On May 1, 2015, there were six arrests in Baltimore. We should be proud that six police officers were arrested and we should not be proud that six police officers were arrested. Not much information has been released, that will wait for discovery by the defense attorneys. By all accounts so far, Freddie Gray should not have died while being transported by police. The prosecutor said that there should not have even been an arrest.
We should be proud that our justice system seems to be working in this case. Many commentators have said that the prosecutor has over-charged the officers. That may be, but it not unusual for cases to be over-charged. Most cases are plea bargained and over-charging can be a negotiating position. If there are no plea bargains, a jury will have the final say in this case.
We should not be proud of the conduct of some police. We are supposed to have faith and trust in the police. But we have heard too many stories and of late too many videos that seem to indicate that there are two systems of justice in this county: one for whites and another for anyone else, especially black people.
Most police are good, follow the rules and the law, and oftentimes go out of their way to be helpful. Any group or organization has some who do not properly represent their group. The church is not immune from that either. But like any group, police need to weed out those who do not act for the public good and certainly before it becomes necessary to arrest a police officer. I say especially police because they wield an enormous amount of power, sometimes lethal.
For the police, for the church, for any group, we need to get to the point where respect and trust are for everyone. It shouldn’t matter what color your skin is, what your socio-economic status is, who you love, or where you came from.
It shouldn’t matter if you drive a Cadillac, a Smart Car, a Slingshot, have a driver or drive yourself, or are found reading from Isaiah in the back of a chariot. You might even have a Philip show up.
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. Gaza was a “last chance for gas” place before enduring 150 miles of desert. This is likely the wilderness that Luke refers to. The angel, the messenger, is very specific about which road to take.
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. Perhaps it was a smear about one who would serve a woman.
In any case, this unnamed person is a big shot. He was in Jerusalem to worship and so he was likely a gentile studying Judaism. He had a driver. While traveling, he was reading Isaiah, in Hebrew, a difficult scroll to obtain. He was wealthy.
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 most everything 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.
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.
Baptism stories in the New Testament typically have a person receive the Holy Spirit as they rise from the water. Certainly this is what happened to Jesus. In this case, the Ethiopian does not seem to receive the Holy Spirit. Instead the Spirit bypasses the Ethiopian, snatching Philip, sending Philip north. The Spirit is very tricky.
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 century Jews were very liberal. It is quite likely that the Ethiopian is a eunuch in name only. We can only speculate.
There is one more factor that may not have been important in ancient times but is somewhat significant in this country. Ethiopians were and are black. Skin color was of no concern in sharing the good news.
What is significant is why Luke included this particular story. Philip baptizes a foreign dignitary. 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. The Jewish barriers don’t count. God’s word is for all people. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are from.
The Ethiopian has several barriers of inclusion in Temple worship. Philip shows him that God and the messiah have torn down any and all barriers. The Ethiopian embraces God as revealed in the crucified and risen Christ. Knowing this, the Ethiopian returns on his journey home, rejoicing.
A new branch is added to the vine. The Ethiopian’s excitement about having found the messiah would likely be accepted in Ethiopia as good news. Ethiopia, today, is a Christian country. The Christians in Ethiopia trace their origin to a court official in the service to the Candace, the queen. A new branch on the vine begins to flourish in Africa.
What has any of this got to do with us? Well the story makes many points. The first, likely obvious one, is that no matter one’s status in society, all are welcome in the church. No matter what the age, it seems that all human beings are in one way or another on some kind of margin of society. We have a tendency of trying to figure out who is in and who is out.
My next door neighbor, who also happens to work at Snowline Hospice, has a sign over her garage that says, “Parking for Giants fans only.” I am a Dodgers fan. In spite of that rivalry, we are friends. Whether it the color of our skin, what we do for a living, our sexual preference, what sports teams we like, and more, we categorize people. In spite of this, the church should be above exclusion, though we fail at that at times.
Another is that the church’s reach and maybe more specifically, the reach of the Holy Spirit, has no bounds. The Holy Spirit is not limited by how far away people are. But the Holy Spirit works through people. The Holy Spirit led Philip to the official and we presume the official spread the word about Jesus to a faraway country.
Another is that when we find ourselves struggling over our faith, the Holy Spirit will send someone to help us. It is then our responsibility to recognize the helper and then invite the helper into our chariots. We also need to be open to what the helper has to say. But having said that, we also need to discern whether or not the helper is genuinely sent by the Holy Spirit. What our helper teaches us must be consistent with the Bible. The Ethiopian had enough faith and trust to ask to be baptized.
Context matters. Philip was not able to relate the Jesus story to the eunuch without what we call the Old Testament. We cannot fully understand the New Testament without knowing the Old Testament. Jesus didn’t drop out of the sky saying, “Hey, look at me!” Jesus was a superhero before there were superheroes. Only Jesus isn’t an Avenger. Jesus is the Forgiver. Everything Jesus did and said was in the context of Judaism.
Our burdens of sin were lifted by “the lamb silent before its shearer.” Jesus didn’t receive justice on that fateful Friday. Instead, Jesus gave justice to the whole world. Out of gratefulness for what Jesus has done for us, we, in turn, are to promote justice to all without distinction.