Sermon prepared by Rev. Bert Slofstra, Abbotsford BC
It may be a little early in the sermon to be putting your deep thinking caps on. It always takes a few moments to get settled in and ready to listen. But here’s an important test question about today’s Scripture reading: in the stories we read today, who is converted?
Think about that for a moment. Who is converted? If you are thinking, well, there were those folks Philip preached to in a city in Samaria. Luke tells us that “…they believed Philip as he preached the good news of the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, [and] they were baptized, both men and women” (Acts 8:12). Then there was that Ethiopian fellow, a eunuch, who was reading from Isaiah but not understanding it until Philip explained it was all about Jesus.
Who is converted? You might answer, well, there were those Samaritans, and there was the Ethiopian eunuch. If you gave that answer, you would be only partly right. If this was a test and we had to hand out grades, you would get 5 out of 10 for that answer: 50%. So at least you passed, even if just barely. In order to score 100%, however, you would have had to write down the name of the one person featured in each of the 3 separate Scripture stories we read: namely, Philip. How many of you did?
Think about it. Think about the Jewish religion as it was always understood and practiced and taught up to this time. Think about all the walls that existed in the Jewish religion - the wall between Jews and Samaritans, the wall between sexually “normal” people and sexually “abnormal” people, the wall between men and women. Read these stories from the perspective of someone who had grown up with such walls firmly in place, and you begin to see that the book of Acts is as much about the conversion of believers as it is about the conversion of unbelievers. You can decide for yourself whether or where even we as believers today might still need to be converted.
Philip was a deacon, one of those first seven deacons who were “full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:5) and who were appointed by the church to wait on tables and assist widows in need. But the Spirit of God had a little larger job description in mind for Philip.
At the time that he was ordained as a deacon, there was only one Christian church and that was in Jerusalem. And you get the impression that’s how it would have stayed if those early Jewish Christians - and they were pretty much all Jewish Christians at the time - had their way. There was a church very recently (this is a true story, the name and place is not important) where the chairman of the council proposed at the annual congregational meeting that they have keys made and give each family a key to the church. They should otherwise keep it locked because, he said, “you don’t know who can come in the church.”
There was safety in Jerusalem. There were comfortable pews in the First Christian Church of Jerusalem. Who would want to mess up that warm, tight, cozy community of like-minded people? God would, that’s who! Now, we’d want to be careful in saying that God is behind every persecution that has ever taken place, because that would not be true. But here in Acts you get the sense that God sent a persecution on the church because the church needed a push to force them outside of Jerusalem to Judea and to Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Who wants to leave, if life inside the walls is warm and good and comfortable? And so it was that all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside, and - writes Luke – “those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went” (Acts 8:4).
And one of those was Philip, who was led by the Spirit - as he would later be led to a desert road outside of Gaza - to get up and go to Samaria. Yes, Samaria! One can only imagine what Philip might have thought. “Why would I go to Samaria? Jews and Samaritans hate each other; and that cuts both ways. We don’t talk with each other, or walk with each other, or eat with each other, or meet with each other, or marry with each other.” The way it was is the way it still is between Jews and Arabs today. But the Spirit of God leads Philip to the Samaritans.
For his whole lifetime, you understand, from the time he was a young boy old enough to understand, Philip had been taught to be prejudiced against Samaritans. He was taught that by his parents, he was taught that by his teachers and rabbis, that Samaritans were half-breeds, unclean, a mixed race of Jews and Gentiles. As the apostle John notes in his gospel, in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, “For Jews do not associate with Samaritans” (John 4:9).
But the Spirit of God told Philip to go to the Samaritans and to preach the good news of God’s love in Jesus for all people, including Samaritans. So he got up and he did, with the result that the Samaritans believed Philip as he preached the good news and they were baptized.
Then the Spirit of God spoke into Philip’s heart and ears a second time, and told him to go to the desert road just outside of Gaza. And on his way there he meets the treasurer to the queen of Ethiopia. As was often the case in foreign nations with men granted positions of great power and trust, he was a eunuch. He had been surgically castrated, unable to father children.
Although he cannot have a family, he does have enormous wealth. He rides in a chariot, after all, the only time in the New Testament anyone rides in a chariot. Nor is this one of those sports models they race in movies like “Ben Hur” or “Gladiator,” but a chauffeur driven limousine of a chariot. The Ethiopian eunuch sits comfortably on a cushioned bench, canopy overhead and reads, or tries to read, the scroll of Isaiah.
