Don’t Over Think It

Have you heard the story about the man who ordered a tree house over the internet? When the box arrived, it had printed on the top the words that have become every parent’s nightmare: “Some assembly required.”

 

The man began to assemble the tree house (but would you believe it?) as he laid out all the parts on the floor and began reading the instructions, he realized (to his dismay) that the instructions were for a tree house. But the parts were for a sail boat!

 

The next day, he sent an angry e-mail message to the company complaining about the mix-up. Back came the reply:

 

“We are truly sorry for the error and the mix-up and the inconvenience. However, it might make you feel better to consider the fascinating possibility that somewhere today there is a man out on a lake trying to sail your tree house.”

 

The point is clear: To put something together, you have to have the right parts and the right instructions. This is where faith comes in. The only way you can put your life together is through faith. That’s what makes it work.

 

Even the Bible is not enough. The Ethiopian eunuch has a copy of Isaiah in his hands, but he needs help to figure out what Isaiah is saying. But it is also interesting to note that the person who managed to put the tree house together with the wrong instructions might just have faith big enough to sail the sucker! Hopefully, the windows are well caulked.

 

The Ethiopian eunuch, for many reasons I’ll get into shortly, was like an ancient tree house on a lake. He was out of place physically, theologically, and culturally. He is a really long ways from home and he is searching for God. God responds to him in the form of a man named Philip.

 

There are several Philips in the Bible. The one we heard about this morning was one of the seven chosen by the apostles to take care of the Hellenized Jewish Christians. Though not explicit in the Bible, the seven are often thought of as the first deacons. Philip fled Jerusalem after Stephen was executed. He then became a significant evangelist and performed miracles.

 

Philip receives a vision to leave Samaria and head south to Gaza. Gaza is fifty miles from Jerusalem. There is desert toward the end of the road before one reaches Gaza. This is likely the wilderness that Luke refers to.

 

Luke next introduces an Ethiopian eunuch, the royal treasurer. Ancient Ethiopia was on the Nile south of Aswan, roughly modern Sudan. The country was ruled by women. Ancient Greeks would refer to high government officials as eunuchs just as a designation without any surgery. Luke is not clear about the status of this particular eunuch.

 

In any case, this unnamed person is a big shot. He was in Jerusalem to worship and so he must have been a Jew, or possibly wanting to be a Jew. He had a driver. While traveling, he was reading Isaiah, a difficult scroll to obtain.

 

The Spirit told Philip to pounce. The chariot must have been moving slowly. We get the impression that Philip is jogging next to the chariot listening to the official reading from Isaiah, specifically Isaiah 53:7-8. (Ancient people read out loud.) This also implies that the official was fluent in Hebrew, an already dead language.

 

Philip asks him if he understands what he is reading. The official admits he does not. So the eunuch is also humble. The eunuch invites Philip to join him in his chariot. The Ethiopian shows hospitality.

 

Though Luke fails to tell us the official’s name, he does tell us what the Ethiopian was reading. He was reading Isaiah’s suffering servant passage. Then as now, there was speculation as to who Isaiah is referring to as the suffering servant. Is the servant Israel or is the servant Israel’s enemy? The Ethiopian was also puzzled by the text.

 

Philip had a ready answer. Jesus is the suffering servant! Then Philip went on to use other passages from the Jewish scriptures that pointed to Jesus.

 

Pieter Lastman 004

Pieter Lastman 004 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the wilderness, they come across some water. There is a wadi north of Gaza. Looking at the Ethiopian’s request for baptism through our 21st century Christian eyes may not give us a good feel for what was happening here. If someone were to convert to Judaism, they would need to be baptized first. The Ethiopian has accepted Philip’s teachings about Jesus. The Ethiopian understands that Jesus is the messiah.

 

We may ask what kind of baptism this is, but there is only one kind that Philip would have done. The Ethiopian is baptized into the church, a full follower of Christ.

 

And seemingly before this new Christian could blink, Philip is out of there. His work is done in planting the church in Ethiopia. The Ethiopian branch is grafted onto the true vine. The official rejoices. He is alive with the life of God.

 

According to the Law of Moses, eunuchs were not allowed to be Jews. A eunuch would not be allowed anywhere near the temple. Yet this foreign eunuch got a rare scroll of Isaiah and he reads Hebrew. Many commentators assume the Ethiopian is a studying to be a Jew. If so, first centuries Jews were very liberal. It could also be that he was converted before being altered or he was never really altered.

 

We can only speculate. What is significant is to why Luke included this particular story. Philip baptizes a foreign eunuch. The Law of Moses is not a barrier to be included in the church. Where someone is from is not a barrier into the church. Luke is giving us a radical view of inclusion.

 

A lot of people make a big deal out of what the Bible says or does not say about homosexual people. The Law of Moses excludes those born of illicit union. Do we exclude cohabiting couples from church? But Luke is telling us that that doesn’t matter. The Jewish barriers don’t count. God’s word is for all people.

 

“Many of us would quite like to rely on the life-giving love of God for ourselves without having to change too much. Philip, in today’s story from Acts, wouldn’t understand the question ‘Should I spend time in prayer or should I go out and preach?’ He has allowed himself to be very directly grafted into the life of God, so that everyone he meets is an opportunity waiting to be shown the love of God.

 

“An Ethiopian eunuch, miles from home, reading the Bible? When did you last expect to find someone like that waiting for you? Most of us wouldn’t know such an opportunity if it passed us by, not even in a golden carriage full of treasure, and so we miss the chance that Philip seized to work with God. And on his way home, ‘as he happened to be passing through the region’ of Azotus, he preached there too. ‘What, travel through a whole region without showing people the love of God?’ Philip asks, ‘Are you mad?’”[1]

 

Text: Acts 8:26–40


[1] Williams, J. (2005). Lectionary Reflections: Year B (65). London: SPCK.

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