The lectionary texts always fascinate me. These texts, set up in three-year rotation over thirty years ago, always seem quite timely, perhaps especially this day.
One of today’s New Testament texts is Acts 8:26-40. As we read the text, let’s back up a bit and trace Philip’s ministry thus far. When persecution began in Jerusalem, Philip went down to the city of Samaria, where he quickly became very popular. Given the success he had experienced, I imagine Philip would have been quite content to stay there for a while. But then suddenly God calls a new play.
It doesn’t seem to bother Philip that God would take him from headquarters in Jerusalem, to set up a satellite site in Samaria, where he’s been packing them in every day, seeing hundreds of people come to faith in Christ and join the church – any pastor or congregation’s dream, right? – and then, suddenly, God sends him out to the desert to talk, not to many people, but to one person, and not just any person, but a foreigner and a eunuch at that. Without going into graphic detail, being a foreigner and a eunuch meant this man had two strikes against him. He was a double outsider according to the religious system.
Incidentally, while he was a double outsider from the religious perspective, he was a double insider from the cultural perspective, as evidenced by the fact that he was a court official and he was also literate. It seems the larger society did a better job of reaching out to this outcast than the religious society did, when perhaps it should be the other way around…
But even though he was excluded from the Temple, there was something about the God of Israel that attracted him. So he went to worship him, and on the journey home from worship he spent time reading the Scriptures to learn more about this God.
That’s when he crosses paths with Philip, and Philip asks if he can join him in his chariot. I mean, can any of us imagine going to the wilderness of a deserted road in the outskirts of town – or maybe the “wilderness” of the busy streets of downtown – finding a random stranger in a random car, and saying, “Hey buddy, can I join you?” Yet that’s exactly what Philip does! It’s like he goes from one risky act to another: To leave a place where you are guaranteed success and go to a deserted road where nothing is guaranteed. And then to leave a (somewhat) familiar road and get in the chariot of a completely unfamiliar stranger. The story sounds a little absurd. But if we read the first few chapters, we find that this isn’t the first time, nor will it be the last time, in Acts that someone hears a seemingly absurd call from the Lord – nor, for that matter, will it be the last time someone in Christ’s Church will hear such a call.
In fact, by his grace, Jesus is still calling his Church to do crazy things today.
For example, last year a pastor in London heard Christ’s call to start a bakery. Now that doesn’t sound all that wild and crazy – except for the fact that the bakery wasn’t in London. It was in northern Iraq. Many of us recall hearing the horrific stories in the news last August, about the 50,000 Yazidi people who were driven from their homes by ISIS, finding temporary refuge on top of a mountain. ISIS pursued them, killing several thousand of their men and selling many of their daughters into child sex-trafficking. But some 23,000 managed to escape to a camp near Dohuk. To help them get back on their feet, this pastor, a member of the Presbyterian Church of Egypt, left his ministry in London to partner with a local pastor in Dohuk and with the Presbyterian Outreach Foundation to open a bakery, a bakery that provides, not only employment for many of the women, but also bread to feed all of the people. Because of this much-needed humanitarian work, the local church has been allowed to offer a sports ministry and even a Bible study. While most Christians are running out of ISIS-occupied territories, these two disciples ran into the heart of it, to sit beside people there – all because they know Jesus and want others to know him as well.
It’s for that same reason that Philip does the wild and crazy act of getting into a stranger’s chariot and sitting beside him. Hearing him reading out loud, Philip starts with where the man is, with what his questions are, and proceeds to share the gospel with him. When the man hears God’s story, which tells him that he, once doubly excluded, is now wonderfully welcomed in God’s Kingdom, it’s no wonder that he wanted God’s story to become his story. It’s no wonder that he would want to be baptized, in recognition of Jesus’ both breaking down the barrier of sin and inviting him into God’s family, the Church. And it’s no wonder that, having heard the good news of Jesus and being welcomed into his family, this man went on his way rejoicing and inviting others into the family, becoming, according to tradition, the first to spread the good news in his native country.
And it’s no wonder that we perhaps should wonder – for as much as we have to learn from how the culture versus religion reached out to this man, we have even more to learn from how the early church treated him. As we said, this man was from Ethiopia. That means that one of the first converts to and first evangelists for the gospel was a black man. When today Sunday morning is still the most segregated hour in our country, we do have much to learn.
But I don’t have to tell us that, do I? All we have to do is turn on the news, even just this week. From scenes in Baltimore to scenes in Nepal, we know we still have many barriers to break down – racially, ethnically, politically, economically, socially, even spiritually. Where do we find the power and strength to do that?
From the same place the Ethiopian did – in baptism – for there is power in the water.
The way we practice it may seem pretty tame with just a sprinkle of water, but baptism is an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible something going on that’s bigger than anything we could imagine, and that’s God’s grace – God’s grace that floods us, overwhelms us, drowns us, and transforms us, pointing us back to the grace of God in Jesus Christ that saves us and pointing us forward and empowering us to live and work for a day when there is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for all are one in Christ Jesus.
Our baptism doesn’t just break down barriers between us and God, but it sends us out – with riptide power – to break down barriers in all the world, so that all might come to know the good news of Jesus Christ.
So how do we obtain access to this barrier-breaking power? It comes by the power of the Spirit. The Spirit is the one who calls Philip to get up and go to the wilderness road, the one who tells him to get up and get in the chariot, and the one who snatches him away to his next great adventure. And the Spirit that calls Philip to get up and go is the same Spirit that empowers his got up and went, for the Spirit is a restless Spirit, a Spirit that’s always on the move, calling us, not to settle for the many, but to go after the one; not to be comfortable with the known, but to move confidently into the unknown; not to run from the crashing waves, but to wade right into the middle of the ocean, confident that Jesus will help us sit beside and meet others where they are, just as he sits beside us and meets us where we are.
And the way we obtain access to this barrier-breaking power of the Spirit? It’s not by controlling or rushing, worrying or planning. We obtain power by staying and waiting. Not just any kind of waiting, but an expectant, anticipatory waiting – for a restless Spirit on God’s part deserves a restless waiting on our part. I don’t know about you, but I’m not good at waiting. Instead of “Ready, aim, fire,” I tend to say, “Ready, fire, aim.” It’s for that reason that Jesus tells us to wait for the promise of our Father, and that promise is that we “will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon us, and we will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8) – maybe even to Ethiopia. So may we pray for a restless spirit – that when God’s restless Spirit wrestles with our spirit, we’ll be ready to respond, “Here I am. Let’s get up and go.” May it be so. Thanks be to God.