That’s another way you can tell he’s a man of great wealth: he has a scroll of Isaiah. We have lots of Bibles in our homes, and stacked in rooms in our church, and you expect a Bible handed to you or in your pew when you come in for worship. But in those days every scroll had to be copied by hand by a scribe, a labour intensive process that made such scrolls enormously expensive. This eunuch, however, had the resources to shop for the Scriptures while he was in Jerusalem. And that tells you something about his character, too, doesn’t it? He wants to know about God; he invests his wealth not in Jerusalem t-shirts or tourist mezuzas, but in God’s Word. This is a man seeking for God but who, when he arrived in Jerusalem, would not have been welcome in the temple.
In the early 1960’s, during the civil rights struggle, a group of African American Christians showed up one Sunday morning at the front door of an enormous church Atlanta, Georgia. The church had these big pillars surrounding a spacious porch, with long steps leading up to that porch. The African American would-be worshipers were turned away that Sunday morning, but they did not leave. They stood on the porch and steps in silent witness. When worship inside the church began, something no one had expected or planned happened. Inside, the organ and worshipers began the first hymn, and outside, on the porch and steps, these would-be worshipers knew that hymn and began to sing along. Worshipers were united in song and if in song, in faith and hope as well, but they were divided by a door that would not open, a wall that would not yet fall.
The experience of this Ethiopian in Jerusalem must have been something like that. Not because he’s black but because--for all of his wealth--he’s a eunuch! And the Scriptures are clear. The law of Moses says, “No one who has been emasculated by crushing or cutting may enter the assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1). As one Bible scholar put it, the Ethiopian eunuch would have been regarded as “sexually ambiguous, socially ostracized, and morally evil.”
But the Spirit of God leads Philip to the Ethiopian eunuch. For his whole lifetime, you understand, from the time he was a young boy old enough to understand, Philip had been taught to be prejudiced against eunuchs and other sexually “abnormal” people. He was taught that by his parents, he was taught that by his teachers and rabbis, that eunuchs are forbidden to join the family of God. It’s in the book! We are to have nothing to do with eunuchs; we are not to talk with them or walk with them or eat with them or meet with them.
But the Spirit of God told Philip to go to the eunuch and explain who the prophet Isaiah was speaking about. So he got up and did, with the result that the eunuch believed in Jesus and asked to be baptized. So he was baptized into Jesus Christ by Philip who from his childhood was carefully taught to be prejudiced against eunuchs.
So that’s the story about Philip from Acts 8. And at the end of the chapter, you read that Philip went to Caesarea, which is where you still find him 20 years later in the next story, just a brief comment made in Acts 21. Philip is now identified as the evangelist, and we are told that he has 4 daughters. Not only that, we are told that all 4 daughters are prophets, preachers. It’s the gospel of Pentecost, remember? “This is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy’” (Acts 2:17, 18).
Now for his whole lifetime, you understand, from the time he was a young boy old enough to understand, Philip had been carefully taught what the role and position of women was to be. He was taught by his teachers and rabbis that women were like property, that they were like his farm animals that were to be obedient, that he could simply divorce them and be rid of them, that they should know their position in life and accept it. Philip was taught that women weren’t supposed to sit with the men in church, and were definitely not supposed to talk in church. But the Spirit of God led his daughters, all 4 of them, to become prophets, preachers, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. Those of you who have several daughters know that just having four daughters would have been scary enough. But imagine being in a family of four daughters, and all of them preachers!
The question now is this: do you understand? In the center story of these 3 stories about Philip, Philip asks the Ethiopian eunuch: “Do you understand what you are reading?” Do you understand the story in Isaiah 53 about the suffering servant who was led like a sheep to the slaughter? Well, yes, we do. But the question all three stories ask of us today is this: Do you understand the meaning of the story about Philip being sent to Samaria, and the story about Philip being sent to meet the Ethiopian eunuch, and the story about his four daughters who became prophets?
It’s very simple, and very clear, and it’s the same message that continues with all the stories that follow in the book of Acts. And that message is this: when the power of God gets inside of you, when the Spirit of God fills your heart and rules the church, then all walls fall down; all barriers are removed; all prejudice is eliminated. In the book of Acts you see that at every turn in the road when the church had to spread the Word beyond its comfortable walls, it had to be poked and prodded by the Holy Spirit. And how many of us need to confess that we still have to be poked and prodded today?
