Clevedon Presbyterian Church
Kawakawa Bay
Clevedon Kidz

Chasing after Chariots

May 9, 2021
Martin Baker

9 May 2021                                         Chasing after Chariots                            Martin Baker

Acts 8:26-39

26 Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) 27So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship 28and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.

29Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” 30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. 32Now the passage of the scripture that he was reading was this: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. 36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. 39When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatched Philip away; the eunuch saw him no more, and went on his way rejoicing.

Reflection

I was talking with my wife, Sandy, about this story. She reminded me about a conversation we had a few weeks ago, with a young friend.

This young woman was going through a bit of a tough time. She recalls a conversation she had with a person she had never met before, but was sitting beside her on a flight. After the conversation, on landing, she said that she had a new sense of clarity about what she needed to do, and  right away made some really positive, new decisions, about where her life should be going.

I wonder how many of us have been on some kind of journey and met a stranger and been changed by that encounter?

This morning we hear a story about an encounter on a journey that changed two people’s lives. And both those people went on to change the lives of many others.

Let’s then imagine ourselves in this story.

You are a swarthy, Jewish man from Jerusalem.

And the encounter with this Holy Spirit, of this risen Jesus is, for you, so overwhelming, so certain.

And this Spirit had taken you a long way from home, to a land where you may not be so popular. And it directs you to run after a chariot containing a black eunuch, in other words, a castrated black man, a foreigner, from a country you almost certainly know nothing about, and where you both have to speak in what maybe your second language, in Greek, to talk with one another.

The man is on a very long journey back to Ethiopia - which in those days was closer to Sudan than modern day Ethiopia.

To make things even more remarkable - you, and all the Jews, would have also known the rules in Deuteronomy. No eunuch was allowed to worship in the Temple of the Lord.

This man works for the most powerful matriarch in Ethiopia who has the position of kandake.

It seems that in this ancient time, the king of Ethiopia sat back and spent his days doing the equivalent of watching sport on the tele. The person who did everything else was a woman - maybe his wife, or aunt, who ran the treasury, waged war, built buildings and did and all the heavy lifting.

So, we have Philip, we have the African eunuch, we’ve got kandake waiting for him back home, we’ve got the chariot. And then we have the intervention of the Holy Spirit. And the Baptism.

For a moment we need to pause, sit back, and think about how remarkable this image is, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the midst of all this.

So, you get the picture.

I don’t think we have to think too much about this to realise it is a remarkable example of how the Gospel was being proclaimed.

So, we have Philip.

Who is Philip?

Philip is called to be one of the first set of deacons. Deacons had the special role of service, of witnessing to the Gospel by representing the very earliest church in their care of widows and orphans, and those who were facing tough times.

So, here either at Clevedon or where you or I find ourselves, when we take time to provide food, support, care, encouragement, you are fulfilling this role that those early followers of Jesus saw as a witness to the Gospel. The work of the diakonia. We do that work, and then we trust from our Bible stories, we trust the Holy Spirit, to work in the lives of those we witness to in service.

If you read back a few verses, or you were here a couple of weeks ago, you will hear about Stephen - he was also one of the first deacons like Philip, and we read that an angry crowd brought false allegations against him, and was stoned to death by the crowd.

So, what seems to have happened then is that immediately after the stoning of Stephen, Philip and the earliest church scatters to Samaria.

So, you imagine the centre was Jerusalem, and then the influence of the Gospel moving out in greater and great circles.

When we hear the word ''Samaria'' we think of Samaritans. There was, at this time, a strained relationship and a deep-rooted prejudice between Jews and Samaritans. But this is where the witnesses are expanding to.

The apostles are in Samaria, and their voices are being heard in unusual places. They are there, not because they want to be there, but because they have become part of something huge. The proclamation of God’s love in Jesus.  Never a private enterprise.

The Holy Spirit is pushing them toward the Samaritans and beyond.

So, Philip sees this Ethiopian Eunuch. Black African. And it is quite possible that this man had Jewish affiliation. There were Jews in Ethiopia going back to King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  

As the eunuch is travelling along, we hear that the passage of the scripture the eunuchs was reading was this:

“Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before it’s shearer, so he does not open his mouth. 33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

This passage is from Isaiah Chapter 53. And it is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament.  

We sometimes pass over these details so easily. But, this man can read, at a time when very few people could read. And also, he has the money to buy his own copy of Isaiah. Maybe he even had a copy of the entire Septuagint. The Old Testament which had been translated into Greek.  Remember no printing press, so everything is copied out by hand and written down, either on hand made paper from papyrus or on vellum, animal skin. So, educated wealthy.

And we are told he welcomes Philip to join him in his chariot. It is not the mini minor of chariots someone else must be driving and there is room for Philp to jump on board.

30So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” 31He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.

34The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” 35Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus.

It is a wonderful image. Two people as different as you can imagine, on a journey studying God’s word together.

Philip literally chases down the carriage, breaking down boundaries of ethnicity, class, and social status. Not to mention the complex issues of sexuality. Eunuchs were often castrated as children, and their appearance was quite distinct. Not female but neither fully male.

Philip and the eunuch, we are not even told his name, they’re joined in the sharing and study of the word.

“Tell me, about whom does the prophet say this? Is he talking about himself or someone else?"

The eunuch asked the right question.

And it is a question almost like a prayer. A prayer that God will answer.

The eunuch is reading these words from Isaiah:

33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

So, the words from Isaiah for those first Christians, and for us, speak about Jesus.  But maybe also the words speak straight to the heart of the Eunuch and Philip.  Philip who has only recently seen his fellow deacon Stephen stoned to death and heard in his last words asking God to forgive the crowd. The eunuch with his own sense of humiliation for what he has surely faced in his life. Despite his wealth and power.  Castrated at some point. Denied access to temple worship.

33In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”

Seeing Jesus in Isaiah, sharing with them both that loss and pain and death.

So, we have this sense that Christ will be seen where no one would have imagined or dared to look, at the place of humiliation and pain and on a eunuch’s chariot

In the study of the word, in the reading of the passage from Isaiah – it’s almost like a holy space that they’re sharing.

36As they were going along the road, they came to some water; and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” 38He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptised him.

So, Philip baptises this Ethiopian.  Perhaps just the two of them and maybe the chariot driver and a horse or two looking on.

And I wonder as Philip does this, the command of Jesus is echoing in his mind. Go the ends of the earth, baptise and make disciples.

So:

from Jerusalem to the end of the earth.

From Jews to Gentiles.

From those who were acceptable to those who were not acceptable.

We are starting to get this amazing sense of how the Holy Spirit is working.

And we come back here.

No one drives past in chariots anymore.

Eunuchs are rather more uncommon.

But there is a range of different cultures. There is a range of different sexualities. And there are people who are wealthy and those who don’t have much.

But lets be certain. Service shown by people like Stephan and Philip was so central in their witness.

A belief in the work of the Holy Spirit to work through what they were doing - speaking to all sorts of people about Jesus.

A sense that the Good News can ever be contained. Whatever our rules or regulations. It spreads to unusual and unlikely places.

But isn’t this encouraging for us, even at those times when we wonder about the future?

People listen to the word and encounter the Holy Spirit. They discover that despite all the ways we might describe difference and distance, all the ways that we have known loss and pain and humiliation, all the ways we know we have sinned or made mistakes.

Whatever journey we might be on, we can’t always imagine who we might meet, today or tomorrow. Or who we might be led to talk to, to share the Good News with. To be open to a new future.

That God might be working in our lives in a way we could not have imagined.

We can hear the Good News of Jesus, be baptised, and become, each one of us, disciples on the roads we travel.

AMEN