On the Road to Gaza

 

On the road to Gaza                                                                             2 May 2021

Fifth Sunday of Easter 

Acts 8:26-40, I John 4:7-7-21; John 15:1-8; Psalm 22:24-30

In January of 2007 I was part of a Methodist tour to the Holy Land. On one of our last days there we visited the church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. Oddly enough, we began our tour on the roof. There we went into a small building which was a chapel maintained by the Ethiopian church. There we were met and listened to a clergyman of that church. As was the case on many of the places we visited I wish I had taken more pictures. I have only one of him. He is holding a book of the Scriptures cut into the form of a cross. The pages look quite old, quite wrinkled. The man is dark complected. This was the first man who was a member of that Christian group that I had ever encountered.

Our reading from the Acts of the Apostles tells of an encounter between the Apostle Philip and a man from Ethiopia. Philip has been sharing the good news in Samaria – and with some success. He has been told by an angel – possibly in a dream – to get up and go toward the south to a road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. There he encounters an Ethiopian eunuch, an official of the Queen, and who we are told is in charge of her entire treasury. The man is seated in his chariot, reading aloud – as would have been the custom then – from – of all things – the Book of Isaiah. The Spirit tells Philip to go over and join him, which Philip does – by running up to him.

Hearing him read from Isaiah, Philip asks him, “Do you understand what you are reading?”

“How can I, unless someone guides me?”

He then invites Philip to sit with him in the chariot.

Philip has heard him read a portion of Chapter 53, verses 7 and 8: “Like a sheep he was led to the slaughter, and like a lamb silent before its shearer, so he does not open his mouth…”

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

Who was this man Philip is talking to?

He was a eunuch. One of our horses is a gelding – he has been gelded. So was this man. He was an Ethiopian, a high official of the court, specifically the treasury. He was dark skinned as are the people of Ethiopia. He had traveled from the other side of Egypt to Jerusalem “to worship.” He probably was what was known then as a “God-fearer” – one who was attracted to the Jewish faith because of its strong moral values, its support of families, its ancient history of association with a monotheistic God…As he was reading Isaiah – he probably was familiar with some of the words from Chapter 56 where Isaiah is speaking for God:

…to the eunuchs who keep my sabbaths,

Who choose the things that please me

And hold fast to my covenant,

I will give in my house and on my walls

A monument and a name

Better than sons and daughters,

I will give them an everlasting name

.…everyone who keeps the sabbath and does not profane it,

And holds fast to my covenant –

These will l bring to my holy mountain,

And make them joyful in my house of prayer….

Philip and the eunuch continue their conversation but now the chariot is moving. The eunuch says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?” What, indeed? In this dry and parched land to find a body of water large enough is indeed providential. Philip and the eunuch go down to the water, and Philip baptizes him. When they come up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord snatches Philip away; the eunuch sees him no more, and goes on his way rejoicing.

Eusebius of Caesarea one of the first historians of the church. He lived from 260 to 339 A.D. In his church history he wrote:”…providence brought from Ethiopia an officer of the queen…He was the first Gentile to receive the divine Word from Philip by revelation and to return to his native land and preach the Gospel. Through him the prophecy [found in Psalm 68] was actually fulfilled that states, “Ethiopia shall stretch out its hands to God (Psalm 68:31).

But what happens to Philip? Our reading tells us that, “…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.”

Azotus is the modern day Ashdod - a port city in today’s Israel. We next encounter Philip some years later. Chapter 21 of Acts tells where Paul returns to Israel: “…On the next day we departed and came to Caesarea, and we entered the house of Philip the evangelist, who was one of the seven and stayed with him. He had four unmarried daughters….

Well, someone might say – “Sort of an interesting story – but what does it say, what does it mean?”

Well, one thing I think it says is that God shows no partiality – that He loves all people and is greatly interested in the lives of all people. Remember that we are still in Easter and this story occurs shortly after the resurrection of our Lord. And He is greatly interested that all people hear and accept the good news. To tell you the truth He goes to some lengths to get someone to talk to this one particular Ethiopian – and with blessed results. There is to this day a great Christian presence in that country.

As we think about what this story means maybe it would be good to ask ourselves where are we in this story?

Where are we in this story?

Are we the one who reads or listens but does not understand -does not understand completely – and would hope there would be someone or something “to guide me?”

In a sense that is probably part of why we are today sitting where we are – listening and hoping for something to break through – to guide us.

Frankly, I am in that group. I do not completely understand. I have a lot to learn. I am still very much imperfect. But I’m trying. I’m still learning.

What a blessing it is for us to be able to be together once again. Together learning, hearing the good news, sharing the good news.

Or are we the one who wants to share the good news – share the good news with others? Are we one of those for whom the good news has been important, is important? What are ways we can continue to share it, to spread it?

In light of what hopefully is the tail end of this pandemic what are some things we need to be considering now that some of the restrictions are being lessened or done away with?

Obviously, what we are doing now in this service – and in every service – is learning, hearing, sharing the good news.

In our pre-pandemic days, we did much more as well – we had two study groups who would meet – who would read and study books about the Christian faith – and in a serious way study our faith. We had a men’s group that would meet monthly on Saturday mornings to hear good and interesting speakers.

As we return to more “normal” times maybe we ought to think – and to pray – about how we are challenged – as Philip was challenged – to share the good news with others as we have in the past maybe also in new and different ways, Maybe we should consider ways in which we can promote and provide serious and meaningful study and learning.

Or maybe it will be simply to speak to a friend, a neighbor, to a member of our own family – or maybe to speak to someone we don’t even know yet.

To invite them to join us on a journey to God’s Holy Mountain…

To bring them joyfully to God’s House of Prayer.

 

Amen.

 

Richard Robertson

 

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