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.) So 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 and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?” He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him. Now 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. In his humiliation justice was denied him. Who can describe his generation? For his life is taken away from the earth.”
The eunuch asked Philip, “About whom, may I ask you, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?” Then Philip began to speak, and starting with this scripture, he proclaimed to him the good news about Jesus. As 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?” He commanded the chariot to stop, and both of them, Philip and the eunuch, went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When 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. But Philip found himself at Azotus, and as he was passing through the region, he proclaimed the good news to all the towns until he came to Caesarea.
Baptism is a first step toward a lifetime of faith. The one time washing of our body reflects God’s continual absolution of our souls. The water that is thrown upon us or into which we are plunged takes with it our bodily impurity, but the spiritual funk that defines our life before, and honestly during, our walk with Christ can only be carried away by the Spirit working within our lives.
We take for granted that a person receives baptism as part of their journey in faith. Yet, for those in the time of Jesus the ritual was not a given. Ritual baths were practiced but they were repeated periodically. John the Baptist and Jesus were the first to institute a single washing as an initiatory act. Caught up in it there is more than just a symbol of God’s actions or our own. There is a real move of the Spirit that cannot be put aside as simply memorial.
Our scripture today invites us to see the Spirit at work in our life. In this passage, Philip, a servant of God, is told by an Angel to take a walk from Jerusalem toward Gaza. The journey was not along any of the main Roman highways, but on one of the twisting networks of backroads that crisscrossed the mountains and rift valleys. No specific route is named because the author assumes we would know which they mean., However, it is likely the road went along one of the flatter parts of the region, somewhere that allowed a carriage to be utilized as a means of transit.
Along the way, a chariot is seen, and God’s Spirit tells Philip to come near it. Philip would have been joining a large retinue of retainers that would have surrounded an official’s vehicle. This vocal command of God is enviable. As I have said before in worship, God seldom blesses me with something as overt as this, but whether verbal or not I hope we all can relate in some way to Philip’s call to come near to that cart. These sudden impulses to speak to someone or take a chance are things that only God can give to us. Seldom vocal, sometimes obvious, but always discovered upon reflection.
The chariot carried in it a eunuch, a castrated man in service to royalty. In this case, the eunuch turned out to serve an Ethiopian queen named Candace. Ethiopia has a long-standing relationship with both Christianity and Judaism. The ancient kingdom of Sheba, from whence came a queen to visit Solomon, is in what we now call Ethiopia. Ethiopia is also considered by many today to be the oldest existing Christian community there is. The Ethiopian Coptic Church, oft forgotten though it is, predates Rome and Byzantium as centers of Christianity by hundreds of years. The only community that might be as old as this is the Thomistic Orthodox of India.
The eunuch is heard reading from a version of the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, and Philip asks if the Eunuch fully understood the words of the prophet he was reading. The passage in question, Isaiah 53, is certainly a difficult one to parse. While we usually read it as explicitly referencing Jesus, that cannot be all it meant to Isaiah or his audience. So, people question, even to today, just as the Eunuch did, “Of whom is the prophet speaking?” Was the suffering servant Isaiah? The King? Israel itself?
Philip explained, although his exact words, or rationale is lost to us, every way that the scriptures led to the reality of Christ and of his death and resurrection. This sort of extemporaneous explanation is difficult, and though we can only speculate about what exactly Philip said, I have to imagine the rush that this moment gave. Outside of cold, sterile explanations of scripture, there is the spirited explanations in which God intervenes somehow to impact the words we say. The Spirit, in these moments, does not control our words. Many people, filled with the Spirit, will still take use it as an opportunity to get what they want rather than what God wants. In fact, the early Church speaks directly of how to respond to people lying while speaking, “in the Spirit.” Yet, the Spirit lends strength and confidence where there was none.
As some of you may know, I am a horribly shy person. Outside of Sunday mornings, I try to be a quiet passerby in this world. While I open up in familiar spaces, I am fundamentally a private person – and nothing will change that. Yet, I stand here and preach or sit in front of a camera and record services, putting myself out there for all to see. To some degree it is the fact that I used to do theatre that lets me do this, to another just going for it and allowing myself to expend some energy on being social in this way. However, it is not skill or ability to compartmentalize my anxieties that allows me to do this well, but the gift of God which allows me to work in this way.
The Spirit of God is not always revelatory, it is also supportive. My experience in itself would be enough to perform a weekly service, but not for me to authentically lead worship. Yet, the Spirit props up our strengths and even uses our weaknesses to proclaim the good news of Jesus. We do not know what Philip said in that chariot – whether he spoke perfectly or stumbled over words, whether he was confident or worried, well versed in his argument or so-so in presenting the Gospel. All we know is that the Spirit was at work and the Spirit brought results.
As they talked in the Chariot, the Eunuch was overjoyed to hear the Gospel. We do know Philip’s speech must have talked about baptism, because the Eunuch felt the desire to be baptized well up into his heart. His cry to Philip is direct. When they see water by the side of the road, a literal translation of his words would just say, “Look! Water!” and immediately he follows this sighting with a request to be cleansed in that water.
We do not know how much water was there, but it was enough to stand in. The eunuch was washed, perhaps by dunking or affusion, and found their faith given definite form. Life began anew, the Spirit of God settling within them, their excitement saw them jumping in the chariot and riding away, rejoicing all the while.
In Baptism we join the Church, and through faith we receive the Holy Spirit. It is our duty to follow it as Philip did – to places and people we do not know or expect. However, we do not do this unprepared, as the Spirit strengthens us even in our weaknesses that we might complete the work which is set before us. The key thing we must not lose in the midst of all this is our love and devotion of God and our praise for the gift of our baptism. We go now to a time of prayer, but as we prepare for communion, we shall also prepare to remember our baptism.
May the Lord bless our walk with the Spirit and may the Spirit we received in Baptism be a source of perpetual joy to us. – Amen.