, to minister to him, to love the name of the Lord, and to be his servants, all who keep the sabbath, and do not profane it, and hold fast my covenant—these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:4-7).
Now we also have to visually picture this—picture Philip, responding to the Spirit’s direction, catching up to the chariot—running alongside the chariot, thinking he really needed to spend more time at the gym, closing in close enough to hear the Ethiopian reading (it was at that time customary to read out loud), close enough to understand what the Ethiopian was reading in Greek. “Well of all things,” he thought to himself, “he’s reading my favorite part of Isaiah!” And jogging alongside this chariot, Philip starts a conversation (panting), “Do you understand what you are reading?” Less startled at this turn of events than I think I would be, the Ethiopian eunuch replies rather politely, it seems, humbly, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” But I hear undertones of anger … and disappointment, “Obviously I need someone to explain to me how this doesn’t mean what it says because obviously I got a lot of this wrong. I mean this is what it says, but apparently not what it means.”
The Ethiopian invites Philip into the chariot (it was the newly released mini-van equivalent—if not the RV! with room enough for a driver and two people to sit with an unfolded Isaiah scroll—those things aren’t little!). Philip gratefully climbs on board. I’m thinking the chariot stopped, but if it enriches your Bible study to think otherwise, feel free! “Thank you.” (panting) “Let me sit back here. I don’t want to sweat on your scroll.”
The Ethiopian’s contemplating a particular passage within the larger scroll of Isaiah: one of the suffering servant passages, and it was (and is) a favorite for Christians to read messianically. Let me read you the whole passage. You’ll recognize it: “For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account. Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth—” and this is the part quoted in our text: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” the text goes on: “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light; he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.” (Isaiah 53:2-12)
“About whom,” asks the eunuch, “about whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Now he obviously does understand what he’s reading because with this question, he’s put his finger on the Jewish debate of the time about the text: does this prophecy refer to the suffering of the prophet? of the nation of Israel as a whole? or of the Messiah? And presumably, he places his own suffering into his reading—his own sense of being despised and rejected by others—held of no account—his own sense of bearing what others perceive as infirmity and affliction—his own sense of oppression—of justice perverted, and yet and still his own hope of a light that emerges out of anguish.
Our translation reads “Philip began to speak,” but literally, the Greek reads that “Philip opened his mouth.” And for the geeks who watch all the movies and read all the books, this rings bells. Big bells. It reminds them of some of the big names in the prequels. It reminds them of Moses and Ezekiel. And, if you don’t shut them up, they’ll quote Exodus: “But Moses said to the Lord, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” Then the Lord said to him, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” And they’ll get more excited as they continue: “Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (Exodus 4:10-12). They’ll quote Ezekiel: “But when I speak with you, I will open your mouth—” and they’ll look at you expectantly, nod, and go on, “and you shall say to them, “Thus says the Lord God”; let those who will hear, hear; and let those who refuse to hear, refuse; for they are a rebellious house” (Ezekiel 3:27).
Philip opened his mouth and starting with this scripture he proclaimed the good news of Jesus. And as interesting as it is to wonder what all he said, it’s as interesting (more interesting?) to wonder what the Ethiopian heard. Did he hear the prophetic words of Isaiah beginning to be made flesh in the story of Jesus? Did he hear the prophetic words of Isaiah beginning to be made flesh in the story of the early church. That’s certainly not to say the church hasn’t and doesn’t reject and exclude earnest seekers who come to learn and worship. Isn’t to say we don’t send people away from our places of worship to study our texts on some lonely road trying to figure out how they misread words of radically inclusive grace and love.
And to be fair, there has always been a tension within Scripture between the prophetic and the priestly perspectives. Who are you going to listen to? the rules of Deuteronomy and Leviticus? or the grace of the prophecy of Isaiah? Because there are still—there are always choices to be made. Obviously, Philip’s sense of the gospel—the good news, his sense of the grace of Isaiah in Jesus, his responsiveness to the leadership of the Spirit, all leads him to a radical inclusiveness. “This is the story of Jesus,” he says, “and it is your story too.”
And they came to some water. Of course they did. And the Ethiopian asked, “What’s to prevent me from being baptized?” Maybe he had sought baptism—Jewish baptism—and been refused—been prevented. “What’s to prevent me from claiming this story? this hope? this truth? What’s to prevent me from choosing to live into this story? What’s to prevent me from believing? What’s to prevent me from identifying myself along with you as one following in this way of God? What’s to prevent me?” So far, only the people of God! But Philip, again, responsive to the direction of the Spirit, enthusiastic in his celebration of gospel, says, “Nothing. Nothing’s to prevent you. Absolutely nothing.”
As they come up from the waters, Philip is whisked away by the Spirit of God. The eunuch saw him no more. They came up from the waters, and the eunuch went on his way rejoicing—went on his way with joy. Light had indeed emerged from anguish—embrace from exclusion. They came up from the waters and Philip found himself somewhere else and headed back north back to Samaria—ending up, by the way, in Ceasarea where, later, we read, Paul and his companions stayed with him and his four unmarried daughters who all had the gift of prophecy (Acts 21:8-9). Of course they did!
So Philip was in Samaria. Remember (you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the galaxy), but through Philip—through the work of the Spirit, the gospel already goes to the ends of the earth—to that distant land between the first and sixth cataract of the mighty Nile. The dramatic conversion of Paul is the next story, and then we’re into his travels—and Peter’s, Barnabas’, Mark’s, Timothy’s—all part of the missionary journeys mapped in the back of so many Bibles. But before anyone physically moves beyond Samaria, the gospel has already preceded them with joy to the very ends of the earth.
And because we have this story, we open our mouths and starting with this scripture proclaim the good news of Jesus saying, “We know no better story—no richer—more profound hope. Herein we find our assurance. Herein we find our strength. Oh, we get it wrong. We’re far from perfect, but we keep coming back to these great stories to be reformed.” And so we open our mouths and ask, “What’s to prevent you from being excited at having found a story bigger than you—bigger than me—a story you can get excited about—a great story. What’s to prevent you from claiming that story, that hope, that truth? What’s to prevent you from placing yourself along with Jesus in this story? What’s to prevent you from entering the waters—going through the looking glass—the wardrobe, the picture, the door—the portal—the wormhole—through the waters into another world—a world, that when you emerge from the waters, exists concurrent, parallel, superimposed on ours or underlying. The world of deep truth. And who knows where you’ll find yourself?” As much fun as Star Wars can be, why not be more enthusiastic about the better story—the more profound story—the story still unfolding into the very arms and heart of God? We want you to want this story. We want to know what’s preventing you from being baptized—being immersed in this story—soaked by its truth—dripping with its hope?
The Spirit moved to direct Philip to be in the right place at the right time. You need to know that the Spirit still moves and that you are in the right place at the right time ….
Oh, and may the Spirit be with you!