Sure these stories are about the conversion of the Samaritans and an Ethiopian eunuch, but more than that it’s a story about the conversion of Philip, who discovers that three significant walls of his old time religion have no place any longer in the church of Jesus Christ.
But that is a lesson still hard for us, and for the church, to learn. There are so many kinds of prejudices that still exist in the world and culture of which we’re a part, and that remain a part of our lives. Although we’re supposed to be in the world but not of the world, it doesn’t always work out that way, does it? There is nationalist prejudice wherever you turn. In our world today, there are children that are taught to hate Israelis, to hate the Palestinians, to hate the Arabs, to hate the Irish, to hate the English, to hate the Iraqis, to hate the Iranians, to hate the Russians, to hate the Japanese, to hate the Chinese.
There is racial prejudice. For a whole lifetime, people have been taught that blacks are inferior to whites, that Indians are lazy, that Mexicans are dirty, that Asians are taking our jobs, that East Indians are unemployment cheats.
There are sexual prejudices. People have been taught for centuries that women were inferior to men, can’t become a doctor, can’t become a dentist, can’t become a president, can’t become a pastor. Also, just as people were once taught that eunuchs could not inherit the kingdom of God, how many Christians and churches today still believe that people with a homosexual orientation--an orientation most such persons discover rather than choose--cannot be Christian. How many gays and lesbians have given themselves over to a homosexual lifestyle and practice, which the Bible calls sin, because of the lack of understanding, sympathy, and care offered by the Christian church. Instead of a community that should have offered love and help and encouragement, how often has it not offered the Pharisaical attitudes of judgmentalism and self-righteousness?
If you think about it, looking again especially at the central point of the three stories of Philip, the Ethiopian eunuch really did understand what he was reading. He understood so well that he believed the impossible: that God loved him, an Ethiopian eunuch, sitting in a chariot in the desert reading Isaiah with a deacon called Philip. God loved him, exactly as he was, and all he had to do now was show up at the font to be baptized. Because that’s what baptism is: the mark that God loves us, not because of anything we do, but because of who we are: his children by the grace and mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ.
What a miracle that not only the eunuch, but also Philip is converted. Two guys sitting in a chariot in the middle of a desert, reading the Word of God together. Two guys realizing by the Spirit of God that the world was bigger than they’d imagined, two guys realizing that nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord, two guys realizing what the prophet Isaiah wrote not in chapter 53 but in chapter 56 of his prophecy: “for my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
When you can see that, you can see springs of water in the desert. “Look, here is water! Why shouldn’t I be baptized?” (Acts 8:36) So Philip knew there was a time to preach and a time to be quiet and wade into the water, and this was one of those times. Philip finally understood what he was reading, too, once he climbed up into the chariot. Reading scripture with the eunuch changed Philip’s life, and it changed the church, too. What Philip saw and understood was this: there wasn’t anything to prevent this man from being baptized. There never had been, except for Philip himself.
Question is: where do you and I still need to be converted? Where does the Holy Spirit need to take you and me, where does he need to take us as a church next? Know this for sure: he will continue to poke and prod us like he did with the early church and with Philip of old until the day when all God’s children feel welcomed in the all embracing heart of God.
“For my house will be called a house of prayer for all peoples,” wrote the prophet Isaiah. In Christ, wrote the persecutor-turned-apostle Paul to Christians in Galatia, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:28,29). As the words of one of hymns put it, “in Christ there is no east or west - he breaks all barriers down.”
That’s what God in Christ and by the Holy Spirit is all about -- from Genesis and the promise to Abraham and Sarah to make of them a great nation all the way to Revelation where the apostle John “heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: ‘Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns’” (Revelation 19:6).
“In Christ there is no east or west –
he breaks all barriers down;
by Christ redeemed, by Christ possessed,
in Christ we live as one.”
Order of Worship
Welcome and announcements
*Call to Worship: Psalm 105:1-4
*All sing hymn 625
*God's greeting: “Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth, and who redeemed us through the blood of his Son. May the grace and peace of God our Father and of Jesus Christ, his Son and our Lord, be upon us all.”
*We greet each other
*Hymn of praise 475
Call to confession: I John 1:5-8
Prayer of confession
Assurance of forgiveness: I John 1:9
God's will for our lives: I John 4:7-12
Hymn of rededication #264
Prayer for understanding
Scripture reading: Acts 8:1-8; 8:26-40; 21:7-9
All sing hymn #424
Message: WALLS FALL DOWN
All sing hymn #540
All sing hymn #178:1,4
God's parting blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology hymn #427